Literacy - The trouble with boys

6th February 2009 at 00:00
41 per cent of boys think reading is boring. A new project hopes to change their minds

Nine-year-old Max loves action and adventure books. He also likes reading autobiographies and comics. Trouble is, Max is a computer animated character. In reality, up to 80 per cent of boys in secondary schools do not read at all, according to research by Gary Wilson, the author of Breaking Through the Barriers to Boys' Achievement.

Last month, Oxford Univ-ersity Press attempted to remedy that with the launch of Project X, a guided reading scheme.

Max and his chums, the 3-D characters that appear throughout the series, have been created using digital software more typically found in computer- generated games than books. Its fiction and non-fiction reading resources draw on drama and speaking and listening activities, and it claims to be the first digitally illustrated reading scheme in the world.

But why is boys' reluctance to read such an issue? The main predictor of a child's later academic success hinges on their reading ability at the age of seven, studies show, but many boys will already be behind by then. From his first days in school, the average boy is lagging two years behind girls developmentally, and it is downhill from there on.

One of the main reasons for the lag is straightforward inertia. More than 40 per cent of boys say that they find reading boring. Boys would rather watch TV, play video games or simply hang out with friends.

Mr Wilson has identified about 30 barriers that prevent boys from becoming proficient readers. Reading is perceived to be a female activity, he says, and macho images of men rarely portray them taking time out to enjoy a book.

Peer pressure is also a big factor, as is a lack of positive male role- models, low teacher expectations, children being forced to read and write before they are ready, and a lack of parental awareness.

There's also an enduring belief that any reading is better than no reading.

"Getting boys to only read non-fiction does them no favours," says Mr Wilson. "You can't just give them the Guinness Book of Records or isolated chunks of books and expect them to move on to completing longer works of fiction. They won't. It's counter-productive because it doesn't get them to read at any decent length or to reflect or develop their reading."

Those who slip through the net may never read for pleasure.

Project X tackles this by taking the medium that lures boys away from reading - computer games - and weaving it "back into the great storybooks", according to Rod Theodorou, from OUP. "Then we added research-based themes we know boys love, such as gadgets and adventure."

Project X is based largely on research evidence from the four-year Raising Boys' Achievement Project, run by Cambridge University, into what makes boys want to read.

Hurst Knoll Primary School in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, trialled the scheme for six weeks with its reluctant readers. It will be a permanent fixture in its classrooms from this month.

Many of Hurst Knoll's 10 and 11-year-old boys have a reading age of seven or eight, but don't want to read books aimed at a much younger audience.

"Year 5 or 6 boys get turned off by babyish material," says Jayne Kime, a teacher at the school, "but we've seen an improvement in their interest levels with Project X. Their questioning and general comprehension has been better."

There is plenty of boy-centric material already available for older struggling readers, but Project X aims to fill the gap from school entry up to the end of Year 6. Research shows this is when they need it most. Up to 76 per cent of girls aged four to five achieve the reading standard expected of them, government figures show, compared with just 65 per cent of boys. And as they get older, the gender gap widens.

"At ages nine and 15, the reading skills of boys are not just worse than girls, they are horrendously worse," says Dr Bonnie Macmillan in Why Boys are Different. Mr Theodorou says: "We want to hook boys before they disengage. By secondary school it is often too late."

That decision will affect every aspect of their English ability. Children risk more than just illiteracy: the inability to read in the primary years leads to reduced employment opportunities, increased health risks and an increased risk of involvement with the criminal justice system, a KPMG Foundation report found. It costs the public purse approximately Pounds 2billion a year.

Poor literacy is also a known precursor to antisocial behaviour. Three- quarters of excluded pupils are two or more years behind their peers in reading, and they are much more likely to truant.

T his influence of gender on education and beyond was examined in a government review called Raising Boys' Achievement in 2007. It acknowledged the importance of talk to support reading and writing across the board, as well as interactive class activities - short schemes and ongoing projects - to capture and keep interest alive.

Content is also crucial. Unlike girls, boys' level of reading comprehension is affected by what they are reading, according to a study by Jane Oakhill and Alison Petrides in 2007. They found that boys' scores in reading comprehension increased by 14 per cent between 1998 and 1999. The former assessment was on children evacuated during the Second World War; the latter was about spiders.

"Boys are more motivated when they are reading something that interests them," says Dr Maureen Lewis, a former teacher, researcher, lecturer and writer on aspects of literacy. "The element of choice is important for them. With the help of teacher guidance, pupils need to choose books from the library that interest them. They like to see the purpose of reading, but enjoyment needs to be built in as well."

Without comprehension, there can be precious little pleasure in reading, let alone any point. But boys' limited vocabulary can be a barrier to understanding. OUP recommends teachers broaden pupils' stock of words through regular speaking and listening activities, word games, reading aloud or "collecting" words.

Buddy reading schemes or a mentor system are other ways of encouraging reading. Boys may only be exposed to men who just read manuals or newspapers. As a result, they assume that men only "read to find out". They need to see that that does not have to be the case. At one school, the local butcher was invited to talk to pupils about why reading and writing was important in his job, plus how he enjoyed unwinding with a book at the end of the day.

Some headway has already been made. Studies have found that the national literacy hour has helped boys improve their English, just as the numeracy hour has been beneficial for girls' maths. But this highly structured approach has not closed the gender gap.

"There's been such an emphasis on testing, results and the mechanics of reading, it has overshadowed the bigger objective of helping children realise the power of reading," argues Mr Theodorou.

As the fictional Max says, he is all for being active and reading adventure books. But nowhere does he mention his fondness for sitting still, revising for his Sats.

Heads in books

  • Encourage pupils to talk about their reading. An after-school book club will help.
  • Bring more variety into the classroom, including active learning and drama. Use World Book Day (March 5) or National Poetry Day (October 9) as an excuse to dress up as characters from a book.
  • Integrate ICT and multimedia into reading and writing - pupils may find it less threatening than books. Get classes to create their own books, brochures, webpages or short films on computers.
  • Use competition and challenge to enthuse boys to read.
  • Ensure a can do, whole-school attitude to reading. Use displays to reinforce learning and to celebrate achievement.
  • Encourage parents to read with their children. The Basic Skills Agency or the National Literacy Trust promote adult reading skills. Projects such as Dads and Lads, Reading Champions and Family Learning Week get them more involved.

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