Literature search on improving boys’ writing Caroline Daly

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Literature search on improving boys’ writing

Caroline Daly

This literature search was commissioned by Ofsted to ensure that the findings of past research were taken fully into account in devising the methodology for the inspection reported in ‘Yes he can: Schools where boys write well’. It is presented here to support those wishing to undertake further study or conduct investigations into boys’ writing. Any views or interpretations of the research and other literature mentioned here are those of the author and not those of Ofsted.

Literature Search on Improving Boys’ Writing



Content and purpose of the review p. 3
Limitations p. 4
The profile of research on boys’ writing p. 4
The impact of the EXEL project on the teaching of writing p. 4
The TAP Project p. 5

  1. Possible factors identified as accounting for the poor performance of boys

in writing p. 6
2. Factors identified as promoting improved performance by boys in writing p.12
Conclusion p.19
Bibliography p.20


Context and purpose of the review

This review considers the findings of recent literature on boys’ writing in Key Stages 1–4 in England, and refers to related literature from other parts of the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia and North America. It also includes some reference to the Reception year of the Foundation Stage.

‘Recent’ denotes work carried out since the emergence of current concerns about boys’ literacy in these countries, heralded in England and Wales by the publication of the Ofsted report Boys and English in 1993, though reference is made to earlier work which has informed the teaching of writing to boys. The Ofsted report highlighted differences in the achievement in English of boys and girls, concluding that more boys than girls experience difficulty in learning to read and write and that more boys have instrumental attitudes towards writing which are accompanied by problems with motivation and a lack of engagement with writing tasks. Research conducted in 2000-2001 by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (2002) reports that problems with motivation persist for underachieving boys, which are further compounded by their resistance to revisiting and revising their written work. During the intervening years, both research into and evaluations of boys’ reading have somewhat overshadowed a focus on their writing. Reasons for this include the polemic surrounding the so-called ‘phonics debate’, ‘reading recovery’, the introduction of the Literacy Hour, low reading levels in urban school populations and the perceived crisis in reading skills spanning all stages of men’s lives, from early years to school leavers and male adults. This is an international trend. The focus on ‘reading literacy’ of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2000 study across thirty-two countries, is indicative of the investment in reading as a prime measure of literacy for the global economy. More recently, there has been an expansion in gender-focused research to include the ‘gap’ in boys’ writing achievements in relation to their reading and to girls’ writing. Successive quantitative evidence in England shows that there is a persistent shortfall in these areas, and that this threatens the achievement of national targets for literacy (Ofsted, 1996,1998, 2001; QCA, 2000, 2001).

Despite this recent expansion, there is a lack of large-scale studies of the impact of gender on progression in writing, which may be due in part to the focus on reading for the best part of a decade. Whilst there has been substantial work on developing the teaching of writing generically, historically this has mostly stated polarised positions on writing at school, as either ‘process’ or ‘genre’ oriented, and is rooted within broader theories of English teaching, such as ‘personal growth’ or ‘cultural analysis’. Most recently, the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) and ‘Framework for the teaching of English: Years 7, 8 and 9’ has contributed further to this polemic, and has fuelled ongoing debate which will not be rehearsed here. This review gives instead an overview of the range of analysis and research into practices which affect the achievement of boys in writing, some of which feature in the Strategy, and some of which do not.
There is a paucity of research into what Myhill (2001) identifies as two key areas of classroom processes of teaching and learning writing:
i. the most effective forms of teacher intervention into all pupils’ writing

  1. the teacher’s proactive role in the teaching of writing, a role which implies the subject knowledge base behind pedagogical choices. Why use writing frames? Why teach subordination? This draws on what Schulman calls ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ (1997) – ways of understanding how to transform and represent knowledge to make it accessible to others.

It is on these areas that the review focuses, in relation to classroom practice with boys. It will focus on two main issues: the possible factors identified as accounting for the poor performance of boys in writing and factors identified as promoting improved performance of boys in writing.


Cultural accounts of literacy, gender and schooling in relation to boys’ writing are not elaborated in this brief overview of research into classroom practice. These are rich international fields, containing substantial bodies of research, in the form of ethnographic, longitudinal studies in addition to statistical analysis. It is worth noting however, that such research can form a significant contribution to teachers’ understanding of how boys perform at school, and in particular help them to reassess the unproblematised and undifferentiated concept of male ‘attitudes’ which pervades many small-scale studies of boys and literacy. An overview of such perspectives may be found in Epstein, D., Elwood, J., Hey, V. and Maw, J. (1998).

Neither is it within the scope of this review to include the general findings of the school effectiveness initiative, about how school organisation may raise the achievement of boys, though where general school policies have a particular impact on boys’ writing, this is acknowledged.

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