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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...

Donki Mon 17-Mar-14 00:04:08

There was some research into how to engage girls in physics which was presented at the association for science education conference. The single most important factor in whether girls went on to a physics based degree (having done A Level -or onto ALevel from gcse) was that someone told them they should and would do well/enjoy it.

legoplayingmumsunite Mon 17-Mar-14 00:16:38

The single most important factor in whether girls went on to a physics based degree (having done A Level -or onto ALevel from gcse) was that someone told them they should and would do well/enjoy it.

Wow. The reason I did all three sciences at school (and am still a scientist now) is that my guidance teacher said I was top of the year in science and it would be a waste for me to Art instead of Chemistry. I did spent most of my school education being the token girl in the class though!

nooka Mon 17-Mar-14 00:29:01

It would really annoy me to discover that school were deliberately choosing books that marginalises girls/women. Surely a range of different books showcasing different experiences and different ways of writing should be used?

Until fairly recently both my ds and my dd were bookworms and we all very much enjoyed reading the same books and talking about them together. Then ds started rejecting some of the books that dd and I enjoyed because they were too much about girls, and I think too similar. I guess I've always looked especially for books about non-stereotypical girls, although I'd say our collection was fairly balanced. So I got him very different books and they were all rejected for one reason or another too. Now he hardly reads books at all, which makes me sad, but his argument is that he reads online fiction instead. Which he does, a lot. I think it's mostly dodgy crap though! Hopefully he will see the light soon grin

At school dd is doing particularly well (they are both bright but she works harder) but hates real world math problems, she'd much prefer straight problems. ds has no issues with translating them. Last year he had The Lightning Thief as his set text and was most peeved about it (he read it years ago, so it was boring, plus hardly stretching for a 13 year old). This year he has been studying poetry and short stories and enjoys that much more. dd has just done the Outsiders, which she enjoyed as it was new to her. She's doing a Midsummer Night's Dream next.

WhentheRed Mon 17-Mar-14 00:48:15

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

BertieBotts Mon 17-Mar-14 08:52:07

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

I think this is the issue. We're all trying to address it. Instead of just trying to address education as a gender neutral thing.

Spirited My personal opinion with little boys and teaching the nonimportance of gender is to not worry about specifics and girl-stereotype things like pink or dolls etc. Obviously don't restrict these things or reject passed-on toys etc on the basis of colour, but I wouldn't particularly go and seek out loads of pink and fluffy stuff for a boy in order to let him see that it's acceptable, unless he showed an interest.

You can't avoid the exposure to gender norms and gender stereotypes. The whole world likes to tell children from a very early age that "you belong to this camp, and you belong to that camp." I don't think you can get away from it, the only sort of vague idea is that I noticed DH saying to DS "You're a Botts, and Bottses are never defeated!" (obviously with our actual surname!) - I like this, I think reclaiming family as a "tribe" rather than gender as a "tribe" with all of the associated messages, positive or negative (Men are strong, brave, clever, but never cry or bother about how things look; Women are weak, pathetic, needy, but nurturing and good at making a home homely) works to counter it a little, and it means we have a completely gender neutral form of encouragement which also encourages belonging and (I hope!) positive self image. He's not learning "what it means to be a man", he's learning what it is to be a part of our family, in other words, what it means to be him.

BertieBotts Mon 17-Mar-14 08:57:10

Also I think sometimes with young children if you make too much of almost opposite-genderising them, it draws attention to the differences even more especially if people pass comment often. I wouldn't refuse to buy my son something girly, but as he's got older, I have said, look, I'm happy to buy this for you but be aware some people might think that it's for girls, and then let him make his own choice.

Nocomet Mon 17-Mar-14 09:54:48

Why do we spend so much time on literature in schools?

There are now set books for language as well as literature papers.

As others have said many boys (and my extremely literate DH) hate fiction and only want to read science and computing.

Why do we live in this time warp of studying Shakespeare and books like nice and men and to kill a mocking bird which belong to another time and another country.

The Second World War was 70 years ago and is done to death in history .

I don't know the answer, but my guess is part of it's the one Gove would hate most.

I have a dyslexic DD1, her spelling and keeping in one tense when writing is awful, but her spoke English and comprehension is great.

Why because she never stops talking, she's endlessly fascinated by the world.

Likewise DH and his English teacher parents and me and my grammar school educated DF and history and politics enjoying DM chattered endlessly too.

Nocomet Mon 17-Mar-14 09:57:53

Where you find well written non fiction to study
How you bring the everyday chatter of a MC household into an English lesson I do not know.

slightlyglitterstained Mon 17-Mar-14 10:19:37

It sounds like it's possible that the "boy focused" approach might actually be making things worse, in the same way that screaming "girls don't do this normally!" meant girls dropped out of Young Rewired State:

Does that sound likely?

Also, if boys' problem is that they don't build up empathy because they're not asked to identify with people different from them - er, isn't taking any girl protagonists out of the reading list a bit like saying "oh dear, teenage girls don't do enough exercise. Let's make sure they all get taxis to school so they never have to exert themselves."?

DS is just coming up to the time when he'll start being (more) aware of gender. Not sure how I'll tackle it yet, other than trying to make sure his books and toys aren't all male.

almondcake Mon 17-Mar-14 10:36:14

We do not spend a lot of time on fictional literature in schools. DS has done for GCSE English Language and English Literature higher tier - 1 novel, 1 modern play, some poetry, 1 modern film and 1 Shakespeare play. I do not consider that a lot at all. 1 novel for 2 GCSE English exams is a tiny amount. The only way of making it less would be to break it down into exercepts. Most of GCSE English language is in non fiction - writing to inform or persuade, spoken language study, over half the paper on newspaper articles. Even things like the film review could be based on a non fiction film if the pupil chose one.

In fact, that could show the nonsense that boys prefer fiction to non fiction. I have never met a boy who would routinely choose a non fictional documentary (say things at the IMAX like space exploration) over a fictional film. And most of boys' tv viewing seems to be fictional too.

It really does matter if people fail GCSE English, and a gender gap does matter. We don't know why this is happening internationally, but most of the obvious reasons in this country have been mentioned on this thread.

1. It is harder to learn the skills of analysing character in fiction or analysing persuasive arguments in non fiction etc if you are given books about people very similar to yourself all the time, who have very similar opinions and beliefs to you. This is done to boys far more than girls.

2. Interventions for boys are heavily stereotyped (at least in my LEA) when aimed at boys. This was never done for girls in Maths and Science. Gender stereotyping promotes failure in the subjects a gender is supposedly not good in.

3. In the home environment, boys tend to spend more time on activities that involve breaking tasks done into small blocks that can then be bolted together to create a complex whole (particularly video games esp. MineCraft, as well as Lego and similar toys). This must shape the way they think. Many subjects at school are taught in this way. English is generally not.

4. English in KS2 tries to teach kids to run before they can walk (due to the curriculum, not the teachers) and inadequately prepares pupils for secondary school. Although this may now have changed as the curriculum was changing. This means pupils have to catch up in their own time, and girls are encouraged to work harder than boys.

5. People have low expectations of boys' behaviour and work, and let them get away with stuff a girl would not. All this 'boys will be boys' and 'well, he's a boy' does them no favours in the long run in school, unless you think the examiner will say it and put their mark up accordingly.

almondcake Mon 17-Mar-14 10:37:28

Sorry, that should be, that boys prefer non fiction to fiction, not the other way around.

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

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

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.

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).

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?

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.

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

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