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Boys demonstrate literacy in ways the current curriculum doesn't assess

By Heather Blair and Kathy Sanford - posted Friday, 21 February 2003

Boys' failure in schooling, particularly areas of literacy, is increasingly alarming educators and parents. Educational research in Canada, Australia, Great Britain and United States has indicated concerns for boys. For example boys don't view education positively, don't like to read, and often don't read very well. In some countries, more boys are "failing" at school and fewer of them are going on to post-secondary education. Debate about the seriousness of these claims continues to grow. However, the data may not tell the full story.

Boys are faced with many pressures as they enter and progress through school. There seem to be few acceptable gender positions for males. Boys are expected to be tough, competitive, and independent. Societal expectations direct boys to respond in particular ways; for example, loud, witty/mocking, individualistic, self-fulfilling. These behaviours often interfere with literacy success and skew teachers' perceptions of the boys' abilities and willingness to engage in literacy texts.

A recent two-year qualitative study examined early-adolescent boys' perceptions of literacy in relation to their literacy practices as evident in their "in school and outside of school" activities. The schools were a rural-community school, an inner-city school, and one suburban school, all in Western Canada. The schools include children from diverse backgrounds.


Our initial findings were seductive and fit with common beliefs that schools are failing boys; that "boys will be boys", they don't like to read and write, and they don't interact around literacy and don't have enough male models. However, this was not true for all of the boys and didn't seem to provide us with any depth of understanding of what they were doing.

The social nature of these boys' literacy practices started to become more obvious. Sometimes it was in the form of loud and boisterous sharing of comments across the entire room and other times the clustering around an activity, such as a computer game, that engaged them. We came to recognize literacy as a dominant social practice through which the boys in our study shaped their identities and developed and maintained close personal relationships, and often their literacies gave greater emphasis to taking from the text rather than pouring over it, in order to share information with their friends. They used literacies to shape their identities and develop shared interests with friends.

These boys wrestled with making meaning of their school literacy experiences in relation to their out-of-school experiences and they talked about their literacy practices overall. Five themes arose repeatedly in their comments:

  1. personal interest;
  2. action;
  3. success;
  4. fun; and
  5. purpose.

These boys were "morphing" what they had learned in school and out of school, and they were transforming it for their own purposes in order to fulfill their need to position themselves in the world and to support their relationships with peers. They were transforming their own life literacies into their academic literacies in order to stimulate their real and imaginary lives that included challenge, risk, excitement, and opportunities to win. Through these transformations the boundaries of school and life literacies often become blurred. These five themes are interlocking pieces of a larger literacy profile and are instrumental in supporting their developing gendered identities.

When they had the opportunity, the boys chose reading selections that helped inform their personal interests, feeding their quest for their individual and collective identities and social communities. The students were regularly required to take books out of the library, and some of their common reading choices included "how-to" books, informational books, and fantasy. The out-of-school reading selected by these boys often supported their personal interests, such as newspapers, sports magazines, computer magazines telling them how to win at the computer games, superhero comic books, and other graphic texts. These texts were a marked contrast to their in-school selections and were not seen as appropriate for in-school reading. These richly textured literacy artefacts played a major role in these boys' out-of-school literate lives.


Boys' personal interest in text is connected to the active emotional, mental, and physical engagement they experience and to the amount of success they experience in those engagements. Not only do they like to read and write about action, but they also "really want to get into the action" themselves, to "do stuff". They "don't want to have to wait". Early-adolescent boys also wanted to be challenged but in contexts in which they felt confident of success or at least improvement. These boys often selected visual, humorous, and active texts such as comic books, magazines, and cartoon anthologies. It became apparent to us that a critical factor in selection of their readings was purposefulness, whether in getting information, figuring out how something works, keeping track of sports statistics, or staying connected with their friends.

Boys are often disadvantaged in academic literacy as a result of current curricular emphases, teacher text and topic choices, and lack of availability and acceptability of texts that match their interests and needs. The changing nature of literacy and the role of technology and boys' underachievement in literacy may not readily translate to electronic technologies outside of school. Many boys have a great deal of expertise and interest in numerous forms of digital literacies, often much greater than their teachers. These literacies commonly inform and transform the strategies and discourses they use in school.

Despite the structured nature of classroom rules and expectations regarding learning and literacy, some boys have demonstrated alternative approaches to making meaning from school texts, attempting to transform traditional school literacies into something more useful and manageable to them, with some approaches more successful than others. In the past decade there has been considerable thought given to education for girls: how education can be structured, what curricular areas need focus and attention, and how to create successful environments for girls. However, the same thought has not been given to the curriculum as it is offered to boys.

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This is an extract. The full paper can be downloaded here (PDF, 153KB).

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About the Authors

Professor Heather Blair is at the Department of Elementary Education, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta, Canada.

Dr Kathy Sanford is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Faculty of Education, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Related Links
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Victoria, British Columbia
Department of Elementary Education, University of Alberta
Photo of Heather BlairHeather BlairPhoto of Kathy SanfordKathy Sanford
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