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Hit it on the head

Encouraging boys to be expansive with words can be an uphill struggle. The secret is to tap into their interests and watch their sentences grow, says Andrew Hammond

The world, for boys, sometimes seems black and white with no shades in between: it's right or it's wrong; it's good or it's bad; it's fun or it's boring. As a primary literacy teacher I am often on the receiving end of this world view.

The number of times I have challenged Year 6 boys for failing to write more than a few words for a 10-mark comprehension question, or for barely finishing the first line of a five-line box in a Sats exam, only to be told: "I've answered it. It was obvious. There was nothing else to say.

(Now move on)."

Perhaps the much bemoaned problem of boys' underachievement in literacy has something to do with their desire to be as economical with language as possible. Why engage in detailed description or analysis, when a few words would convey the gist of it? There are so many other things they could be doing instead.

But I have noticed something. Ask most boys to tell you about a Tyrannosaurus Rex and you'll be there for hours. Or ask them to explain what they like about Chieftain tanks, and you may get photos and an annotated diagram.

If the topic is right, and if there is someone who's willing to listen and nod enthusiastically, it may just be possible to channel boys' exuberance into something more tangible. Here are some tried and tested strategies for helping boys to become less thrifty with their words: 1. Knowing what you like. Subject is all.

The measure of boys' attention span and the degree to which they will indulge in detailed description are inextricably linked to the subject they are discussing or writing about. If it interests them, they will "have a go".

Popular subjects include: dinosaurs, cars, soccer, knights, magic, superheroes and space. Lad-friendly authors include: Anthony Horowitz, Chris Ryan, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Louis Sachar, Terry Pratchett and Frank Cottrell Boyce.

2. Context encourages creativity.

When the background for a reading, speaking or writing task is meaningful and relevant to a 10-year-old boy, then the outcomes can be surprisingly good.

Role-play offers invaluable opportunities for pupils to experience this together, prompting some impressive writing. Fruitful drama contexts include: a battle plan, being shipwrecked, the rainforest, the Olympics, an emergency, interviews, and a courtroom.

3. A sense of purpose.

Invariably, boys will ask why they have to do something: "what is it for?"

As parents and teachers, we know too well that the answer "because I told you to" is rarely satisfactory nourishment for an inquisitive nine-year-old.

Create deadlines, writing briefs, challenges and assignments within fictional contexts, including: newsrooms, sales meetings, match commentaries, radio scripts and interviews.

4. Technological taming. Allow pupils' writing to be word processed whenever possible.

Boys are famed for rushing through a piece of writing and then eagerly transferring ownership of it to you, whose job it is to then pore over it with an editor's eye.

When boys are afforded the chance to sculpt a text on a PC, their interest may increase and the ease with which one can cut and paste, delete and overtype, means there is no excuse for careless mistakes.

Turn the spellchecker off for an accurate record of ability, but encourage regular use of the "synonyms" button.

5. Variety will spice things up.

Offer a range of teaching and learning styles, maintain a balance of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic styles of teaching and learning in the literacy classroom. This will enable more boys to access and understand knowledge about language.

Use pictures and video footage to prompt language work; play sound effects and atmospheric music to stimulate imaginative writing; and make use of props to suggest fictional scenarios.

6. Recognise the reward.

Create a culture in which receiving praise is not seen as a sign of weakness. There is nothing that kills street credibility and a macho image more than praise from the teacher for "lovely writing" - so some boys think.

Yet boys can respond to positive comments extremely well, if the culture allows it to happen. Reinforce positive behaviour, reward effort and don't tolerate any form of teasing from jealous peers.

7. Remember that relationships matter to boys too.

Boys are greatly influenced by their perception of, and relationship with, the teacher setting the task. Boys work for those they like, and don't for those they dislike.

Girls may give an impression that they are "not speaking to you" after a minor reprimand, but their in-built work ethic and desire to do well usually overrides any induced apathy. Boys will smile and then down tools, so find commonality wherever possible, and take an interest in the boys'

interests. Brush up on T-Rexes Andrew Hammond is literacy co-ordinator at Belmont School, Holmbury St Mary, near Dorking, Surrey

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