Sunday, January 17, 2010

Boys and Literacy : Lessons from Australia, Gender & Education

Alloway, N., & Gilbert, P. (1997). Boys and Literacy: lessons from Australia. Gender & Education, 9(1), 49-60. doi:10.1080/09540259721448.
Alloway, N., & Gilbert, P. (1997). Boys and Literacy: lessons from Australia.
Gender & Education, 9(1), 49-60. doi:10.1080/09540259721448.


ABSTRACT This paper examines the complexity of the issues associated with boys and literacy.
It initially reviews Australian research documenting gender
differences in literacy performance,
highlighting the interplay between gender,
class and ethnicity within this research. It then develops a framework for
considering the interconnectedness between literacy, various masculinities, and
schooling. The paper argues that literacy, as it is constructed in the school,
becomes a domain of knowledge and a set of technologies that run counter to
various dominant constructions of masculinity. As a result, school literacy is
often in contrast to other electronic and visually-based 'literacy skills' that
boys have access to.
The paper suggests an approach which works with social
constructions of masculinity, and discourses on 'critical literacy', to provide
strategies for boys' literacy education that will not be in conflict with the
education of girls reform agenda of the past 20 years.
Hard times for Britain's lost boys
Girls are racing ahead in Britain's schools. Karen Gold talks to teachers whose
pioneering research may show why boys are being left behind. (New Scientist, 4
February 1995)
The War on Boys
Wise up, America! Despite what you read in the papers, the nation's schoolboys
are in big trouble. (Men's Health, October 1994)
Boy Burn-Out
In a school system dominated by women, boys are suffering while girls pull
ahead. That's the argument fuelling the backlash against girls' education
strategies. (The Australian, 27 July 1995)
'Boys' education' is now a recognisable topic for educational debate and
discussion in several of the larger English speaking countries, and one of its
major planks has often been a focus on boys' poor performance and achievement in
literacy. Girls, it is often claimed through the popular press, streak ahead
when it comes to reading and writing. Boys are increasingly constructed as a
disadvantaged and 'lost' group, marginalised and silenced not only in the
feminised arena of schooling, but also in the feminised domain of literacy
instruction. It is, we are told, 'war' on boys in many Western education
This paper takes up the issue of boys and literacy, initially by reviewing the
Australian response to the topic, and then by presenting an argument for working
with boys and literacy that avoids the 'backlash' syndrome implicit in the
language used above. By examining the complexity of Australian data samples on literacy achievement, the construction of various approaches to literacy and
literacy teaching, and the interconnectedness between literacy, masculinity and
schooling, this paper marks out the field within which the boys and literacy
issue needs to be considered. It then suggests a positive agenda for change that
not only acknowledges the needs of boys, but also clearly recognises the
important needs of girls, in reframing and refashioning literacy practices.
Gender, Literacy and Academic Success
Education reform programmes that have looked at gender differences in academic
achievement have more often focused on girls' lower level performance in
mathematics and science, than boys' performance in literacy. Given Western
civilisation's history of privileging mathematics/science over the humanities,
this is hardly a surprising emphasis. Girls' poorer representation in higher
level mathematics and science subjects, and their lower level recruitment into
post-school science related fields, made them a clear target for academic
improvement within national programmes of educational reform. By contrast, boys'
lower levels of performance in school-based literacy tasks and their lower
levels of representation in the humanities, have not generated similar attention
at national policy levels. Within a context of the differential social valuing
of knowledge, boys' lower levels of performance in literacy have historically
generated less concern for their 'improvement' than has been the case for girls'
lesser performance in mathematics/ science.
While information on boys' lesser achievement in literacy has been available for
some time, it is interesting that boys as a group have not, until recently, been
seen as needing attention with respect to their results. Despite the fact that
boys dominated literacy remediation classes, reading remediation educators and
school administrators seemed almost blind to the gender imbalance in remediation
resourcing, and to the gendered difference in children's literacy performance at
This may partly be understood in terms of the social value placed upon
school-based literacy competence as compared with mathematics or scientific
competence. High academic achievement in school-based literacy tests seems not to be critical in terms of post-school options and career advancement (see
White, 1986; Gilbert, 1994). For instance, even in several of the more
language-based professions--as in, say, law and journalism--it is men, not
women, who monopolise positions of power, despite girls' clear academic
superiority with literacy tasks. And it is still predominantly boys/men who
manage to maintain positions of privilege across a range of occupational and
social outcomes. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, literacy competence seems not
to be highly valued in the economic world of work, and school success at
literacy is not a valued or prized competence.
