Knowledge Bank - Creative Teaching & Learning

Boys Reading and Writing

Boys’ underachievement at school, particularly in reading and writing, is a hot potato in the education establishment. What is the evidence? By aged 7, there is already a gap of 7 per cent between girls and boys achievement in reading.

By 11 years, girls are 8 per cent ahead, by age 14 the gap is 12 per cent and at GCSE the gap reaches 14 per cent gaining A*- C in English. 76 per cent of schools say boys do not do as well as girls in reading. Girls also enjoy reading more, see it more positively and do it more often, (National Literacy Trust). In the USA, boys in every demographic group are falling behind girls at school, and they are twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and placed in special needs classes (TRENDS). The National Literacy Trust shows that weakness in reading also impacts progress in writing.

International research by Dr Julia Caroll shows that there is strong evidence of innate gender differences in reading ability, since the differences maintain themselves across different countries and cultures, and also age-groups. Interestingly, however, her studies seem to show that there are differences in the size of the gender gap across countries. This suggests that whilst there may be genetically-based reasons for the differences, environmental factors are also influencing boys’ level of achievement (Carrol). Encouragingly, the UK has a relatively small gap compared with other countries. Caroll also points out that it is worth considering that girls are just doing particularly well!


There is some argument that genetic factors are the dominant ones in determining boys’ underachievement. ‘Brain chemistry’ theories suggest that male sex hormones wire the brain differently and lead to better spatial skills but less strong verbal skills. They also suggest that the fact that girls reach maturity two years ahead of boys leads to an equivalent delay in boys’ ability to process information (TRENDS). However, a review of research evidence by Lloyd found the evidence does not prove a causal relationship between testosterone levels and male behavior (Woodley).

It is argued that boys are more active learners and prefer to be outside, building and making things, and find it harder to sit still. However, there does not seem to be an awful lot of scientific evidence backing up this oft-quoted, perhaps gender-stereotyped claim. Research by Warrington and Younger concluded that boys are not necessarily biologically disposed to learn in certain ways (Woodley). There is a worthwhile discussion of learning styles in the National Literacy Trust report, which concludes that, in general, more individualized learning strategies and discussions would help us understand how boys really learn.

Julia Carroll discusses differences in temperament between boys and girls. She argues that girls tend to show higher levels of conscientiousness and put effort and persistence into reading. She argues that learning to read benefits from such a methodological, conscientious approach – contrasting this to a speed-reading approach whereby the reader guesses meanings of words, and likely fails to understand – and as a result does not find reading enjoyable or rewarding.

Most discussion of causes centres on environmental factors. In Getting Boys Reading, Jane Woodley of the National Literacy Trust reports on the findings of The Boys Reading Commission, (a joint venture between the All Party Parliamentary Literacy Group and the National Literacy Trust). It found that reading is associated with the relationship of three factors:

  1. The home and family environment, (particularly norms regarding interest in reading and female reading role models).
  2. The school environment, (with a focus on finding attractive texts to encourage boys to experience reading for enjoyment).
  3. Male gender identities that do not value reading and learning as a mark of success.

Research consistently shows that parental involvement positively supports children’s academic success – and this is particularly so in reading. Research shows that it is important for parents to also model positive reading behavior and there is some evidence that gender is a factor in this relationship. Mullan found that mothers’ reading is more strongly associated with girls’ reading and fathers reading’ with boys. Furthermore, research suggests that male gender identities cast reading as unattractive – and lead to different attitudes towards reading in boys and girls. Boys have much higher rates of reporting that they do not enjoy reading and writing, find it ‘uncool’ and would be embarrassed if friends saw them reading and writing. The National Literacy Trust reports direct links between enjoyment of writing and success. (Simon Mayo Drive to Get Boys Writing).

Regarding the school environment, there is concern that the predominantly female teaching body may not succeed in sourcing and promoting books and reading materials that are attractive to boys.

Suggestions and teaching strategies

Firstly, the TRENDS article, The Boy Can’t Help It, has an interesting discussion of single-sex schooling as a strategy to deal with boys’ underachievement. For specific strategies to improve boys’ reading and writing see below.

