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Engaging our boys in literacy

In 2019 approximately 3476 young men left school in New Zealand without achieving NCEA level 1 in literacy and numeracy; which equates to approximately 11% of the male NZ school-leaver population (Education Counts, 2020).  Whilst this is not a new topic, 2020 has undoubtedly been a difficult year.  The Ministry of Health (2020) released a COVID-19 Psychosocial and Mental Wellbeing Recovery Plan which acknowledges a number of secondary impacts of COVID-19; one of which is disengagement from education.  With this in mind, we need to be mindful of the impact COVID-19 has had on our communities and the larger impact this will have on our current tamariki.  We also need to be proactive in our approach and look at how we can all contribute to improving the educational outcomes of our tamariki.  


So how can we engage our boys in literacy so that it's done in a way that also enhances their confidence and self-esteem? 

​Include boys in reading choices and provide incentives such as reviewing resources

Magazines such as Upstart model this method by encouraging boys to read and write via competitions such as Bad-luck HORRORscope, which is where children write funny and horrible events for each month, which gets published on their website. For example, the fun loving Aquarius' HORRORscope reads “All your clothes are in the wash so your mum makes you wear your older brother’s clothes, which are WAY too big. At school, you play basketball with your friends when suddenly your pants fall down, and everyone laughs at you” (Upstart, 2020).


Use humour

Neall (2007) highlights that “humour is an essential element of male life.  It is the way males connect with each other, get through bad times and entertain each other and the opposite sex” (p.9).  Books such as Megan McDonald’s Stink-o-pedia and Sharon Holt’s you can make your own jokes are excellent examples of books that will appeal to a boy’s humorous nature.   An example taken from McDonald (2009) gives a list of “Ten ways to really bug your moody sister”.  Ideas include “Having a staring competition without telling her and hiding your smelliest sneakers under her bed!” (p48).  Holt (2009) entertains the reader by including a wide number of jokes and encourages to “use a dictionary to find words that sound the same but have different meanings” (p16) so that the reader can make their own side-split jokes.

Creatively use physical activity such as sports, dance and drama to promote literacy

Football academy by Tom Palmer is a great example of a book that highlights a male role-model creatively supporting a boy struggling with literacy by taking him onto the football pitch to kick a ball around and learn some football words.  Palmer (2009) says “I’ve got a copy of the words I gave you on these sheets of paper.  I’ll hold each one up and play the ball to you.  When you play the ball to me you have to tell me what letter it starts with” (p. 119). 

Promote positive male role-models

We can promote books aimed at boys such as the compilation of short stories written by famous male authors titled Guys write for guys read which captures guy thoughts and turns them into humorous stories from a young boy’s perspective (Scieszka, 2005). One author from the book, Bruce Hale, illustrates this by opening his story in a language that would appeal to a young boy.  Hale (2005) says “At first I thought the whole thing was kinda dorky, I mean wearing uniforms, tying knots, and helping old ladies across the street? I had my doubts about Boy Scouts” (p105).  

Greef (2004) suggests that male author book talks can be organised and father and son activities encouraged to take place.  Palmer (2008) recognises that literacy activities can be incorporated into libraries such as a sporting quiz, reading games and a sporting “detective hunt” whereby clues are found around the library in order to score a goal and become familiar with the library (p. 5).

Utilise every day opportunities to engage in literacy at home

We can encourage our tamariki to read and write things down - for example, we can ask them to read the ingredients on cans or labels on packets at home, and inquire whether a particular ingredient is listed.  They can be encouraged to read outdoor signs, and brochures.  We can include them in contributing to shopping lists and writing messages on greeting cards.  Subtitles can be put on for TV programmes so that our tamariki become familiar with language and we can engage their creative side and spark an interest in making things like their own comic book or storybook for themselves or for friends.

Teachers are often faced with the pressure and demands of improving the literacy outcomes for our tamariki however the pandemic forced a different way of looking at schooling, and home, for many, became a new place for children to learn. There is so much within the community that we can all do to help support bridge this gap for our tamariki.  We owe it to our community to lead the way and promote a greater male presence within the literacy world.  So what can you do to help break this cycle?  Have an idea you want to share?  Get in touch!


Education Counts. (2020). School leavers with NCEA levels 1 or above.

Education Counts (2019). Teacher numbers.


Greef, E. (2004). Lighting the fire: Inspiring boys to become readers. In P. Moore, E. Howe, R. Lonsdale, R. McCahon & D. Singh (Eds.), From Aesop to e-book: The story goes on. (pp. 143- 159). Erie, PA: International Association of School Librarianship. 


Hale, B. (2005). Shooting the breeze.  In J. Scieszka (Ed.), Guys write for guys read.  Penguin Group.


Holt, S. (2006). It’s true! You can make your own jokes. Allen & Unwin.


McDonald, M. (2009). Stink-O-Pedia. Candlewick Press.


Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner reader in every child. Jossey-Bass.


Ministry of Health. (2020). Kia Kaha, Kia Māia, Kia Ora Aotearoa: COVID-19 Psychosocial and Mental Wellbeing Recovery Plan. Wellington: Ministry of Health.


National Library (n.d.). Reluctant readers.


Neall, L. (2007). About our boys: A practical guide to bringing out the best in boys. Lulu Enterprises Ltd.


Palmer, T. (2009). Football Academy: Reading the game. Penguin Group


Scieszka, J. (Ed.). (2005). Guys write for guys read. Penguin Group.


Upstart. (2020). Write a bad luck HORRORscope competition.

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