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The fun factor

BOYS amp; WRITING. Edited by Myra Barrs and Sue Pidgeon Centre for Literacy in Primary Education. pound;14 from CLPE, Webber St, London SE1 8QW Fax: 020 7928 4624 Email:

Myra Barrs, this book's co-editor, highlights the "danger that the current official focus on boys' underachievement in literacy is helping to reinforce the perceptions of teachers and support the general view of literacy as a 'feminine' area". A shame then, when, in their acknowledgements, the editors thank the participating teachers in the project for their contributions and of the 20 names, just one is male. Boys amp; Writing contains no contribution from him so, for all its considerable merits, the book is ipso facto one more feminine viewpoint.

Sue Pidgeon, the other co-editor, begins by highlighting "the marked underachievement of boys in literacy". The difference in boys' and girls' attainment in writing at key stage 2 is 15 per cent. The fact that in some schools boys achieve as well as girls leads Pidgeon to conclude that this is the result of an effective practice, the characteristics of which the Boys and Writing Project set out to identify. But are boys really underachieving or simply playing to a gender-specific script? The booklet presents evidence to support the latter view, without drawing any forthright conclusions. "Girls outperformed boys in all nine developed countries included in a recent (National Foundation for Educational Research) literacy survey," we are told.

Where this book proves indispensable is in the body of evidence it provides for ways of engaging boys in the writing process. A key ingredient, according to Lynda Graham, who summarises the successes of four separate teachers (one of whom is a man) with reluctant writers, is a sense of fun.

"Excitement is catching. Children caught the excitement and wrote with enjoyment." Now there's a welcome message.

Other contributing factors included the use of writing journals, the freedom to choose working partners rather than staying in set ability groups and, crucially, a willingness to base writing activities on media children experience outside school. One Year 6 boy writes about a character from a Charles Dickens novel, in the context of an interview on the Jerry Springer, television show.

The book's highlights are two thought-provoking articles. Gemma Moss questions the stereotype that boys prefer non-fiction and examines the way in which the literacy strategy encourages a manner of writing which is at odds with the non-fiction texts children routinely encounter. Eve Bearne demonstrates how boys' preference for "multimodal" narratives (using film and computer games as their models) puts them at a disadvantage compared to girls when it comes to formal assessments. She clearly doesn't perceive boys as underachieving, but as being undervalued for the skills they display. She also thinks they are under-instructed as teachers are insufficiently knowledgable about the sophistication of multimodal narratives.

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