Junior school curriculum in the United Kingdom has undergone tremendous changes over the last five decades. This change in the curriculum to emphasize reading and writing readiness has been instrumental in overcoming both boys’ and girls’ abilities and limitations. Two further reforms have recently been proposed: first, non-verbal skills and new community exercises must be adopted. Second, boys should be encouraged to begin kindergarten as soon as they reach the age of five. Thereafter, they should enter contemporary kindergarten at age six having completed one year of alternative kindergarten. Girls should continue entering kindergarten at age five. This therefore means that most of the boys will enter grade 1 at age seven and girls at age 6. Such a change is deemed to be beneficial to both boys and girls especially. In one way the system is likely to keep the academic skills of both boys and girls at par as it will enhance effective competition among the two genders.
Purposes and Aims of the Research Study
Over the last few decades, there has been a growing discussion about the widening gender disparity in academic achievement tests around the English curriculum across all school years. More recently, the underachievement of boys in the reading program in primary schools has been a topical issue and a focal point in its own right.
According to Mcnaughton et al. (2007), analysis is a process that will aid in the understanding of infant growth and professionalism. This research project stems from a personal interest in trying to understand gendered differences within the literacy curriculum. This curiosity was initially sparked upon discovering an article whilst undertaking voluntary work at a local primary school. The booklet, ‘Confident, capable and creative: supporting boys’ achievements’, stated that all children should have equal opportunities to encounter a stimulating learning environment disregarding any differences including their gender (DCSF, 2007).
Through more time spent in the classroom, a better understanding of the pedagogical methods used by teachers in order to provide an enhanced learning experience started to emerge. It also came to notice the difficulties that teachers faced in promoting inclusive literacy experiences for both genders. Much research has been done on gender differences within literacy; however specific focus on the writing component within literacy has not been as extensive. Thus, whilst a holistic approach that includes all concepts of literacy including reading, writing, speaking and listening will be examined, the project will predominately focus on ‘creative writing’ to provide more detailed insight.
Research is not necessarily undertaken with the need for government reform, but as a tool to develop individuals’ knowledge through extensive research carried out by themselves (Roberts-Holmes, 2005). With the focus of the project being on a ‘hot topic’ in the perception of the main policymakers, this research can be useful for all practitioners, student teachers, teaching staff who already work or are interested in seeing a career in educational settings. With the government also recognizing the importance of home-school partnership projects, the study can also be beneficial for parents and carers. It can also serve interest to those people who have a general curiosity in children’s writing.
The aims of this research are to understand the inherent differences associated in writing between the two genders. In particular, the different strategies and techniques introduced in schools today to try and motivate both genders to write will be examined. The research would also look at the components of various motivational behaviors and interactions that all genders carry into the classroom social background, and whether or not they have an effect on their writing.
- What possible differences are there between boys and girls writing within the literacy curriculum?
- What possible challenges do teachers face in teaching boys and girls to write?
- What possible factors, attitudes or experiences affect boys’ and girls’ motivations to write?
The achievement dispute in gender performances within the English curriculum in primary schools has been contextualised by political agendas (Warrington and Younger, 2006). In 1991, attempts to measure the performance levels of children in primary schools for the first time led the then Conservative government to enforce formative assessments. Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) became statutory for years 2 and 6. In further efforts to raise national literacy standards, new government reform in 1997 inevitably resulted in consequent changes. The Labour administration introduced the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) (Beard, 2000). Both strategies led organisations such as the Office for Standard’s in Education, to initially raise apprehension regarding gaps in achievement between boys and girls in all areas of English and predominantly in writing (OfSTED, 1993). Consecutive government reports published in later years to come more emphasised similar concerns.
Differences in writing skills between boys and girls can be attributed to the fact girls mature earlier than boys. Sex-linked maturation differences are apparent in all levels of analysis: from the neurophysiological level such as the cerebral blood flows to sensory function levels for instance auditory acuity to higher cognitive levels such as reading skills and language acquisition (Corso, 1959). A child developmentally appropriate educational curriculum should be one that recognizes and accommodates these diverse but substantial sex differences.
