A recent OU research project Understanding boys’ (dis)engagement with reading for pleasure has developed new understanding of why boys – particularly those from low income backgrounds - are more likely to be disengaged with reading for pleasure. It builds on previous research which suggests that boys’ gender identities and teachers’ perceptions of these are important in positioning them as readers at school.
This research used an ‘intersectionality’ approach to reflect that boys are not a homogenous group. Boys do not only have gender identities but also belong to different ethnic groups and social classes. This means that there are many ‘sub-groups’ of boys who can have significantly different experiences of reading at school, even within the same class. These diverse experiences can arise, at least in part, from teachers’ unconscious perceptions of different sub-groups.
Taking boys’ social class and ethnic identities into account at the same time as gender is crucial for developing strategies to engage boys with reading for pleasure rather than relying on ‘one fits all’ solutions. This is because the project identified the role of some teachers’ unconscious - and unintended - perceptions of boys’ multiple identities as a significant reason for some boys’ disengagement from reading for pleasure.
The project found that three of the teachers in the four participating schools were implementing RfP pedagogies in ways that did not support RfP, but rather focussed on children’s proficiency as readers. RfP pedagogy practices in these schools therefore did not provide the spaces for ‘struggling’ boy readers to develop the intrinsic motivation and desire to read for pleasure that is known to enhance their skill as readers. This does not mean that all children from low-income backgrounds are necessarily less motivated to read, like reading less or have lower reading skill, but that there is a tendency towards lower reading attainment in tests. Hence increasing attainment in current measures for reading were emphasised by teachers.
In addition to the focus on proficiency in RfP pedagogies, two key themes were identified as a result of the research:
1. Some boys became trapped by negative labels as ‘struggling’ boy readers. This was because boys (and girls) are positioned as readers according to dominant assumptions about gender, ethnicity/’race’ and social class which can influence teachers’ and peers’ perceptions of them and shape teaching practices and classroom interactions.
2. Boys (as well as girls) can be adversely affected by pedagogical practices that focus more on developing reading skill at the expense of nurturing their will to read – though specific practices may affect some boys more negatively than girls. This can vary significantly between different schools and classrooms.
The findings are based on evidence gathered in schools during February-March 2016. The project involved researchers spending 5 consecutive days in a classroom in 4 different primary schools with low socio-economic and ethnically mixed in-takes in different parts of England. Each school had recently prioritised reading for pleasure and head teachers said they offered all four RfP pedagogies identified in the TaRs research and were recognised externally as schools supporting RfP.
The researchers observed the teaching of reading in the literacy curriculum, reading for pleasure sessions and contexts (independent reading, relaxed and social reading areas, reading aloud, and book talk) making field notes and audio recorded. The observations were focussed on two focus boys and one focus girl in each class to enable gender comparisons. The three focus children were also interviewed together twice during observation week. The class teachers were also interviewed in each observation class twice, once before the observation started and once towards the end. The observation and interview data was transcribed and field notes were written up and analysed to identify themes in the data within and across the schools to compare and contrast.