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The latest reading test for 11-year-olds was deemed too boy-friendly. But how much do we know about boys' literacy development? Sally Rundell reports on a Suffolk study which appears to have exposed commonly-held misconceptions

Much of the current research on gender and attainment focuses on what's going wrong for boys. Suffolk education authority has for the past two years targeted much of its research on best practice in writing, investigating schools that are achieving good results in writing.

During 2000-1, a team of researchers from the LEA has studied 20 boys from a range of primary and middle schools across the county, including schools in disadvantaged catchments and some with significant numbers of English as a second language pupils. The aim has been to identify the literacy experiences of able boy writers - both at home and school.

We selected 20 schools where boys regularly achieve 15 per cent more level 5s in writing than the county average. Each was asked to identify a boy who had made considerable progress in key stage 2 and was likely to achieve level 5 writing in last month's national tests.

LEA advisers visited the boys at school and home. Writing samples were scrutinised, planning for literacy was reviewed, and literacy hour lessons were observed. Interviews were carried out with Years 5 and 6 class teachers, parents and the boys themselves. Interestingly, some of the strategies that are commonly assumed to improve boys' writing were not found to be significant in these schools. It is, for example, widely believed that a male teacher has an impact on boys' attainment in writing, acting as a male role model, or that the size of the class is critical to improving writing standards. In this study these two issues appeared irrelevant. Other factors (listed in the box) were much more important.

The key findings from our school and home visits have been shared with headteachers at a round of school improvement forum conferences. Training sessions have also been held for literacy co-ordinators and class teachers in the hope that our findings can have a swift impact on classroom practice. It is important for schools to consider issues raised by the home literacy findings as well as the school research and to ask themselves five questions. How can we:

* raise parental expectations of boys as writers?

* provide the form of support for school-based literacies offered by mothers in the study?

* encourage play-based literacies in the way fathers do?

* provide opportunities for both public and private writing?

* develop the use of ICT in the writing process?

A round of further training begins this term to support Suffolk teachers in implementing key approaches. Among the issues we will be concentrating on will b: texts that grab boys, developing oral feedback, and building activity into the lesson.

A writing support project has also been planned for schools that teach reading successfully but do less well in writing tests. There is a great deal to do but we are now more confident that we know how to help boys become better readers and writers.


At school

* Teaching of writing closely linked to teaching of reading

* Confident teachers who:

- Have good knowledge of texts

- Provide texts that "grab" boys (such as Private Eye, Goodnight Mr Tom)

- Offer choices of writing format when giving a task

- Adopt flexible teaching approaches

- Motivate and support

- Understand when to break the rules

- Give effective oral feedback on progress as well as written feedback

- Develop a classroom culture which encourages children to justify opinions

- Accept the humorous responses and language play often evident in boys' writing

- Provide opportunities for class and group discussions, with a focus on

vocabulary choices in writing - "getting at what works best"

- Share own reading and writing

- Manage behaviour effectively by minimising disruption, accepting restless behaviour as long as the boys are on task, building physical activity into the literacy hour, accepting interjections in the whole-class sessions, and using praise to get attention

* Same teacher for Years 5 and 6

* Head andor co-ordinator teach literacy in Year 6

At home

* Parents are involved in learning themselves, often for their work

* Parents have high expectations of their children, but are keen not to put too much pressure on them

* Fathers support play-based literacies - playing alongside boys on the computer, involving themselves in their interests - music, football

* Mothers support school-based literacies - homework, spelling revision. "Dad gives me wacky ideas. Mum helps me with my spelling"

* Both mothers and fathers support ICT use, including the Internet and email (in some cases children are taken to the library by parents to use the Internet).

* Where ICT is used at home by the boys for writing it is often for private entertainment and is rarely printed off for an audience. It often combines pictures and text

* Parents' "work literacies" - drawing up invoices, typing up reports or writing up meeting notes - spill over into home time. (A wide range of occupations were represented in the study, including carpenter, HGV driver, teacher, knitwear-designer, kebab-shop owner, BT manager. Boys in these families see parents involved in literacy activities linked to work - illustrating writing that has a clear purpose)

Sally Rundell is Suffolk's literacy manager

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