Improving Boys’ Reading

1. Support the development of gender identities that value education and reading, including engaging fathers and male role models in reading and involving them in boys’ reading strategies (Woodley).
2. Promote reading for enjoyment and have knowledge of reading materials that will appeal to disengaged boys (see boys reading website list below).
3. Find ways of making reading a positive choice and not a chore – use strategies that engage boys’ interest, give a purpose to boys reading, frame reading as ‘fun’ and allow them to read books of their choice, (see Carrol for interesting ideas).
4. Integrate the teaching of phonics with fun stories that keep the magic of reading alive and create a need and desire to read on. See Mike Lake’s discussion of resources he produced to integrate an ‘imaginative engagement’ approach with phonics learning, Imaginative Engagement in Learning to Read.

Improving Boys’ Writing

Strategies for improving boys writing can be summarized into 4 strands:

1. Make writing activities attractive, enjoyable and engaging so that boys see writing positively and actively want to do it.
2. Rehearse written work through drama/discussion to explore ideas and develop understanding before writing.
3. Create a real purpose for written work, and potentially a real audience.
4. Support students to master the technical aspects of writing, such as handwriting, phonics and grammar and sentence structure.

Further reading for improving boys’ writing

The 4 DFES flyers, ‘Boys’ Writing’, present a good starting point offering strategies and lesson ideas on all of the above, around the themes of Talk for Writing, Feedback and marking, Purpose and Audience, and Visual Texts.

Role play and other drama for learning activities such as Mantle of the Expert can engage students in the learning, create a purpose for writing and give students a forum to explore ideas and develop understanding before beginning writing. See the Drama For Learning Knowledge Bank for more information, as well as, Improving Boys Writing Through Visual Literacy and Drama. For a case study of using Mantle of the Expert to improve writing, see The Tiger who came to Class!, and Epic Dreams for a cross-curricular film-making project that included script-writing.

Boys’ Writing: A Hot Topic… summarizes the strategies teachers found most useful for engaging boys at KS0/1, in a large-scale literacy action-research project; namely, students writing from position of expertise, writing about topics of interest, writing with other boys, and experiencing real genuine feedback to their writing.

The 100 Word Challenge presents a creative writing approach that gives purpose and audience to children’s writing. The 100 Word Challenge (100WC) is an online blog whereby students contribute their own creative writing and give feedback to other students’ writing from across the country.

In Boys’ Writing: A Hot Topic… the authors discuss the affect that poor handwriting and even spelling, may be having on the students ability to express himself and enjoy writing, whereas Reviving Reluctant Writers discusses reports on a project that saw improvements in literacy through letting students write on a word processor. The article Using Synaesthetic Principles to Develop Extended Writing discusses an approach, which uses aural, tactile and visual strategies to develop vocabulary, understanding of sentence structure and complex writing skills.

The Storytelling Curriculum is a fantastic article summarising an alternative curriculum model based on storytelling that has transformed primary literary teaching, inspiring children to want to write their own stories. I Want To Tell You a Story tells of a similar storytelling project using storytellers on a DVD, (Story Spinner), as the key resource.

Creative Teaching and Learning magazine and online library has a huge wealth of articles giving practical ideas and case studies of creative ways of teaching creative writing. Most of these are directly relevant to boys’ writing, as they are premised on ways of engaging students, making writing purposeful and making learning enjoyable. A search on the website library will yield more results than can be discussed here. Some highlights: Using Graphic Novels to Teach Creative Writing, Writing for Competitions, Small Steps to Creative Thinking, Poetry Made Easy.

Thinking skills techniques are also being used to improve writing, particularly writing for purposes other than creative. In Thinking to Write!, Paul Gwilliam explains how using thinking skills strategies such as P4C, questioning techniques and visual tools such as mindmaps, helped students to articulate ideas in their heads, organize ideas and put them down on paper. In Classroom Detectives, Crispin Andrews shares a creative writing project focused on Sherlock Holmes that develops logical thinking and problem solving.

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