Although assessment scores offer a basis for reflection, they need to be observed vigilantly as defining underachievement is very difficult in itself. Fisher (2006) believes that writing assessments can be discriminatory, where performances are forced to meet criterion understated by policy makers. Furthermore, formative tests implicitly assume aptitudes as being constant. Hart et al (2004) emphasises that this view is dangerous as children become identifiably labelled for their future successes. Nevertheless, these assessments as Drummond (1993) argues that these are the only measure currently used to preserve and safeguard children’s progress, development and failures.
It is paramount when reflecting upon boys’ under-achievements to inclusively and equally acknowledge girls’ performances in writing. Thirty years ago concerns were mirrored politically regarding girls’ under-achievements in English as well as other subjects. In the 1980’s the gender underachievement seemed to have reversed and a debate transpired regarding the apparent causes for recent underachievement’s in all components of literacy and especially boys’ creative writing.
Millard (2000) suggests that many view aptitudes results to have shifted due to teaching strategies and the curriculum targets as being more suited for girls. She expresses that previous pervasive inequalities and stereotyping of girls such as society having low expectations of them, and classrooms being dominated by their male peers were challenged by feminist movements (ibid). Delamont (1999) however perceives that boys’ achievements have remained consistent and gaps were always present, but only became highlighted following equal opportunities which allowed girls to surpass their previous successes. Furthermore, Reay (2001) argues that if boys face the challenge of feminism in today’s classrooms, then girls too face similar stereotyping and always have from masculine attitudes such as aggression and intimidation.
There are two approaches to look at the neuro-anatomical variations in girls and boys. The first is the disparity in the level and rate of brain development maturation, with boys’ brains consistently maturing slower than girls. Second, there are neuroanatomical gender discrepancies that continue into adulthood. Several observational findings have identified credible data that boys and girls’ brain maturation occurs at varying speeds. Female human brains are on average more stable than male brains from the ages of six to twenty-nine, according to Hedges & Nowell (1995). While the range of a girl’s ‘upper hand’ in brain development was more pronounced at age six, boys did not catch up on average until they were 29 years old, according to this study.
Cavines et al. (1996) discovered that at the age of eleven, girls’ subcortial gray matter structures in the forebrain are already at adult height, while boys’ structures do not yet approach adult sizes.
Similarly, Allen and Gorski (1991) observed that the brains of girls were predominantly more developed than those of boys at all ages from 7 to 17, utilizing electrophysiologic methods to assess the rates of brain growth of boys and girls. These disparities are reflected in the school, as shown by the fact that girls outperform boys in creative writing. Significant sex-related variations in the microscopic anatomy of the human brain have been identified thanks to recent technical and experimental developments, but the precise age at which these differences appear or begin to fade is still a matter of controversy and detailed scientific study.
Aside from neuroanatomical variations, studies have discovered major sex differences in the functioning organization of the human brain, which may have a significant effect on academic ability. Cameron (1990) and his colleagues discovered that males and females’ language roles are organized in a remarkably different way. The researchers discovered that in right-handed men, the region of the brain most influenced by phonological tasks is situated to the left inferior frontal gyrus, while in females, the trend is somewhat different and involves multiple neuronal networks that include both the right and left inferior gyrus.
Questions whether classrooms really have been feminised and suggest that these differences in creative writing are just reflective of boys themselves. Brain development researchers regard the comparative underachievement of boys as being coherently linked to biological abilities. Biddulph (1997) implies that girls’ cognitive development is six to twelve months ahead of boys. This notion assumes that boys thus will catch up to their opposite sex peers in later schooling years but results have been found to the contrary (DfES, 2003). Boys’ masculinity has also been suggested to challenge their triumphs in school to some extent. Intellectual achievement can be perceived by boys as feministic causing some to defy their abilities and oppose authority figures (Willis, 1977).
