Circumstances Underpinning Boys Literacy Achievement

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The home is one of the first socialization agents (Evans, 2001; Clarke, 2007). As such, within the context of many Jamaican homes, girls and boys are socialized differently. Specific responsibilities which are viewed as feminine or masculine are assigned accordingly. For example, girls may be assigned tasks such as, caring for younger siblings, washing dishes and other indoor female activities. On the other hand, boys may be assigned tasks which permit them to be outside more often than girls (Bailey & Brown, 1991; Evans, 2001; Parry, 2000). The data from several researches conducted in Jamaica also revealed that boys are privileged in the home and are permitted to roam the streets and spend longer hours outdoors, while girls are restricted to be indoors (Evans, 2001; Parry, 2000). Subsequently, teachers, educators and researchers have concluded that the differences in socialization of children have contributed to the disparity between the achievement and behavioural attitude of boys and girls in school (Bleach, 1998; Evans, 2001; Parry, 2000).

The research under review has indicated that many educators believe that the socialization of girls in the home has given them a greater advantage than their male counterpart. Hence, it has prepared them to be more disciplined, responsible and focused in school. Boys, on the other hand, have been ill prepared for the discipline of school from the onset of their lives; this has contributed to their underperformance and anti-social behaviour in school (Evans, 2001; Figueroa, 1997 as cited in Bailey, 2000; Parry, 2000). One such example cited is that girls not only show more interest in reading, but spend more of their past time reading. Also, not many male model readers are in the home, therefore, some boys view reading as a feminine activity that does not appeal to them. (Bleach, 1998; Evans, 2001; "Me read," 2005; Parry, 2000).

Contrary to the preceding views are those held by Clarke (2007); he attributes the behaviour of students, especially boys to the expectations teachers have for them. There is one popular Jamaican thought which says, "Teachers can break or make". It is also the view of some researchers that teachers' expectations can influence student's performance (Clarke; Evans, 2001). My experiences as an educator has also led me to believe that teachers' expectation of students can impede or enhance their academic performance. Evans (2001) and others who have done extensive work within Jamaican schools, conclude that teachers have created and sustained gendered classrooms in favour of girls (Bleach, 1998; Evans, 2001; Parry, 2000). She postulates that many teachers regard boys as disruptive, aggressive and lazy. Girls on the other hand are described in softer tones, such as; attentive, hardworking and cooperative. It is therefore, possible that students may behave in a way their teachers expect them to behave; hence, reinforcing expected behaviours.

Therefore, if boys are expected to be aggressive and perform poorly it is possible that they will meet these expectations; the opposite is also true for girls (Bleach, 1998). The implication is that teachers need to have positive expectations of their students and create an environment in which every child is given the opportunity to excel in their own way. Pajares (1992) as cited in Clarke (2007) asserts that the beliefs that teachers hold can inform how education is practiced. Interestingly, one of the policies of the MOE is to prepare prospective teachers to pay closer attention to the relations between their expectations about teaching and their practice in the classroom (Clarke).

Boys and literacy learning/development

In Jamaica and elsewhere, student's literacy ability is used to determine their academic achievement. The GFLT, for example is the benchmark used in Jamaica to measure student's literacy development in that grade (MOE, Language Education Policy, 2001). Unfortunately, as table 1.1 has indicated, many grade four boys in Jamaica are unable to achieve functional literacy at this level. The forgoing review of literature has indicated that many boys in Jamaica and elsewhere face multiple challenges which impede their literacy development, placing them at a disadvantage. As a result, some boys value reading as a boring activity; read less than girls and usually take longer to read than girls (Bleach, 1998; "Me read," (2005). Slavin (1996) as cited in Evans (2001) asserts that one crucial hurdle in literacy development is the ability to read. He further posits that students who lack this ability perceive school experiences as frustrating and unfulfilling. However, contrary to the poor literacy performances of boys, most of them want to learn and excel academically. Me read (2005) asserts that what boys find boring and unappealing is traditional school literacy. It therefore means an awareness of some of the factors which not only impede, but enhance and sustain literacy among boys is a good place to begin in developing boys' literacy abilities and teachers need to be cognizant of these factors.

