Keeping boys hooked on phonics

Betty - posted on 10/31/2010 ( 3 moms have responded )

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Boys used to do as well as (or better than) girls in school, but now they’re doing much worse, as reported in the recent Globe and Mail newspaper series “Failing boys and the powder keg of politics“.

The series advanced a number of theories to explain boys’ problems, but none of them was particularly convincing – mainly because there was nothing that is true now but wasn’t true 50 years ago when there was no gender gap. Take, for example, the theory that it’s because of a lack of male teachers. Like most people my age, I didn’t have a male teacher until I was in high school, but the boys in my classes did as well as the girls.

A theory that isn’t even being considered, however, is the change in the way children are being taught to read. In most North American schools 50 years ago, teachers used a mixture of Look Say and phonics – not the best way to teach beginning reading, but better than the current Balanced Literacy which typically contains even less phonics instruction.

The reduction in phonics is obviously not the only factor in boy’s decline. However, it is well accepted that a student’s reading ability at the end of grade 1 is a powerful predictor of his or her academic achievement in high school and beyond. At a minimum, it would surely be a good idea to teach every child to read in grade 1.


Due to language differences, it is hard to draw conclusions from the fact that the size of the gender gap varies greatly from country to country. However, there is one English-speaking country where gender differences are smaller than in the rest of the English-speaking world – and that country is Scotland.

As late as 1992, there were no gender differences in the reading scores of Scottish eight-year-olds. At that time, Scottish children were reading well above grade level on average. The usual explanations don’t apply. The storybooks in Scottish schools didn’t contain more masculine heroes, there were just as many female teachers, the Scottish curriculum was quite similar, nor was the biology of Scottish boys different in any way.

However, there was one significant difference between North American and Scotland at that time: the way beginning reading was taught. Somehow, Scotland managed to escape the worst excesses of “progressive” teaching methods, retaining more traditional and phonics-based instruction.

Even today, a few Scottish shires, like Clackmannanshire and West Dunbartonshire, have excellent phonics instruction and, in these shires, the boys are reading at least as well as the girls. In some categories, they are actually reading better than the girls! Unfortunately, some progressive elements have gradually crept in to the rest of Scotland, and so now Scottish children are not reading as well as before and a slight gender gap has developed in reading.

When good phonics programs are introduced, there is always significant improvement in students’ reading. A typical experiment in Bristol, England tracked about 700 primary age children who were taught to read by means of an excellent phonics program. Although there were children with every sort of special need, including some in the severe and complex category, not one child was omitted from the results.

The average reading and spelling age for these 700 children was 15 months ahead of chronological age at the end of their reception year (when they were about five years, nine months old). In addition, the boys did just as well as the girls. Disadvantaged children did as well as advantaged children. No child developed “dyslexia”, even though many came from “dyslexic” families where the older siblings had struggled to learn to read.

Experiments like these prove that boys can become good readers if they receive proper instruction.

Most if not all of the usual prescriptions for improving boys’ academic performance (male role models, masculinised books, all-boys schools, etc.) are difficult to implement and unlikely to yield major improvement, certainly not in the short term.

The introduction of systematic phonics instruction in kindergarten and grade 1, on the other hand, is easy to implement, inexpensive, and likely to yield major improvement almost immediately. The Globe and Mail should include systematic phonics in its list of measures for improving boys’ academic achievement.

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3 Comments

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Jakki - posted on 11/08/2010

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Hi SiewYean - sorry this is a bit off topic - but what kind of music does he do, and why do you think the music has helped your son?

SiewYean - posted on 11/02/2010

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Good article. I also have a girl and a boy. My boy struggles in reading and school work but my girl is doing pretty well. He was taught phonics since his nursery days. However, he has difficulty in getting phonics. I had to teach him to read using the whole word approach which is more effective for him. I guess probably it depends on the individual. My boy is a visual learner and weak in auditory learning method. He has made vast improvement since we have put him in music lesson for the last three years.

Ashanti - posted on 11/02/2010

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Great article, I noticed that my 8 year old son is struggling in reading but my 6 year old daughter is pretty good at it. I also heard that males are better at math as well, i wonder is it because they use the right side of their brain that focuses on problem solving

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