Using Technology to Combat the Boys’ Literacy Problem

A few months back I was approached by Robin Canedy who works with the Pathways Charter School in San Diego. Specifically, Robin had teachers who were interested in contributing a guest post to my blog. After several delays (all of them mine!) I now want to introduce my guest contributor, Alanna Gasser who is a teacher and freelance writer in California.
Her post seems particularly pertinent given the subject matter of my recent workshop on visual literacy at the Queensland History Teachers’ Association annual conference. Alanna quite rightly, in my opinion, points out that boys “…will generally respond to visual and kinesthetic teaching strategies more effectively.” I ask you to give Alanna’s post your full consideration and as always, please do post comments.

Using Technology to Combat the Boys’ Literacy Problem

It is a rather well-known educational issue that boys tend to fall behind girls when it comes to reading and writing skills. National studies including those in the USA, Canada, and the UK show that boys’ literacy scores are lower than girls’ on standardized tests, that boys are more likely to be placed in special needs programs, and more likely to drop out of school. It is also fairly well recognized that most boys will generally respond to visual and kinesthetic teaching strategies more effectively. Could embracing visual and social technologies in the classroom be just the thing we need to help boost boys’ literacy scores?

The Problem

Robert Lipsyte argues in this New York Times essay “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?”, that part of the problem lies in the female domination of the book publishing business, schools, and more specifically, school libraries. He claims that boys are generally more inclined to read non-fiction, and that the kinds of books boys are interested are not the same kinds of books supported by the education system.

Judith Kleinfeld, founder of the not-for-profit Boys’ Project, has similarly argued that the literacy gap between boys and girls is far wider than the sciences/maths gap for girls which has, in the past, been another hot education topic. Astonishingly, she claims that more than 25% of American male high school students cannot read and understand a newspaper article. A summary of her Boys’ Project findings can be found here, as explained by Richard Whitmire.

A common complaint amongst male students’ parents is that they wish their son would drop their video game controller, turn off the computer, put down their smart phone…. and pick up a school book! Something a few educators have begun to catch on to is the idea of using this kind of excitement and engagement with technology, and turning it into a tool for student success.

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Image Credit:

Video Games

Why not, for example, let role-playing video games play a role in literacy learning? These games certainly involve a degree of reading and comprehension, as the player must read the back story about the characters and purpose of the game, and understand the tasks he is being asked to complete.

One assignment could involve having students create their own video game world, and write the script for the game’s back story. Another assignment could be for students to write a short summary explaining the back story of their favourite game, or an episode from one of their latest role-playing video game adventures. In this way, the students are engaged by the visual and kinesthetic excitement of video games, and the teachers get to sneak in some very complex reading comprehension and creative writing practice.


While we are at it, why not turn to boys’ love of action-packed comic strips/graphic novels into yet another technology-based literacy tool? This is essentially the premise behind using Bitstrips, a web-based, teaching-friendly tool which allows teachers and students to easily create unique and interesting comic strips for the classroom.

Teachers can use them as another medium for presenting content to students, or as a creative writing assignment for students. One of the main reasons Bitstrips are so effective for teaching literacy is because the student (or teacher!) can choose from banks of images rather than relying on artistic skills, and can thus focus more time and attention to the written content of the comic strip. Boys in particular will respond to the visual element Bitstrips provide, and students will enjoy sharing and discussing one another’s work.

Text Messaging

Another popular topic in the field of technology and education is the debate surrounding the use of cell phones in the classroom. One camp is prone to arguing that cell phones are a constant distraction and that their use only hinders effective teaching and learning. The other camp argues that their use is inevitable – text communication is so pervasive that fighting students’ engagement with it is a losing battle – and that educators should embrace the technology instead. In fact, one report claims that 54% of teenagers opt for text-tech communication, and that most of them choose this form of communication over face-to-face or oral communication methods.

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Image Credit:

A few resources have come about which limit the number of privacy and ethical issues associated with text messaging in the classroom. For example, Celly, a mobile social networking application, allows teachers to keep phone numbers private/anonymous, and gives them the control to keep messages on-topic and appropriate.

There are many ways of using text messaging in the classroom. Teachers can encourage students to use text-messaging shorthand when taking notes, they can compare text-messaging lexicon to formal writing as a means of discussing audience and purpose in texts, they can use text messaging to promote conciseness and brevity in writing, and text messages can be sent as a medium for class discussions and debates. The possibilities are virtually endless, and because students are already so very involved in the texting phenomena, these assignments will be ones that they can relate to, and which they will be more motivated to participate in.

Despite some popular concerns related to the availability of resources (not every student will have video games, a computer, and a cell phone), privacy (sharing phone numbers), and with the possibility of cyber-bullying looming in the background, the possibility that technology can improve boys’ literacy rates is promising. Boys respond to the visual elements of video games and comic strips, and the conciseness/brevity of comic strips and text messaging make literacy more accessible to boys. If technology makes literacy skills practice more interesting and accessible for boys… well then, what are we hesitating for?

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