Working with Family Carers: An Insight

In light of the recent publication of her book Working with Family Carers, Dr Valerie Gant, University of Chester, reflects how the summer holiday can be a period of stress rather than relaxation for carers.

As the holiday period reaches its end and we continue to bathe in the sunshine, I think again about issues faced by many carers.

While the six-week school break is seen as a welcome relief for teachers and staff, it is similarly often a cause of anxiety and stress for pupils with severe learning difficulties and their parents/carers.

Changes in routine (and weather) can be incredibly difficult to navigate. It is of course not just school-age children and their family carers who struggle with those intensifying summertime pressures…

Light nights and intense heat can make caring more difficult for older adults and also for those caring for people with dementia.

For those carers able to afford a holiday – note the word ‘holiday’ not ‘break’ – a change of scene is not necessarily as good as a rest.

Researching for my book Working with Family Carers, I was privileged to speak to many family carers as well as people in receipt of family care. It soon became apparent that it is the ordinary, taken-for-granted activities, holidays and summer days that are the most challenging to navigate.

Helena Herklots, the outgoing CEO at Carers UK, recently suggested there is evidence of the carers movement growing in momentum, I would like to think this is the case and that support for carers will be a year round activity, not just one marked by ‘Carers Week; or ‘Carers Right’s Day’.

As a parent-carer myself, I believe such recognition, acknowledgement and hopefully support, when needed, needs to be an ongoing activity and not just a seasonal event.

Roll on September!

You can find more about informal caring in Valerie’s book and see our other titles here.

 

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Lights, Camera, Action! Mental health and physical health: One Health

In this post, Daniel Wilding discusses from his personal and recent participation in a film produced by the mental health charity Mind, how recovery from mental health is inter-linked with, and can in fact improve bodily health.

In May 2018, I was delighted to be asked by the policy and campaigns team at the mental health charity Mind to participate in the making of a film they produced for their ‘One Health’ campaign. Since, I have been reflecting on the ways in which my General Practitioners (GPs) over the years have helped me to manage my mental health (recovering from anxiety and depression) by improving my physical health. I still use the strategies today.

My motivation to become involved in the project mentioned above came from a shared desire and passion to use film and social work to campaign for services to offer advice, support and interventions that would help people improve their physical health as a way of managing their mental health. I wanted to write this blog to disseminate that important message.

In my view, as a community mental health practitioner, social worker, and expert by experience, the help I got from my GPs was crucial in my own recovery, maintenance, and aim to achieve optimum mental health. I received help with my weight and food management, exercise, alcohol intake, mindfulness and sleep.  The film acts as a powerful form of communication to service managers and policy makers, as to how crucial the care of people’s physical health is when recovering from mental ill health. Therefore, I feel the film will provide social workers and allied health professionals with additional insights into this area of mental health care.

A prominent theme in the campaign and film is the role of the GP in supporting people to make changes to their physical health that will help manage their mental health and individual participants’ experiential narratives of this. However, social workers are, by our professional role as agents of change, in an ideal position to support our GP colleagues with this aim.

I wanted to bring to the attention of readers and viewers the importance of understanding how and why making changes to one’s physical health will simultaneously improve mental health. Robust and evidence-based interventions regarding diet, weight, exercise, alcohol reduction, smoking, and sleep can improve physical health outcomes for people recovering from and managing mental ill health.

The video (Mind, 2018) makes three crucial arguments:

  1. Intervening in a person’s physical health to manage their mental health is not a new concept. It is a current and real concern that needs to change at a policy level. Participants’ stories contained within, testify this works. However, greater action needs to be taken by health and social care professionals and the government. The multitude of cases and individual stories prove the above.
  2. There is a focus on GPs providing the help discussed, but social workers and service users themselves can assist in producing a positive change throughout society.
  3. Physical health support to improve outcomes in managing mental health requires practitioners who are educated about holistic interventions. Social policy change may emerge from qualitative data captured through the medium of film, hence shining a spotlight on the issue leading to political action and change.

References

Mind (2018) Mental health and physical health go hand in hand: Find the words. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVEmJAbPisA&t=13s (Accessed: 18 July 2018).

We publish a range of books on mental health, such as Critiquing Personality Disorder:  Social Perspective by Julia Warrener and Modern Mental HealthCritical Perspectives on Psychiatric Practice edited by Steven Walker.