Researchers have concluded that 'boy-friendly' classrooms or 'boy-friendly' teaching strategies tend to support and develop boys' literacy skills (Bleach, 1998; Jones, 2008: King & Gurian, 2006). In one school in which educators began experiencing success among boys, the teachers view the typical impulsive behaviour of some boys as male assets. As such, they provided activities which accommodated some of these attitudes displayed by boys to produce positive results in the classroom (King & Gurian, 2006). Hence, the students were engaged in frequent whole and small group discussions and participated in activities which required a lot of physical movement and spatial/ visual representation. In addition, the boys were introduced to multiple genres of literature, frequent opportunities to read and choice in reading selections and writing topics. The students' literacy skills were engendered in an environment which celebrated their successes through positive reinforcement, motivation and effective communication. The researchers who conducted the study held the view that, "when it comes to fulfilling the kinds of assignments we call literacy; boys are often out of their chairs rather than in them" (King & Gurian, 2006, p. 56).

Based on the literature review and my own personal experiences, it can be concluded that the way in which boys approach and view literacy learning is obviously different from girls. Some of the activities cited by boys as unappealing included sitting, copying from the board and reading text books (Bleach, 1998). According to Me read (2005), boys benefit from instructions that are tightly structured, focused and explicit. In addition, they suggest that lessons be assigned in bite-sized pieces and include multiple active learning opportunities such as drama and technology. It is therefore apparent that teachers and educators consider addressing the causes of boys' poor literacy performance from the primary level. Bleach, (1998) suggests that in order to address the needs of boys, it would have to start earlier in their school years, as the problem of underachievement in some instances starts as early as the preschool years and escalate as they enter the secondary level.

Boys' learning styles

Motivation is a crucial component for learning, more so for boys than girls. Bleach (1998) postulates that "girls tend to have a compliant motivational style, while boys want to do everything quickly and prefer short-term tasks" ( p. 5).One of the general objectives of the Ministry of Education is that every student is privileged with equal opportunities and access to education (Language Education Policy, 2001). However, every student enters the teaching and learning environment with a myriad of values and ideas which are unique and are influenced by different social experiences which influence their style of learning. Learning styles are the multiple ways in which students perceive, process and organize information (Anderson, 2006; Bostrom & Lassen, 2006). Anderson further contends that students exhibit different learning styles because they view and learn about the world in multiple ways under different circumstances. Bostrom and Lassen also suggest that teaching methodologies that align with students' learning styles can encourage and develop their motivation, which is a key component of learning (Anderson, 2006; Slavin 1994). With this knowledge, literacy instruction should therefore be engaging and structured in varying modes so as to accommodate boys and girls alike.

In addition, Bleach (1998) suggests that boys will be motivated and feel more successful if teachers present more opportunities for active engagement. For this to happen, it is important that teachers understand that boys do display different learning styles, as each child does not have similar learning needs. Clarke (2007) posits that teachers are of the view that boys are easily 'turned off' if class instructions are filled with discussions. Instead, they prefer to do something. On the contrary, other researchers believe that some boys do need to talk through their ideas, especially prior to writing. This enables them to develop comprehension, build oral language, social, cognitive and literacy skills (King & Gurian, 2006 ; "Me read," 2005). While Bleach agrees that boys prefer doing than talking, he also contends that they are more likely to participate in open discussions and physical activities instead of writing.

Jensen (2003) believes that learning is more effective when learning styles are supported by adequate teaching methods. He argues that the brain remembers information that is meaningful. This information will best be remembered when the student is interested and enthused about the topic; is able to apply the information to real-life situations and is given a choice in how the information is learnt and demonstrated. Hence, success is heightened when student's learning style and multiple intelligences are considered during the learning process. The arts have the potential of tapping into the learning styles of students, creating an awareness and motivation to learn (Kanter, 1993). Kanter also asserts that both teacher and student awareness of learning style can bridge the gap in understanding other subject areas. Notwithstanding, there are other factors which influence student's interest and should be considered.

One of the factors cited by researchers is learned helplessness, which is a result of students' consistent failure to achieve academically. Consequently, these students quit trying because they lack self-confidence and motivation (Superville, 1999). Furthermore, Frymier and Gansneder (1989) as cited in Superville posit that male students become at risk and exhibit negative factors such as violence and illiteracy mainly because they suffer academic underachievement. As such, the school has a responsibility to implement gender relevant, and not necessarily gender specific instruction to motivate and improve the performance of both sexes (Connell, (1996) as cited in Superville). Arts-based literacy instruction is one such approach to teaching and learning which appeals to the varied learning styles of both genders.

What is Arts-based literacy Instruction [ABLI]?