Blaming one gender for the others supposed failures can however be unfair as contributions of sex theories are subjective. Traits of feminism and masculinity have been categorised by society rather than biology itself and can be dependent on many other factors including culture, social class and pedagogical approaches (Connolly, 2005). However, a persistent common variation that has been found between boys and girls is the differences in motivations for writing. Warrington and Younger’s (2006) research study demonstrated that girls tended to be able to adapt to passive pedagogical approaches more easily, whereas boys generally preferred writing when teaching strategies were more kinetic.
It also showed that boys preferred writing at home where the curriculum did not restrict them to write in meticulous technical forms. Preferred learning style theories thus recommend that boys in particular need more active, exploratory strategies to motivate writing and that they were more motivated when creative writing was meaningful and purposeful to them (West, 2002). Coffield et al (2004) though deems research of learning style approaches to be inconclusive. Children’s and teachers’ reactions to these differing learning styles nonetheless demonstrate improvements in both genders’ motivation and engagement in SATs (Warrington and Younger, 2006).
Lev Vygotsky was one of theorists who illustrated ‘social constructivism’ which concentrated on the social contexts of learning. Vygotsky believed that adults can be vital contributors in child development and that they could help to extend children’s’ learning (Penn, 2008). Furthermore, Jerome Bruner’s ‘scaffolding’ theory suggested that the teachers’ role was pinnacle in nurturing cognitive development (ibid). Teaching practice evolved from the duplicate copying exercises to a more child centred, creative, self expressive activity following the Plowden Report (Millard, 2000)
The Bullock report in 1975, drew further attention to a child centred curriculum and presented writing for an ‘audience’ (Ibid). Guidance regarding what contributes towards quality teaching practice in writing has been reassessed by government policies to emphasise on teaching strategies to create more inclusive learning environments for boys (Connolly, 2005). Misconceptions within these current teaching strategies itself have been found to have adverse effects on boys’ writing performances. Millard (2000) concludes that boys’ relative disadvantage in writing is due to the profound dependence on reading and writing of fiction in the NLS, where boys’ reading can go unrecognised by teachers. Millard (2000) also found that masculine motivational preferences for reading and writing can be deemed as inappropriate by some teachers.
Furthermore, West (2002) suggests that teachers often assume that boys understand more than they do, such as when it comes to actually organising their writing. However, it has been argued that one cannot blame teachers for these perceivable misconceptions, as the guidance they receive in relation to the NLS is vague and unclear (Coffield et al, 2004). Coffield et al (2004) research in primary schools also suggests that the target driven curriculum poses difficulties for teachers in being able to meet the different learning styles, whilst also trying to adhere to the curriculum (ibid).
The study of Chapman et al (1990) showed a substantial difference in regional blood flow between girls and boys. Despite the fact that the male brain is ten percent greater than the female brain, the researcher repeatedly found that males had lower concentrations of cerebral flow than women. These variations were shown to be more prominent in youth, but eventually faded as people grew older.
Girls have somewhat greater listening than boys in a number of sensory modalities (Galaburda, Albert, & Gartrell, 2004). (1992). Girls hear pure tones at lower amplitudes than youth, according to this study. For example, for a 2000 hertz sound, the mean threshold was 5.7 dB for girls and 8.9 dB for boys. This suggests that on average, girls could only detect a 2000hertz sound half as intense as boys could. Dickinson (1999) discovered that a female hears a mid-range signal twice as loudly as a boy hears the same sound. This suggests that the volume of the auditory stimuli for boys must be at least increased in order for it to be as important to the child as it is to the female.
Boys’ lack of verbal skills is evident from an early age. Girls seem to articulate more than boys as soon as the children begin to communicate. According to Gorges (2000), girls’ sentences are systematically longer and more nuanced than boys. He comes to the conclusion that at the age of two, girls are more fluent than boys. Throughout their academic years, the girls retain their competitive advantage. From kindergarten through high school, they easily outperform their male peers in verbal memory examinations. Girls’ exceptional vocal skills seem to be unaffected by ethnicity or tradition. Cameron, et al., & Wilson, et al (1990). In verbal challenges, girls of all races outperform people, according to these researchers. These disparities were generally similar in size among all races studied, including Indians, Blacks, and Whites.