 

 

Systematic treatment of names and titles

We are delighted to have recently published the first titles in our Critical Study Skills series. The extract below is taken from Academic Writing and Referencing for your Nursing Degree by Jane Bottomley and Steven Pryjmachuk

 

In nursing, you will often be required to refer to the names of medical conditions, such as ‘malaria’ or ‘Parkinson’s disease’, and to the titles of professional organisations, such as the National Health Service or the Nursing and Midwifery Council. When referring to these, it is important to establish the conventions regarding the use of capitalisation.

  • Most diseases and conditions are not capitalised, eg malaria, deep vein thrombosis, obsessive compulsive disorder.
  • Diseases and conditions named after an individual capitalise the name, eg Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • The titles of organisations are capitalised, eg the National Health Service.

Many conditions and organisations are also known by their acronyms. An acronym is the short form of a multi-word name, usually formed using the first letter of each word, eg:

  • deep vein thrombosis (DVT);
  • obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD);
  • the National Health Service (NHS);
  • the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).

Often, people are more familiar with the acronym than the name, sometimes to the extent that they can be a little hazy on what it actually stands for!

In your writing, it is important to be systematic in your use of names and acronyms. The rule in academic writing is very simple: when you mention a term for the first time, you should use the full name, with the acronym following immediately in parenthesis; after this, you should always use the acronym. The following example demonstrates this clearly.

Lower extremity deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is the most frequent venous thromboembolism (VTE) observed in hospitalised patients (Nutescu, 2007). One of the important and well-known risk factors of DVT development is surgery. If there are additional risk factors in a patient undergoing a surgical operation, the risk of DVT is increased even further (Geerts et al. 2012).

(Ayhan et al, 2015: 2246)

Systematic use of names and acronyms adds to the flow and coherence of the text.

Note that acronyms are different from abbreviations, which are formed by shortening a word, eg:

  • approx (approximately);
  • etc (from the Latin ‘et cetera’, meaning ‘and so on’).

The fact that something has been abbreviated is often indicated by the full stop at the end (approx. etc.), but this is often omitted (as in this book, for example). The important thing is to be consistent.

Read more about this book and other titles in the series here.

Why do we need another book on social work theory?

In this post Phil Musson, University of Lincoln, explains the rationale behind his new book Making sense of theory and its application to social work practice.

I look forward to reading the practice portfolios of social work students in which they describe their experiences, analyse their practice and showcase their skills. For many, these placements will leave career long impressions on the fledgling practitioners as they grapple with the complexity of social work practice for the first and second time.

More often than not I am reassured that they are developing their craft with appropriate reference to values, interpersonal communication skills, service user involvement, and legislation. However, I am generally left feeling underwhelmed by the quality of application of theory to practice in so far as it is used to explain circumstances and inform a plan of intervention in them.

OK, reference to Maslow or Bronfenbrenner may feature in a perfunctory sense and claims may be made that strengths based ideas or systems theory had been used but rarely am I left with the impression that the student had a real grasp of how a theory offers an explanation of what they see and how its corresponding method of intervention provides a cogent, structured way of trying to do something about it.

In my experience students tend to address the requirement to ‘apply theory’ with such statements as ‘I applied systems theory with service user A’ but without going on to explain how the work they did with A was an application of systems theory. Alternatively, they might bullet point a list:

On my placement the theories used included

  • Attachment
  • Strengths
  • Bereavement

Both expressions fail to reveal the student’s depth of understanding of theory and its application as an explanation of how what they did was an application of the theory claimed is avoided. Whilst I do not expect to see a confident application of theory to practice (especially in the first placement) I do expect to see a tentative exploration into this area so important to assessment, analysis and intervention.

Am I alone in this having this perspective? I do hope not as, in an attempt to address this and encourage students to embrace theoretical frameworks and to try road testing their application, I have written a book titled Making sense of theory and its application to social work practice.

