(This article was originally written for and printed by The Mother magazine 2014 and is re-printed with kind permission)
No, not the 1987 American teen horror! I am referring to the pervasive gender gap in literacy achievement.
According to the National Literacy Trust, research reveals that girls continue to outperform boys at both Key Stages 2 and 4.
These boys, who are consistently underachieving, have been referred to in academic circles as the ‘lost boys’ of our generation.
Of course, we should be wary of generalisations. Many boys achieve well in school academically, and out of school in the wider community or on the sports’ field. At the same time, there are girls who underachieve.
However, the National Literacy Trust alerts us to the fact that ‘the continuing gender gap in Key Stage 2 English results, particularly in writing, suggests that a stubborn problem remains to be tackled.’
The effects of underachievement in boys can have devastating long term consequences. There is an established and clearly recorded connection between illiteracy and innumeracy and crime in the UK. It particularly relates to young people and men. If anything, this has increased as life has become more complex. There is a clear statistical link between illiteracy and repeat offending and a life of hardened crime. This worrying social trend is well documented.
In this article, I will try to address why these so-called ‘lost boys’ struggle with writing in particular, and propose some practical ways to help your own son, if he falls in to this category.
Why do boys underachieve in writing?
Gender differences in achievement do have a biological basis. These differences begin in the foetal stage of development, when the sex hormones begin to influence brain maturation, and this continues throughout childhood (Berger, 2003).
These differences in brain maturation affect a boy’s overall development in areas such as language acquisition. There is a tendency for girls to talk earlier than boys and this has a knock-on effect in their readiness for reading and writing.
When you then consider the increasing pressure for children in this country to read and write earlier and earlier, it becomes evident that this will disadvantage some boys. Instead of getting a head-start, these boys are severely hampered in their progress.
Some boys do catch up, and then eclipse girls, but there are a group of boys who will never recover from the huge dent to their fragile self-esteem. In classrooms, these boys are pretty easy to spot. They are the jokers, the rebels, the ‘lost boys’.
Of all the skills we wish our boys to acquire, writing is the one they have most difficulty with. The National Literacy Trust research reveals that boys are half as likely to enjoy writing as girls, and almost a third never or rarely write outside the classroom.
What is so hard about writing?
Writing involves a myriad of skills. Firstly, you have to think of something to say, then organise how you’re going to say it. Next you have to go through the physical process of writing, which involves typing or putting pen to paper. Simultaneously, you must think about spelling, grammar and punctuation; the mechanics of writing. Then, there is usually a drafting process, whereby you need to edit your writing.
Levine (1994) in his book ‘Educational Care’ states that: ‘The act of writing involves the rapid and precise mobilization and synchronization of multiple brain functions, strategies, academic skills, and thought processes’. In other words, learning to write takes many years of work and refinement.
It is not an easy feat and we seem to expect children to accomplish written tasks even in their early years. There are a variety of reasons why boys find it even harder.
Young boys tend to use less language in their play than girls and, since speaking and listening skills are linked to writing ability, they may find it harder to think of subject matter and how to convey their thoughts. Boys tend to develop fine motor skills more slowly than girls and they are often more inclined towards active learning, whereas writing requires sitting still.
How can we get boys to love writing?
Three key elements strike me as essential if we want to get our boys writing:
We need to provide good role models –
It is important to provide good (preferably male) role models for both reading and writing. It is vital that dads read with their sons or grandads with their grandsons. Encourage reading as a ‘male’ activity by ensuring your son sees male family members reading. Reading needs to be encouraged because it supports writing.
Also, let your son see other family members writing. There are numerous ideas for purposeful writing tasks which your son could observe or join in with. For example: shopping lists, messages and postcards to family members, nature journals such as a birding or weather observational journals, making maps or creating board games.
We need to support the process-
Spending plenty of time developing pre-writing skills will support fine motor control: art, craft, Play-Doh, Lego, threading, colouring, painting with different sized brushes or with fingers, cutting and sticking, managing buttons, hammering nails in wood, playing with puzzles. These activities are great for pre-schoolers but can also easily be adapted for older children who are experiencing difficulties with fine motor control. For example, your child might like to try sewing instead of threading and clay modelling instead of Play- Doh.
Whilst your boy is developing his fine motor skills, write for him. Modelling writing by either scribing or writing with your son in partnership is a fantastic way of helping him to learn about grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It’s a gradual process and it may take several years before your son is writing entirely his own compositions. Do not hurry the process. I find my own son is happy to take over and write more himself as time goes on.
When planning a writing task, let your son talk about his ideas. Talk supports writing and is a vital element. Another way to help with the planning stage for older boys is to use ‘mind maps’ either on paper or by using the relevant software. This is especially good for those with a visual strength.
Encourage but never force writing and keep tasks short and developmentally appropriate. Ensure, too, that the mechanics of writing are dealt with separately to the creativity.
Make writing seem appealing by providing a ‘writing box’ with lots of different colours and sizes of paper, card, postcards and a variety of pencils and pens. Stabilo Smove Easy pens are great for those with pen grip difficulties.
Discover preferred learning styles. Understand that, as individuals, children have different learning strengths that can be utilised as a great ‘way in’ to getting them started. Remember to support any weaker areas too, because children need to access all styles of learning to be effective learners. Many boys may well be kinaesthetic or active learners, learning by doing, discovering and exploring. For example, they may enjoy role play and drama or perhaps making mini animations of a creative storyline.
Use voice recognition software for creative boys who struggle significantly with penmanship or give them the opportunity to learn to touch type. Think of handwriting as an art form, and remember that some boys are just never going to develop much more than just about legible handwriting. Never force a particular handwriting style, continuous cursive might be aesthetically pleasing but may cause a great amount of stress in its acquisition.
Most importantly, we must find out what motivates an individual to want to write–
It may be true to say boys in general enjoy silly and humourous style writing. However, we must not always relegate boys to a world of burps, farts and superheroes.
Whilst my own son T loves to wrestle his sister to the ground or dive bomb on the sofa, he is also the sweetest, most sensitive and affectionate boy I know. He spends hours caring for his ‘pet’ snails in the garden and loves his collection of soft toys more than just about anything else. From these interests you could generate activities like: creating a cartoon strip about a day in the life of a snail, making a short animation about his pet snails or choosing a favourite teddy and creating a photo book of a teddies day out with short captions or thought bubbles.
My son really enjoys world and character building. He doesn’t have to write a complete story, but instead focus on a key character or a particular setting. Characters can be woodland monsters crafted from clay, sticks and seeds and pressed into tree trunks. Or create whole new worlds from papier mache.
Once you get started, you’ll find your son will come up with the ideas. Even if you think your idea is great, keep quiet and go with his idea! The less we interfere with the creative process the better.
We need to appeal to boys not just in the one dimensional view that our society often has, but in a much more well-rounded way.
Ask yourself: Who is this child in front of me? What makes him tick? What are his passions? How can I help?
Start with the little boy in front of you, and go forward together, hand in hand, for no boy is ever truly lost.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
Berger, K.S. (2003).The developing person. Through childhood. (3rd ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
Levine, M. (1994). Educational Care: A System for Understanding and Helping Children with Learning Differences at Home and in School (2nd Edition). Educators Publishing Services, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Tolkien, J.R.R.(1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published1987), “strider”
The National Literacy Trust: http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/
Buzan, Tony and Barry (1993). The Mind Map Book. BBC Worldwide Limited.