Keith Topping: Educating boys is a huge challenge

A mother reading to her son marking Scottish Book Week
A mother reading to her son marking Scottish Book Week
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Next Monday marks the start of Book Week Scotland; an annual event bringing people together to share a love of reading and literature. With the attainment gap between schools in the wealthiest and poorest areas continuing to widen, the aims of Book Week Scotland cannot be underestimated.

Recent research has found that Scottish children from wealthy backgrounds are seven times more likely than those from less affluent families to achieve three As at Higher, while in four areas of the country not a single student from the poorest backgrounds achieved these grades. As three As are widely seen as a requirement for entry into the most prestigious universities this presents us with wider problems around aspiration and social mobility.

The Education Bill currently making its way through Holyrood is a step in the right direction, however in many respects the answer is simpler than this. The fact remains that the regular act of reading is the single more effective way to close our attainment gap. Literacy is the building block of all learning, so if we instil our children with a love of the written word then their educational outcomes will improve, and so too will their chances in life.

However, if we hope to increase the number of young people reading books for pleasure we need to listen to them when they indicate what they actually want to read. Boys are particularly interested in reading non-fiction, however school syllabuses are overwhelmingly geared towards works of fiction. This emphasis on fiction over non-fiction may reflect the reading preferences of teachers and librarians and is likely to result in higher academic outcomes for girls. However, given that raising the educational outcomes of boys is one of the biggest challenges that our education system faces, we need to seek every opportunity we can to increase their interest in reading.

The best way for teachers to determine what young people like to read is through the use of online assessments. Renaissance Learning’s 2015 What Kids Are Reading Report revealed that Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the most popular book for Scottish children aged between 9 and 12. Similarly the report shows that many of the books children like to read are actually quite difficult to read, but that the fact that they are motivating reads enables children to still comprehend them well. This is knowledge that teachers should be using to recommend similar books to children and more deeply embed them with a love of reading.

However, collecting accurate information such as this remains very difficult without the use of online assessment tools like those already used in many Scottish schools. East Lothian is one area leading the way in implementing assessment techniques which supplement and develop students’ learning, rather than just tests them.

The Education and Culture Committee is reviewing the potential impact of standardised testing on primary school students. This Book Week, I would urge its members to look at areas such as East Lothian to see how assessment can be used effectively and analytically to instil in young people the love of reading that is needed to close attainment gaps and increase social mobility for Scotland’s young people.

Keith Topping is a Professor at the School of Education & Social Work, University of Dundee and academic advisor to Renaissance Learning UK