|In today’s world, being able to read and write is increasingly critical to people’s ability to contribute to society and feel part of it. Putting it another way, literacy is the springboard for learning. Not only is it a pre-requisite for employment, but it also enriches individuals and the society as a whole. Yet teaching boys to read and write is currently the aspect of education where teachers and parents have the most difficulty.
The Hard Facts
A recent Inquiry into Boys’ Education in New South Wales (the O’Doherty Report) revealed that:
A similar picture has emerged in Tasmania where there are regular literacy tests for students at age 10 and 14. These are pen and paper tests, largely of reading and comprehension skills, and cover close to 100% of state school students. Table 1 shows some 1993 results for 10 year olds in Tasmanian government schools:
"Boys under-perform in literacy tests at both Year 3 and Year 6 in Government schools. This result is replicated throughout the school system."
The test has 43 items so a full marks would be 43. As you can see, on average boys have three more incorrect answers than girls - a highly significant statistical difference.
To give a feel for the magnitude of the difference between boys and girls Table 2 shows the results for ten year old students in disadvantaged schools compared with all other state schools in Tasmania.
The disadvantaged schools are those declared under Commonwealth government programs as having major educational disadvantage, usually because of economic and social circumstances. These schools get additional funding from the Commonwealth in an attempt to compensate students for their educational disadvantage.
The interesting finding for boys’ education is that the difference between boys and girls is just the same as the difference between disadvantaged school and non-disadvantaged schools. In other words, for literacy, the gender disadvantage experienced by boys is the same as the much better recognised disadvantage caused by socio-economic factors.. These results alone suggest there is a major, and so far virtually unrecognised, equity issue - boys’ literacy.
A Victorian study gives some feel for the magnitude of the disadvantage of boys in English. Associate-Professor Richard Teese, from Melbourne University, studied the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) English results for public and private school students from 1992 to 1994. English is a compulsory VCE subject and the VCE score determines a student’s chances of entering university. The study showed that boys fail English at about twice the rate of girls, wherever they live. Independently of social or cultural backgrounds and across the wide diversity of the state of Victoria, boys consistently performed half as well as girls. There, therefore, exists a gender disadvantage which is quite independent of socio-economic conditions.
Regardless of whether it’s a poor outer western Melbourne suburb or a much more affluent inner eastern area or a more remote rural region, boys fail at twice the rate of girls. The gender disadvantage of being male clearly operates independently of social, cultural or geographical disadvantages, and the boys’ disadvantage is very much the same in magnitude regardless of other influences.
Of course schools are concerned about literacy results and make considerable resources available in a variety of literacy programs which, given the results quoted above, obviously include many more boys than girls. For example, the NSW Department of School Education reported that three quarters of the students receiving special assistance in reading are boys.
There are many Australian literacy programs, remedial literacy programs, Prep-Literacy Programs, First Steps, Reading Rescue and so on. But there are no boys’ literacy programs. No education system in Australia, and very few individual schools, have identified literacy as a gender problem which requires a specific response to the gender of the target group – boys. No system has a program to tackle the inequity of boys’ literacy development despite the variety of socio-economic and gender equity programs currently being funded at national and state levels.
No wonder the current literacy programs produce so little on-going improvements. No wonder that despite all the resources being directed at literacy there have been so few gains in literacy levels and so much criticism of the literacy performance of students. The programs have simply not been directed at the specific needs of the predominant target group.
If even half of the existing literacy programs were re-targeted as boys’ literacy programs there would be more than enough funds to develop major programs and still plenty of resources left for programs to help girls who have literacy programs. Not one cent in new funding is needed.
The Reasons For Boys’ Literacy Problems
When I work with teachers in workshops examining issues in boys’ literacy I ask them to suggest the reasons why boys do so poorly. They put forward many suggestions but the following are most often mentioned.
(i) Current constructions of masculinity don’t include literacy
While there are many literate males in our culture, boys could be excused for not seeing literacy as a male activity. The male role models simply aren’t there. Most male literate activity takes place in offices and workplaces, well hidden from boys. They don’t see their fathers write and, possibly only see them reading the paper and an occasional magazine. It is quite common, particularly in working class households, for mothers to do the literacy tasks. Teachers report that it is almost always mothers who write notes to school. It is more often mothers who read children stories and usually mothers who write shopping lists and leave notes. When one teenage boy was asked what his father writes he replied simply, "He writes cheques."