It is written with a particular student in mind. This student wants to get the most they can out of their course, as they want to become the best social worker they can be and to be ‘tooled up’ to do the best they can for the people they will work with. Accordingly, they need to know about theory and well enough to try applying it in their practice. However, they would not describe themselves as an instinctive theoretician so they expect to find acquiring a working knowledge of this area of practice a challenge. The book sets out to minimise the ‘challenge’ and maximise the degree of ‘sense’ that can be made in this quest. It seeks to achieve this through its structure; four ‘theories of explanation’ are introduced with their respective methods of intervention and four approaches to social work practice are introduced also with their methods of intervention. One generic case study is used so the reader can see how each method of intervention can be applied in practice.

I hope it fulfils its promise.

Phil Musson June 2017

Details of Phil’s new book, Making sense of theory and its application to social work practice can be found on our website www.criticalpublishing.com

The W word: Witchcraft labelling and child safeguarding in social work practice.

We are very proud to have published an important new title, The W Word: Witchcraft labelling and child safeguarding in social work practice by Prospera Tedam and Awura Adjoa. In this post Prospera and Awura outline their reasons for writing the book and the approach it takes.

We are delighted to see our book published and wanted to write this first blog to reiterate our commitment to halting the practice of witchcraft labelling which we know is ongoing in some of our communities. In the last year, we have continually reflected on Awura Adjoa’s childhood experiences and considered how things may otherwise have been for her.

Our motivation to write this book emerged from our shared desire to expose the practice of witchcraft labelling and the impact on its victims. We outlined the psychological, emotional and physical impact on Awura Adjoa and examined the ways in which her migration and family dynamics placed her in a vulnerable position and open to witchcraft labelling.

We were particularly concern about the widely held view that witchcraft labelling is a recent phenomenon in England and sought to explain how this form of child abuse is often hidden and silenced within communities and in families. We make the case for a more robust framework for assessing families where witchcraft labelling may be occurring.

We appreciate that the book makes difficult reading in parts, due to the honest and deeply concerning narrative presented by Awura Adjoa, however we felt there was no way to present this information to the audience for whom it is intended. Awura Adjoa would like to see parents and families engage with this book in order to evaluate their own parenting particularly if they hold beliefs about the presence of witchcraft.

We felt that this book would provide social workers and child safeguarding practitioners with additional insight into this form of abuse and develop their skills in identifying, assessing and intervening in families where children have been labelled or are at risk of witchcraft labelling.

A prominent theme in the book is the role of the faith leader or pastor in the labelling process. Awura Adjoa essentially had two pastors determine her fate- the one who labelled and the one who cleared her. Conversations must be ongoing with faith groups and leaders if we are hoping to address this growing issue.

The role of the school and educational establishments is also considered in the book, particularly around what could have been done to identify that Awura Adjoa was at risk at home and within her community.

The need to understand complex family forms and dynamics is another key area we wanted to bring to the attention of readers. Complex family systems can impact on the effectiveness of any intervention with and for children who may have been labelled.

The 3 main arguments proposed by the book are:

  • Witchcraft labelling in England is not new. It is a real and present concern among some communities and within some faith groups.
  • There are multiple actors associated with this form of child abuse. It is never a ‘secret’ and members of the family and community will be aware of the accusations and label.
  • Witchcraft labelling requires intervention from child care practitioners who are culturally aware and sensitive, non- oppressive and who understand the complexities of working cross-culturally.

Gay (2010) suggests that stories are told for multiple purposes- to entertain, educate and inform or to evoke emotion. The W word is by no means entertainment. It will evoke various emotions as it did for us as the authors and its primary aim is to educate and inform. Consequently, we make no apology for the content, it is Awura Adjoa’s lived experience and needed to be told in the way that is has.

Awura and Prospera

Evidence-based teaching in primary education

The following post is written by Val Poultney, editor of Evidence-based teaching in Primary Education published by Critical Publishing in April 2017.

School improvement is not an exact science. First, the term is a very general one, yet it is applied to many schools as a ‘given’ by politicians and the media. To turn a school around from one that is classified as ‘failing’ or ‘requires improvement’ takes time, commitment and a new approach to teaching and learning. Proponents of the evidence-based teaching approach argue that there should be equal collaboration between educational practitioners, policymakers and researchers and a link established between research outcomes that are seen to be effective in education and how such outcomes could be used in the real-world context of school practice. What might constitute effective school improvement is, arguably, fashionable, context-specific and based on small-scale samples which possibly have little impact on raising standards nationally.

