Solution to boys’ literacy woes not in teachers’ gender

Anne Watson knows it’s not her gender, but rather what she brings to the classroom, that makes her an effective high school English teacher.

She’ll tell you, such a conclusion is logical. But that hasn’t been the case when considering the achievement of male students in high school English classes.

“There’s this simplification that if we bring more men into teaching – particularly into an English classroom – it will make English more engaging for boys, that men will be able to bring in masculine resources and boys’ achievement will improve,” said Watson, whose recent PhD thesis in Western’s Faculty of Education examined the influence of male teachers on boys’ literacy achievement. “It’s such a simplistic approach. There are multiple ways to be a male English teacher and multiple factors that contribute to student achievement.

“And (in my research), a lot of the factors were not gender specific. You can’t simplify underachievement to gender.”

Watson, who teaches at London South Collegiate Institute, said the underlying problem in this assumption stems from the approach given to results of Ontario’s standardized Grade 10 literacy tests, in which male students are defined as an underachieving group.

“In a 2009 (report), girls consistently outperformed boys in literacy tests – 88 per cent of girls were successful versus 81 per cent of boys. That’s not a big gap. If we looked at something like socioeconomics, the gap would be larger,” she said.

What’s most startling, Watson added, is the fact boys were grouped together with other ‘underachieving’ groups such as students from low-income, immigrant and Aboriginal families as well as special needs students.

“To target boys as a risk group and suggest boy-friendly resources (like graphic novels, books about masculine subjects) and strategies in the classroom and more men in the classroom, to me, is so simplistic,” she said. “Looking at ministry policy and media, and seeing this discourse about the capacity of male teachers to improve male literacy, I was wondering if it’s based n research or gender assumption.

“There’s not much research out there suggesting the connection.”

Watson interviewed male teachers and male students, knowing there was a possibility gender assumptions and expectations – such as English being a more feminine subject or boys’ lack of enthusiasm for reading – could cloud the results.

“What I found was that teachers drew on these assumptions more than the boys had. My thesis (“Men to the Rescue” – The Influence of Male English Teachers on Boys’ Literacy Achievement) highlights the complexities of these simplistic notions and says multiple factors contribute to (boys’ literacy) achievement and to pedagogical approaches of male English teachers,” Watson explained.

In her study, four out of six boys from a low socioeconomic community didn’t pass their English class, even though their teachers were male.

Some boys noted they thought girls were better at English because they connected with their feelings more, while other boys noted they had female friends who wished they could write as well as them.

What Watson found was students said it was connections, shared interests and teaching skills that influenced their success and enjoyment of the subject matter in English class.

“At the end of the day, I didn’t have a dominant gender perspective at all, it was too complex. (Achievement) is school based and context based – everything depended on individual experiences,” she said. “But the reality is that those (gender assumption-based) initiatives and those discourses do exist. By privileging a single pedagogical framing and not exploring others, initiatives risk being ill-informed and misdirected.”

Watson said the key to moving forward is looking at the issue of narrowing the achievement gap between students – whatever group they fall in – from a number of perspectives.

“We need multiple lenses and multiple perspectives. Tests report scores along gender lines – but there should be multiple ways to look at those test scores. Recently, finally, they’re starting to say it’s the students in the applied stream of English that are underachieving,” she said.

“We also need to look at the models for teaching English; there isn’t a single model. Some teach the classics and approach it as teaching ‘Truth’ while others teach (English) as skills training to write to get a job.”

Given emerging technologies, the definition of literacy is evolving, Watson added, noting gender regimes, social pressures and expectations also play a role in setting expectations for boys’ achievement in English classes.

“We need more critical frameworks,” she said. “We can’t just bring in a male body and think that might work.”