An action research project by Kevin Magner (R.E.)


To develop a range of strategies to engage a group of Year 10 boys with lower level literacy in learning; to help build confidence in their own ability; a willingness to engage in written work and to help them achieve their target grades.


Examination of GCSE Religious Studies is based on the completion of two written exam papers. Pupils need to be able to express their learning in the appropriate written format for the exam.

Literacy is a skill for life and the ability to communicate effectively in both the written and spoken word is a basic skill for daily life and for employability.


The focus for this action research project has been my Year 10 GCSE RE group. The group is made up 13 boys, many of whom have lower level literacy skills.  The boys are taught together as part of a faculty initiative to teach pupils in single-sex groups.  The boys have a wide range of learning needs including six who are Pupil Premium, six have SEND needs (two being statemented), seven have dyslexic tendencies, two have ADHD and there are a mixture of emotional and behavioural issues also present in the group.

A significant proportion of the boys have relatively low self-esteem which manifests itself in many cases as a reluctance to participate in academic work. Behavioural and emotional needs mean they often find it difficult to work cooperatively.

The target grades for this group range from minimum target grades of C-F and challenge target grades of C-E.

During the course of the year it has been confirmed that eight of the boys will receive additional support in their final exams, including seven who will have the support of a scribe and reader. While these pupils will not have to physically write in their exam they will still have to know and explain verbally how they want their answers to be written.

Background Reading and Research

Background Reading

Historically, boys in general have been less academically successful than girls in Religious Education as they have been in most literacy based subjects.

“The one area of the curriculum where boys do tend to underachieve is English” (pg ii3)

Initially, in my research I looked for evidence of practical strategies to engage boys in learning. The document, ‘Me Read, No Way’ – A practical guide to improving boys’ literacy skills, produced by the Ontario Ministry for Education (2004)1 and which draws on findings from OFSTED, provided some very helpful strategies based around the structure and delivery of lessons:

Boys respond best when:

  • work is assigned in bite-sized, digestible pieces and is time-limited;
  • lessons are broken down into a variety of activities that include more research, or the use of information technology; “active” learning opportunities, such as drama, investigation,
  • the work seems relevant to them – that is, when it has a purpose they can understand;
  • lessons are delivered in a brisk, well-paced format, with an obvious direction, so that they can tell that progress is occurring;
  • the work includes an element of competition and/or involves short-term goals;
  • time is allowed for review and reflection following the lesson or assignment;
  • an analysis of the “concrete” aspects of a text precedes an analysis of one’s emotional response to it;
  • they receive regular, positive feedback.

(Wilson, 2003, p. 123) (pg161)

Other guidance focused on specific teaching strategies with reference to the development of written literacy:

“Some strategies for establishing the link between reading and writing:

  • Explicitly discuss models of good writing in detail, pointing out elements such as sentence structure, paragraphing, and vocabulary, so that students become aware of the choices that the writer has made.
  • Maintain a balance between the development of skills such as spelling and grammar and the exploration of content, meaning, and effect” (pg 141)

“Graphic organizers and other visual tools can be a useful means of demonstrating the relationships between things, both spatially and conceptually. They can be used in literacy activities in ways that may help “let boys in on the secret”.” (pg201)

Seeing a teacher model the use of writing frames or templates and using writing frames themselves helped students understand narrative structure.

  • Breaking text down to its skeletal outline helped students understand how writers develop a story
  • Writing frames were most useful to students of average ability, but they also helped lower-achieving students, especially when those students used the frames in groups, with a teacher’s guidance.
  • Writing frames built structure into the narrative writing task, improving boys’ writing performance.” (pg211)

However, it quickly became evident as the year progressed with the class that issues of self-esteem, motivation and social interaction were as much of a barrier to engaging the boys in my class as their practical skills. Low self-esteem can often become embedded in academic behaviours which can then be reinforced by gender stereotypes.

As the DFCS (Department for Children, Schools and Family) document, ‘Gender issues in school: What works to improve achievement of boys and girls’ (2004)2 states:

“The peer group is of central importance in reinforcing gender stereotypes. For instance, given the choice, pupils usually sit in same gender groups and both primary and secondary pupils ‘police’ the gendered behaviour of their peers, and punish failure to conform to traditional gender norms.”(pgiii2)

It soon became apparent to me that in my all male class a number of negative stereotypes were well established amongst the boys concerning their attitude to learning in general and to R.E. in particular. Working hard, or being seen to work hard, was not ‘cool’ and R.E. was not perceived to be of relevance to their current or future lives.

This exacerbates the social challenges the pupils have to overcome in terms of literacy development.

Boys designated “poor readers” are more likely to react against their perceived low

status in class than girls working in the same group. In an effort to bolster their standing with their peers this group of boys may avoid spending much time on a task they find difficult (pgvii2)

This effect is multiplied, even in a single gender class, given the ‘practice’ the boys have had in trying to avoid work they find difficult throughout their education.

There are therefore academic, personal and social factors that all combine to act as hurdles in the race to develop the literacy skills necessary to enable the boys to successfully reach the finishing line of their GCSE exams. This acutely highlights the tension for any teacher, between the desire to develop literacy skills for life against the all too real deadline of an exam date.

Visit to a primary school

Discussion with a colleague from a primary teaching background highlighted the idea that many of the boys may have struggled or indeed missed key steps in the development of their literacy skills while in primary education. As a result they have struggled to build more advanced skills over these gaps.  Similarly, a loss of confidence and a consequent lack of self-esteem may have resulted in their being reluctant to undertake, or even trying to avoid written tasks which expose their limitations – this being most obvious when it comes to public examinations!

I undertook a visit to a primary school which had undertaken a school-wide writing project to explore strategies, particularly those relating to boys who are struggling to develop their literacy, which I hoped would help me to find strategies which might be effective with my class.

