May 21st 2005

  Buy Issue 2707

Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: CANBERRA OBSERVED: Costello's latest budget - do the figures add up?

EDITORIAL: Australia's economy after the Budget

SCHOOLS: Our failure to provide good books for boys

DRUGS: How to crack down on illicit drugs

ABORTION: Public turning against late-term abortions

IN VITRO FERTILISATION: Why Abbott is right about IVF funding

TRADE: New Trade Theory challenges free trade

SUPERMARKETS: Big retailers set to hit farmers even harder

COMMUNISM: Remembering the Vietnamese exodus

ENVIRONMENT: Kyoto Protocol unleashes the friendly atom

Support, don't abort (letter)

Cheaper insurance for pro-lifers? (letter)

Australia's trade woes (letter)

Public inaction over illicit drugs (letter)

OBITUARY: Vale Hugh Slattery: tireless fighter

OBITUARY: Tribute to Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen

THE SUPREMACISTS: The Tyranny of Judges and How To Stop It, by Phyllis Schlafly

THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR: Athens, Sparta and the Struggle for Greece, by Nigel Bagnall

Books promotion page

Our failure to provide good books for boys

by Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, May 21, 2005
Schools are seriously retarding boys' education by giving them trashy, crude and vulgar books to read, writes Kevin Donnelly.

As might be expected, the recent conference on boys' education held in Melbourne, the 4th Biennial Conference Working with Boys Building Fine Men, raised the issue of literacy and what can be done to raise standards and to get boys more involved in English classes.

Since the release of the 2002 House of Representatives report Boys: Getting it Right, a consensus has developed that the way literacy is currently taught - with its focus on whole language and look-and-guess instead of phonics - disadvantages boys.

In part, the problem is that the way boys learn, when compared to girls, requires more structure and a more clearly defined scaffolding of what is to be learned.


A phonics approach better suits boys as it is based on the assumption that reading is not natural or spontaneous, like learning to talk, and students must be taught the relationship between letters and sounds and how words can be broken into bite-size pieces.

While the focus on more effective ways to teach literacy is good, it is vital that the other part of the reading equation is not ignored. No less important than how boys are taught to read is the content of what they are given to read.

Unfortunately, judged by some of the books being recommended in an attempt to excite boys' interest, the assumption appears to be that how well a book is written or the quality of its content are of little value; the main thing is that boys might enjoy reading it.

With titles like The Day My Bum Went Psycho, Better Out Than In and Naughty Stories for Boys and Girls, it should be no surprise that the selection of many of the books provided to boys is on the basis that such books will appeal to their sense of toilet humour.

In the introduction to Better Out Than In, the author gleefully states, "Enjoy the book, and may you always leave carrot in your vomit". The book's stories describe activities like vomiting over kids at school, squeezing an oversize pimple and covering the house in pus and letting off a giant fart that blows a hole in your pants.

The blurb on the back cover of The Day My Bum Went Psycho describes the book as: "The story of a crack bum-fighting unit called B-team, a legendry Bum Hunter and his formidable daughter, and some of the biggest, ugliest and meanest bums ever to roam the face of the earth".

Boys, in particular, are short-changed by such stories as all they do is reinforce a juvenile sense of what is crude and offensive and model behaviour that most parents, and teachers, would find unacceptable.

Role models

Even worse, at a time when boys are searching for positive male role-models - found in such classic tales as The Iliad, Sinbad the Sailor and King Arthur - all they are given are anti-social, one dimensional characters who appeal to the lowest common denominator in human nature.

As noted by Bruno Bettelheim in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, when referring to much of the contemporary literature found in schools:

"... most of these books are so shallow in substance that little can be gained from them. The acquisition of skills, including the ability to read, becomes devalued when what one has learned to read adds nothing of importance to one's life."

Increasingly, researchers agree that much of the behavioural problems suffered by boys is caused because the stories now being read lack strong, attractive role-models who demonstrate how qualities such as courage, perseverance and a quick mind can overcome adversity and bring success.

Of interest is that recent films like the Star Wars series owe much of their success and attraction, as noted by Joseph Campbell, to the way they evoke and deal with archetypal emotions and dilemmas usually portrayed in classic stories.

Classic tales are also vitally important in helping students to appreciate how language works and how to recognise the structure of a well-written sentence. Most contemporary books are written on the premise that children have the vocabulary of the cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.

Traditional stories

Compare this approach to the story of "The Achilles Heel", found in The Kingfisher Book of Myths and Legends, where children are introduced to words like: impregnable, discord, protagonists and bludgeon.

The poetic quality of the language in traditional stories also helps students to better appreciate the musical nature of language and to develop an ear for what is written.

At a time when much of the debate is focusing on the more technical aspects of literacy, it is important to remember that what is being read is just as important in terms of giving students, especially boys, a balanced and rewarding education.

  • Dr Kevin Donnelly, director of Education Strategies and author of Why Our Schools are Failing (2004), is former chief of staff to Federal Minister Kevin Andrews.

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