Yet in today’s context of fast-paced schooling, heads and teachers need to be able to plan and respond rapidly to change agendas imposed externally, without the time or space to fully evaluate the worth of the proposed change as it might impact on their school.   Evidence-based teaching as a means of generating an evidential claim to knowledge is a powerful approach but possibly only as ‘local knowledge’ that is very much bound to school context and arguably harder to generalize except to those schools in comparable circumstances.

What constitutes ‘good’ research evidence in these contexts is not for university academics to judge but it should be recognized that these data are but a small part of a bigger picture on the school improvement landscape.  If we are to be truly concerned with raising standards in primary schools then there has to be something more in it for teachers beyond ‘tips for teaching’ and yet another new initiative. We would hope all teachers see themselves as professionals with a contribution to make to the continuing development of their learners and to the profession itself. The literature is replete with references to EBT as a way of providing focused staff development that is meaningful to teachers that helps to build a knowledge-base to supplement the normal statistical school data.  EBT is regarded as a means of giving teaching a real purpose, to instil a confidence in and to ’re-professionalise’ teachers. It opens up opportunities for networking, dissemination and debates about the outcomes of teacher research and challenges teachers to adopt a more inquiring and reflective perspective on their work.

Building and sustaining capacity for everyone to be a learner is one of the crucial roles of any primary school leadership team. These leadership teams become leaders of learning for all staff and children where they develop the potential to change hearts and minds and encourage teachers to focus on their pedagogy in order to make learning happen. School leaders drive the development of a critical epistemological base for practice that provides scope for teachers to reflect upon and explore their own professional practice. Capacity building goes beyond organization and structure however; it allows practitioners to work together in new ways. It is about establishing trust between colleagues and a collective will to want to work together. School leaders are therefore charged with investing in changing the school climate so that they, teachers, support staff and children become central to the work of teaching and learning with internal alignment of teams, structures and resourcing that supports the development of personal and interpersonal capacity. It is about creating a collective capacity where learning is an integral part of everyone’s role in school: leaders, teachers, support staff, estate workers, parents and governors. It is about creating an environment where teachers develop an analytical approach to their own practice and where they begin to see their classrooms through an analytical lens.

In the spirit of taking responsibility for improvement of learning, school leaders may avail themselves of an opportunity to work with an intermediary such as an HEI academic. This affords closer contact with current educational research that can be used to inform and drive inquiry and can act as a means of galvanising a change in practice. Historically, there have been various views on the role of HEI academics in this context, ranging from the notion of bringing rigour to school-based decisions to, more recently, the consideration of research as a means of addressing the disenfranchisement of teachers, where teachers are challenged to develop their own body of locally held knowledge.

Beyond improving teaching and learning, evidence-based approaches can have wider positive ramifications. Teacher research or teacher inquiry can encourage teachers to work together more collegially, promote a proper focus on how to analyse and use existing school data and help to build wider confidence as part of professional development. In turn teachers learn how to make informed choices about practice and use empirical data to cope with future change agendas. Teacher inquiry, if deployed school-wide, can become greater than the sum of its parts and can help to foster a professional learning community. Teachers learn how to evaluate and critique their own practice and that of others to help them make informed choices. The role of the HEI academic as partner, coach, mentor or ‘objective other’ can help to maintain the focus on learning for everyone and to direct teacher reflections on practice. In turn, and with increased levels of confidence, teachers themselves can take on the role of consultants, advisors and critical friends. They can begin to challenge their own commonly held practices, develop their own discourses and reconceptualise their practice.

With these points in mind our recent edition ‘Evidence-based Teaching in the Primary School’ provides the reader with an account of how one primary school used EBT as an approach to improving teacher’s and children’s learning. As a school in challenging circumstances and previously seen as requiring improvement, the Head decided to use this approach over a two year time frame in order to engage and enthuse staff to take a close look at their practice. With the help of a local university academic mainly to advise on research methodology, the staff were offered the opportunity to engage in their own research, be part of some wider research being undertaken by the academic and to come out of their comfort zones to present their findings within and externally to school. There was no blueprint for our work over these two years; the Head acted as a role model for EBT (often unsuccessfully) but he built a community of teachers who began to see the merit of EBT in their own classrooms. EBT became a whole school approach that is on-going today. As a university academic I learnt early on that my credibility with teachers would only stretch so far – what really counted were the perspectives of the teachers engaging in EBT. To their credit, not only did these teachers take on EBT as a whole school initiative but they used its outcomes to widely disseminate their findings culminating in this book. As editor I have tried to present not just the accounts as we remembered them but also some of the ‘uncomfortable messages’ that come with the nature of this work: limitations of the EBT, how to manage rising staff confidence, challenges to school leadership and many more. If you are interested in such work, the book may help to guide you through the trials and tribulations of an EBT approach. All you have to do is to supply your context!