In another research study by Farol et al, 91994) in which he tested young school pupils in verbal fluency and ability to recall stories, he found that girls outwitted boys by a significantly wide margin in both story recall capability and verbal fluency. However, verbal fluency showed remarkable interaction between sex and race. In his survey of literature on learning disability, Anokhin et al, (2000) found that the female to male ratio among school children classified as learning disabled was in some cases up to highs of 1:15. this researcher concluded that over representation of male children in disabled-children learning institutions was evident of slow brain maturation among boys.
All these sex differences are very significant and robust enough to be seen in every aspect of consideration that encompasses comparative study of differential development of boys and girls. The first ever efforts in the United kingdom to measure performance of boys vis-a-vis girls on same examination standards were initiated at the turn of the nineteenth century (Broder, 2000). The current widespread introduction and encouraging of special care for young school children have led to recognition among education stakeholders that girls can potentially outperform boys more especially in literary skills. A 1996 study report by Allen& Gorski, (1991) revealed 21 per cent of grammar school boys received a grade of excellent compared to 51 per cent of the girls.
In the recent past this inferior performance of boys over girls has become very obvious even in higher achievements that stakeholders have began to raise concerns about steady declines in college enrolments for males (Gutek, 1968). Education regulators and actors all over the United Kingdom have in the recent past been very vocal in calling for developmentally appropriate curriculums that can address the diverse needs of both boy and girls. They have firmly maintained that all children, regardless of their sexes should start schooling at the same chronological age. The educators have called upon all junior schools in the United Kingdom to individualize their educational services so that they can match with the diverse needs of pupils with regard to their gender differences.
This literature review considers the disparity and discrepancy between girls’ and boys’ writing achievements within the curriculum in primary schools. It has explored a historical convention in an attempt to understand adopted teaching strategies to promote creative writing for both genders in the classrooms of today. The gaps in knowledge found were that although current practice discussed some implications for children’s motivations for writing, it was limited to feminism and masculinity. A persistent idea raised from learning style approaches was the lack of control and choice that boys faced within the constrained curriculum. Another area of uncertainty was that though the literature focussed on what constitutes as superior pedagogical approaches, the actual difficulties teachers faced when trying to implement the guidance se by government in meeting different learning styles is ambiguous. This project will therefore focus on these noticeable gaps.
Participants and Site
This small scale study took place in a year two class in an inner London borough primary school. This local school was chosen because previous voluntary work was done there. The only other pertinent decisive factors chosen for the location were that the school consists of both genders and that there was a varied array of high and low achievers within the classroom. The intended participants were the class teacher, and 12 children in the class. Two boys and two girls were selected from the three literacy tired groups in the classroom.
A qualitative paradigm reflects on the quality of data in social contexts. Qualitative paradigm adopts the understanding of how a group of people (children in this case) make a certain topic (creative writing in this case) meaningful and relevant to themselves (Mac Naughton et al, 2007). A qualitative paradigm is thus being used here for reasons of validity even though some argue that qualitative research approaches can produce biased findings they actually offer social representations (ibid). This approach provides findings that only reflect the chosen participants as Edwards (2001:124) suggests that this approach does not aim to argue and validate the findings of all settings in general but one that is specific to only the chosen one (cited in Mac Naughton et al, 2007:124).
Children and adults can bring diverse understandings and beliefs with them in social contexts such as schools, which can arise from numerous origins. These differences can affect the way they learn and teach which is why an interpretivist paradigm will also be used. An interpretivist tradition perceives knowledge to only be valid if it is authentic and accurate to the participants that are being researched (Hughes 2001: cited in Roberts-Holmes, 2005: 40).
The research strategy that has been chosen for this study is an ethnographic style. This approach is closely associated with an interpretivist paradigm and as Brewer (2000) defines is, ‘the study of people in naturally occurring settings or ‘fields’ by methods of data collection which capture their social meanings and ordinary activities’ (cited in Bell, 2009:16). An ethnographic approach can thus give an insight into the consequent actions and behaviour of the participants in this ‘naturalistic’ setting of the classroom. This approach has been used in form of both direct and indirect participation in interactions with partakers.
