Why Are So Many Boys Underachieving In Literacy?

a boy with his hands on his hips in the library trying to decide what to read

One of the answers to this complex question is early years experience. But it is not the only answer. Peer pressure, motivation and effective literacy teaching, or lack of, all have a crucial part to play.

Early years experience

I am a great people watcher. I love watching the interaction and play between young children within my extended family and friends. The gender differences, from a very young age, are clear to see and one huge difference is their use of language.

When my daughter was young she was constantly chattering but not always making sense (for those who know her nothing much has changed!). Yet she was always trying to say and use new words and wanting to take part in conversations. Now when I spend time watching my grand nieces and nephews and my friends’ grandchildren, I see the same thing happening; but have noticed that the boys are different.

The girls spend just as much time running around and climbing onto things as the boys, but they are always talking, interacting and chattering with others. The boys on the other hand are happy to run around, play and interact with others but their play does not involve the same level of language.

And this is why I strongly agree with current research that the attainment gap in literacy between boys and girls has already begun by the age of 2½ .

The children’s communication charity ICAN reports that the:

“successful development of literacy depends upon good spoken language skills. If children struggle with these skills at an early age it puts them at risk of literacy difficulties later on”.

So we need to tackle this by focussing on preschool and early years provision, making sure children, boys in particular, are provided with activities that focus on spoken language.

However, our task does not stop there!

Peer pressure and motivation

A report called Boys’ Reading Commission (2012) carried out by the National Reading Strategies found that only 1 in every 4 boys read outside the classroom.

It goes on to say, “Peer pressure from boys means they do not want to be seen as good or interested readers.” Changing this culture is a difficult one to crack.

Jonathan Douglas the Director of the National Literacy Trust reported last year the finding of the Trust’s recent research. It found only one-third of teenage boys in the UK say they enjoy reading compared to 72% of Primary aged boys.

I would like to point out at this point that not everyone will enjoy reading but what is important to me is that everyone should be able to read effectively. Some boys are very able at reading but will state that they do not enjoy it just in the same way I played and loved badminton and squash but disliked tennis yet I was good at it. The difference with reading is that we all need to read for knowledge even if we don’t enjoy it.

Boys’ underachievement in reading is a significant concern for all schools across the country and it has been the case for a long time. I remember discussing boys’ underachievement when I was a newly qualified teacher in 1987. In 1999 I was deployed into a challenging secondary school in the North East England to work with underachieving boys and my focus was on reading. It was during this time I began developing my own resources, which grew into Sound Training, because the resources I had available to me were not allowing students to make sufficient progress to close the gap between them and their peers.

Schools need to make sure they provide the structure and opportunities for boys to develop and excel needs to be provided throughout their entire education otherwise we will still be talking about this underachievement in years to come.

It is clearly still an issue today. How do we motivate and support progress, how do we change perceptions of learning and improve reading and writing in boys?

One keynote speaker at an event I recently attended said ‘boys do not like competition … only the top 14% will be motivated by competition.’ I struggle to agree with this.

In my opinion, any learner, of any age, male or female, can either be motivated or demotivated by competition because competition is a double-edged sword.

If the learner does not feel they are capable of the task being asked of them, and they are aware that they are competing against their peers, clearly they will be demotivated. They stop trying; they see no point in trying because they cannot see improvement; there is nothing in it for them and they do not want to be shown up in front of their peers. And if the learner happens to be a boy … well! Behaviour and possibly school attendance will probably deteriorate very quickly. Boys certainly don’t like failure. But if the goal is within their grasp and they have the structures in place to help them reach their goal then competition, in my experience, works every time.

Effective Teaching

Lexonik sessions include lots of competition yet there is no where for the more vulnerable learner to hide so that is why the activities are designed the way they are i.e. lots of repetition, small, challenging yet achievable tasks, lots of praise, and what I consider really powerful is substituting the sentence “No, you are wrong” with ‘Is it? Are you sure?”

There was also general agreement at this same recent event that boys learn differently, they tend to respond well to structure, order and purpose. Does this sound familiar? To me this describes Lexonik in a nutshell.

Grant Smith and Reg Jones from Kingsford Academy and Catherine Beaton from Langley Academy joined us at the conference last year.

Grant delivered a brilliant presentation for us explaining how Sound Training (now Lexonik) has benefitted Kingsford students.

Catherine spoke about her experience delivering Sound Training. She also provided brilliant quotes from her pupils who were clearly enjoying the sessions as well as making amazing progress.

The points below I have pinched from Grant’s presentation (thanks Grant) because it really explains why Lexonik engages and motivates everyone including the more reluctant boys

  • Boys like the dynamism of the sessions – activities are quick-fire, self competitive.
  • Timely rewards in competitive activities, they can see regular, small, incremental improvements in achievement.
  • Small group competitiveness leads in a nurturing way – low risk of failure.
  • Structured – reiterative cycles, reinforce prior knowledge, during activities at start of each session.
  • Pragmatic – hands on and collaborative working
  • Boys like the structure of the activities enjoying the learning of the rules of decoding- prefix, root, suffix. Giving them a tool kit….

So just in case you haven’t noticed the reason why Lexonik is so effective for underachieving boys is that it provides a competition element along side the structure, order, purpose AND the crucial ingredient – thinking skills. This combination allows everyone, boys included, to achieve, to close that vocabulary gap that perhaps started at the age of 2½.

If you feel like you want to learn more about our intervention programmes check them out here or if you’re looking for advice, get in touch.