Friday, January 1, 2010

Teaching Boys to Write

I haven't blogged in awhile. The holidays are partly to blame (how much free time do you have over the holiday season?) but so, frankly, was a lack of motivation.

Today, though, is a New Year, and in my determination to start the year out fresh, I spent some time deleting news messages from my inbox. One story caught my attention and I knew it was time to blog. The headline? "Three-year-old boys should be made to write to stop gender gap."

Officials in the UK, well-aware of the academic achievement gap that continues to exist between boys and girls, particulary in the area of writing, are recommending that three-year-old boys do more writing and drawing. Never mind the fact that three-year-olds are the most stubborn creatures in the world. I could hand my three-year-old son crayons every day of the week, but unless he wants to write, I can guarantee he's not going to write. He might fling the crayons. He'll very probably eat some of them. And he'll absolutely peel the paper off every single crayon. But write? Probably not.

Don't get me wrong: At three, he's showing a definite interest in letters, and he knows that we use marks on paper to represent those letters. When he's in the mood, he'll scribble something and tell me it's an "A" (or a "T" or whatever). Occasionally, he'll let me hold his hand as we create words on the paper. (He particularly likes to do this as we wait in the line at the grocery store.)

That kind of teaching/learning, in my opinion, is age-appropriate. That kind of teaching/learning respects biological differences (did you know that the area of the brain that handles language matures, on average, six years later in boys than in girls?). That kind of learning is a loving, caring adult responding to a child's request for information -- not a government imposing expectations on little people so the government's educational system will look good.

Perhaps -- just perhaps -- that stubborn gender gap is there because there are some very real differences between boys and girls. And perhaps -- just perhaps -- learning more about boys and how they grow, develop and learn will help teachers and parents close that gap.

The new recommendation, in fact, seems to ignore previous research cited by the same government. A literature review commissioned by the Office for Standards in Education notes that "Two longitudinal studies, one in America and one in Portugal, report that children who learn in child-initiated, active and free play environments made stronger progress in reading and writing than their peers in formal skills based environments...Too much focus on writing as transcription affects younger children’s perceptions of what writing is and what it is for. Letter formation may be started too young, and boys whose motor skills are less developed may experience early frustration with writing that looks, and is, less proficient than girls’. Since transcription is an area in which weaker boys have difficulty, they make early associations of writing with activities in which they struggle."

I've argued before that in the early years, we should focus on helping our boys Write, not write. The government of England obviously has a different opinion. What's yours?


  1. I'm really interested in education and comparisons between countries. I'm tired of feeling that we need to push kids into doing things when they are obviously too immature to do it. There are many things I'll do even today at 52, when I'm ready, not when I'm forced to.
    Out of my 3 sons, some are "brighter" in certain areas than others. Happy New Year and great post to start the New Year.

  2. I'm reminded by your post that my son had trouble writing in kindergarten. His teacher then told me that my son likely had a learning disability because he would overwrite on his letters. She had a name for it, but I can no longer remember what it was. Later, he wound up in both skills classes and advanced classes. It kind of left him confused as to his abilities. Me, too. Made me not like the use of labels in school and favor an approach that would have allowed him to move at his own level. Maybe I should have homeschooled.

  3. I strongly disagree with making young boys (girls too) write, if they are not interested. We went to a preschool/daycare in another life, and I remember the sheet of sign-in paper that was there every day for the kids who were interested in writing their name. As you can guess, neither of my boys ever wanted to write their names, and at the time it frustrated me. It was the first in a long line of frustrations that got me where I am today. In retrospect, I would have done things MUCH differently.

  4. All of these conflicting studies drive me nuts. I have two boys, one eleven and the other eight. The older one read easily and well very early, and now he just devours books. The younger one has so much difficulty with reading and writing, although his comprehension and ideas are advanced. I go back and forth from feeling frustrated and panicked that he is falling further and further behind to accepting that he is learning differently. I don't homeschool but he does go to a very progressive charter school with a constructivist philosophy. I must bookmark your site and return more often!

  5. Bike Lady & Elizabeth -- In some ways, you both touch on the same thing: the paradox of a kid who is really advanced in some things, but really struggling in others. Contrary to popular belief, that's not an uncommon situation. There's even a name for it now: twice exceptional learners.

    It used to be that a kid was considered either gifted, average or learning disabled. But it's possible to be gifted AND learning disabled (or average and learning disabled). Which may lead toa whole new post later this week...

  6. My greatest fear is that we'll turn boys off to learning by imposing things they aren't able to or ready to do.

    In my mind, if they can emerge from childhood with a love of learning and a natural curiosity, we'll know we've done our job.