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...

kim147 Tue 18-Mar-14 22:51:29

English literature seemed to be remembering quotes. Now they get the books in the exams confused

It was compulsory at my school. No surprise what books we covered and plays. I think they are still on Gove's list.

nooka Tue 18-Mar-14 22:49:06

I hated English literature, with it's emphasis on pulling things apart. I was a voracious reader as a youngster and really objected to the way that English Lit seemed to make everything so boring. However I think that was really to do with not very good teachers. When I changed school at sixth form the English teachers at the new school seemed to be much more fun, chose texts that were engaging (and smutty!) and I think I would have enjoyed learning with them. I did read all the books and went on the field trips, so had quite a good insight into the classes.

Perhaps slightly ironically for this conversation the first school was all girls and the second was a boys school with girls in the sixth form, so presumably the second was orientated to 'boys learning' whatever that might be.

almondcake Tue 18-Mar-14 22:04:26

BB, I also read constantly and got a C in English Lit. I think the reason for that was that I did not know what it was I meant to be writing about and there was no specific teaching on what to cover. That has completely changed. If you are doing a specific text the pupils will be told they must make points about dramatic irony, about the political perspective each character symbolises and so on.

I think that is one of the main issues in getting people with a less intuitive approach to pass English Language and English Literature. It can be broken down into a set of facts and method, just like Maths and Science, which can then be applied to every piece of reading and writing (and speaking). But people often don't want to perceive it that way. They want to see it as some kind of vague skill you acquire through osmosis through reading widely or are just innately skilled in. There are some excellent English teachers and they do seem to teach it as if it were Maths or Science.

BertieBotts Tue 18-Mar-14 21:40:25

I found literature really hard. I was in the top set and used to (still do!) read constantly but I only got a C overall in English Lit, I think I actually failed one of the exams.

Because the texts were boring I found it hard to identify with the characters and I couldn't answer questions about them. Yet I love a hypothetical discussion about characters when it's a story I like.

I know real life isn't about picking and choosing the things we like and a skill should be transferable to topics which are less interesting but I just felt it never really captured my imagination in the first place and I never really "got it".

TheSporkforeatingkyriarchy Tue 18-Mar-14 21:30:59

Socialization likely plays a part, though I find the stereotype on this one odd. It seems to be trying to show male as rational and wanting non-fiction and female as the opposite - and yet many branches of popular fiction - sci-fi and fantasy particularly - are aimed at and defined as masculine where as "real life" books and media tend to be aimed more at women. Pretty much every guy I know has a long love and collection of fiction across multiple media types and are encouraged to act those out in games - video, tabletop, and live action - and all of those are very much a masculine socialization stereotype whereas that is not the case for women (and women are often pushed out of these are as "not being true fans"). There is some sort of blur between this idea that boys read prefer to read non-fiction and the general way media for men is designed as being the opposite.

The discussion reminds me of something that happened in the States a while back. In one of the American university entrance exams, it was found that young men did better at maths but young women were better at English. So they changed the English part of the exam and now young men do better. They never did and there has yet to be a serious discussion about doing anything about the maths section - men doing better is seen as normal and when not there is a need for correction. Personally, I think education needs far more variant points of views, particularly in literature and history and "the Canon" is quite damaging for all.

It is possible that boys are socialized and see through common representation that they will be all right and there is less representation and focus for young men on the work required to get there. My daughter who is 7 has had far more people ask her what she wants to be when she grows up and be challenged on than my son who is 9. His fantasies of building robots to make people's lives better and protect people are brushed aside as childish fantasies and 'cute' by almost everyone whereas her dream of being an astronaut doctor are often coupled with the "Oh, you better study hard at maths then, you'll need to pay extra attention in science, are you good with blood" on and on and on (and more than one comment about being a nurse when she's specifically said doctor). She's only 7 and she's asked if I will watch her future children because random stranger on the train who asked her told her that it's very difficult to do any of the jobs she likes while being a mummy. She's worried at 7 about juggling it all because of what other people say to her and some of the representation she sees.

