English is for the 'girlies'

BOYS write off work in English as "gay", one of Britain's most prolific researchers and authors on gender and literacy told a language conference in Edinburgh last week.

Anyone who stepped outside the masculine norms and appeared to be "girly" or doing work that was "girly" was in danger of attracting contemptuous homophobic abuse.

But Elaine Millard, a senior lecturer in education at Sheffield University, maintained: "Boys in school are not to blame for the changes in society that have made old patterns of masculinity outdated."

They were constrained by what other boys think in "the net generation" and what the curriculum tells them about appropriate behaviour for girls and boys.

Television superchef Jamie Oliver was one school refusenik who went on to do well and is the author of best-sellers based on his own practical interests.

Dr Millard said teachers had to pull boys into reading and writing by alternative methods and give them the chance to express meaning and feelings. Too often teachers did not recognise the kind of reading boys enjoy through comics and the internet.

"The key to being successful in education is motivation and I think we have often forgotten that. Teachers have to bear in mind the skills they want to develop and envelop them in a meaningful context in primary and secondary," she said.

Boys did better when they understood the purpose of the task and helped with its structure. "Outside social and cultural pressures are away from books and school-based learning. They are interested in computer games and websites and it is enabling them to bring what they know to the task in hand," Dr Millard said.

She continued: "The curriculum suits the academic child and what we have not got is a system that suits the well-educated craftsman, the guy who is going to run his own business. They are disengaging from school. In lifelong learning, they come back and engage there."

Teachers who want to help should use "fusion literacy", merging what they want to bring in from the curriculum with pupils' interests and skills. Boys were turned off because they did not see English work as relevant to their own lives. They preferred action and humour.

In the right context they can have a wicked way with words. An 11-year-old boy was asked by Dr Millard for an assessment of his place of learning and replied: "The school was a mess: unacceptable to a dung beetle that had lost interest in its career and really let it go."

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