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Musical boys who don't miss a beat

Five to seven-year-olds learn to read far more quickly and fluently if they are taught to play a musical instrument, Chris Dickinson, a Bristol-based consultant, this week told a Renfrewshire conference on boys' underachievement - a key target for the council over the next three years.

Psychologists in Hong Kong showed that pupils had a better grasp of literacy skills by playing an instrument. They listened to music in a more analytical way and transferred their skills to reading. Music was regarded as a right-brain activity and language left-brain but connections between the two increased by playing an instrument.

Mr Dickinson said it was ironic that 700 primaries in England and Wales made no provision for music because they claimed they needed the time for the literacy hour. He was unaware of the Scottish situation.

But he commented: "The broad and balanced curriculum is there for good neurological reasons."

Pupils, he suggested, learnt more effectively by deploying both parts of the brain to any learning task. "Most formal education today is a linear, sequential romp through a bit of content and most of formal education is left-brain dominated. It's halfwitted."

Visual and spatial aspects were one right-sided activity that were important for effective learning. "It explains to us why in our recipe books we only attempt those dishes with a picture," Mr Dickinson said.

Further research has revealed that boys are more right-brained from birth, a factor that could give girls a language advantage from an early age. Strong cultural factors thereafter influenced girls' and boys' behaviour long before they reached prmary where studies revealed that girls are well ahead in nine different skills within the first few weeks.

Mr Dickinson said boys' learning styles and lack of commitment could be traced back several centuries but had only become a major educational issue in 1987 as their exam results dipped. Something else was happening apart from the change in the structure of the exams. The culture of laddism had strengthened and it became unfashionable to work hard in school.

"But schools that do well for boys also do well for girls - and schools that do not do well for boys do not do well for girls either," he cautioned. It was therefore important to lift the achievement of all children.

Mr Dickinson believed it important for teachers to be aware of different learning styles. More movement in learning, for example, was beneficial to many. "The majority of children who give us problems in the classroom will be kinaesthetic learners. They have to move. The majority of the prison population are also kinaesthetic learners and most of them are boys," he pointed out.

But research had also shown girls were more disruptive in class, although it was boys who received the teacher's attention.

Shelagh Rae, director of education, told an in-service day attended by 1,000 special and primary teachers, that the council was putting an extra pound;582,000 over three years to push underachievement among boys up the agenda. "The more we think about teaching processes and learning styles, the more we can understand how everyone can achieve," Mrs Rae said.

The cash will be used for extra staffing, equipment and books, and cluster training.

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