National Writing Project

Book Review: Bright Beginnings for Boys: Engaging Young Boys in Active Literacy

By: Martha Garner-Duhe
Date: December 18, 2009

Summary: For teachers who are concerned about male underachievement in literacy, Bright Beginnings for Boys illuminates and analyzes learning differences between young boys and girls while proposing positive strategies for working with boys in the early years.


As an early childhood teacher, I have struggled to meet the needs of my male students.

I remember Gabriel, who was repeating kindergarten because of behavior problems. He often refused to come for group time, and liked to sit under a table during story time. But when I asked a question, his faint voice would supply the correct answer from across the room or under the table. He was also a gifted artist and brilliant at educational computer games.

I think about Jacoby, who displayed no interest in academics but could name any make and model of car from a picture and had an extensive knowledge of automobile mechanics. Herman was another "repeater" who came to me with undiagnosed learning and fine-motor issues, but could recount the plot and details of every book his teacher had read the previous year.

These boys were all labeled as "problem" students, but clearly each had a vast store of knowledge to share and exceptional abilities in some area. It's a delicate balance to keep a classroom orderly and accommodate the wide array of personalities one is presented with every year. Too often the "troublemakers"—again, often males—are pushed aside, their strengths unnoticed.

Gender Differences Explored

For teachers who are concerned about the national problem of male underachievement in literacy, there is Bright Beginnings for Boys by Debby Zambo and William B. Brozo. Written in accessible language, this book provides research-based rationales and solutions for the boy/girl achievement gap. Aimed at teachers of young children, it nevertheless addresses an issue that should concern us all. As the authors point out, if we do not attack this problem at its roots, it leads to bigger issues down the line.

The book is organized sequentially so that each chapter lays the foundation for the succeeding one. Chapter 1, "Nurturing Young Male Readers," provides the book's rationale. The authors discuss the "gender disparity in reading" in the early grades, as well as providing statistics about the percentages of boys retained and dropping out, placed in special education, and diagnosed with ADD and ADHD.

This chapter also discusses, at length, the ability of reading to instill values, such as cooperation, courage, generosity, honesty, perseverance, respectfulness, responsibility, and tolerance, all of which are highlighted throughout the book as eight traits essential to positive male role models.

Too often the "troublemakers"—again, often males—are pushed aside, their strengths unnoticed

Any discussion of gender differences in learning has to explore the biological underpinnings of cognitive development. The authors quote many research-based studies that reveal the differences between boys and girls. Among the findings in brain research studies are the following:

  • The language areas in boys' brains have fewer neurons devoted to language.
  • Male neurons for integrating information are myelinated more slowly than female neurons, meaning that young boys are less able to process information than girls of the same age.
  • The left hemisphere—responsible for language processing—lags in development in boys. Therefore, pressure to perform academic tasks of which they are not yet capable has a negative impact on male self-esteem very early on.

The authors also recount vision studies proving that males are biologically programmed to perceive motion and spatial relationships more readily than females. Because boys are "attuned to motion and movement," they need an active classroom.

Hearing studies demonstrate that boys' hearing is less acute and "slower," so boys need more wait time during group activities.

Boys at Home

The environment outside of school can also affect boys' learning—specifically, the overuse of computer games and the lack of a quiet atmosphere owing to the constant stimulation of TV. The authors believe that boys may find it hard to develop and maintain focus in this environment, because their "brains become used to shifting and scanning instead of sustaining focus." Television and computer games in general do not develop interactive language or rich vocabulary.

In a media-saturated world, positive role models become even more important, and the authors discuss the search for gender identification and the difficulties many young boys in single-parent families encounter in finding a suitable male role model.

The authors recommend the use of picture books for modeling positive character traits. Picture books are important because they provide more than one way of processing information, the authors say. Children can take in the words and story line as well as the clues in the illustrations. More avenues for processing equal more chances for children to learn.

The selection of picture books is important. The authors discuss the "dominant female discourse" in early childhood education: story books selected by females can reflect largely female reading preferences. If boys are not presented with stories of interest to them, they may come to believe that books can't be engaging.

Fortunately, Bright Beginnings contains a 14-page appendix, "Books That Demonstrate Positive Values for Boys," that lists quality picture books by the primary value they demonstrate. The authors also provide a short plot summary for each. I intend to share this section with other teachers I know, since the list is extensive and detailed.

Boys in the Classroom

What kind of classroom climate and literacy activities should a teacher provide?

The authors expand on Tompkins' (2005) concept of balanced literacy and classroom community in regard to boys. They discuss oral language development, including suggestions for active listening, drawing boys out, and engaging boys in language play with movement and repetition. Activities such as tossing games, Readers Theater, choral read-alouds, and the use of Elkonin boxes will prove helpful to teachers.

The authors also provide interest surveys for young readers in order to help the teacher find books of interest to students. They outline a framework for book talks, which I intend to use, as well as ideas for classwide reading time and book clubs.

The book also offers suggestions for community involvement, including community reading mentors and cross-age tutoring (such as high school to elementary).

Boys in the Community

The concluding chapter, "Making School-Home-Community Connections to Enhance the Literacy Development of Young Boys," offers support for teachers who want to establish a classroom connection with families and community members. The authors point out—and quite rightly, in my opinion—that many parents need guidance on book selection and on ways to make literacy learning fun and engaging for children.

They also provide helpful information about resources for family involvement. Nontraditional ideas include involving fathers as reading role models and holding brothers' workshops to develop alternative reading mentors for young boys. The book ends with a call to action to "bring literacy skills and wonder to the boys in your classroom, in your home, down the block, and across contexts and time."

There are few negatives about this book. I did take issue with some of the authors' generalizations about boys, feeling that young girls also display a wide spectrum of behaviors and could certainly benefit from active learning as well. The authors could also have either provided more hands-on activities for literacy or a bibliography for teachers to refer to. It is always easier to implement a new way of teaching when there are usable ideas right at your fingertips.

One further complaint is really more political than book-specific. Despite the widespread indignation about boys being left behind and damaged by "push down" academics, it doesn't appear that this trend will be halted. Nor does it appear that the individual child's readiness will be considered in school entry or in standardized testing anytime soon. As often happens, solving the problem is placed in the hands of the teachers, who must do the best they can.

Regardless, I feel that this is a genuinely helpful book for the early childhood classroom. It raises gender issues that many teachers have not considered. Bringing these issues out into the open is an important step in confronting and overcoming the problems that they cause.

I would highly encourage early elementary teachers to add Bright Beginnings for Boys: Engaging Young Boys in Active Literacy to their reading list, and elementary administrators to add it to their school's professional library. It is a very readable, user-friendly book with an important message.


Tompkins, Gail E. 2005. Literacy for the 21st Century: A Balanced Approach, 4th edition. New York: Prentice Hall.

About the Author Martha Garner-Duhe is a teacher-consultant with the National Writing Project of Acadiana, a pre-kindergarten teacher at St. Charles Street Elementary School in Jeanerette, Louisiana, a board member of the Louisiana Early Childhood Association, and editor of their professional journal, Collaborations.

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