This paper considers the dangers of this devaluation of literacy and literacy
instruction--particularly for boys and young men. But it argues that we may well
need a different approach to the teaching and construction of literacy, given
the dynamic shifts in technology and media representation within contemporary
culture. It assumes that literacy competence is a crucial requirement for active
and informed citizenship, and a critical component in moves towards a more
equitable and just society. And it also acknowledges that what it means to be
'literate' is constantly being negotiated and renegotiated as we become
increasingly affected by technological and informational change.
It argues, however, that becoming literate, or more importantly, becoming
critically literate, offers opportunities, for boys as well as for girls, to
arrive at new insights into personal and social relations; to understand the
construction of their own selves as contemporary social subjects; and to
recognise the ways in which various social language practices have become
naturalised and normalised within everyday talk and action. It also argues that
the social construction of masculinity is strongly implicated in literacy
learning, and that to understand boys' performance and achievement in literacy,
it is critical that we understand the interplay between constructions of gender
and constructions of literacy.
Reading Gender in Literacy Testing: the Australian experience
In a quest to document Australian girls' and boys' achievements in literacy,
four state education departments in Australia have tracked gendered patterns of
results in high school English and in Basic Skills Tests of literacy for the
primary grades. Results from South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales
and Queensland are impressively consistent, and the data clearly indicate that
girls outperform boys in literacy-based tasks.
In South Australia, for example, Hilary Whitehouse (1994) compared examination
performance for female and male candidates in senior secondary English. Her
report to the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia showed that for the years 1986-91 South Australian girls achieved at significantly higher levels than the boys. Other states show similar patterns. Wayne Martino (1995) reports of Western Australian data:
Statistical analysis of students' performance in the Tertiary Entrance English
Examination (TEE) in Western Australia ... indicates that twice as many boys
fail English than girls and that twice as many girls achieve distinctions than
boys ... (p. 346)
Similarly in New South Wales, a Ministerial inquiry into boys' education
Boys under-perform compared with girls in literacy tests at both Year 3 and Year
6 in Government schools (as measured on the Basic Skills Tests). This result is
replicated throughout the school system. Boys achieve notably lower grades in
English at both the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate.
(O'Doherty, 1994, pp. 12-13)
An analysis of English results for Queensland students (Senior Secondary
Assessment Board of South Australia [SSABSA] and Australian Curriculum,
Assessment and Certification Authorities [ACACA], 1993) corroborates this trend.
Some 10.4% of girls compared with only 5.6% of boys scored within the highest
band of Very High Achievement;, 40.5% of girls compared with 26.8% of boys
scored at the next level of High Achievement;, and only 6.3% of girls compared
with 14.9% of boys were located within the Limited or Very Limited Achievement
bands. It seems that nearly twice as many Queensland gifts as boys can perform
at very high levels of achievement in senior English while more than twice as
many Queensland boys as girls fail to reach even a sound level of achievement.
Gender-based analyses of literacy achievement like these produce findings
indicating that girls, as a group, generally do better than boys, as a group,
both in basic skills tests (when they are tested in the early years of
schooling) and in final year secondary English scores. But gender-based analyses
such as these run the danger of masking differences within the categories of
'girl' and of 'boy'. Students cannot so neatly be divided into two, supposedly
consistent, monolithic categories. Additional critical questions about
differences within groups need to be asked. Are particular groups of boys doing
worse/better than others? Are some groups of girls doing as poorly as the boys?
Are there factors beyond gender that also contribute to literacy performance?