 

 

Mind the Gap: Encouraging boys to read

The winner of the education catagory of the Critical Prize 2017 is Simon Taylor of the University of the West of Scotland. His winning essay is posted here for you to read.

This essay will critically examine the perceived trend in the underperformance of boys in literacy development.  It will seek to first establish whether this underperformance does indeed exist, considering counter-arguments, before proceeding to discuss possible causes for this anomaly.  Finally, this essay will consider strategies that can be employed by primary school teachers to mitigate the effects of those causes.

Putting Gender on the Agenda

Reading is a pre-requisite of success in school and society (Ozturk et al, 2016).  Good readers are better students in every subject area (Fisher & Frey, 2012; Landt, 2013) and literary aptitude is one of the most significant indicators of achievement educationally, socially and economically (Scottish Government, 2010; Henry et al, 2012).

PISA has reported that the underachievement of boys is a global trend (Smith, 2012), which affects all OECD countries (Clarke & Burke, 2012; Harrison, 2012; Helbig, 2012).  In the US, girls outperform boys in all fifty states (Cassidy & Ortlieb, 2013) and in Australia, boys represent the majority of pupils who struggle with literacy (Henry et al, 2012).  This long-term, international trend affects reading, writing and reading for pleasure (NLT, 2012).

In the UK context, this issue affects all social classes (Bradshaw et al, 2016; Moss & Washbrook, 2016) but the gap widens for pupils eligible for free school meals (Adcock, Bolton & Abreu, 2016).  The trend also permeates all ethnic groups (Adcock, Bolton & Abreu, 2016) but most significantly affects white working class boys in the UK (Sharples et al, 2011).  This is in contrast with the US where black and Hispanic boys are the worst affected (Landt, 2013).

The majority of schools in the UK have reported a gender imbalance in reading (NLT, 2012).  Scotland’s attainment gap is smaller than the OECD and UK averages (Boyling, Wilson & Wright, 2013; Scottish Government, 2013).  Tymms, Merrell & Buckley (2015) found that boys are around five developmental months behind their female counterparts by Primary 1.

Driessen & van Langen (2013) argue that the so-called gender gap is both overstated and generalised, however they fail to account for the aforementioned statistical trends identified by multiple researchers.  While they are correct that class and ethnicity are more influencial indicators, that does not justify overlooking the impact of gender.  The oft-repeated claim of sceptics that troubleshooting treats boys as a homogeneous group (viz. Driessen & van Lagen, 2013; Scott, 2014; Tarrant et al, 2015) seems wilfully to ignore the identified trend and implies that it should not be corrected.  Nor is it a “backlash” against women or “remasculisation” of society (Tarrant et al, 2015, p.67); this feminist perception of a misogynistic approach falsely assumes that the betterance of boys must necessarily be at the expense of girls (Moss & Washbrook, 2012).

Between the Lines: Why gender matters

The rate, sequence and degree of brain development differs between genders (Senn, 2012) which causes girls and boys to think and act differently (Watson & Kehler, 2012).  The frontal lobe and cerebellum, required for language skills, in a five-year-old boy is equivalent to that of a three-year-old girl (Senn, 2012).  Girls always use a common language network in the brain when reading, however boys use a network dependent on the mode of delivery (Ihmeideh, 2014).  Moreover, the prevalence of reading difficulties is higher in boys, alongside ADHD and autism diagnoses which as much as quadruple (Moss & Washbrook, 2016).  For these reasons, it is incumbent on the class teacher to recognise possible differences in the requirements of their pupils and to tailor their teaching methods accordingly.

