The challenges and opportunities in supporting boys' achievement through engagement with reading
by Victoria Andrews
In July 2021, the Department for Education (DfE) published ‘The reading framework – Teaching the foundations of literacy’, this outlines the relationship between high reading standards and a child’s future academic achievement, wellbeing, and success in life (DfE, 2021). The reading and writing of standard English is central for pupils being able to access, and achieve, in the remainder of their academic curriculum. However, the National Literacy Trust report a significant gender gap regarding reading. Boys spend less time reading for enjoyment: in 2005, 46.1% of boys and 56.8% of girls read for enjoyment; by 2019 these percentages had grown slightly to 46.5% and 60.3% respectively (Clark, 2020). During the pandemic, reading for enjoyment widened from 2.3% at the beginning of 2020 to 11.5% during lockdown (Clark and Picton, 2020, p.2).
Geert Driessen’s 2011 study on ‘Gender Differences in Education’ voices a moral panic however, he questions whether the gender gap has widened in favour of girls or whether all pupils have progressed over the last few decades (Driessen, 2011). Charlotte Lichter demonstrates the historical pattern of the gender gap but has only recently been considered problematic, quoting John Locke’s concerns “for boys’ failure to master Latin and perfect written and oral English” in the eighteenth century (Lichter, 2007, p.7). While boys struggled to study classics, girls’ expressive oral skills were noted, Lichter contends that once girls gained access to education, and particularly language, it enabled them to outperform boys. (Lichter, 2007). Michele Cohen posits that boys’ underperformance was attributed to ‘a sign of his deep thinking and profound potential’ (Cohen, 1998, p.25). Indeed in 1923, the Board of Education detailed that boyishness was a habit of healthy idleness and this contentious idea of hegemonic masculinity is highlighted again in Hodgetts’ journal on ‘Underperformance or ‘Getting it right’?’ (Hodgetts, 2008). Hodgetts aligns with Lichter, writing that masculinity is not a new trend and analyses the constructions of gender in relation with boys’ achievement decline, in particular evaluating masculinity in reproducing the problem of boys’ underperformance, (Hodgetts, 2008). Reflecting on the historiography provided by Lichter, it is evident that the sociological constructions enabling boys’ underachievement in the English classroom, a place that is conceptualised as ‘feminine’, has ensured that the achievement gap remains.
Motivation is central for learning, however the way it is approached by girls and boys is different and thus, affects motivation. Intrinsic motivation explains behaviours driven by internal rewards rather than for gratification, regarding reading this is ‘reading for pleasure’ rather than for reward or recognition. Mark Roberts emphasises that girls have significantly higher intrinsic reading motivation thus, they can read without want of external reward or recognition (Roberts, 2022). Boys may lack intrinsic motivation for reading due to the perspective that reading is a feminine activity. Therefore, this reinforces the debate about the social construct of gender identity rather than simply biological make-up (Roberts, 2022, p.135). The consequence of boys’ low motivation for reading is severe, as the critical discussion points to an explicit relationship between frequency of reading and high achievement in English assessments (Department for Education, 2012).
There is a wider societal challenge of gender expectations which socialises young boys and girls from an early age which cannot be addressed within this essay nor in an immediate short-term plan due to the complexity of the issue. However, teachers can play a key role in positively supporting their students and creating a culture whereby reading is an inclusive activity. This will help to guide boys through the discourse of gender expectations and enable a more fluid idea of ‘masculinity’. In tackling the central cultural problem of identity through choosing more engaging and relevant texts for their students, teachers can become a force for good in helping to improve attainment and reduce boys’ anxiety about what it means to be masculine. There is not a singular reason which means that girls perform better in English assessments, it is rather that they do not face the same ostracization or peer pressure experienced by males and therefore are able to engage and attain to the best of their ability.
Clark, C. and Teravainen-Goff, A. (2020) Children and young people’s reading in 2019 Findings from our Annual Literacy Survey National Literacy Trust.
Clark, C. and Picton I. (2020) Children and young people’s reading in 2020 before and during the COVID-19 lockdown. National Literacy Trust.
Department for Education (2012). Research evidence on reading for pleasure Education standards research team. [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/284286/reading_for_pleasure.pdf.
Department for Education (2021). The reading framework Teaching the foundations of literacy. [online] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1000986/Reading_framework_Teaching_the_foundations_of_literacy_-_July-2021.pdf
Driessen, G. (2011). Gender differences in education: Is there really a “boys’ problem”. In Annual Meeting ECER, Berlin.
Hodgetts, K. (2008). Underperformance or “getting it right”? Constructions of gender and achievement in the Australian inquiry into boys’ education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29(5), pp.465–477.
LICHTER, C. (2007). Manners, Intellect, and Potential: A Historiography on the Underachievement of Boys in Literacy. Counterpoints, [online] 315, pp.3–15. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/42979122.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ac51f400f7b7dbaf55d19debc8bf38059 [Accessed 9 Jan. 2022].
Roberts, M. (2022). The boy question: how to teach boys to succeed in school. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, Ny: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.