Gender, Literacy and Difference
One Australian state--New South Wales--has moved to address such questions, by
providing a more finely grained analysis in its tracking of student performance
outcomes. Results on the New South Wales Year 3 Basic Skills Test for literacy
reported by Van Davy (1995) illustrate, for instance, the complexity of the
interplay between gender and class (See Fig. 1). Careful scrutiny of Fig. 1
reveals that, as for other states, the New South Wales state average for girls
is higher than for boys. However the data also indicate that the 10-point
socio-economic ranking of students' families is strongly associated with
children's literacy skills performance. While girls, at every step in the
10-point socio-economic scale, score higher than boys whose families share the
same ranking, boys with the highest socio-economic ranking still fare better at
literacy-related tasks than girls up to the first five points of the
socio-economic scale. The data also show how boys with a socio-economic ranking
of 10 still score below the state average for girls, and how boys with the
lowest socio-economic rankings score worse than any other group.
Results of this kind show very clearly that not all girls are doing well at
literacy-related tasks, and not all boys are doing equally as poorly as one
another. The results suggest a complex elision of gender and class membership.
It appears that gender remains a powerful predictor of a child's literacy
performance, but that the social and economic resources available to children
through their homes and communities impact significantly on their achievement of
literacy skills. In brief, given the same ranking in terms of the socio-economic
resources available to their families, boys generally do less well than gifts.
Race and geographical location in Australia similarly impact on literacy
performance. Yunupingu (1994) reports that on average, Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander students achieve lower literacy scores in primary school than
other Australian students, but the difference from other Australian students is
greater for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders living in rural and remote
areas than for those living in urban areas. However Yunupingu also notes that
gender patterns are similar to those found for all Australian primary school
students, whereby 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls consistently
record higher achievements in literacy than boys ...' (p. 24).
Such information allows for more complex readings of which groups of boys and
girls are at risk of underachieving in school-based literacy, and which groups
are most privileged. More powerful questions then revolve around investigating
the processes of schooling that potentially enfranchise/disenfranchise students
in systematic ways to the point where group memberships, defined by gender,
class, race and geographical location for instance, become significant
predictors of academic success. An exploration of the performance and
achievement of boys in school literacy learning needs to take this intra-group
difference seriously.
Literacy, Remediation and Masculinity
The history of dealing with those at school who underperform in literacy has
traditionally focused on skills-based remediation of individual children. It is
assumed that those who do not perform well have a learning deficit, either
intellectual or social, that leads consequentially to remediation. The
'intellectual deficit' condition assumes that, unlike those children who
succeed, those marked for remediation simply fail to grasp critical content from
the teacher's expert delivery of knowledge. The fault in this instance lies
within the intellectual competence of the individual child. By contrast, the
'social deficit' condition implies that the child's family background is the
root of failure. That is, the particular child does not have the social
resources to be truly 'ready' for the experiences of schooling.
Whichever the deficit, the remedy is located in the individual child's
remediation to make him/her fit the expectations and processes of schooling. In
these ways, the processes of schooling that enfranchise particular groups while
disenfranchising others escape interrogation and are understood to be innocuous,
impartial and beyond suspicion. The impetus is to reform the child rather than
the curriculum, since the source of the trouble is seen to lie outside of the
parameters of 'schooling as usual'.
There is no question that in some instances individual remediation may be the
appropriate course of action. However, when identifiable groups rather than
random selections of children present as underachievers, as 'at risk' students
and as school failures, then remediation may not be the preferred response. This
paper, for instance, argues that the first level of questioning should logically
revolve around why particular groups perform at consistently lower levels than
others. Why do boys as a group perform less well than girls in literacy-related
tasks? Why do boys with the lowest socio-economic rankings perform least well of
any group? How is it that boys with the highest socio-economic rankings perform
at lower levels than their sisters but at higher levels than gifts who live in
families where fewer social and economic resources are available to them? In
what ways do literacy classes authorise the knowledge, the skills, the desires
of particular groups while failing to take account of others?
The approach adopted in this paper thus moves away from focusing on what is
wrong with individual children to avoid the trap of automatically pathologising
children and their families. Rather, it looks at how boys in particular are
positioned within social, textual and pedagogical practices that make their
lesser performance in literacy-related tasks understandable and predictable. The
paper argues that there are many ways of living out masculinity, and many
masculinities. Discourses of sexuality, of class, of ethnicity affect lived
experiences of being 'male'. However, the paper also argues that dominant and
hegemonic discourses of masculinity may be in conflict with the institutional
constraints of schooling, and more specifically, with the ways boys are asked to
know themselves as literate subjects in school-based literacy classes. The paper
suggests that there is a potentially abrasive interaction between: the social
and pedagogical production of students as literate subjects; institutional
attempts at regulating students at school; and the ways that boys take
themselves up as masculine subjects.