It really does seem that the message towards young girls is how hard they have to work to get there and far more pushed to look up to real people whereas the message towards young boys tends to show mostly the end result and the focus is on fictional characters. People think it's cool that my 9 year old son looks up to fictional robot builders and the cleaner modern cartoon version of Iron Man, people think it's odd that my 4 year old daughter admires fictional fighters and pilots (and She Hulk), people think it's funny when my 2 year old son does the hulk hand gestures, people remind my 7 year old daughter that fictional characters she admire aren't real (which I recall happening to me well into my teens). I do let my kids enjoy their dreams and at times I tell them what it takes to get there - showing my son what he can learn to do when he's older, places he can go to learn this, and showing up articles on current robotics projects motivates and excites him (he come on leaps and bounds over the last year). I'm still working on trying to find the right balance for my 7 year old because she's heard it so much - but in a negative way - mostly now it's just showing her that she can do maths and so many other things and letting her enjoy her giant dreams (which is something I never got as a child as I was squished into a bad fitting parental dreams).

kim147 Tue 18-Mar-14 21:28:48

All must make progress. 2 sublevels per year or else you are in trouble - a friend of mine is in a school where they have to have a meeting and write a letter to the head explaining why children who haven't achieved this have not made progress sad

almondcake Tue 18-Mar-14 21:25:57

I thinl the all must make progress approach is part of the problem, Kim. It should be that middle class children coming in to primary ahead of the poorest kids don't necessarily stay at the top and get overtaken by other kids. That is very hard to do if teachers are told all pupils should make 2 levels progress in x amount of time. All that seems to be achieving is maintaining inequality, presumably including those based on gender.

FairPhyllis Tue 18-Mar-14 20:27:15

No reading isn't just fiction. But I thought the context here was English Lit in schools.

If you look at the preference of men in general for non-fiction, I think one has to ask whether socialisation plays a role in that too.

kim147 Tue 18-Mar-14 17:58:10

I do hope that's changing - real attempts are being made to encourage girls into STEM subjects and if girls were behind, people would be bothering.

It's not just boys as a whole. If you break down the statistics, it's white working class boys who are behind the most. Boys from other backgrounds are not doing as bad.

But at the same time - a girl could be doing ok but is not being pushed as she is quiet and complicit in class, not challenging or demanding. Just getting on with things. So no problems for the class teacher.

Nowadays - it's all progress. Everyone is assessed to make sure they all make progress. And those who aren't making progress (even if they are high achievers) are identified.

Justgotosleepnow Tue 18-Mar-14 17:52:10

I'm finding this discussion really interesting. I have a 11m DD and I'm finding my friends comments on all the babies playing really interesting- oh hes such a boy etc. and oh but boys do everything later and oh boys will be boys.

They are babies fgs!

When my DD plays with cars it is ignored. Seemingly because it doesn't fit their world view of how girls are. And she's really tall. How many people tell me she's going to be a model? Argh. I reply no way, they are all anorexic, she's going to be a swimmer/ hockey player etc.
that comment to a boy would be totally different- are you a big strong boy, not you are going to be judges on your looks. Drives me nuts.

So if this nonsense starts with babies it makes sense to me that it continues into primary education. And maybe chosing male central characters is an attempt to engage boys. But I think it goes a lot deeper in our culture than that.

And you know what, the whole thing drives me nuts. If girls were behind do you honestly think anyone would be bothering?

When I did the 11plus in NI the girls had a higher pass mark to make sure the numbers of girls & boys admitted to grammar schools were the same. Totally unacceptable.

And girls aren't less good at maths/ science they are just constantly told it's not for them. Grrr

kim147 Tue 18-Mar-14 17:14:17

And reading is not just reading fiction. It's reading anything for a purpose. Magazines, papers, fiction, non fiction - yes, even the internet.

