There is an old proverb that you can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Much the same could be said about an awful lot of boys. But here we're talking about becoming literate adults. I've lost track of the number of times I've had conversations with despairing parents and teachers, wondering how they can foster a love of books.
There is a real problem here. A significant number of boys would rather chew their own right leg off than confess to enjoying reading and writing.
It isn't often that I agree with anything that pops out of the mouth of former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead, but I can't disagree with his statement that the achievement of working-class boys is "the single most pressing problem in British education". About half of boys enter secondary education without achieving the "average" level 4 in writing. In 1994 girls outstripped boys by 8 percentage points in GCSEs in all subjects. In English the gap was twice that. The pattern has remained pretty much the same since then.
Some quick-fix merchants seem to think that phonics, synthetic or otherwise, will cure this and many other ills. As an author and educational consultant (and former primary teacher) I visit 150 schools a year. The schools that succeed with boys tend to have certain common features and the specific delivery of how to teach reading really doesn't emerge as the most important. I am one of Woodhead's working-class boys. In the 1950s I learned to read through a "look and say" scheme. What made me a reader was hearing good models of speaking and listening from my parents and teachers, being offered plenty of boy-friendly fiction, from Emil and the Detectives to Treasure Island, Bows Against the Barons to Lord of the Rings and being allowed to write stories and poems on subjects in which I was interested.
So what seems to work with lads? Well, a literate classroom helps, in which the teacher is obviously a keen reader and glows with the love of storytelling and poetry. Boys tend to love listening to poems and joining in with the chorus lines. They tend to be less enthusiastic about deconstructing and "comprehending" them. Nothing is more guaranteed to put most boys off reading than an over-prescriptive curriculum where everything is filleted and assessed and literacy becomes functional not fun.
Fast-paced teaching, laced with humour, comes high on the agenda. There should be no snobbery about what sort of book they are reading. I've been in schools where many genres that appeal to boys are marginalised. Horror, sport fiction, adventure can sometimes be looked down on because they're "not quite literature". Poppycock! Have these people ever read Shakespeare? King Lear having his eyes ripped out, now that's what I call horror! Schools that offer Horowitz and Shan, Zephaniah, Muchamore and Swindells, Blackman, Cross and Nix are developing a writing habit in their boys that will last for life.
Reading is more about immersion than technique. To become a reader most boys have to be motivated. They have to want to read. We can have all our debates about specific pedagogies but it boils down to this: are we creating the kind of environment where reading is valued? When I go into secondaries what makes the difference? Is it that their boys have had systematic phonics teaching, booster classes or this or that scheme? No, it is the existence of a good school librarian, seen as part of the English team, somebody who connects with the boys (and the girls of course) and provides a rich and varied diet of great books. And guess what? Only about 30 per cent of high schools have a professional school librarian and some shortsighted heads are replacing the library with a computer suite! Honestly, as if you can use information technology properly if you don't have the kind of reading skills that come from reading a book.
There has been movement towards greater creativity. But there's a long way to go.
Alan Gibbons' novel Hold On is available from Orion Children's Books. His Teach me to write... series is available from Nash Pollock. Details on www.alangibbons.com
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