Use brain power to untap boys' frustrations

It's time to play to male strengths, writes Rachel Gallagher

With the revival of the phonics debate, there has been much discussion on teaching in the early years. Isn't it time that we teachers used recent brain research to inform our thinking? One thing we need to recognise is that boys and girls are different.

There have been books with titles such as Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps, and research by such notables as Dr Sebastion Kraemer, Dr Tonmoi Sharma, Professor David Skuse and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. Yet we continue to need convincing of why, for instance, synthetic phonics might be a better way to get boys reading than phonemic awareness training, which involves recognising individual sounds.

In special needs teaching, the maxim is "teach through a pupil's strengths"

and research shows that boys have difficulty with listening.

They develop gross motor skills ahead of girls, and need to run, climb and jump rather than sit on a carpet listening. While boys are good at pointing to where a sound comes from, girls are more able to differentiate sounds.

Boys are weak at listening and phonemic awareness.

Boys more easily connect with concrete reality, and now an abundance of good factual literature is available. Boys learn best when they physically engage with their learning.

The manipulation of letters in the synthetic model of phonics operates through boys' strengths, while phonemic awareness training works through areas of weakness.

There are other differences. Boys have better long-distance vision with a narrow field and girls have a wider peripheral vision and see a greater variety of colours. One in 12 boys will have some degree of colour blindness, compared with one in 200 girls. Although 99 per cent of affected boys will be redgreen colour blind, many of us think it a good idea to pick out vowels in red. More boys than girls are dyslexic. The British Dyslexic Association recommends that print is put onto a pale blue, green or off-white background. Girls' eyesight is better for close-range activities and they can cope longer working on fine detail.

In the UK we put writing implements into children's hands much earlier than in most other countries. Boys develop fine motor skills later than girls.

They will look at their attempts at early writing and see a larger, untidier result, than that of the girl sitting beside them. Often competitive, they will conclude that they aren't much good at writing and won't want to bother with it much again.

I doubt if many fact-loving boys are very impressed with the practice of emergent writing and "making marks". They will see that their attempts are not proper writing and must be very confused when a teacher tells them that their writing is "good". Surely this stage of writing should return to being play.

The malefemale brain idea has now been refined by Professor Baron-Cohen as some boys and girls do not fit the most usual pattern. The preferred terminology is "S brain" and "E brain". S represents a facility for systems and E represents more influence from emotion. An extreme S brain might be a reason why more boys than girls are on the autistic spectrum. E, or most girls' brains, have a greater aptitude for language.

Active boys who have difficulty listening and communicating through speech are bound to have more behaviour problems than girls. They have more difficulty perceiving their own and others' feelings and are likely to react physically. We often ask them to say "sorry" when they can`t understand what they did or why they did it.

And could the increase in attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder be partly due to the cessation of daytime sleep for young children? The brain files away new input during sleep and orders the fresh information. A young child starting nursery has an enormous number of new experiences. It is during quiet and inactive times that the brain makes connections.

Rachel Gallagher is a teacher with Stockport learning support service. The opinions expressed here are her own What do you think? Write to

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