Being able to understand it, comment, analyse, critique it - all important skills.

kim147 Tue 18-Mar-14 17:12:30

What about non-fiction?

FairPhyllis Tue 18-Mar-14 17:07:10

Actually that figure is wrong - looks like in fact up to 80% of the fiction market is women readers.

FairPhyllis Tue 18-Mar-14 17:00:39

Finding this discussion very interesting.

Surveys pretty consistently show that most adult readers are women (about 60% of readers). Could part of the gap be the fact that reading becomes gendered at an early age as it is not modelled at home to boys by fathers?

I strongly object to the 'engagement' approach of having only male protagonists and doing lots of war stories etc. This only teaches girls that stories about them are not important and boys that there is only one model of being a man.

Nocomet Tue 18-Mar-14 12:16:56

Interactions make

Thus girls may hate a book with a passion, but they'll still have the marks - Thankyou very much.

Nocomet Tue 18-Mar-14 12:14:34

I guess my biggest puzzlement is why all school novels have to pass the DW test to get on the exam syllabus.

ie - Dull, Depressing, Dated, wordy, waffling and a waste of time.

DD2 summed up school set texts thus, "They are boring, but easy to answer questions on,"

And that is the problem, DD2 is the granddaughter of two English teachers who's genes she puts to good use. Literacy lessons are like falling off a log, they don't have to be inspired for her to do well.

I think many reasonablely academic girls have much the same mind set.

For some reason boys don't. I suspect many of them aren't as mature readers and writers in primary, they aren't as good at seeing charecters/author's point of view as the most socially aware girls and they fall behind.

Think how much time year 2-6 girls spend chattering, falling out and making friends again, their complex interlations make the plot of Twelth Night look simple.

Spiritedwolf Tue 18-Mar-14 08:19:25

BertieBotts thank you for your response earlier on the thread. I like your family's idea of having a way of pulling all the members together as a tribe rather than allowing the default gender tribes to dominate.

As DS is my first child we are building our toy and book collections. Because we want to have more children, we're mainly getting things which are bright, have a lot of play/rereading potential and don't scream boy/girl. Its practical for passing things onto potential siblings and suits my tastes too. I realise we can't shield him from boy/girl things entirely as he gets older... but until he's choosing his own toys I can make sure the basics are fairly neutral.

My DH and I both read a lot of fiction and non-fiction and DS already loves being read to, so hopefully that will counter whatever is causing the literacy gap. (I can't wait until he's old enough for Harry Potter, BertieBotts I loved reading it to my younger siblings, and reread/listen to it myself rather a lot. I agree with your comments earlier about how enjoying a text makes analysis fun rather than a drudge.)

I agree that we shouldn't be giving boys the message that 'Oh this is about a female protagonist/by a female author, you won't like this' whilst expecting girls to read countless books by male authors and about male protagonists. That is surely a feminist point as well as an educational one.

Interestingly I did sciences to Advanced Higher level, but rather wish I had taken Art beyond standard grade - as I was good at it and enjoy it. I think part of me wanted to be 'taken seriously' by doing 'hard' subjects like Physics rather than 'Soft' ones like Art. I wasn't the only girl doing Higher Physics or Advanced Higher Chemistry though, so maybe my school was good at engaging girls in science - though perhaps at the expense of devaluing traditionally 'feminine' subjects.

almondcake Mon 17-Mar-14 11:37:33

Teacake, I do think that primary schools are trying to teach kids to run before they can walk, but I don't think that is a case of author motivation vs. meaning. 'How does character X feel?' is a meaning question (and maybe quite difficult) while 'Why did the writer tell us this?' might actually be quite easy if the text is, for example, instructions on how to cross a road safely. The answer may be that they want to tell (inform) us how to cross a road safely or it may be that they want to persuade us to buy safety vests, depending on how the text is written.

almondcake Mon 17-Mar-14 11:30:42

Bertie, some students take 2 GCSEs - English Language and English Literature, and some take just 1 GCSE - English. I would assume the reason why there is a fiction component as well as a non fiction component in GCSE English is because different students have different strengths. There will be some students who find the fictional pieces easier to understand and write about than the non fiction pieces. The subject is more accessible if it is boarder. If it only tested understanding of say, newspaper and a few other non fiction sources, the level of questions would have to be higher and test more advanced skills to make it equivalent to GCSEs in other subjects. I don't think non fiction is easier or greatly unrelated to the skills required for fiction anyway.

