How can teachers develop boys’ academic writing?

Writing proficiency is a vital component of academic success. Despite the emergence of new technologies, a great deal of what we ask students to do in school still involves putting pen to paper and shaping sentences. Across most subjects, students will be expected to show that they can write in a way that demonstrates they are literate individuals who can communicate with clarity and concision. Beyond meeting expected standards and doing enough to pass exams, there is also a moral imperative for teaching students how to write effectively. As George Orwell pointed out, teaching students to write well, is also to teach them how to think for themselves.

And yet, in our schools, far too many boys do not write well. Compared with girls, boys are less likely to be adept writers working at an advanced level (Babayigit, 2015; Troia et al., 2013). Boys are significantly outperformed by girls in written expression and crafting of syntax (Aitken and Martinussen, 2013). Furthermore, boys tend to struggle with and reject complex writing processes, like planning and editing (Olinghouse, 2008).

Historically, some researchers (Berninger et al., 2008) have claimed that boys’ statistically lower writing scores can be explained by neurodevelopmental factors, such as differences in how boys’ and girls’ brains code letters when learning to read. The evidence for environmental influences on boys’ attitudes for writing, however, is much more compelling.

From an early age, the way that boys are socialised ensures that they are likely to see writing as a ‘feminine’ activity – a necessary means to an end, but not something that offers any inherent satisfaction (Pajares and Valiante, 2001). Indeed, other researchers (see De Smedt et al., 2018) have highlighted evidence that boys and girls have the same cognitive abilities, such as working memory functioning, which supports writing development and composition. Instead of searching for a biological ‘deficit’ to explain boys’ apparent dislike of writing, and lower scores on writing tests, it’s my belief that training teachers to use more effective writing techniques is the best way to motivate boys to improve their writing skills.

So what might these effective writing strategies for boys look like in practice? Here are three important principles to follow to improve boys’ writing:

  1. Demystify each stage of the writing process

Effective writing instruction enables boys to break down complex writing tasks into manageable stages. Boys will need to understand, and be shown explicitly and repeatedly, what planning looks like in specific subjects. Through frequent live modelling they can also experience the process of drafting and editing, while the teacher talks through the writing choices. In this way, previously arcane processes become visible, enabling boys to apply the same processes to their own writing.

  1. Focus on word, sentence and whole-text level

The recent EEF report Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools (Education Endowment Foundation, 2020) argued that:

There is evidence to suggest that by focusing on the micro-elements of writing for longer, students will ultimately be able to write longer, high quality responses.

In my experience, this is certainly the case among male students who are demotivated writers. Teaching boys about grammatical features, such as nominalisation and appositives, really helps students improve word choice and sentence structure. Another powerful technique is to model how to use participles to make boys’ academic writing more sophisticated, as with the following before and after example:

  • Forests make up about 30 per cent of the Earth’s land mass. That number is decreasing.
  • Making up about 30 per cent of the Earth’s land mass, the area of forests is rapidly decreasing.
  1. Reduce cognitive load by using fewer objectives

It’s crucial, however, that we allow boys the cognitive space to work on one technique at a time. One recent study (Silva et al., 2021) found that asking students to learn new technical vocabulary at the same time as writing essays ‘probably increased learners’ cognitive load’. And the impact of the increase in cognitive load? Their writing took longer to produce, they generated more errors and they failed to learn the target vocabulary. Boys who struggle with writing are already focusing much of their working memory on issues like spelling and handwriting (MacArthur and Graham, 2016). For this reason, until they acquire a level of automaticity, we need to ensure that we strip back lesson aims to focus on the most important objective. We might choose, for example, to tell students not to worry about the spelling of complex terms whilst they are learning different stages of writing a scientific report.

The research picture illustrates how teachers are up against seemingly insurmountable societal obstacles, with boys picking up signals from a young age about expectations of their writing ability. Academic writing can be complex and intimidating. But with effective instruction and deliberate practice, there is no reason why the vast majority of boys can’t write well and write with greater enthusiasm. Ultimately, with a frequent and sustained emphasis on the nuts and bolts of effective writing, which takes into account the subject-specific demands, boys will start to close the academic writing gender gap.

Reflection points

  • How frequently do you model each aspect of the writing process in your classroom?
  • What does highly effective writing in your subject look like at word, sentence and whole-text level?
  • Are your curriculum resources unintentionally placing excessive cognitive demands on boys during writing activities?

Mark Roberts is Director of Research and English teacher at Carrickfergus Grammar School. His book The Boy Question is published by Routledge. Save 20% through the Routledge website with discount code APR20.

References

Aitken M and Martinussen R (2013) Exploring predictors of performance on a curriculum-based measure of written expression. Journal of Writing Research 4(3): 281–299.

Babayigit S (2015) The dimensions of written expression: language group and gender differences. Learning and Instruction 35: 33–41.

Berninger V, Nielsen K, Abbott R et al. (2008) Gender differences in severity of writing and reading disabilities. Journal of School Psychology 46: 151–172.

De Smedt F, Merchie E, Barendse M et al. (2018) Cognitive and motivational challenges in writing: studying the relation with writing performance across students’ gender and achievement level. Reading Research Quarterly 53(2): 249–272.

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools: Guidance Report.

MacArthur CA and Graham S (2016) Writing research from a cognitive perspective. In: MacArthur CA, Graham S and Fitzgerald J (eds.) Handbook of Writing Research (2nd Ed.) New York: Guilford Press.

Olinghouse NG (2008) Student- and instruction-level predictors of narrative writing in third-grade students. Reading and Writing 21(1):3–26.

Pajares F and Valiante G (2001) Gender differences in writing motivation and achievement of middle school students: a function of gender orientation? Contemporary Educational Psychology 26(3): 366–381.

Silva BB, Kutyłowska K and Otwinowska A (2021) Learning academic words through writing sentences and compositions: Any signs of an increase in cognitive load? Language Teaching Research.

Troia GA, Harbaugh AG, Shankland RK et al. (2013) Relationships between writing motivation, writing activity, and writing performance: effects of grade, sex, and ability. Reading and Writing 26(1): 17–44.

 

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