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 mimicking speak sounds and intonation, 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

“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 focusing on preschool and kindergarten, 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 in the UK reported last year the findings of the Trust’s recent research. It found 33% of teenage boys in the UK say they enjoy reading compared to 72% of Primary (elementary) aged boys. The literature coming from both the US and Australia states similar findings.

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. Many 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 schools across English speaking countries 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 (high school) in the North East of England to work with underachieving boys and my focus was on reading. It was during this time I began developing my own resources, which later became Lexonik Advance, 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. This needs to be provided throughout their entire education otherwise we will still be talking about this underachievement in years to come.

But 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 in London 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 who are achieving and succeeding, 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!  Behavior 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 Advance sessions include lots of competition yet there is nowhere 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 definitely no false praise. Something I consider really powerful when responding to incorrect answers from students is substituting the sentence “No, that’s wrong” with ‘Is it? Can it Be? Are you sure?” It stimulates discussion and sorts out misunderstanding and engages the student.

There is general agreement that boys learn differently, they tend to respond well to structure, order and purpose. This describes Lexonik Advance in a nutshell.

Lexonik Advance engages and motivates everyone including the more reluctant boys.

It provides:

  • Dynamism of the sessions – activities are quick-fire, self competitive.
  • Visible, incremental improvements in achievement.
  • Small group competitiveness in a nurturing way – low risk of failure.
  • The structure – reiterative cycles, reinforcing prior knowledge.
  • Pragmatic, hands on and collaborative working
  • Well-structured activities

So just to recap, Lexonik Advance is very effective for underachieving boys because it provides a competition element alongside 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.