The arts can include anything from dance, literature, art, music, poetry and dramatic presentations (Cornett, 2003; Dowdy & Campbell, 2008). Hence, arts-based literacy instruction includes the teaching and learning of literacy skills through the arts. Cornett, (2006) opines that the arts are the foundation on which language and other communication have been developed throughout history. In addition, it is this mode of communication that young children sometimes use to convey meaning as they play and explore. Therefore, she contends that the arts should occupy a central place in the teaching and learning of literacy as an absence of art forms can limit the development of literacy skills, especially for struggling learners. Cornett further states that, "The arts are among the most powerful instructional tools and they are indispensable to standard-based educational reforms" (p. 5). Additionally, Tucker and Davis, (1996) postulate that children increase their knowledge and make sense of the world through their senses, which include, visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory. They added that these perceptual skills help to create the foundation for further learning during the primary and secondary years. Art-based activities can create an environment in which students explore, take risks and participate in hands-on activities as suggested by Clark (2003). It can therefore be concluded that the arts, when used in tandem with classroom instruction can motivate students, especially boys to excel academically. This is due to the fact that this form of instruction is usually engaging.

Several research statistics, put forward by Cornett (2003), highlighted the many benefits to be derived from art-based instruction. For example, in Sampson County, North Carolina, the scores of standardized test scores went up two years in a row after the arts were introduced, (Hanna, 1992 as cited in Cornett, 2003). In another study, students who were involved in an arts programme yielded higher grades than those who were not involved (Champions of Change, National Centre for Education Statistics, 2000 as cited in Cornett, 2003). Additionally, the arts create a different ethos within the classroom; it fosters cooperation, discipline and overall academic success. With the incorporation of arts in the school's curriculum, great improvements in students' overall attitude can be seen as visual art encourages reflection; dance communicates their feelings and ideas; drama promotes critical thinking while music gives them a voice (Cornett, 2003; 2006). Even though the research was conducted on a school level, it is believed that similar results can be experienced if initiated on a class level.

Researchers and neuroscientists have also suggested that the arts have benefits in the brain's development and maintenance (Sylvester, 1998 as cited in Petrash (2002). With the advancement of technology, neuroscientists and researchers have been able to literally observe the brain's activity of individuals as they perform or participate in specific tasks such as reading, solving problems or listening to music (Fromkin, Rodman & Hyam, 2007; Slavin, 2003). Subsequently, the results have shown that the brain is not just a reservoir of memory, but that it also controls every cognitive process. In addition, learning can only take place when connections are made between other neurons. This is only possible when interesting and meaningful information is transmitted from the environment through the senses. Neuroscientists have also found that the brain processes information more efficiently and is more enriched when something new or interesting is introduced. This becomes even more effective if performed regularly (Cain & Cain, 1998; Jensen, 1998: Slavin, 2003: Sousa, 2001). Additionally, among the key factors which influence early brain development and academic achievement is the infusing of the arts during teaching and learning (Jensen). With the inclusion of the different art forms in literacy instructions comes the opportunity for cognitive growth and development of the students.


One such art form is music which has always been a part of individual's lives and affects emotions and moods. It can also contribute to the literacy development of children and adults alike. Music involves sound organized in time and includes aural, kinesthetic, and cognitive skills (Cornett, 2003). Jensen, (1998) posits that "music and arts education have positive, measurable and lasting academic and social benefits (p. 36). He further suggests that the brain may be designed for easy understanding and acceptance of music and the arts. Some researchers assert that music acts as a carrier of words heard or sung and is an effective memory device. It also gets the attention of the learner and stimulates the neurons in the brain. (Erlauer, 2003; Jensen, 1998: Sousa, 2001). It is natural for humans to easily remember easily concepts which have been put to music or rhythm.

Within the teaching environment, students can use various genres of music to explain a concept or even to tell a story. This makes cognitive processes and learning more efficient, based on how the neurons function when learning takes place. Researchers have indicated that students who are exposed to music perform better in reading comprehension, develops cognitive, social and critical level skills (Trusty & Oliva, 1994 as cited in Cornett, 2003).

Drama/ Role-play

Cornett (2006) asserts that art forms require students to create meaning and therefore follow similar processes that are required during reading and writing activities. She also contends that the arts in the classroom provide avenues for students to express themselves and be more opened to the feelings and ideas of others. For example, drama communicates experiences and social issues; hence, it engages the use of the body, space and energy in an imaginative way (Cornett). For example, students can use role-play to retell a story, to explain a concept or to solve problems.

The use of drama according to Cornett (2003) has many benefits which will strengthen student's learning and social development. For example, drama deals with real life situations and therefore, enables students to develop problem solving and decision making skills. It also develops comprehension and writing skills, increases concentration and boosts attention. Students are more likely to remember and understand a particular subject area when they experience scenes or parts of the content than if it were explained or read to them (Cornett, 2003; "Me read," 2005; Petrash, 2003). Bleach (1998) is also of the view that drama will appeal more to boys because it usually draws on real experiences in which they can relate. Additionally, it requires movements and discussions which seem to appeal to boys.

