Use Technology to Engage Boys in Reading and Writing

“Educators and parents may have been too quick to dismiss boys’ preoccupation with computers as a diversion from their own book-based literacy, not recognizing the computer’s capacity to empower users to gain access to, and control of, information. It is imperative that educators and parents be aware of the impact of the multimedia world, and understand the positive ways in which these new languages and cultures can be harnessed as adjuncts to book-based literacy.” (Millard, 1997, p. 46)

“Boys thrive on the visual language of television, cartoons, and video games… Researchers suggest that boys respond so positively to images because boys are more oriented to visual/spatial learning. As a result, visual images “accelerate” boys’ learning” (Daly, 2002, p. 16).

The use of technology is often advocated as a way to engage boys and close the gender literacy gap. (OMOE, 2004, pg 40):  smart boards, blogging, wikispaces, literacy software.

Certainly, there are benefits to using technology in the class:

  • Blogging creates authentic reasons for boys to write.
  • Boys can succeed in social situations because they are engaged and have ownership (OMOE, 2004, pg 40). Blogging online and receiving comments from readers around the world can provide this level of social interaction.
  • Boys generally prefer relevant, non-fiction and fact-based texts. Wikipedia and online texts can be excellent selections.
  • Using a smart board and dynamic visual brainstorming software can engage your visual/spatial and kinesthetic learners.
  • Using learning software like Kurzweil 3000 can help struggling readers (i.e. boys) by scaffolding reading and writing strategies.

However, what are the hidden costs of using technology in the classroom?

  • Technology enthusiasts are excellent at multi-tasking, however how does this affect their ability to focus?
  • What are the consequences of using literacy software as tools to help scaffold reading and writing strategies?
  • Are we creating a generation of writers that are depending on having a wavy line to identify spelling and grammatical errors?

Lianne George raises the issue in her article, Dumbed Down: The troubling science of how technology is rewiring kids’ brains, which appeared in the Nov 17, 2008 issue of Macleans.

George quotes research from a 2002 study by Dr Akio Mori which suggests that too much technology may get in the way of normal frontal lobe development and stunt the teenage brain. What does brain research say about the use of technology impacting character development?

George also quotes research by Dr Michael Merzenich: “It’s when I’m dealing with the details and really struggling with it that I learn it.”

Certainly, this research supports Beers’ notion that it’s important for us to explicitly teach students how to struggle through a text, and in fact the act of struggling through a text will make us better readers.

However, George points out a counter-argument which is that “the more we depend on machines to do our thinking for us, the less we’re able to rely on our own mental resources.” So is using the decoding feature of literacy software like Kurzweil 3000, or the spell-check feature on Microsoft Word a good thing or a bad thing?

Like all issues, the use of technology in the classroom is met by proponents and opponents with research and expeiences to support their opinions.

Ultimately, however, it comes down to an understanding of best practices and an assessment of qualitative and quantitative student data to help the teacher to make professional judgments about what is appropriate for their program.

Question: How do you use technology to engage boys in your classroom?

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