Why is there a gap in boys’ writing and how do we close it? We explore this question in a Q&A with Nicole Ponsford, as part of her #BoysRetreat project.

Question 1 – How much of a gap is there between boys’ and girls’ writing?

The literacy gap has been there since the 1960s. If you look at this year’s grades (2021) for GCSE English, the gender gap in results was much wider, with almost one third of female entrants receiving a 7+, compared with just under a fifth of boys. This difference is the biggest gap since 2016 – by 13.6 percentage points. For A-levels, boys fared worse than ever, with the gender gap for top A-level grades being at its highest in a decade. It is time to change this.

Question 2- Through your research, what have you found has been the cause or causes for this gap?

Our organisation looks at education from an aerial perspective, so I went to early years to work out where we start with child brain and physical development. Being a parent to twins (a boy and girl that were then two years old) allowed me to look at this both professionally and personally. I discussed this with our early years’ advisor, Ruth Swailes, who was studying this at the time. I also spoke with our founding member, Graham Andre, of the BAFTA-nominated BBC2 documentary, ‘No More Boys and Girls’. I was shocked to learn what we didn’t know in education – and that as an English teacher, this gender gap was something I had never heard about.

Basically, it starts with bone development – this is the only gender difference I have found so far. The research tells us, as many teachers know, that brain and muscle development is similar in learners of all genders until puberty (which is around 12 for girls and 14 for boys) 1 . There are more differences with neurodiverse students than gender – and there is no such thing as ‘gendered brains’ (e.g. boys are better at Lego, girls are better at telling stories).

However, what happens in the early years is of interest, and there is a gender difference. This is being explored with more specific research and tests at present but could illustrate the gender gap in writing for boys due to their bone development. Research helps us understand the gender-specific pattern differences of the ossification centres in the pediatric elbow.

This means motor skills – like holding a pencil – differ greatly. This research is about the elbow pivot, which is necessary for the lead-in stroke in cursive script. This develops later in boys than girls and the differences carry on until 12-13 years of age (puberty/KS3).

 

6 X-rays of bone development in child's hands.

Question 3 – How does the difference in the development of bone growth impact on young boys’ writing?

Big time. This is quite useful research. Obviously, there are variables and it’s not an exact science, but it is one of the methods that some LAs use to identify the age of unaccompanied refugee learners. This means that children can be identified due to their bone development and the difference is recognised as gendered.

List of when different bones (that impact writing) grow in females and males.  Hamate: Female - 2 months, Male - 4 months. Capitate: Female - 2 months, Male - 4 months. Pyramidal: Female - 2 years, Male - 3 years. Lunate: Female - 3 years, Male - 4 years. Trapezium: Female - 3 years, Male - 4 years. Trapezoid: Female - 4 years, Male - 6 years, Scaphoid: Female - 4 years, Male - 6 years. Pisiform: Female - 9 years, Male - 12 years.

However, as educators, we aim to teach boys and girls at the same time – when their development is different. I believe this impacts on how boys in particular feel about writing when they literally cannot do the same as many girls in their class. Imagine if you could not do something, but you were told for several years (normally around Year 2) that you ‘must try harder’. Pretty demotivating, right?

If we consider how educators view boys and writing, their skills and how they engage with writing, these gender gaps illustrate that boys can be later to develop merely due to their natural bone development. This understanding in child development can therefore be linked to the slower rates of boys’ development of motor skills, pencil grip ability, and therefore dispositions to and abilities in writing.

It is no wonder that the gap in writing has not changed since the 1960s, and until education and the curriculum changes to support this, the gap will remain in place. 

Question 4 – How can educators begin to close the gap on an individual level and at an organisation level?

Recognising this and learning more about it is the starting point. I also think a confident understanding of inequality and bias as teachers can also help move the dial.

Question 5 – How can educators encourage boys to enjoy writing if they have become discouraged?

Review and rethink your processes. Start by looking at how you can encourage the motor skills and a love of stories first. This might be creating storyboards and using Playdough for animation. Be creative! Look at this as being an opportunity to create a lifetime love of writing as a marathon, not a sprint.

There are incredible books out there, magazines and multimedia that can capture the hearts of your students. Then look to bring in short confidence-building activities that engage them first. Use student mentors and bring in topics and tools that the students are already excited about – without gender stereotypes! Find out what the students love and build activities around this.

Also, learn from Early Years, PE staff and your SEND teams about how you can support your students’ physical development. Anyone who has had to have physio for their hands will know that using pegs, plasticine and bulldog clips are all great for muscle development and ‘grippy fingers’.

Reward and praise, use activities that do not bore them or make them feel isolated – so be a writing ninja and sneak in the skills through ‘cool’ and fun ways. I am happy for people to contact us if they need more help!

You also may find reading ‘Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity in schools’ helpful!

Author

  • Nicole Ponsford

    Nic is passionate about creating a level playing field for everyone in education, but especially those from underserved groups. After 20 years working in education, Nic set up the Global Equality Collective (GEC) to address one of the biggest issues in education; - culture, diversity and inclusion.
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