'Reading for pleasure' key to turning boys into readers

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Male reading volunteers in schools and parenting programmes that focus on fathers are among the recommendations of a major report into how to tackle the gap between boys and girls in reading.

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It also says that schools need to promote ‘reading for pleasure’ and seek out books and texts that boys will enjoy based on their interests.

There should also be less emphasis on the ‘mechanics’ of reading and more on reading for enjoyment.

The Boys Reading Commission report compiled by the National Literacy Trust for the All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group found that while the gap is widening between boys and girls in reading, there is no national strategy to address the problem.

Last year, there was a gap of 11 percentage points between boys and girls in reading at the end of Reception.

Between the age of five and seven the gap narrows, but then increases again. At 14, girls are outstripping boys in English by 12 percentage points. Last year, 59 per cent of boys gained an A* to C in English GCSE, compared to 73 per cent of girls.

The commission took evidence from 226 schools and early years settings, literacy experts, children’s authors and a focus group of seven to nine-year-old boys.

Three-quarters of the schools surveyed by the National Literacy Trust said that boys did not do as well as girls in reading.

The report concludes that the reasons behind the growing gender gap in reading are ‘complex’, but that ‘Boys’ underachievement in literacy is not 'inevitable.’

It singles out three key factors associated with boys’ underachievement in reading:

  • The home and family environment, where girls are more likely to be bought books and taken to the library, and where mothers are more likely to support reading.

  • The school environment, where teachers may have a limited knowledge of texts that interest boys.

  • Male gender identities which do not value learning and reading as a mark of success.

Research by the National Literacy Trust found that one in five boys thinks reading is more for girls than boys, and that they are more likely than girls to think that someone who reads is boring and a geek.

It discusses some of the arguments put forward for the widening gap in achievement between boys and girls.

For example, it dismisses the assumption that the large number of female teachers benefits girls, saying that ‘the research evidence does not back up this assumption about the impact of a feminised school workforce on pupil attainment’.

The survey found that ‘some practitioners felt quite strongly that the issue is not about female teachers per se, but the lack of male staff in primary schools to model positive reading behaviour and attitudes'.

The report also points out that the school curriculum is too focused on fiction and that it should be widened to include non-fiction, newspapers and autobiographies, which experts say boys are more interested in.

It also says that because primary teachers are not specialists, not many of them have a detailed knowledge of children’s literature, which makes it harder for them to recommend books and texts that boys might read outside school.

'Reading for meaning'

The report also questions the value of synthetic phonics in teaching children to read, saying that there is little data comparing the relative effectiveness of phonics teaching for girls and boys.

It says that, ‘While synthetic phonics may appear to close the gender gap when decoding skills are measured, it does not offer any advantage for boys for reading comprehension and, therefore, engagement with, and understanding of text.’

Children’s author Michael Rosen told the commission, ‘Reading is, broadly speaking, reading for meaning. We have to decode; we also have to say we need to put as much money and effort into reading for meaning.’

Experts also raised concerns about the focus in Government policy on the mechanics of reading at the expense of reading for enjoyment.

However, Ofsted’s report, Moving English Forward, was singled out by Mr Rosen as the first time that a Government body had recommended that schools develop a policy on reading for enjoyment.

The Commission said this was ‘an important strategy in boosting some boys’ reading’.

Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Literacy Group and the Boys’ Reading Commission, Gavin Barwell MP, said, ‘Our report shows that the gender gap is not biological and therefore not inevitable.

‘It is complex - there is no silver bullet – but by promoting reading for enjoyment, ensuring teachers are aware of the reading materials that will engage boys, getting our libraries to focus on those who are falling behind, making sure fathers understand their role as reading role models, getting volunteer male reading role models into our classrooms and using the media to change gender perceptions of reading we can close the gap.’

Children’s author, Michael Morpurgo said, ‘The problem is cultural and deep-seated, therefore unlikely to be resolved quickly. The effort to turn things round has to be multi-faceted and has to be sustained over decades.’

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said, ‘Reading for pleasure is key to boosting a young person's life chances. As a Government, improving reading standards in schools is central to all our education reforms. Through phonics we are ensuring all children learn the mechanics of reading early in their school career. Helping children to develop a love of reading and a habit of reading for pleasure every day is key to ensuring we have well educated and literate young people by the time they leave school.’

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