Data Gathering Techniques
A data triangulation method was used as a pursuit for authenticity, and to decrease the aspects of bias from particular data sources (Edwards 2001 cited in Mac Naughton et al, 2007:124). Triangulation of data sources (see appendix 1) may also be used for validity and in avoiding assumptions, as it provided equally important views from all sides in this study; both teachers and children. Evidence was collected directly from primary sources through an empirical research approach using different data collection techniques. The data gathering techniques that were used include observations, interviews and a completed creative writing task.
Observations took place throughout the duration of time given to complete the research. They were mostly conducted during the literacy hour; including whole class teaching and collaborate group work activities. Observation, ‘empowers the child whose ‘silent’ voice is heard by the researcher’ (Greig and Taylor, 1999:83), and thus can provide a more child centred research. Being reflexive is imperative in observations as they can help to consider different perspectives including the researcher.
Semi-structured interviews were presented to both teachers and the group of children at some point during the research process. Interviews can provide a method to check the validity of observations that have already been collected (Roberts-Holmes, 2005). This particular questioning approach was chosen because it permits the interactions to be controlled in order to elicit particular answers of interest from participants, but also allows them flexibility to yield their opinions and views (Ibid). Interviewing children was done in groups of 4 children and consisted of both genders. Children were given the completed written task to take home after photocopies had been made to make the research more child-centred (McNaughton, et al, 2007). The interviews were audio-taped and transcribed as a form of continuing reference and were supplied with validity and accuracy of collected evidence (Roberts- Holmes, 2005).
Before beginning any empirical research one must consider the ethical implications. A major issue associated with ethics is the attitudes held by the researchers themselves, and whether the research is being used to ultimately prove a hypothesis. Differences in social aspects such as culture and gender can also lead researchers to misinterpreting information (McNaughton et al, 2007). Being a female and researching in a predominantly female occupied work force in the early years, it might be difficult to appreciate the different learning styles of boys. A reflexive approach was thus considered throughout the project, where a critical analysis of my gender identity was sought (Grieshaber cited in Mac Naughton et al, 2007:144).
Recent legal restrictions have made it incumbent upon all researchers to be aware of the procedures and codes of practice relevant to their intended setting of research (Bell, 2009). Upholding protection of all children and teaching staff involved in the research was paramount in all school settings. The Nuremberg Code stressed that all humans have a right to be involved in what is best for them, and suggested this can be maintained through informed consent (Roberts- Holmes, 2005). Thus firstly, written consent was required from the head teacher, providing information with regards to the nature of the project. Informed consent was also required from parents for group interviews with their children where letters were sent. Information of audio taping and the minimal risk involved with regards to gender stereotyping were revealed to all participants. All participants were also given the opportunity to terminate their involvement within the project at any time without any consequences and were made aware of this at the beginning of the process.
Confidentiality and anonymity in the observations and interviews were preserved through alteration of names. This helped avoid unnecessary disclosure of information to unintended persons. In addition, all data and documents were stored safely and securely and used only for the research process by myself to protect confidentiality. Observing and listening can be used as tools to research children, however they can also raise concerns such as a child’s right to privacy and thus become an unnecessary interference (McNaughton, et al, 2007). Total confidentiality can also have perimeters, as Roberts-Holmes (2005) suggests that it is the duty of the researcher to divulge protection or welfare issues to relevant teaching staff. However if this is the case one must consider consulting the children before releasing any information.
Minimal risks appeared during this project. Although influencing children with any form of stereotyping in gender issues were monitored, this project may make children more aware of gender stereotypes (Thomas, 2009
In order to prepare for research, it can be beneficial to realise the skills that you already possess and the skills that you may need to develop. Some everyday skills such as listening can be applied to the dissertation process (Roberts-Holmes, 2005). Developing listening skills for face-to-face interactions and interviews with participants requires the researcher to respect their opinions and views. It also requires the researcher to have patience and be honest when interpreting the observations and interviews (Currie, 2005). Working as a volunteer in a primary school setting currently gave me further practice of communication skills, and insights into understanding the importance of listening to children, parents and other team members.
