kitchen table math, the sequel: boys need phonics

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

boys need phonics

There has also been concern about the growing gender divide in achievement, starting in primary schools.

Under the synthetic phonics system, children are taught the sounds that make up words rather than guess at entire words from pictures and story context.

Rhona Johnston, a professor of psychology at Hull University, and Dr Joyce Watson of St Andrews University, studied the results from 300 children originally given training using synthetic phonics when they were five.

The progress of the group at primary schools in Clackmannanshire was compared with 237 children using the more usual analytic phonics approach.

Boys taught using synthetic phonics were able to read words significantly better than girls at the age of seven, with all pupils ahead of the standard for their age.

Boys were 20 months ahead while girls were 14 months more advanced than expected.

At the end of the study, boys' reading comprehension was as good as that of the girls, but their word reading and spelling was better.


"Teachers told us they had fewer disciplinary problems and less trouble in the playground because boys were succeeding and had higher self esteem."

Professor Johnston's work has been influential in persuading the Government to re-write its national literacy hour - returning to a system that dates back to Victorian times.

Synthetic phonics fell out of favour in the 1960s and 1970s in favour of progressive 'child-centred' learning that was championed for decades by educationalists in the Labour movement.

Boys do better than girls when taught under traditional reading methods
London Evening Standard

and see: Bonnie Macmillan explains why boys need synthetic phonics more than girls do.


Crimson Wife said...

Sounds to me like both the boys AND the girls need phonics. Maybe the boys benefit from it more than the girls do, but 14 months more advanced than expected is something I'd want for my daughters!

Tex said...

Thank you for this! I've read about this boys-phonics connection, but I never knew the source.

Tex said...

I don’t know if this has been reported, but it would make sense that all this “context” whole language learning/guessing would also work against many low-income and minority children. But instead of improving the curriculum, educators would rather focus on unproven costly interventions like Head Start.

SteveH said...

Crimson Wife is right.

Let's say that schools use a terrible way to teach reading, but they don't quite understand that. They look at some statistics which indicate that boys are doing noticeably worse than girls. What do you do, use a better method just for the boys?

Throughout the years, I've had this continual feeling that schools are looking for something other than the big pink elephant standing in the middle of the room. It's got to be something to do with the brain, not simple competence or the willingness to ensure that learning gets done.

Our schools forms teams of teachers and parents to study the state test statistics. They might determine that the kids have to work harder on something like "problem solving", even though they don't know how that is defined on the state test. They don't analyze the actual questions on the test. So teachers will spend more time on problem solving or whatever, the numbers might go up a tiny bit, and they are happy.

Amy P said...

"...all this “context” whole language learning/guessing would also work against many low-income and minority children."

Right, and against those who don't speak English as a native language. All of those groups might be missing huge amounts of "context."
Everybody's probably seen that example paragraph where they mix up the letters (keeping the first and final letter?) to prove that you really aren't reading left to right. You can imagine how differently that exercise works for non-native English speakers, or for an English speaker trying to tackle a scrambled foreign text.

Erin Johnson said...

The new Core Knowledge Reading program uses synthetic phonics. In their first year pilot in NYC, the kindergarteners using CK Reading had a 5x gain over matched schools using balanced literacy. Hopefully, this success will persuade teachers/schools that there are better programs out there than balanced literacy.

Catherine Johnson said...

Erin - do you have a link I can put up?


Catherine Johnson said...

Sounds to me like both the boys AND the girls need phonics.


I have Bonnie Macmillan's book...I **think** she says that there may be a subtle hearing difference for boys??

I'll check.

Erin Johnson said...

Here is the link to pilot results from the CK Reading program:


SusanG said...

This page has a couple of links to articles about boys' hearing:

Catherine said...

thank you!

rocky said...

Girls seem to be better than boys at guessing their way out of a maze with all the lights off. But if you turn on the lights, everybody wins.

Catherine Johnson said...

rocky - great image!

I've observed that boys tend to 'shut down' when confronted with overwhelming school situations while a fair number of girls become anxious and 'driven.'

For example, I've heard of middle school girls staying up 'til midnight trying to reteach themselves the math they didn't understand in class. But I never saw a boy do that (maybe 1 boy). The boys I knew would 'check out.' They'd say they understood, or they did the homework, or whatever -- but they hadn't understood & they hadn't done the homework.

They weren't lying, exactly.

They were 'checked out.' That's the best I can describe it.

But you can easily see where, in a school situation in which the kids have to self-teach, girls are going to have a major advantage because of the higher conscientiousness. (Assuming my observations are correct...)

The anxious-slash-conscientious girls I knew were paying a steep price - BUT they were often doing better than the boys.

I don't know whether this is generally true; it's a hypothesis.

rocky said...

Ok. I thought they were just better at reading the teacher's face and taking hints from the pictures. :)

[begin "girls rule boys drool" rant]
I forgot about the "Tarzan" aspect, where a kid can teach himself to read just by studying the book.

Crimson Wife said...

My brother and I tested the exact same for IQ and scored within 10 pts of each other on the SAT (though not surprisingly mine was somewhat skewed to the verbal and his was somewhat skewed to the math). So it's safe to say that we are basically equally intelligent.

I was willing to play "the game" and graduated salutatorian, Natl. Merit Finalist, Natl. Honor Society, accepted to both Stanford & Harvard, yadda, yadda, yadda.

My brother refused to do anything he considered "busywork" and while he always had sky-high test scores, he just barely graduated high school. Fortunately, he was able to get accepted to a bachelor's in music technology program that only cared about his musical & math abilities. He excelled in college and has done well in his career.