Boys and the literacy gap...

(61 Posts)
louloutheshamed Sat 15-Mar-14 19:49:25

I have recently read Kat Banyard's the equality illusion. In it she discusses the issues of 'gendered education' and the problems faced by girls at school. A problem she highlights is that fact that most data shows that girls outperform boys in terms of literacy and language, which 'skews the whole debate'.

I am an English teacher and am very aware of this issue. All the time we are being told that we need to think of ways to engage the boys and close this gap. However, I feel like everything we do is geared towards this and it's still not working. At ks3 for example, all of the novels we read have male protagonists and are chosen to 'engage the boys' because girls are engaged anyway. Eg Skellig, Private Peaceful, Holes, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. One of the reasons we do so much war poetry is because we think it will engage the boys. And still the gap exists.

I am wondering, do you think we should actually try to challenge these gender stereotypes rather than pander to them? Does the gap really matter that much when only 22% of mps for example are female, boys seem to do ok regardless (discalimer: I have 2 sons, I am not dismissing this as a problem just thinking aloud and inviting thoughts...)

I would be interested in a finish perspective on the literacy gap...

Flicktheswitch Sat 15-Mar-14 19:59:32

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Goblinchild Sat 15-Mar-14 20:00:14

Does the gap matter?
A dangerous attitude for a teacher to have, I think. Put 'white indigenous children' in place of boys and see what I'm getting at.
Let the boys underachieve because they will end up on top anyway?
But many boys end up disenfranchised and do not 'do OK regardless'. More interesting to look at the reasons they are not engaging, and if their attitude stems from their unrealistic expectations, their feelings of entitlement or if there is a combination of causes that impact on their learning. Is the gap a concern in countries with a more equal, less gendered educational system. Or one that begins formal education later.

louloutheshamed Sat 15-Mar-14 20:02:17

Yes coursework and controlled assessment is gradually being phased out. Personally I was always ace at exams and preferred them to coursework but coursework is perceived as bring more girl friendly as it rewards consistency and diligence over time rather than pressurised exam technique.

louloutheshamed Sat 15-Mar-14 20:08:07

Yes goblinchild, 'does the gap matte? Seems to be what Banyard's is saying, and I find it difficult to reconcile this with my experiences as a teacher. I am concerned about the gap, just don't know how to tackle it, at the minute we seem to be tackling it rather superficially through choice if texts but as you say it clearly runs deeper than that.

JapaneseMargaret Sat 15-Mar-14 20:13:19

I find this gap fascinating.

We have it here in NZ as well, and we are traditionally a fairly forward-thinking, 'feminist' nation. Children here start school at 5 (i.e. when they actully turn 5, not at the start of the academic year after they turn 5).

We also have a gap - at least in primary schools - in mathematics, where girls generally outperform boys too, although to a lesser extent.

The aggregate data shows this, but even when you break the data down by ethnicity, girls still outperform boys.

I am fascinated by it, because I would love to understand the reasons why. I don't think it is as simple as boys not being engaged as much. Otherwise, why does it appear to transcend national boundaries, curriculums, culture and ethnicity?

And I think when we address the issue by assuming it's because of a lack of engagement, we do girls a disservice. How does pushing more male-centric literature help them?

Goblinchild Sat 15-Mar-14 20:17:42

Do you have a similar gender imbalance in the teachers, with far more females in primary?
I wonder if the results are the same in single-sex schools, that the girls' schools have higher results throughout than the boys' schools?

BertieBotts Sat 15-Mar-14 20:18:27

I don't know that it's fair to say "Oh well, boys will come off better anyway" but I DO agree that we need to challenge rather than pander to gender stereotypes. I wonder how much it's a self fulfilling prophecy because the teachers all think "boys don't engage with this" and make a special effort to engage them all the way from reception to GCSE.

I wonder post-16, when subjects which have a "gender bias" such as science, maths and literature, whether there is such a focus on "engaging" those of the less-supposedly-engaged sex? I mean, a girl who chooses Physics for A Level or a boy who chooses English is already, by definition, pretty engaged, no? They've made an active choice to study it. At university is there talk of "engaging" male/female students relative to different disciplines or is it assumed that if a student is interested and able enough to apply for and get onto the course, that they are already sufficiently engaged.

I guess what I'm saying is I think that the underlying ideas and opinions of teachers probably feed into this far more than we think that they do. There are studies for example which say that despite parents saying they are gender-neutral and treat their opposite sex children the same, in practice they do actually react differently. In The Equality Illusion Banyard mentioned an anecdotal example of "feminist mums" who are all for equality and rubbishing the boy/girl myths until their children become toddlers and begin to display very gendered behaviour, and she points out that often the behaviour is not necessarily gendered, it's just that we notice it more when it is because it ties into what we expect to see, even if those expectations are subconscious.

