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Role reversal may help boys' literacy

Dressing up as girls has surprising benefits, say researchers. Nadene Ghouri reports

Encouraging small boys to dress up as girls could improve their reading skills, claims a new report from the Centre for Language in Primary Education.

Imaginative play is a powerful way for children to learn about different roles and help develop their understanding of story and plot, it says.

"Few parents find it hard to be positive about their boys dressing up as girls. They have less difficulty with girls dressing up as the prince or the pirate - yet both enable children to learn about different viewpoints," said Sue Pidgeon, English adviser for Lewisham, south London, and co-author of the report.

"Girls spend far more time in dramatic play than boys and that role play for girls centres on relationships, whereas for boys it centres on physical action."

Ms Pidgeon believes that letting boys dress up as their favourite TV and film superheroes can help them to understand plot, storyline and the roles of good and bad characters.

"Super heroes predominate for boys, particularly those with exciting visual effects and scary monsters in which characters are archetypal, easily identifiable and have clear roles to play," she said.

The London centre, which offers professional development for teachers, specialises in primary literacy.

Myra Barrs, its director, said: "Boys are beginning to be aware of their gender and all that goes with it just as they are expected to start engaging in literacy. Children are like busy anthropologists, learning about the world.

"The initial gender distinctions they make will be simple and stereotyped. Boys want to be all things boyish, and reading isn't."

Child psychologist Madeline Portwood said: "The neurological and physiological differences between boys and girls means that boys need more support with language and reading skills at a young age.

"Actively encouraging boys into creative acts like role play would have a positive impact on reading and language skills."

But Dr Peter Tymms, at the University of Durham didn't think the idea would catch on. The latest government figures show that in national tests at ages seven and 11, boys lag behind girls in both reading and writing.

Boys and Reading is available from the CLPE priced pound;8 (pound;6 for members). Tel: 0171 401 33823

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