Boys given a sporting chance at literacy
Literacy experts in Wales are capitalising on the lure of celebrity to encourage more boys to read.
The Assembly government has convened a line-up of Welsh A-listers in its battle to close the persistent gender gap in literacy standards in the UK.
Its theory, backed up by new research, is that boys between the ages of nine and 14 are more likely to read the autobiography of a famous rugby player or a training manual than a Dickens classic.
Increasingly, boys are being prescribed a reading diet that feeds their interests, be it digesting sports programmes or reading the instructions to their latest Xbox game.
Last week, Stuart Cable, the former Stereophonics drummer, and Wales rugby heroes Ryan Jones and Tom Shanklin were surprise guests at an event at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium to celebrate the reading achievements of two boys from each of Wales's 22 local authorities.
Every boy at Reading Better, part of Basic Skills Cymru's Read a Million Words Together in Wales campaign, received a certificate. They were also given signed autographs from stars supporting the event during an afternoon of entertainment that included a magician who could mind-read words from unseen novels, a professional caricaturist and a circus display.
The event was organised after research that showed boys respond well to public recognition of their achievements, as well as plenty of praise. The Basic Skills Agency, an arm of the Assembly government, laid on a light- hearted event hosted by Welsh broadcaster Jason Mohammad. But literacy experts who attended also had some serious tips for teachers trying to raise boys' literacy standards.
More reading material must be made available in school libraries, they said, and teachers should not force boys too early to read anything they found a turn-off.
Launching Reading Better, John Griffiths, deputy minister for skills, said: "This event today, in partnership with Welsh sports and music stars, highlights the range of good work taking place in Wales to capture boys' imagination."
The campaign to raise literacy standards was launched last October following a damning report from Estyn on the literacy gap between girls and boys. The report, published by the Welsh inspectorate in 2008, concluded that there was a significant and persistent gender gap in literacy achievement in Wales.
As a result, a focus group of boys aged between nine and 14 was established. It found that boys responded well to learning about the reading habits of Welsh celebrities, especially those from the worlds of sport and music.
At the Millennium Stadium, the boys heard rock star-turned-TV presenter Stuart Cable speak about reading with his son.
"My son may ask me how to use a new game on the Xbox," he said. "I tell him to read the instructions.
"I also enlist the help of my son's 14-year-old cousin. Somehow, reading with him is cooler."
Officials are already finding the foundation phase for under-7s is showing signs of balancing the gender gap, although the evidence is still anecdotal.
Alun Morgan, an Estyn inspector and literacy expert present at the event, told TES Cymru it was never too late to turn around boys' underachievement in reading.
But he warned that boys should not be pushed into reading at too early an age in case it turned them off reading.
"In other countries, they don't read until much later on, but still achieve," he said.
In the absence of a national literacy strategy, teachers in Wales have many options for struggling readers.
A book published in February, What Works for Children with Literacy Difficulties, puts various approaches to intervention with youngsters to the test.
In the foreword, John Griffiths, Wales's deputy minister for skills, says the implication of the research is that normal classroom teaching does not enable children with significant difficulties to make progress.
The book, written by Greg Brooks, explores eight intervention strategies along with their success rates.
It is hoped the book will extend good practice across Wales as teachers decide which option works best for them.