Watch this - don't read the comments, just watch it and follow the instructions. (work and child safe, sound is unnecessary). It's one minute long and is an experiment which shows how specific our attention can be. Selective Attention Test. It won't work if you've heard of this before!

I think we need to stop the gender based "engagement" stuff in schools and look more at how to tell whether individuals are engaged in the topic, how to promote interest etc in general. I teach adults and have never learned a single thing about gendered differences in learning, and honestly it doesn't make a difference. The single most important thing I have found is to make it relevant for the students.

OddBoots Sat 15-Mar-14 20:22:33

Could it be a maturity thing caused by girls going through puberty younger? I'm not sure how much 'brain wiring' happens at puberty so I might be barking up the wrong tree but it's the only universal thing that I can think of.

BertieBotts Sat 15-Mar-14 20:22:46

I wonder as well, because my teacher training pushed on me above all else that personalising something, giving the students chance to make it their own, is the single best thing you can do to help something stick, and it does seem to work. But I wonder if it's that women and girls in general are socialised to empathise and relate to others more than boys are. So possibly, girls find it easier to relate to characters in literature or themes in poetry whether the character is a straight white male or something more abstract, and boys are not finding it so easy to relate to any character because that character is not them, that theme is not present in their life right now.

louloutheshamed Sat 15-Mar-14 20:24:51

I know, the engagement thing is weird. Imagine if a physics teacher said 'ok I'm going to try and engage more girls by doing experiments involving shoes/handbags/lipstick etc...' that would never happen and if it did we would be horrified at the gender stereotyping, but we think it's ok to choose text after text about war because that's what boys like...

WhentheRed Sat 15-Mar-14 22:53:46

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

legoplayingmumsunite Sat 15-Mar-14 22:56:27

Does the gap matter? Well when boys were ahead it was thought that was just the right and proper way. So you could certainly argue that maybe girls are just suppose to be ahead and maybe we should discourage boys from worrying their pretty little heads about academic achievement when they're clearly not able. If you believe there are differences why is it so surprising that one gender does better than the other?

Of course if you believe in equality is it such a leap to just try and engage individuals regardless of gender.

BertieBotts Sat 15-Mar-14 23:02:03

But I thought they have tried to make (at least maths) more "girl oriented" by having more problems in word form (When Harry throws the ball to Jessica and they are standing in a straight line how far away is Amy who catches it at 3/10 of a mile per hour? etc)

I had never made the connection between the GCSE texts and girls/boys but you are right - war poems, Of Mice and Men, Death of a Salesman (BORE FEST - and the boys thought so too)

Young Adult novels as a genre aren't so recent that they are exempt are they? If so it is a very great shame. There was nothing more dull to me than yet another English lesson trying to delve into the depths of characters that I'd quite happily shove off a cliff, and yet in my free time I analysed and overthought Harry Potter a million times and never got bored of it. I still find it really interesting to read articles about how themes like racism are interpreted in the books. It would be great for kids to be inspired by English and be learning from stuff that's actually relevant to them. Save the dry and dusty "greats" for the real die hard Lit fans, A level, degree level kind of thing. (In my opinion.)

BertieBotts Sat 15-Mar-14 23:12:29

In my GCSE year (2004) they were trialling a new set of short stories which were supposed to teach us about different cultures around the world. The stories were boring, irrelevant and often really obscure. I believe they have been scrapped now. I work abroad and am horrified to see this drivel is being used to teach foreign teenagers the English language. They are bored to hell with it too, while I am amused, but still, it's not inspiring, interesting or relevant to them. Whereas you can get teenagers talking endlessly over things like hypothetical political systems in a dystopian future, how it feels to be a Chinese immigrant in America, or a British Muslim, what would you do when faced with an impossible choice, can and should people with disabilities be able to experience all aspects of a "normal" life?

You can do so much with literature and you can explore infinite possibilities but I don't understand why the insistence on studying a text about (to use my two examples) middle aged men in 1930s America. How and what relevance does that have to the average teenager's life in 2010s Britain? Of course you can draw parallels if you scrape hard enough but that's not really enough - you need them to be engaged before you get to that point, that goes for girls and boys.

MsMischief Sat 15-Mar-14 23:35:50

Are boys getting worse or are they just falling behind by standing still?

I think girls are more incentivised by school, not though texts or coursework, but by the knowledge that blue collar jobs for women are badly paid. There is a myth that boys console themselves with that if they don't do well at school then they can be plumbers, builders or electricians, start their own business and charge £40 an hour. As adults we see the hole in the argument.
There is also an idea that boys don't have an internal life so have no need of literature.
My dcs primary school has recently changed the entire reading scheme to one that is 'boy friendly'. My son hates it but I don't care because he is good at literacy and is allowed to read 'normal' books. My dd is shit at literacy and could really do with a scheme that doesn't tell her she is worthless.

louloutheshamed Sun 16-Mar-14 07:14:11

Exactly, I think it does a disservice to both genders. surely girls should get the chance to read a book with a string female protagonist at some point in school?

kim147 Sun 16-Mar-14 08:03:27

There's been efforts to engage children in reading and writing who struggle - it does not need to be "boy friendly" as such with regards to genre but more about the approach.