Literate males are largely absent from television. There are very few programs set in offices, most are set in homes, police stations or other action-oriented, rather than literate, environments. Even the medical staff rarely write reports and the cops are too busy outside fighting criminals. Programs set in homes almost always have weak or dumb male characters who are not useful models for anything.
Of course, as the statistics on boys’ literacy would suggest, many men are simply not very literate. Even a middle class father is likely to be less literate than his partner so it’s no wonder he leaves the literacy tasks to her.
Furthermore, about 80% of primary school teachers are female, and they, along with mothers are the prime literacy teachers. Similarly most secondary English teachers are also female and the proportion is growing.
Boys need literate male role models. Boys need to see men reading and writing. They need to see them reading the range of material relevant to schools. They need to see men writing for a variety of purposes. They need men to demonstrate to them how they use literacy in their working lives.
(ii) Because boys develop slowly they are seen to fail as literacy learners
There is evidence that boys develop more slowly than girls in a number of areas, for example boys learn to speak later than girls.
Certainly boys are slower to develop literacy skills. They come to school with less literacy and poorer pre-literacy skills. They are the bulk of students in remedial programs in the early years of school.
While girls get a head start in literacy the effect on boys may be compounded. One perceptive principal put it this way:
(iii) Boys’ preferred learning styles don’t suit literacy learning
"Perhaps we set boys up for failure in literacy. They come to us with less skills so they obviously don’t do as well as girls. Despite our best intentions to not make comparisons they soon discover that reading and writing is hard for them but easy for many girls. They develop a view that literacy is not for them. They see themselves as failures, and this view becomes self fulfilling."
Teachers list a number of ways in which boys learning styles don’t make learning it easy to learn to read and write. They report that:
The ability to learn by sitting quietly, concentrating on mental activities and working cooperatively using fine motor skills would seem to be essential for learning to read and write easily. These are not boys’ strengths. It is obviously hard to learn to read while walking around, playing outside or jumping from one activity to the other.
- Boys prefer being outside
- Boys prefer and are better at physical activities
- Boys are better at practical tasks
- Boys like to move around rather than sit still
- Boys are not good at cooperative activities, they are too competitive
- Boys prefer short term activities
- Boys respond better to tasks with clear and achievable goals
- Young boys are better at gross motor tasks rather than using fine motor skills.
(iv) Boys are not as practiced in talking, or writing, about feelings
Males are trained to suppress their feelings and this has serious consequences for most men. A side effect is to make reading and writing more difficult. Feelings are the stuff of most literature. They are what people read and write about in novels, plays and poetry. For many people the motivation to read is to learn about the lives of others, particularly their emotional lives. For many girls this comes naturally. They are socialised to talk to their mothers and friends about what they feel, and why. It's an obvious next step to continue this through literature.
For many boys it is not so obvious. They are being socialised to suppress and ignore emotions. Why then read about them? For many young men reading about emotions will feel uncomfortable simply because it clashes with their attempts to suppress emotions.
Writing is even worse. If you are busy being trained to deny your emotions to yourself how can you possibly be expected to write about them?
(v) The material that schools encourage students to read doesn’t suit boys
There is a focus on reading and writing stories in early year classrooms. A quick glimpse of the books on display in any primary classroom or a peek in the library will tell you what students are expected to read: stories - narrative fiction. There may be a few encyclopedias in the corner and some non-fiction mixed with the stories but the emphasis is clearly on fiction.
In fact there is a whole industry devoted to crafting imitations of adult fiction for children. There are book fairs, catalogues, serious journal and major prizes largely devoted to children’s fiction. Even the non-fiction titles produced tend to look like story books.
But fiction is more the diet of women than of men. Men are not great readers of literature. They read newspapers and magazines much more often. As Peter West and Bob Connell have commented separately we have to be aware that learning is seen as feminine unless it is a pathway to action. Many males aren’t reading books unless the books teach them how to play games, fix cars or get bigger muscles. Yet where are the car magazines or body building magazines designed for primary school students? Why aren’t school libraries full of material which boys will clearly identify as the equivalents of what men read?
What can teachers, schools and parents do?
Firstly schools, teachers and parents need to recognise boys’ literacy for the equity issue it is - requiring positive programs rather than remediation.
The lesson from the successful work with girls and mathematics, girls and technology and similar programs is that positive discrimination can work. I believe that improvements in boys’ literacy will come from programs which take a positive approach to boys’ literacy, targeting it as an equity issue and developing a variety of positive discrimination approaches which boys see as valuable and empowering.
The challenge for us all is to develop such programs. I’ll write about some useful starting points in my next posting but am interested in your thoughts in the interim.
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