Art/ Drawing

Art activity is also being described as involving cognitive processes similarly to reading and writing. Petrash, (2002) believes that engagement in artwork enkindles thinking and fosters memory because of the engaging nature of art. Also, he asserts that art-based activities encourage students to reflect on and absorb the information presented, which are key components in learning. Engagement in the arts not only promotes comprehension and learning, but it also helps to develop other attitude and behaviours needed for learning to take place. Therefore, art can be used to develop these literacy skills that are challenging for most boys. Kanter (1993) cites the benefits one teacher observed when students were engaged in artwork included a boost in reading abilities, self-esteem and a willingness to take risk in completing difficult tasks. Other studies have indicated that engagement in art enhances writing and comprehension skills, develops higher order thinking and self-discipline (Cornett, 2003; Cramer, 2001; "Me read," 2004).

My own experiences in teaching boys have led me to believe that boys tend to enjoy art activities more than girls; also, many of them are better able to express themselves in art than their counterpart. Additionally, their books were always filled with drawings that were sometimes unrelated to the subject or the assigned task. Clearly, this is an indication that art appeals to boys and has a place in their literacy instruction.

Dance/ Movement

Like drama, dance includes the use of the body, space, energy and expression of thoughts. Hence, it also supports and includes cognitive processes such as thinking, problem solving and decision making. Dance and movement also foster other social benefits which are necessary components for learning and literacy development, some of which include; self-discipline, self-esteem, self-confidence and cooperation, which some boys seem to lack (Cornett, 2003; Jensen, 1998). Neuroscientists also claim that frequent movement plays a vital role in learning development; movements engages an individual's thoughts and feelings which further activates neurons and strengthen cognitive skills Petrash (2003). They claim that the cerebellum, which is active during learning, is also highly stimulated during movements (Erlauer, 2003; Jensen, 1998). In addition, Cornett posits that students are more likely to remember and grasp a different view on subject areas when they dance these ideas and concepts.

Students within the Jamaican society can relate and appreciate dance movements, even within the teaching and learning environment. Teachers can therefore, capitalize on some of these cultural experiences or invent their own movements to enhance students' learning.


Literature is both a discipline as well as a component of the arts. However, children's literature will be the focus of this paper. Children literature contains multiple genres of stories; fiction and non-fiction as well as poetry which depict human conditions (Cornett, 2003; Cramer, 2001). Researchers agree that engaging students in listening to literature has long-lasting benefits in developing literacy skills. Anderson, Hebert, Scot and Wilkinson (1985) as cited in Cramer 2001) conclude that the most important contribution to reading success is reading to children. Cramer further asserts that literature extends language, entertains the mind, develops a love for reading and strengthens writing. In addition, Cornett concludes that literature should create the context for developing literacy skills as it enhances higher order thinking, stimulates interests and is therapeutic.

The preceding discussions have showed that boys more than girls exhibit less interest in reading activities. Research has also showed that boys find reading activities fulfilling when they are presented with the appropriate reading materials and are immersed in daily read aloud (Bleach, 1998; "Me read," 2004). Some of the boy-friendly reading materials suggested by these researchers are those that are action or sport oriented and highlights male heroes. They also submit that boys' interest in reading will be heightened if they observe more males reading both in the home and in school. Getting boys interested in school literacy can therefore be achieved when educators provide appropriate programmes and activities that will motivate boys to read and enjoy reading.

Although art-based instruction has its merits, Pavlou (2006) has other views on its effectiveness. Based on her study, she concluded that high and low confident students were more engaged and interested in arts activities when the activities were novel, complex, gave students a sense of control, included topics of interest and allowed social interaction and collaboration. When these factors were accommodated, the students were motivated and accomplished success.

Hanshumacher (1980) as cited in Jensen (2003) concluded that "arts education facilitates language development, enhances creativity, boosts reading readiness, helps social development, assists general intellectual achievement, and fosters positive attitudes toward school" (p. 38). Teachers in another study also believe that the arts should be an integral part of literacy instruction because they are critical in constructing meaning ("Me read," 2004). Like Bleach, (1998), I believe that embracing teaching methodologies which accommodate students' multiple abilities should be top priority in order to achieve a higher level of success in literacy development. Notwithstanding, theories of learning relevant to these issues is paramount in guiding instruction.