Lots of talk, response, role play, immersion, discussion etc. All good techniques that help a child get into a story / theme and then actually want to read / write about it.

It's not the genre itself - it's ways to help people who struggle (both boys and girls) to access something difficult.

JapaneseMargaret Sun 16-Mar-14 08:22:43

I'm not sure what that's got to do with the OP, though.

Acceleration programmes (and the like) aimed at students have been around long enough.

There is a gap in performance between girls and boys, and nothing that's currently happening (internationally) seems to effectively address it.

Spiritedwolf Sun 16-Mar-14 18:35:14

Is it not possible that boys face the same problem with literacy that women face with maths and science - the stereotype threat I think Cordelia Fine said in her book Delusions of Gender

From memory I think the idea is that women perform worse in math/science tests when they are reminded that they are women - when their gender is made salient, as opposed to something neutral like the fact they are students. Because they are aware of the stereotype. Gender is made salient throughout school life (line up for class/lunch etc by gender for starters) we tell them their gender is relevant to their education.

She also talked about how men are better at empathy tests when they aren't reminded about how awful men are supposed to be at them.

In addition you have the fact that the parents and teachers of boys will be aware of the stereotype and may have lower expectations for boys' literacy and the expectations of teachers and parents will really affect how boys are taught and encouraged at school and at home.

I'm sure I've also heard people talk about the importance of dads/other male role models reading at home - and presumably teachers at school. Boys will look around them and if they see it only seems to be girls and women who read for pleasure, who take an interest in their reading, then they might well think there's some unwritten rule that books aren't for boys. Even if they are told otherwise, they aren't daft.

I have a toddler DS, and he is interested in loads of things (its all new, isn't it). He does like trains (DH is an enthusiast so there's lots around) but he also loves his books and cats amongst other things. I can see it would be easy to just pay attention to interests which conform to gender stereotypes. I'm not saying we're perfect about not doing that btw, Cordelia Fine talks about how 'gender neutral' parenting isn't really that neutral.

I'm a woman who isn't that into pink, so I don't buy much pink stuff for my DS but I don't know if that's right confused I don't think DS knows he's a boy yet or what that means. I already feel under a bit of pressure to have his first hair cut as its getting a bit long. But I don't think I would have it cut if he was a girl sad

Hassled Sun 16-Mar-14 18:41:04

I always remember the head at my DCs' infant school talking about the reading gap, and pointing out that boys' obsessions with Top Trumps-like football cards etc showed they were reading, just in a very different way. They were sounding out complicated foreign footballers' names, they were absorbing a lot of information about comparative ratings, they were understanding all the data at quite a young age. But that then didn't translate easily into the more conventional reading skills you look for - and I don't understand why. It is really interesting.

kim147 Sun 16-Mar-14 20:29:42

It would be interesting to define what literacy skills are being measured. DS has no interest in fiction but he has absorbed complex Minecraft books, used verbal explanations and expressed himself creatively on his Minecraft world etc. I am not sure if that can be measured.

Sausageeggbacon Sun 16-Mar-14 21:47:09

DS1 hates reading, just does not engage with it at all. Does okay with English and is expected to do well in a couple of months with his Exams but he has a 90% retentive memory like his father so breezes things that others need to work at. DS2 reads everything, he prefers science and computing non fiction but currently has a thing about Alexander Kent. Same home, same(ish) background yet they could not be more different when it comes to literacy. I wonder if it did help that DD as the eldest use to read to DS2 when he was little rather than just me.

No idea how to rectify the gap even after 3 children of whom two love to read and one would rather kick or throw a ball even with his exams coming.

legoplayingmumsunite Sun 16-Mar-14 23:22:00

Is it not possible that boys face the same problem with literacy that women face with maths and science - the stereotype threat I think Cordelia Fine said in her book Delusions of Gender

I think, from memory, that the stereotype threat does exist for both sexes, so e.g. men have to be quite strong to go into what are perceived as female jobs like nursing, teaching or caring. I suspect if we got more male teachers in primary schools there would be less of an issue with gender stereotypes in teaching but how you manage that I'm not sure.

MsMischief Sun 16-Mar-14 23:54:49

I can understand why there is a gender divide in maths and science and IT. Girls look at adults in those professions and see them dominated by men but the literary world is dominated by men too. The best seller lists are dominated by men. Why don't boys see that? Why do they think it's not for them?

My own ds's favourite authors have always been women from Julia Donaldson through Enid Blyton to JK Rowling, Noel Streatfield and Lauren Child. It doesn't seem to have occurred to him that reading is something he shouldn't be doing, or if it is he should stick with books about spies or underpants. I have no idea why that is. I have even less idea as to why it is unusual.

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