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Creepy crawlies give boys book bug

New study shows that the subject of reading tests makes a real difference when it comes to minding the gender gap. Adi Bloom reports.

Slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails are not just the constituent parts of little boys. They also hold the key to their academic success, according to a study.

The report, by psychologists from Suffolk university, found that boys will only do well in literacy tests if the subject matter interests them.

They asked girls and boys to complete two key stage 2 reading comprehension tests. One paper presented them with a passage about spiders, while the other tested their understanding of a story about wartime evacuees.

Thirteen out of 16 boys questioned said that they preferred to read the text about spiders, while all but one of the 16 girls were more interested in the paper on the Second World War.

This preference was reflected in the boys' scores. They achieved significantly higher marks in the text about spiders. However, the girls'

preference was not reflected in their results: they performed equally well in both tests. Researchers believe that boys respond well to perceived boys' topics, such as insects, reptiles or creepy crawlies.

The report said: "If girls perceive reading as sex-appropriate, and therefore a more acceptable activity, they might be more likely to read well regardless of their interest in a particular text.

"However, if reading is regarded as sex-inappropriate for boys, then they may require an additional incentive, such as a particularly interesting text, in order to read well."

This year, many primary schools recorded significant improvements in their KS2 writing test results. Teachers attributed this to a question referring to lizards, which boys particularly enjoyed.

Sue Palmer, literacy consultant, was unsurprised by the findings. She said:

"Girls like doing well in tests, because they want to please the teacher.

"But boys need motivating. They are less inclined to do well just to impress the teacher. So you have to put in a bit more effort to be boy-friendly."The psychologists concluded that it would be impractical to design tests which allowed all children to choose a question that interests them.

But they said: "It should be possible to ensure that reading tests are less homogenous, and that each test... contains passages on different topics...

"If we wish to encourage boys to do more reading, then it is important to ensure that they are directed to books with content that they find interesting and motivating."

But, they added, teachers needed to ensure that children are able to understand the texts, and able to answer questions on them, regardless of their interest in the subject matter.

Paul Wagstaff, director of the national primary strategy, said: "These findings reflect how important it is to build upon children's interests, in order to stimulate writing. But this should not be done at the expense of broadening their experience of reading and writing across a range of genres."

For a copy of the report, contact: janeo@sussex.ac.uk

* adi.bloom@tes.co.uk

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