by Pam Withers & Cynthia Gill
“The largest achievement gap between boys and girls occurs in writing.”
—Ralph Fletcher, Boy Writers
Laura’s oldest son was in second grade when his teacher took her aside and told Laura point-blank, “Paul is getting behind in writing—in processing it, in learning the concept of it. He needs a tutor or eventually he’ll get further and further behind.”
Laura, wanting to heed the advice and be a conscientious mother, tried twice to get Paul into a special education class for writing, but both times her son was turned away because he “wasn’t bad enough.”
“To qualify, he had to be considered two or more years behind,” Laura says, shaking her head. The trouble was, every project in school involved writing, and Laura (a stay-at-home mom with the demands of two younger boys as well) had enough on her hands coaxing Paul to finish homework without becoming a writing coach. Paul soon grew to hate writing and everything to do with it.
“He did everything to avoid it; he’d become belligerent and start fights so that we’d send him to his room, and then he’d feel he’d won,” says Laura. This lasted for several years. “At one point, he became so hostile that we went to a counsellor, who said just let him fail and he’ll learn from that. But it didn’t work.”
Ironically, Paul was a voracious reader; he read two to three years ahead of his classmates, and was getting decent grades in everything except writing (where he got D’s, F’s and “incompletes”).
But Laura felt he was underperforming in non-writing classes, and that all his grades were being pulled down by his lack of organization, poor writing skills and resistance to writing. Almost every assignment that required writing was returned with the comment, “Expand; write more.” Worse, he often “forgot” to turn projects in.
At one point, Paul was diagnosed as having ADHD and went on medication, which helped his ability to focus and organize and thus curtailed some family tension. Eventually, Laura and her husband hired a writing tutor, a children’s writing-club coordinator recommended by the school. But the tutor and Paul failed to hit it off. In fact, the tutoring seemed only to entrench Paul’s resistance, which led Laura to do some soul searching.
“The tutor encouraged him, but never gave him a road map for organizing his writing. Because Paul was a good reader, he knew how good writing should sound, and he had thoughts on what he wanted to write. He just needed to know how to outline a story, and he needed to learn some ‘in the trenches’ practical stuff, tricks like how to combine sentences for better flow. It was as if I’d hired an artist instead of an art teacher, someone who only supplied an empty easel and words of encouragement. Paul needed someone willing to whip out a paint-by-numbers kit, so to speak.
“When I tried to talk to the tutor about this, she responded, ‘I know what you’re looking for but I don’t teach writing that way. It’s too formulaic.’”
Laura decided to search for a new tutor, and this time hired a former home-schooling mom of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. This woman, Becky, took Paul into her house for three hours per month. The result? Paul’s D’s and F’s turned into A’s and B’s. “He still claims to not love writing, but he is clearly proud of many of his writing assignments,” Laura says. She hopes Paul will continue seeing his tutor right through high school.
We asked Becky what she did that worked, as in, what approaches she could recommend any parent adopt for similar success.
She boiled it down to six points:
1) “I think writing is and should be formulaic! I would never throw a list of algebra problems at a child and say, ‘Be creative. Just come up with anything that comes into your head.’ But that’s how they teach writing. I like to start with the basics and then remind them of the basics as we are writing together.
2) “I start every session by reading the teacher’s directions aloud. This is key. If a child understands, truly, what he is being asked to do, it demystifies the task.
3) “An outline is essential to success; a messy outline in any form is better than no outline at all. Without this road map, writing is frustrating and difficult.
4) “When Paul brought a paper for revision, I’d read and reread his paper aloud to model a habit I wanted him to take on himself.
5) “I always hold a pencil in my hand as I talk. As I catch mistakes (and many times, Paul catches them before I say anything, because we are reading the paper aloud), I mark them in red immediately. Again, this models the behaviour he should be using when writing. Editing is a process, not an event.
6) “Lastly, I compliment anything I find compliment-worthy because students, no matter how poorly they write, need to feel successful. That way, when there are tough things to work through, they at least feel they have budding talent.”
Paul’s struggles with writing are more typical than atypical of boys. You thought the reading gap between boys and girls was wide? The writing chasm is three times the size. In fact, for all the attention that the math gap between boys and girls has received for decades (girls at a disadvantage and therefore needing special resources), the reading gap (boys at a disadvantage) is twice the math gap, and the writing gap (boys at a disadvantage) is six times the math gap.
The average eleventh-grade American boy writes at the same level as the average eighth-grade girl. And this writing-achievement gap applies to boys in every socioeconomic and ethnic group.
There are those who would say “So what?” If writing is primarily a girl thing and boys can get through school with good enough writing competence, maybe it’s unnecessary to push them beyond basics. But lack of writing skills not only loses applicants jobs; it hurts the economy. A Statistics Canada study indicates that raising literacy levels by a mere one percent would raise the nation’s literacy scores by two-and-a-half percent and worker output by one-and-a-half percent.
Dr. Brian R. Haig and Jeffrey D. Haig, twin brothers who founded www.MaximizeYourEducation.com, say the importance of writing skills is underrated. “Many students don’t realize that the ability to write effectively can determine how successful they become, not only in school, but also in their social and career endeavours.”
Writing skills determine employment and promotion because comfort with writing assures more effective communication, necessary for both good work relationships and getting work projects done. Besides, in today’s technological and information age, employees spend a large percentage of their day writing: emails,
instant messaging, blogs, discussion boards, chat rooms, letters and memos.
The Haig brothers say that misspelling words, using bad grammar or awkward sentence structure, using run-on sentences and failing to clearly articulate your message all give an impression of “who you are, your thought process, and your ability to effectively convey information. Regardless of whether it’s accurate or fair, your ability to write determines how people perceive what type of person you are, how intelligent you are, and how seriously you should be taken.”
Excerpted from Jump-Starting Boys: Help Your Reluctant Learner Find Success in School and Life, by Pam Withers and Cynthia Gill (Viva Editions). All references (footnotes) contained in the book.