Four strategies to engage boys in literacy and close the gender gap

gary wilson

“I’ve been working on raising boys’ achievement since 1993… you’d have thought I’d have got it sorted by now” is regularly the opening line to one of my INSET days or keynote speeches. It usually provokes mild amusement. “But sadly I’m afraid there aren’t that many people working on it.” And nobody laughs. Because it’s true. Why is it? I always ask. Do people really think that by focusing on the boys the girls are going to suffer? I call that sloppy thinking.

I began working on strategies that hit all the right buttons for boys without disadvantaging girls in 1993 when I had already been teaching in Secondary Schools for fifteen years. 1993 was the first year of OFSTED and we were told: a) there was something wrong with the way we were delivering collective worship, b) there was a problem with the plumbing in the science labs and c) the girls were doing significantly better than the boys. Could we sort it out? So we set to.

What became extremely apparent was that leaving it until boys were in year 11 was definitely too late. By the time boys get to year six, as you will find in most primary schools in the land, there is a small group of boys, the peer police cadets, who are dragging boys off cliffs. If we don’t act sooner by the time these boys reach year 10 they can be virtually running the place, telling, as they do, other boys whether its ok to work, to write, to dance, to sing, to care, to read, to share – virtually anything.

So we began to work with our partner primary schools, which I believe is the most effective way of approaching the issue. I discovered the power of using my group of year 8s to help boys in nursery and reception classes with their reading, put together drama projects with year 4 boys. It turned those boys around by giving them a positive focus for their natural leadership ability (the clue’s in the name – peer leaders):it allowed them to succeed away from the prying eyes of their peers. I was also challenging gender stereotyping. And didn’t those little boys really look up to those big boys!

Throughout these twenty three years I have been in a state of almost total disbelief that the underachievement of some of our boys (it tends to be poor white working class boys at the bottom of the heap) has failed to register in the majority of local authorities and in the country as a whole. Do some people really still think the reason for the underachievement of boys is the lack of male teachers in primary schools? Look, it’s not going to happen, get over it, move on. It’s not the gender of the teacher that is the most important thing. It’s the quality of the teacher and their ability to relate to what’s going on in a boy’s head, in a boy’s world, in a boy’s universe. Do some people put it down to laddish behaviour? Well, actually laddish behaviour is a cry for help. Ever seen it that way? Because as far some boys are concerned, it’s far better for them to be seen to be not bothered about winning than entering and not winning.

One thing that is certain however, is that for many boys we are simply starting formal education too early, forcing too many boys to read and write before they are mentally and physically ready In Scandinavia, where they don’t start school formerly until they’re seven, boys and girls achieve in roughly the same way throughout school.

In “The Lost Boys” a report from Save the Children published in July 2016, which looks at how boys are falling behind in their early years, they highlight the situation as thus “Since 2006 there has been a 20% improvement, an 8% reduction in the poverty gap but just 1% reduction in the gender gap”. It’s not going away. We need to increase the good work with parents pre-school, and the brilliant work that I have seen in many Early Years settings in recent years.

The DFE this year once more presented national statistics that show, yet again, boys being outperformed in every area in the foundation stage, at key stage 1, and in all subjects bar maths at key stage 2. If you’d like to find out more, you can get a quick overview of the results in this infographic.

gender gap in sats infographic

Perhaps we should take heart that there was a debate in September 2016 in Westminster on the Educational Performance of Boys and that there were calls for action “The issue of our gender education gap and its impact has not been addressed adequately by this house or by successive governments of all colours and the education sector seems reluctant to take action on it. That is a shame.” Karl M Cartney MP for Lincoln.

Watch this space.

We should also be encouraged by the many practical strategies that you can implement today that help close the gender attainment gap. Here are four actions that you could try:

1. Try this: In a recent project, part-sponsored by Oxford University Press, we created twenty small groups of peer police cadets.We gave them the name ‘THE TRANSFORMERS’ (Check out the film on Oxford Owl for School) and gave them responsibility to help out younger boys with their reading, and taking charge of eco projects around the school. Who says we don’t have positive male role models? Schools are full of them! Or why not ask your local high school to send you down some of those decent young men on work experience or as Maths Ambassadors or Science Ambassadors.

2. Make a stimulating writing corner in your classroom planned by the children. Instead of having a home corner, have a space research station or a superhero base where missions are planned and reports written for the government. Use the kinds of paraphernalia attached to their favourite superheroes or TV or film characters. You can find lots of ideas from other schools on Pinterest.

3. Seek the boys’ help to design and stock an area of the library, giving it real boy appeal. If you need help getting started, take a look at Oxford Bookmatch, a free tool on Oxford Owl for School, that allows you to search hundreds of children’s books by genre, children’s interests, levels etc.

4. Hold a parents’ workshop that looks at boys’ achievement to help address these issues. In these sessions you need to highlight the importance of developing independence in boys. Parents need to know the significance of male role models in the family – fathers, grandfathers, uncles, older brothers – and the important role they have in supporting their boys’ education. Tell your parents to visit Oxford Owl for Home to access my free advice and 250 free ebooks including boy-friendly Project X eBooks.

Gary Wilson is an Education Consultant on Boys’ Achievement, Advisor on Project X (OUP) and author of “Breaking Through the Barriers to Boys’ Achievement and Developing a Caring Masculinity” “Help Your Boys Succeed” “Raising Boys’ Achievement: Pocket Pal” “100 Ideas for Primary Teachers: Raising Boys’ Achievement” and (with Linda Tallent) “Boys Will Be BRILLIANT! ” Bloomsbury Press.