Boys’ positioning as readers

Summary of key findings

The Understanding Boys’ Disengagement with RfP project found that boys who were not considered to be doing well at reading could be stuck with the label of ‘struggling’, sometimes with little prospect of improving in the view of teachers.

It also identified the importance of reflecting on how unconscious perceptions of social identities can impact on how boys are viewed, and labelled, as readers. Teachers may view boys as readers differently to the ways they view girls as readers. In some cases ethnicity and social class also play a part in unconsciously shaping teachers’ assumptions about the value attached to reading in children’s homes. Teachers made assumptions about whether family members were willing or able to read with their children or encourage them to do it independently.

The project argues that changes in pedagogy, to provide more opportunities for child-led reading for pleasure, can help ‘struggling’ boy readers to move beyond the label and find new identities as readers.

More research details

The research focussed specifically on boy readers who were categorised as ‘struggling’ readers – boys who were not considered to be doing well at reading. Across the Year 5 classes in the four schools, a number of factors impacted on how boys were positioned, or labelled, as readers. Teachers’ perceptions of boys’ gender, ethnic and social class identities and their understandings of reading (as proficiency and/or engagement with meaning) combined to influence how ‘struggling’ boys were positioned as readers in the classroom.

In two of the four schools, the teachers had positive views of ‘struggling’ boy readers’ home backgrounds. For example, both teachers commented on a language barrier being the main reason why some parents were unable to support their children’s reading at home and that these parents were actually often keen to support their children’s education. This meant that the teachers did not ‘blame’ the boys themselves or their families for their ‘struggling’ status as readers. These teachers therefore had a more positive orientation to the ‘struggling’ boy readers, believing that, with the right support at school, they could improve both their reading skill and engagement with reading.

In one of these two schools, the ‘struggling’ boy readers seemed to be more engaged with reading for pleasure than in the other schools. This was perhaps a reflection of the teachers’ understanding of reading as more than about skill, also encompassing pleasure and engagement in addition to her positive positioning of the boys in terms of their gender, ethnic and social class identities. This did not apply in the other of the two schools referred to above, perhaps because there was more of a focus on reading skill at the expense of the will to read.

Teachers in two schools had strongly deficit views of the ‘struggling’ boy readers’ gender, social class and/or ethnic identities. The teachers had a strong belief that girls were inherently better readers than boys. They also had more negative perceptions of the ‘struggling’ boy readers’ home lives despite having minimal contact with and not having visited their homes. They assumed that their parents were disinterested in reading, and education more widely, and therefore did not support the school’s wishes for them to read with their children.

The combination of these two teachers’ perceptions of the ‘struggling’ boy readers’ social identities and their understandings of reading as primarily about proficiency, meant the boys in these classes became effectively trapped as ‘struggling’ boy readers with little prospect of improving in the view of teachers. Their ‘struggling’ reader status was linked to their social identities of being boys in one of the schools, and being boys from non-White British backgrounds from working class families in the other.

You can read more about how readers may be ‘positioned’ within schools here.

Review your practice

1. Who are the Struggling Readers in your class?

1a. Identify 5 children who you see as having difficulties with reading and your 5 best readers. Write down their gender, ethnicity and family background (and any other important aspects of their identities) but do not enter their names

2. Boys and reading preferences

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3. Boys Reading Practices

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4. Boys in texts

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5. Ideas about boys as readers

Which of the following statements do you agree/disagree with?

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6.To what extent do you think your views of your boys’ gender, social class or ethnic identities influences your practice?

7. Looking back at your responses, how would you rate the way you support all your boy readers’ engagement with reading for pleasure?

8. What in your view are the core principles in supporting boy readers?

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Practical classroom strategies

1.    Do a character book audit
Over time, through reading your classroom text collection (or wherever children regularly get books from) keep a record of books with main characters which are boys or girls from the different ethnic backgrounds represented in your class. You can do the same for boys from different social backgrounds. Do all your boys have access to texts they can recognise themselves in?

2.    Increase diversity in your text collection
If you find in your audit that you need to widen the diversity of your collection, you could start with the following booksellers:
https://www.letterboxlibrary.com/ and @letterboxlib  
http://www.newsfromnowhere.org.uk/books/DisplayBooklist.php?BookListID=1534 (books with African and Asian characters plus hundreds of books with other diverse characters)
http://www.readbrightly.com/18-kids-books-diverse-main-characters/ (this is a US website but most books can be bought on Amazon UK)
https://yalibooks.com/books/ (books focussing on South Asian cultures)
http://www.africanbookscollective.com/browse/children-and-teens
https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2016/feb/10/childrens-books-a-middle-class-ghetto (there is less focus online on characters from working class backgrounds – there are a few ideas in this article)
http://www.inclusiveminds.com/ and @inclusiveminds
Books for Diversity (only on Twitter) @books_diversity

3.    Increase textual diversity
Boys and girls read a wide range of texts including books, comics, magazines, annuals, non-fiction, online texts and poetry. Seek to widen your class collection of texts, promoting each new addition and celebrating textual diversity. You could share the wide range of texts you read over a week and create a display of your collecting reading as a class to highlight this.

4.    Get to know your boys’ individual reading interests
While boys (and girls) may have a need to recognise their own identities in the texts available to them, they will also have their own reading interests and passions. It is important to allow boys to express their individual interests as well. For a number of strategies (under ‘Practical Classroom Strategies’) to elicit all children’s reading practices and interests see:  https://researchrichpedagogies.org/research/theme/teachers-knowledge-of-childrens-reading-practices

5.    Focus on diverse authors
Research and choose a range of authors from different ethnic and social class backgrounds to profile in your classroom. The class can collectively get to know the author better through reading their work, discussing the characters, creating displays and researching the authors’ social background and ethnicity.

6.    Select texts with diverse characters
During Reading Aloud and other reading activities, be careful to choose books with diverse characters. Such profiling can show that diverse characters are valued. It is important for all children to engage with these texts, not just those from minority groups.

7.    Examine teachers’ Examples of Practice
Borrowing ideas from others in your own context is part of professional practice. There are many teachers’ examples on this website and you may wish to look for examples which particularly support diversity. For example:
Focussing on refugees, empathy and diversity
On understanding children’s reading lives and interests:

8.    Involve diverse reading role models
As role models you could seek to ensure amongst the reading volunteers, parent helpers and others supporting reading that there is diversity. Are there community groups whom you could work with to identify diverse volunteers?

9.    #MyDadReads
This brilliant activity to promote dads’ reading was designed by the Egmont Award winner Jon Biddle. It involved fathers (and later mothers) in a school in Yarmouth tweeting photos of themselves reading. See: https://researchrichpedagogies.org/_downloads/_eop/mydadreads__Jon_Biddle.pdf

10.    Create displays which reflect the diversity in your class
If a visitor entered your classroom when it was empty what would it tell them about the diversity of the children? Try to create displays of books, photos of families and more.

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