The Literate Subject, the Schoolboy, and Hegemonic Masculinity
Concerns about boys' literacy performance usually refer specifically to their
demonstrated competence in the context of literacy as it is done and evaluated
in schools, despite the fact that this represents only one literacy site, and
one broad set of literacy practices. Many boys have literacy skills that are not
recognised in the classroom, but that are potentially very powerful and useful
in the communication technologies of the future. Surfing the net, reading video
screens and engaging with computers all demand levels of literate competence
that do not figure highly in school measurements of literacy. And significantly,
such literacy sites and literacy competence do not clash with boys' and young
men's desire to take up positions as 'masculine' subjects even in the pre-school
years (Alloway, 1995). On the contrary, such sites and practices directly
sustain and reinforce dominant discourses of hegemonic masculinity (Alloway &
Gilbert, in press).
An important point to remember, therefore, is that boys may underachieve in
school-based literacy, but they do not necessarily underachieve in other forms
of socially valued, and more 'desirable' literate practice. Literacy at school
seems to be the site and the domain of practice that is most significant in an
exploration of boys' performance and achievement.
Literacy as it is done in the early grades of school revolves somewhat fluidly
around learning to read and to write in clearly defined ways, using authorised
texts and institutionalised pedagogical practices. As children move through
grade levels, they move through regimes of texts and practices: reading kits and
activities, spelling and handwriting skills, comprehension tests, vocabulary
exercises, essay-writing, oral and dramatic performance, sustained silent
reading, aesthetic response to literary texts. What these early schooling
practices have in common is that they require students to demonstrate a
willingness to be regulated--both physically and emotionally--in specific ways:
to sit still, to be silent, to work with utensils in defined and authorised
ways, to respond in appropriate ways (Luke, 1992). While all schooling requires
degrees of physical and emotional regulation, this seems to be particularly the
case in the literacy classroom.
At first sight it might seem that these practices have little to do with gender.
However, it will be argued in the following section that gender may well be
deeply implicated in these regimes. This, coupled with the fact that
school-based literacy has come to be identified as feminised practice,
contributes towards a construction of school-based literacy, and the 'literate
school subject' as unmasculine and undesirable to many young boys. As this paper
will argue, literacy, as it is constructed in the school, becomes a domain of
knowledge and a set of technologies that run counter to various dominant
constructions of masculinity (Gilbert & Gilbert, 1996). The practices that are
naturalised in the literacy classroom are often practices that boys may
experience as incompatible with their understandings of appropriate masculine
For example, many of the most familiar school literacy practices require that
students accomplish the processes of self-disclosure, introspection, empathic
response, and personalised and creative expression (Hunter, 1988; Gilbert,
1989a, 1989b; Patterson, 1995). The truly literate subject, for example, is able
to lay bare the soul: to engage in literacy practices that describe feelings and
emotions, and which locate the writer/reader as a sensitive and aesthetic
subject who derives pleasure from print and the literary experience. Even in the
early years of schooling, the focus in the literacy classroom is often on
personalised expression and response to teacher sanctioned texts.
Consequently, the literate subject also becomes covertly drawn to the imperative
of moral self-regulation, because the texts marketed at children's culture and
the compulsory years of schooling tacitly endorse dominant standards of morality
as well as of sensitivity and aestheticism. This is often in marked contrast to
the morality constructed through, say, various electronic game practices (see
Alloway & Gilbert, in press). The discourses of moral self-regulation offered
through children's literature and children's school readers, and the classroom
practices that support these discourses, are often in marked contrast to the
ideologies and practices on offer in boys' culture. They sit far more
comfortably with social constructions of the feminine than the masculine, and
are more compatible with a feminine rather than a masculine subject.
As boys are invited to take themselves up as literate subjects, so too are they
invited to understand themselves as students within the institutional
constraints of the school (Mac an Ghaill, 1994). While the literacy classroom
encourages them to express their inner selves, to appreciate the canons of
literature, and to observe community standards of morality, the wider school
context subordinates them within the student-teacher authority structure.