Critics who claim there is no evidence of neurological differences in boys (NLT, 2012) or dimiss what evidence there is as “myth” (Hamilton & Jones, 2016, p.250) do so on the grounds that this makes gender differences inevitable.  However, to accept neurological differences is not necessarily to condemn male learners to a disadvantage; it provides an opportunity to refine practice to suit the needs of the learner.  While it is accepted that some boys achieve great success in literacy, this does not mean there is no developmental distinction between genders, as suggested by the Boys’ Reading Commission (NLT, 2012, p.2).  Rather, it is to suggest that  developing a greater understanding of such distinctions can improve the learning experience of both girls and boys. Counter-arguments that the literary gender gap varies by time and country (Driessen & van Langen, 2013) do not stand up to the scrutiny of the foregoing discussion, which demonstrates a worldwide, long-lasting trend.

The trends above may be exacerbated by entrenched social practices.  For example, parents are shown to have the biggest influence on a child’s literacy skills from birth to age three (Scottish Government, 2010), the years which are “key to outcomes […] in childhood, adolescence and adult life” (ibid, p.7).  It is significant to note differences in the assumptions, treatment, and perception of girls and boys amongst parents.

Parents may assume that reading is less important for boys in the first place (Ozturk et al, 2016). There can also be assumptions about what constitutes literacy itself, such as privileging printed books over other forms of literacy (Harrison, 2012).  By not recognising examples of literacy in its broadest sense, parents may overlook important developmental opportunities and occasions to celebrate success.

There is evidence that suggests parents differentiate treatment of children based on the child’s gender in the first year of their life through the choices they make concerning names, clothes, toys and hobbies (Moss & Washbrook, 2016).  Evidence shows mothers will develop their daughters’ literacy more than their sons’ by talking to them more (Ihmeideh, 2014), and teaching the alphabet more (Moss & Washbrook, 2016).  Girls are more likely to be bought books, taken to the library, and more likely to be given books as gifts (NLT, 2012).  It is important to engage parents in boys’ literacy, especially as fathers’ reading habits are of particular influence to boys (Watson & Kehler, 2012; Henry et al, 2012; NLT, 2012).  Boys with fathers who read to them, or who are involved in their daily care, are more likely to be able to draw a recognisable face at a younger age, have a higher IQ, and be more socially mobile (NLT, 2012).

Perceptive disparity occurs when parents, perhaps erroneously, rate the literary abilities of their daughter higher than another parent would of a similarly-performing boy (Baroody & Diamond, 2013).  This could be due to a perception that there is a “fixed trait” that boys are less able readers (Ozturk et al, 2016, p.713).

A child’s gender identity is formed before starting school, largely based on modelling adult behaviours (Hollis-Sawyer & Cuevas, 2013).  Children take cues from parents’ lifestyles  and, from as young as four, television (Moss & Washbrook, 2016; Galman & Mallozzi, 2015).  Boys are almost twice as likely to have fallen behind before they start Primary 1 (Adcock et al, 2016).  Children with poor literacy at the outset are likely to remin behind (Mattall, 2016; Moss & Washbrook, 2016).

On reaching school, pupils may face further bias from their teachers relating to their gender (Hamilton & Jones, 2016).  Based on preconceptions, teachers may also rate equivalent performance as higher in girls (NLT, 2012; Baroody & Diamond, 2013).  Conversely, the assumption that boys will underperform may result in teachers being less troubled or inclined to act when such underperformance is manifested (Moss & Washbrook, 2016).

Scottish schooling features a high proportion of left-brain processes, such as fine-motor skills, sequence, letters and words, sitting down and listening for extended periods: all of these favour female learning styles (Hamilton & Jones, 2016).  Behaviours in accordanc with such expectations are more often evident in girls (Driessen & van Langen, 2013; Moss & Washbrook, 2016) as early as Primary 1 (Tymms, Merrell & Buckley, 2015).  In England, Ofsted notes boys do significantly better on multiple choice assessments while girls outperform in extended composition, irrespective of subject (NLT, 2012).