Theoretical Perspectives and arts-based instruction

There are multiple theoretical perspectives on education which form the fundamental basis upon which teaching and learning methodologies are applied. Formal instructions in education should be grounded in a theoretical framework. This framework should facilitate the numerous learning needs of every student, regardless of their gender or social background. Many educators today have embraced many such theories of learning to guide methodologies and other aspects of teaching and learning. It is therefore, necessary to examine arts-based instruction in tandem with grounded theories of teaching and learning. Hence, literature relevant to the theoretical perspectives on multiple intelligences, social and cognitive constructivism and how they support arts-based instruction are central to this review. The forego discussions have theorized that boys are more likely to be motivated when learning activities are engaging. Researchers have also concluded that the arts can create such an environment while developing cognitive skills. Therefore, the implication is that educators need to embrace teaching and learning theories which will facilitate and target boys' literacy needs.

Gardner's Multiple Intelligence and arts-based instruction

Gardner (1993) who worked and studied normal and gifted children as well as brain-injured adults developed the theory that individuals have multiple intelligences (as cited in Cornett, 2003). Gardner's theory suggests that individuals have at least eight intelligences, with particular strengths in some. One of the myriad definitions of intelligence is the ability to acquire, learn and use knowledge or skills (Slavin, 1994). The eight intelligences which Gardner presents include, visual/spatial, verbal/linguistic, musical/rhythmic, intrapersonal/social, interpersonal/individual, logical/mathematical, kinesthetic/drama or dance and naturalistic intelligences (Cornett, 2003; Kanter, 1993; Menon, 2002). Cornett further concludes that four of the intelligences; verbal, visual, musical and kinesthetic are parallel to the arts domain. These are the linguistic, visual arts, music, and dance respectively. Gardner who also supports art-based learning contends that it is an injustice to students when teachers continue to serve education in the same way to each student. Traditional methodologies emphasize the linguistic and the logical intelligences and neglect the other intelligences, which could be employed to motivate students to excel in other areas (Cornett, Kanter).

One example of the nexus between the arts and intelligences was apparent following one of Gardner's research projects on art development (Gardner, 1990 as cited in Cornett, 2003). Gardner concluded that children enhance other intelligences when they are engaged in art work. Over time, their engagement with the elements and procedures of revising and perfecting their art work, helped to improve their cognitive and physical growth which are necessary to write. An awareness of the multiple intelligences of students can guide appropriate instructions that will appeal to boys.

Social Constructivism and arts-based instruction

Social constructivism is a teaching and learning concept that suggests that learning is socially constructed and that students should be active participants in their learning. Also, learning is constructed through problem solving, discovery, exploring, questioning and experimenting meaningful and authentic situations (Cornett, 2003; Slavin, 1994). The arts facilitate the tenets of a constructivist teaching and learning as students collaborate with each other and share their experiences in art form. Another major concept of this theory is the Zone of Proximal Development [ZPD] developed by Lev Vygotsky, which refers to the point in which students need the assistance of others to complete a task (Mallow & Patterson, 1999; Slavin, 2003). One of the implications is that teachers need to provide opportunities within the learning environment in which students can receive maximum support from both teacher and peers. Arts experiences facilitate and support students as they solve problems and strengthen literacy skills and weaker intelligences.

Cognitive Constructivism and arts-based instruction

Another orientation of educational theory which supports arts-based teaching is the cognitive development theory (Cornett, 2003). This theory emphasizes the point that learners play a major role in constructing their own understanding as they actively participate in the environment that supports learning. In order for children to develop cognitive skills they must be allowed to interact and experiment with their environment. Additionally, the concept of cognitive theory emphasizes that the ability to learn specific concept is dependent on the learner's stage of development (Powell & Kalina 2009; Slavin 1994).

Arts-based instruction facilitates multiple learning needs which further allow students to construct meaning and participate in authentic experiences. Also, this theory of learning suggests that each learner should be given opportunities to construct their own understanding of concepts at their level of education and cognitive development. Teaching didactically does not facilitate this type of learning and therefore a better understanding of student' s learning styles and needs will enable teachers to effectively help students to construct meaning and initiate learning. The plight of boys in Jamaican classrooms illustrates a disjuncture between specific boy related needs and pedagogy and therefore has contributed to their underperformance in literacy. The definition of literacy suggests that educators should not limit teaching and learning to skills such as reading, writing and listening, but should present instruction to facilitate other abilities. These abilities include all the intelligences and learning styles referred to in the foregoing discussions; every child carries some of these abilities to the learning environment