And we do live in a world where a vast amount of the media we consume is still fictional, and people do need to be able to 'read' what is being communicated to us through that fiction.

TeacakeEater Mon 17-Mar-14 11:28:28

My gripe with education of small kids where I am is that it's not geared up to their level of thinking but has all sorts of irrelevant baggage added on to it.

(I'm in Scotland and we have an utterly naff new curriculum which involves young children in a whole lot of navel gazing regarding their own personal learning journeyshmm.)

TeacakeEater Mon 17-Mar-14 11:22:30

Almondcake: my children had problems with their homework at the gateway of their school education in literacy and I tried to help.

We talk about advertising a lot already! One is 7 and immature for his age so |I would rather encourage his reading at the moment rather than fox him with (to him) unanswerable questions on the text.

almondcake Mon 17-Mar-14 11:16:10

The motivations of the author are massively important. How do you deal with a customer complaint, emailed instructions from your boss (other than if you intend to be micromanaged your whole life), the social or political agenda behind supposedly neutral information in a newspaper or pamphlet, the relationship between fiction and lived experience even in the most basic tv show, harmful stereotyping of other groups or the experiences of people from other cultures or social situations, be able to tell if a source is credible, if it is an advert or a piece of information from the government if you don't attempt to understand the motivations of the author?

And in fact Teacake, most of your post is about your motivations! Do you think a GCSE pupils should just disregard most of what you said, if your post was the quote used in the exam?

BertieBotts Mon 17-Mar-14 11:09:27

Well, correct usage of spelling and punctuation aids communication. (Eats, Shoots and Leaves for example) Also by reading more deeply into things than the surface message we can often learn more. I'm not sure whether this is a literature skill though or more of a critical thinking one.

Actually the more I think about it the more I am wondering why literature (not language, clearly that's important) is such a key subject to higher levels. History is not compulsory at GCSE, why is Literature? Is knowing and exploring what makes a good written story more important than knowing and exploring what makes a good piece of art or music? Maybe it should be downgraded to an optional subject and replaced with a class which teaches how to read critically and examine information - I think this is useful not just at university (although it would be a skill for essay writing) but also in everyday life. It's useful to be able to understand newspaper or political bias, for example, to be able to tell by the way something is worded what the aim of the author is, how to tell if something is a reliable source.

Especially with the huge popularity now of the internet where you can find something to back up absolutely anything you want and a lot of it is totally unedited nonsense passing itself round and round without anyone ever correcting it (thank god for Snopes grin).

TeacakeEater Mon 17-Mar-14 11:02:43

I 'm not coming at this from any angle other than the personal.

My children (who happen to be boys) find the school's concentration on analysing the motivations of the author dull and not at all intuitive. I (a woman) feel the same, I often get the wrong answer!

I remember my school comprehensions being far more about meaning, less interpretive iyswim. My kids range of reading has not been stretched within school and we've done vast amounts of reading at home (fiction and non-fiction) We don't get hung up on motivations too much! And they learn new vocabulary and structure along the way.

kim147 Mon 17-Mar-14 10:46:34

It's not a feminist point. Just an education point.

What key skills in literacy are needed? What should be measured?

What literacy skills are needed for the workplace and university? Are they different - if you are not university bound, what literacy skills are essential?

Are we teaching the right things that are needed?
I teach maths - and there's a discussion about the maths most people need. I have no idea about English - but what skills are needed by most people?

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