Alongside what appeals naturally to learners, there is a degree of peer pressure.  Female peers welcome pro-learning behaviours, while masculinity can be seen to avoid effort (Hamilton & Jones, 2016; Ozturk, 2016; Sarroub & Pernick, 2016).  As such, Galman & Mallozzi (2015) and Walker (2014) argue that school does not feminise learners, but it is masculinity which impedes success; it is wilful non-conformity from boys that disadvantages them, rather than that with which they do not conform.  This position absolves the teacher of blame, but in doing so ignores their fundamental responsibility to inspire and engage every learner in a tailored curriculum. Boys are less interested in pleasing the teacher (Serafini, 2013) and children recognise that the (predominately female) teachers like to read (Fisher & Frey, 2012).  Both sexes agree that reading is more for girls (NLT, 2012); one-fifth of boys would be embarrassed if friends witnessed them reading (ibid).  The fact that boys have accounted for between 78% and 79% of exclusions from Scottish schools every year for over a decade is, in part, due to the “increasing feminisation” of schools (Scottish Government, 2013, p.8).

A New Leaf: Improving boys’ literacy

The UK has been engaged with the gender gap for longer than other countries such as France or the Netherlands (Driessen & van Lagen, 2013).  In Scotland, the gap is both narrowest and closing fastest out of the UK nations (Machin, McNally & Wyness, 2013).  Generally, the Scottish Government privileges literacy in initial teacher education (Donaldson, 2010; Scottish Government 2010) and the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has an expectation of tailoring the learning experience to suit the indivual (Scottish Government, 2010).  Education Scotland inspections have found that CfE has broadened the range of texts, and improved performance, quality and confidence with regards to literacy experiences (Scottish Government, 2015).  Other recent initiatives from the government include the Bookbug scheme, which has “success[fully]” helped parents in underprivileged families to engage with books” (Scottish Government, 2015, p.8) and the PlayTalkRead buses, which have also enjoyed considerable engagement (ibid.).

The selection of texts is an important factor, but on its own insufficient to address the wider issue (Harrison, 2010).  Teachers substituting reading schemes with handpicked titles showed success in North Lanarkshire (Christie, Robertson & Stodter, 2014).  Though Korman (2013) describes the books boys like as “unfathomable” (p.164), numerous researchers have identified common themes that provide the necessary “spark of interest” in a story or character that motivates completion of the book (Landt, 2013, p.2).  However, commercial pressures have resulted in reduced availability of such titles, as publishers of children’s books have a tendency to produce material preferred by girls because it is more commercially successful (NLT, 2012; Sarroub, 2016).  The fact that boys have the most remedial lessons is not generally factored into text production and selection (Ortiz, 2014).  Teachers have insufficient knowledge of the boy-appropriate texts (NLT, 2012) and dissuade boys from reading by making what they enjoy off-limits  because teachers may find the subject matter personally distasteful (Senn, 2012; Serafini, 2013; Ortiz, et al 2014).  Scott (2014) found that many books lack authentic dialogue which accurately reflects the way boys speak, and those that embrace such vernacular are avoided by teachers who wish to promote correct grammar instead.

Henry et al (2012) strongly criticise such practices because in their view it is essential that boys see themselves as represented in the book.  Indeed, gender roles are reinforced through literacy and boys look for characters who match their own aspirations (Roper & Clifton, 2013; Sarroub & Pernick, 2016), informing those views and becoming role models (Scott, 2014).  That said, teachers should be wary of endorsing sexist depictions (Wohlwend, 2011; Hollis-Sawyer & Cuevas, 2013).  Male protagonists like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson have been successful because they are “not depicted as perfect but [have] believable flaws” (Ferris, 2009 in Senn, 2012, p.217).

Much fiction relies heavily on character development and the exploration of feelings and relationships, romantic or otherwise, which are not generally of interest to male readers (Henry et al, 2012; Senn 2012; Serafini, 2013).  Plot-driven and funny prose is much more likely to be engaging (Henry et al, 2012; Senn, 2012; Serafini, 2013; Ortiz et al, 2014; Educational Journal, 2016).  Moreover, boys read a significant amount of non-fiction and this should not be overlooked (NLT, 2012; Ortiz, 2014).  Yeung & Curwood (2015) encourage the inclusion of popular culture.  Senn (2012) also found excting cover designs, easy to read text, large areas of white space, photos, illustrations, and short page counts to be positively received by boys.