Although boys may maintain a privileged position in relation to gifts in the
school context, the schoolboy nevertheless is required to accept inferior status
to the teacher, to experience powerlessness in the face of adult rule, to be
regulated by the demands of the institution, and to be controlled by the state
Meanwhile, outside the context of the school, boys are encouraged to understand
themselves very differently. As opposed to the social construction of literacy
as feminised practice, boys are expected to understand themselves within sets of
masculinised practice. Their subjectivity is to be marked as different from, and
oppositional to, that which is associated with the feminine. Hegemonic
masculinity is not done in terms of self-disclosure, introspection, personalised
and creative expression, but rather in terms of an outside-of-self, objectified
expression. A focus on the psyche, on analysis of self and others, on personal
relations, on moral regulation, is not endorsed within hegemonic standards of
masculinity. Outward-looking, hegemonic masculinity prefers to concentrate on
things outside of self, rather than on the self.
While boys are required to comply with the school's construction of the
regulated student, the social construction of hegemonic masculinity promotes
masculine subjectivity as less regulated, less conforming, and less compliant
than schooling practices accommodate. As opposed to the constitution of the
schoolboy as student, hegemonic masculinity ultimately refuses to be regulated
or controlled. Affiliation with hegemonic standards of masculinity advances an
identity that is more maverick, self-styled and independent than can be
expressed within the processes of school regulation.
Constructions of the literate subject, the schoolboy and masculinity open out a
field of play where abrasive interactions are inevitable. Some groups of boys
may find the press to become insiders to the literacy experience particularly
threatening to their masculinity. Issues of class, ethnicity, race and sexuality
may be crucial in determining how boys resolve tensions involved in maintaining
masculine identity while simultaneously responding to institutional requirements
to take themselves up as literate and as schoolboys (Mac an Ghaill, 1994). Some
boys may reject the requirement to engage in the 'feminised practices' of the
literacy classroom as the friction with their masculinity is too keenly
experienced. With respect to boys' performance in secondary English, Wayne
Martino (1995) claims:
What it means to be a man and how to behave as a man are produced within
specific institutional apparatuses and involves a denial of expressing emotions
and an avoidance of intimacy and this appears to be at the basis of boys'
rejection of English as a girls' subject. (p. 354)
Martino's (1995) interviews with secondary school boys show how homophobia may
feature in regulating boys' engagement with English. As one of the interviewees
explained his lack of commitment to the subject:
English is more suited to girls because it's not the way guys think ... this
subject is the biggest load of bullshit I have ever done. Therefore, I don't
particularly like this subject. I hope you aren't offended by this, but most
guys who like English are faggots. (Martino, 1995, p. 354)
However, boys do not suddenly begin resisting school-based literacy tasks in
secondary classrooms. The process of alienation is identifiable in the early
years of compulsory schooling (see Orlandi, 1996), and continues into the middle
primary grades. Boys write less, read less, and engage with domains of subject
matter that are not usually endorsed by the school (Poynton, 1985; Gilbert,
The differences between groups of boys in their response to literacy tasks
needs, however, to be carefully monitored. The complex relationships between
class, ethnicity and masculinity, for instance, may mean that privileged groups
of boys are more likely to be encouraged to accept some forms of school
regulation in anticipation of career and professional rewards in the
post-schooling period. Less privileged boys may well use the context of the
school to establish themselves clearly as masculine--rather than regulated
'schoolboy'--subjects, in anticipation of this position being the only one that
is both desirable and achievable. The willingness to take up positions as
'literate' subjects will consequently be dependent upon a range of factors
associated with ethnicity, with class, with sexuality and with the versions of
masculinity boys find desirable.
An Agenda for Change
A programme that seeks to work with and take on board this potentially abrasive
mix of school literacy, masculinity and institutional schooling can learn from
the significant work on gender and literacy that has been accomplished under the
girls' education umbrella. This work is important for work with boys not only
because it indicates how constructions of gender and of literacy are connected
and interrelated in the school context, but also because it reminds us of issues
to remember in terms of girls and literacy.
While, for instance, groups of girls may achieve well at school-based literacy,
many school literacy practices have not been advantageous for girls (see
Gilbert, 1989a). The compatibility of the 'literate' self with a 'feminine' self
has not necessarily served girls well in terms of introducing them to a range of
other ways of taking up social positions as girls and women (Walkerdine, 1990).