Another skill needed in research was planning and organising practically and logically, according to the appropriate time given to complete the assignment. Learning to manage time effectively can provide the benefit of avoiding last minute exertions in meeting deadlines and also relieve stress (Ibid). IT skills were enhanced by attending the ICT lecture and also consulting the education librarian. To save time appropriate references were recorded throughout the research process accordingly.
- Broder, D. S. (2000). Solid ideas for schools. Washington Post, p. B7.
- Brosterman, N. (1997). Inventing kindergarten. New York: Harry Abrams.
- Anokhin, A. P., Lutzenberger, W., Nikolaev, A., & Birbaumer,N. (2000). The complexity of electrocortical dynamics in children: Developmental aspects. Developmental Psychobiology, 36, 9-22.
- Benes, F. M., Turtle, M., Khan, Y., & Farol, P. (1994). Myelination of a key relay zone in the hippocampal formation occurs in the human brain during childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Archives of General Psychiatry,57, 477-484.
- Allen, L. S., & Gorski, R. A. (1991). Sexual dimorphism of the anterior commissure and massa intermedia of the human brain. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 312,97-104.
- Halpern, D. F. (1997). Sex differences in intelligence: Implications for education. American Psychologist, 52,1091-1102.
- Breznitz, Z., & Teltsch, T. (1989). The effect of school entrance age on academic achievement and social-emotional adjustment of children: Follow-up study of fourth-graders. Psychology in the Schools, 26, 62-68.
- Cameron, M. B., & Wilson, B. J. (1990). The effects of chronological age, gender, and delay of entry on academic achievement and retention: Implications for academic redshirting. Psychology in the Schools, 27, 260-263.
- Chapman, J. W., Lambourne, R., & Silva. P. A. (1990). Some antecedents of academic self-concept: A longitudinal study. British Journal of Educational Psychology,60, 142-152.
- Corso, J. F. (1959). Age and sex differences in thresholds. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 31, 489-507.
- Beatty, B. (1995). Preschool education in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Grosser, S. L. (1991). Summer birth date children: Kindergarten entrance age and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Research, 84, 140-146.
- Caviness, V. S., Kennedy, D. N., Richelme, C., Rademacher, J., & Filipek, P. A. (1996). The human brain age 7-11 years: A volumetric analysis based on magnetic resonance differences. Cerebral Cortex, 6, 726-736.
- Duggan, L. (1950). An experiment on immediate recall in secondary school children. British Journal of Psychology,40, 149-154.
- Finucci, J. M., & Childs, B. (1981). Are there really more dyslexic boys than girls? In A. Ansara, N. Geschwind, A.
- Galaburda, M. Albert, & N. Gartrell , 1992, (Eds.), Sex differences in dyslexia (pp. 1-10). Baltimore: Orton Dyslexia Society.
- Freeman, E., & Hatch, J. (1989). What schools expect young children to know and do: An analysis of kindergarten report cards. The Elementary School Journal, 89, 595-605.
- Dickinson, A. (1999). Kinder grind: Five-year-olds are now being pushed to read. Time, 754(19), 61-65.
- Gorges, R. (1999, May). Vernachla’ssigt der Waldkindergarten die Schulfahigkeit? [Does Waldkindergarten neglect school preparedness?] Kita Aktuell, 113-117.
- Gorges, R. (2000, March). Der Waldkindergarten. Unsere Jugend, 275-281.
- Gur, R. E., & Gur, R. C. (1990). Gender differences in regional cerebral blood flow. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 16,247-254.
- Hedges, L. V., & Nowell, A. (1995). Sex differences in mental test scores, variability, and numbers of high-scoring individuals. Science, 269, 41^5.
- Elliot, C. D. (1971). Noise tolerance and extraversion in children. British Journal of Psychology, 62, 375-380.
- Gutek, G. L. (1968). Pestalozzi and education. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.