Research has strongly suggested that boys engage much more with reading when it is for a purpose (Fisher & Frey, 2012; Watson & Kehler, 2012; Serafini, 2013; Velluto & Barbousas, 2013; Sarroub & Pernick, 2016).   Boys like to be ‘expert’ on topics which matter to them, and that will engage them to read (Sarroub & Pernick, 2016).  Real-world contexts prove much more meaningful to male learners.  Fisher & Frey (2012) discovered that is more often the use of the book than the book itself which is off-putting.  Closed questions are not motivating because they serve no purpose other than to please the teacher (NLT, 2012; Sarroub & Pernick, 2016).

Purpose is closely linked to relevance.  The use of mobile phones can make reading more “authenic and relevant” (Brosseuk, 2014, p.18).  Such literacy skills are much more likely to have been developed at home already (Brosseuk, 2014; Watson & Kehler, 2012; Moss & Washbrook, 2016).  Schools privilege print text and do not give the literacy boys engage with at home a place in the classroom (Harrison, 2012).  Indeed, digital literacy is important almost everywhere in modern life except the classroom (Rowsell & Kendrick, 2013).  As with what is read, so it is with how these texts are read: we return to the theme of validating boys’ experiences and interests, and providing opportunities for them to recognise their place in the school curriculum.  Integrating these “hidden literacies” (ibid, p.588) increases both the duration and quality of engagement (Henry et al, 2012; Moss & Washbrook, 2012; Brosseuk, 2014; Yeung & Curwood, 2015).    While e-books have limitations for imagery, apps such as those from Disney or Dr. Seuss provide narration, sound effects, animations and other elements which can in some cases outweigh the value of traditional print text (Tilley, 2013).  Particularly relevant to boys is computer gaming, for example, in which Ihmeideh (2014) identifies character analysis, plot prediction, and comprehension as key skills which can be developed.

Another key purpose of reading that can help engage boys is drama.  A child’s first exposure to books is often through oral stories and rhymes (Abbott, 2013).  Role play and drama enhance motivation and promote language (Watson & Kehler, 2012; Gao & Dowdy, 2014).  Used appropriately, they can deepen understanding, higher order thinking and vocabulary (Gao & Dowdy, 2014).  Students can learn from each other and gain some control over the experience (Sarroub & Pernick, 2016).  Moreover, kinaesteic learning is shown to keep boys’ brains active (Senn, 2012).  Techniques including role play, improvisation, mimes, simulation and tableau can all enhance literacy (Gao & Dowdy, 2014).  A social element to reading is particularly important to boys (Watson & Kehler, 2012; Cassidy & Ortlieb, 2013; Mattall, 2016).

Lastly, the role of men in the classroom is critical to boys’ literacy.  As previously discussed, studies have shown that boys associate reading with female family members and female teachers (Harrison, 2012; NLT, 2012); and that male role models are essential to boys’ perceptions of reading (Watson & Kehler, 2012).  Many boys report that they have no such experience with men in their families (Senn, 2012; Serafini, 2013).  Male teacher numbers have decreased post-devolution while female teacher numbers increased (Scottish Government, 2013).  In Scotland, only 9% of primary school teachers are male (Scottish Government, 2016).  Factors including a perception of low pay, low status, lack of promotion opportunities and inexperience with children were found to discourage male graduates in Scotland from pursuing teaching (Riddell et al, 2005).

While Hamilton & Jones (2016) are right to point out that not all female teachers will share the same approach, it is the male role model that is lacking, not the male teaching method per se.  Galman & Mallozzi (2015) defensively reject accusations of “female teachers’ ignorance”, “failures” and their “inability” to adapt their practice of giving “preferential treatment” to girls (p.36) as culpable, however they defend a charge not levied.  They fail to appreciate that female teachers’ value and competence is not questioned, only their ability to single-handedly, adequately inform a gender role for the opposite sex (c.f. NLT, 2012).

Conclusion

In conclusion, this essay has demonstrated long-standing, international underperformance in boys’ literacy.  The research evidence suggests that biological differences between the genders are compounded by societal norms affecting  parents, teachers and boys themselves which disadvantage male pupils early in their literary lives.  Such trends can be combatted, the studies show, through an equally complex combination of approaches.  These include selecting texts with which male readers can identify, a medium that is relevant and a purpose that is genuine and sociable.  Moreover, this essay cites evidence that suggests boys do not see themselves reflected in the workforce that delivers this crucial training, and that encouring male parents and teachers to support boys’ development can be enormously beneficial.

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