Once upon a time there was listen with mother. Now it's read with father

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Fathers who do not read with their sons at home may provide a clue to boys' failure to match girls in literacy, according to new research released yesterday.

An intensive, year-long study from Exeter University of 5- to 11-year- olds suggests that boys struggle with reading partly because of the feminine culture surrounding children in their early years.

Most infant-school teachers and parent helpers are female, mothers do most to help with reading at home and many primary schools do not offer boys enough books about sport and adventure, the study says.

Researchers followed nearly 300 primary children of different abilities from various schools throughout the country for a year and found that the boys were about four or five points behind the girls when they were first tested in reading at the age of six. The gap on a test where the average was 100 was still the same for 11-year-olds.

However, the research - part of the Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project - found that some boys did improve, particularly if they had supportive fathers or grandfathers and if their teachers tried to tailor reading matter to their interests.

In general, boys were given less help at home than girls. Mothers were much more likely to read with them than fathers. About three-quarters of five- to seven-year-olds' mothers read with their children compared with half the fathers, and between the ages of seven and eleven the figure for fathers was down to one-quarter, although half the mothers still read regularly with their children.

Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University's department of education, who directed the project, said: "One of the most significant findings of the study is the role of mothers in teaching reading. If there is a problem with boys, it is obvious that fathers have got to get more involved."

One argument often used to explain why girls outperform boys - that boys mature later - was not the point, he said. There are teachers and parents who do work with boys and they do make a difference. Just because boys start behind girls does not mean that they have to stay there, Professor Wragg said.

Reasons for boys' underachievement were complicated but certainly included pessimism about employment prospects, which filtered down even into primary schools. Girls were not cleverer than boys, he added. In 1983/4 the gap between the number of boys and girls who obtained five high grades at 16-plus (O-level) was less than 1 per cent but by 1995/6 girls had drawn ahead by nearly 10 per cent.

Teachers questioned in the study said that boys lagged behind girls not only in literacy but also in their ability to concentrate, determination in the face of difficulties, productivity, self-esteem and social skills.

In the Times Educational Supplement Greenwich lecture in London last night, Professor Wragg argued that boys' underachievement was one of the main challenges facing the Labour government. Urgent action was needed, he said, because in the 21st century there would be fewer jobs than ever for those with little knowledge and poor social skills.

Professor Wragg put forward a 10-point plan, which including encouraging more fathers to help at home so that reading was not seen as a purely female activity, appealing to boys' interests, ensuring that boys attended nurseries so that they could make an early start on language activities and learn how to behave in class, and identifying potential underachievers in both primary and secondary schools.

The gender gap

Five or more GCSE grades at A-C 1995/6: boys 39.8 per cent; girls 49.3 per cent.

English GCSE grades at A-C: boys 46.9 per cent; girls 64.4 per cent.

Design and technology GCSE grades at A- C: boys 33.1 per cent; girls 48.6 per cent.

Exclusions from secondary school 1994/5: boys 7,191; girls 1,663.

Exclusions from primary school: boys 1,177; girls 91.

Full-time undergraduates 1995/96: males 453,600; females 470,500.

Figures for England and Wales