Poor literacy among boys needs tackling urgently through an intensive literacy programme in both primary and secondary schools, says the author of a forthcoming report on basic skills.
Graham Frater, a former English specialist with HM Inspectorate, who has just completed a literacy project on behalf of the Basic Skills Agency, has highlighted the growing problem of poor reading among boys.
"This is not a new concern but it is becoming more urgent. Where girls have been seen to lag, they are catching up or even overtaking, for example in maths and science. Where boys have been behind - in English - there is no clear movement," he said.
In 1994 the proportion of boys achieving higher-grade GCSE passes lagged behind the figures for girls (see table).
Mr Frater, who was speaking at a Leeds conference organised by the National Association for the Teaching of English, says the results of his latest project confirm what a lot of teachers already know.
In the 15 schools surveyed, problems with literacy were the prevailing reason for pupils being in special needs departments. Boys as a percentage of the departments' clientele formed 55 per cent at the lowest count and 81 per cent at the highest. The typical ratio of boys to girls was 7:3.
Mr Frater believes the great majority of reading problems can be turned round but the current policies in many schools merely help poor readers "to cope and make do". And the national curriculum may have fragmented the attention schools give to the underlying learning difficulties of special needs children, he says.
He concludes that, in primary schools, there is no substitute for the Reading Recovery programme which helps six-year-olds who are poor readers, though Family Literacy, the project for helping parents and children with reading problems, could complement it.
Poor readers in secondary schools, Mr Frater says, need to be withdrawn from their classes for half-hour sessions of intensive one-to-one tuition which should be powerfully linked to the meaning and use of language.
He is concerned about the predominance of in-class support as a tactic for addressing literacy problems, arguing that it tends to concentrate on the difficulties which arise for pupils during particular lessons and seldom amounts to a systematic, intensive approach to underlying problems with reading and writing.
While recognising the importance of in-class support, he also recommends linked, expert help from the subject teacher, the boosting of voluntary reading (especially for boys) and a campaign to help parents, governors and employers understand more about what is involved in high standards of English teaching.
The differences between the literacy levels of boys and girls are already well known among English teachers. Girls are generally neater writers, write longer pieces of work and enjoy reading fiction, particularly romances. Boys, on the other hand, use more technical terms, are more likely to interrupt their peers, are unhelpfully dominant in discussion, are less likely to build on the contributions of others and have a greater readiness to offer opinions, according to the now disbanded Assessment of Performance Unit. Boys are also less likely to read fiction for pleasure, but they do read a lot of football and computer game magazines.
Researchers have addressed the gender issue over recent years. A report from Homerton College, Cambridge (TES, August 18) said: "Boys appeared more concerned with preserving an image of reluctant involvement or disengagement; for many boys, it was not acceptable for them to be seen to be interested or stimulated by academic work. There were quite sophisticated attempts to conceal interest or involvement, to preserve peer-group status."
Mr Frater said after the conference: "I think it is to do with a series of embedded social attitudes. They are rather complex factors because they have been around for an awfully long time.
"They have to do with upbringing, and children identifying what they are good at. Boys prefer action and this comes out in their reading."