In addition, as we have argued earlier, there is little social valuation of
school literacy competence. Being good at reading and writing has not
necessarily led to careers in language-based professions--or even to well-paid
jobs. It is still predominantly girls who become secretaries and typists for
male managers and bosses; it is still predominantly women who do the
word-processing while men write software programs.
But teachers who pick up these issues should be wary of falling prey to the
'competing victims syndrome' (Cox, 1995) whereby girls' interests and boys'
interests are pitted against one another. A basic tenet of working on the boys
and literacy agenda should be that both girls' and boys' interests in improved
literacy performance are promoted; boys' gains in literacy should not be
promoted at the expense of girls' gains; efforts to enfranchise the boys should
not disenfranchise the girls. Rather than developing programmes that are 'good
for girls', or 'good for boys', we need instead to focus on a critique of school
literacy practices and the assumptions upon which they rely, and to widen our
understanding of literacy and literate practice. We need a critique of the
'literate self' in terms of how such a construct affects both girls and boys. We
also need an understanding of the social, textual construction of femininity and
masculinity, and how language practices within the school reinforce such
constructions. And we need assssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssccess to a range of skills and technologies that
will help in such critiques and understandings.
The technologies developed within discourses on 'critical literacy' (see Gee,
1990; Lankshear & McLaren, 1993) may be appropriate for this task. While such
discourses are not hegemonic or monolithic, and while they can encompass a wide
range of positions and viewpoints, they do have common elements. On the whole,
critical literacy discourses acknowledge the crucial link between language and
social practice, and they support a critical investigation into the way language
practices can transform social practice. They make it possible to advocate a
more critical approach to literacy and to textual practices both in and beyond
the school, as a strategy for enabling boys to read both their own practices,
and the practices that inscribe and construct them as masculine, literate and
institutionalised subjects (Davies, 1997).
We would argue that such an approach makes it possible for both students and
teachers to see how they have been textually inscribed and constructed in
various ways, through the access they have had to various discourses and social
experiences. Discourses and social experiences of masculinity and femininity
will be critical here, as will discourses and social experiences of sexuality,
ethnicity, class and privilege. Unlike femininity, masculinity-as a dominant and
powerful discourse--has seldom been held up for scrutiny and reconstruction in
We would also argue that there are many forms of literacy, and that schools tend
to work with particular print-based versions of literacy. It is important that
this base be broadened: that texts from a much broader range of cultural
experience be enfranchised within the classroom and serve as legitimate texts
for inquiry and interrogation; and that a much broader range of pedagogical
practices be embraced in this inquiry and interrogation. In particular, the
practices associated with the teaching of literature need very close scrutiny.
Changes like these will also necessitate changes within institutional structures
and practices. If classrooms are to foster critical deconstruction of 'the
self', and to support critical inquiry and interrogation, they need to establish
teacher-student relationships and classroom environments that are supportive of
student-focused learning. This may be particularly problematic if other aspects
of masculinity and schooling are not understood and acknowledged.
Critical literacy can certainly not be read as a panacea for boys'
underachievement and underperformance in school literacy. However, when adopted
with other understandings of the social constructions of masculinity, literacy
and schooling, it can provide strategies that not only strive to meet the
challenge of developing a defensible and positive agenda for boys' education,
but that also sit compatibly within the education of girls reform agenda of the
past 20 years.
The lessons from the Australian experience are that the boys and literacy issue
is certainly far more complex than it would first appear; that constructions of
masculinity and of literacy practice need to be interrogated and read very
carefully; but that the goal of helping boys and young men to become critically
literate members of their families and their communities is one that is too
important to neglect.
This paper has evolved from our work with an Australian research team on a
Commonwealth government-funded project in 1995: 'Equity issues and the education
of students experiencing educational disadvantage: literacy intervention
strategies for boys' (DEETYA). We are indebted to other team members--Bronwyn
Davies, Rob Gilbert and David King--for their generous sharing of ideas and
advice. We would also like to acknowledge the professional advice and experience
of Sandra McEwan in the development of this paper.
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By NOLA ALLOWAY & PAM GILBERT, James Cook University of North Queensland,
Correspondence: Nola Alloway, School of Education, James Cook University of
North Queensland, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia. Email:

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