Among the strategies used by the primary school were the following, which fall into three broad categories:

  1.  Practical support
  • Teachers model the writing process using pupils’ ideas. This is then used to model the ‘Review, Edit, Improve’ process
  • The ‘Think, Say, Write’ process is used to allow pupils to express their ideas using verbal skills in which most pupils are stronger, before the more challenging task of capturing them in writing
  • Pupils are supported in the drafting and editing of written answers through the use of mini-whiteboards so that work is improved before it is written in ‘best’
  • Laminated ‘placemats’ which include key words, vocabulary, grammatical forms and success criteria are used to provide individual pupils with immediate support and guidance on specific tasks/activities
  • Keyboards and voice recorders are used to support pupils who find the motor skills involved in writing difficult thus providing them with the chance to produce ‘written’ work they can be proud of
  • Written work is ‘reverse engineered’ by starting with a finished piece of writing and then working backwards to explore and understand how that answer was produced thus modelling the process that build towards successful written work in small steps

2. Social strategies to build self-esteem

  • Talk to small groups of pupils directly about the difficulties they are facing in their literacy and ask them what support or help they want, thus showing that they are not alone and that the teacher intends to support them
  • Share pupils’ best work with an appropriate audience (another teacher, the Head teacher, the rest of the class, display, a younger class, a visitor, sent home to parents) to celebrate success and foster self-esteem
  • Use practical/engaging activities (build…, make…, do…) as a stimulus for consequent written work
  • Use laminated speech bubbles with pupils’ names and board markers during lessons to capture and display good ideas from pupils, thus providing recognition and a sense of immediate success with aspects of a written task to build self-esteem and retain good ideas for later use

3. Whole-school principles and strategies to support literacy

  • Develop a culture which recognises the need for ‘practice, practice, practice’ in written work
  • Establish the expectation that every pupil will be writing
  • Ensure that all pupils learn and practise the ‘review, edit, improve’ cycle in their written work
  • Provide support at ‘the point of learning’ (placing an emphasis on helping pupils to succeed rather than waiting for failure and then providing remedial support)
  • Have clear expectations regarding legibility and spelling to ensure pupils do not try to mask their needs through poor handwriting
  • Have a regular (termly, weekly, module) focus on an aspect of literacy (spelling, handwriting, punctuation)


Strategies to engage interest

This was the first approach I tried at the beginning of the year as I sought to make lessons both stimulating and engaging for the boys. As far as possible I broke the lessons into small chunks and sought to use a wider variety of activities than those that were already built into the faculty scheme of work.  I did this to shift the emphasis of the lessons away from written activities and to encourage greater participation.  Increasing the emphasis on visual resources (including picture based activities and the use of short film clips) did stimulate interest and as the year has progressed, become a springboard for discussion which the boys enter into more freely than written tasks.

The use of IT based resources which I thought would appeal to boys has been of mixed benefit. The use of ‘Plickers’ (a discussion/quiz based activity) based on the principle of immediate feedback using QR coded cards proved ineffective for this group as the practicality of using the technology (the ability of an I-pad to read a set of QR codes held up by pupils in a single camera shot) led to frustration amongst the pupils.  The use of ‘Kahoot’ quizzes using mobile phones was more successful in engaging interest but was soon found to be open to abuse as some of the boys used the ‘give yourself a name’ function to use words which provoked a negative response from other pupils.  A creative use of the resource I had not foreseen – intelligence but employed in the wrong direction!

Other successful strategies have included an increased focus on vocabulary based activities which reinforce the learning of the specific terms required for the exam. This has included the development of both paper and Power point resources which link vocabulary to images and involve pairing, matching and odd-one-out type activities.  These have served both to introduce and to revise key words, with repetition of the vocabulary through a variety of activities – a fundamental principle underpinning lessons.  This has also resulted in the production of resources which the Teaching Assistant linked to the class can use when working one-to-one with key pupils.  These vocabulary games have been extended to include:

‘Chopped Words’ (take a set of key words – chop up and mix the words like the pieces of a jigsaw – pupils have to recreate the key words e.g.   IST   IAN  CHR  ITY  becomes CHRISTIANITY)

‘Scrabble’ (provide scrabble tiles of the letters of a key word. Pupils have to find as many words as they can from the tiles with a bonus for the key word using all tiles)

‘20 Questions’ / ‘Guess the password’ (pupils are given the opportunity to ask questions which can only be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to ask their fellow pupils, to help them identify a key word which has been shared with the rest of the class)

‘Hangman’ (the traditional game using key vocabulary) – the boys particularly enjoyed this game, especially when it was played by them against the teacher!

‘Here’s the answer, what’s the question?’ (pupils have to identify the key word from its definition or a series of statements about it)

These, along with other activities have promoted familiarity with key words and an opportunity to practise the correct spelling at the same time.

An increased emphasis on discussion rather than Q&A tasks or note-taking has also helped increase engagement in lessons. Any discussion that includes personal anecdote or experience from teacher or pupils stimulates interest further.  This has been a particularly useful way of engaging the boys’ natural curiosity when discussing ‘big issues’ such as the existence of God, the morality of abortion and euthanasia or the existence of the paranormal – but is a greater challenge when discussing ‘drier’ areas of the curriculum.  When used together with skilled questioning techniques this has provided an effective way to explore an issue without reliance on a written text.

Developing good behaviour and promoting self-esteem

By far the biggest obstacle to engagement was the behaviour of pupils, much of which I believe is an expression of their low self-esteem. Many boys came to the class bringing a reputation or set of behaviours which they sought to maintain in the presence of their peers.  Some had a history of not getting along together which coloured all of their interactions.  Some are easily wound up and can be provoked at the slightest instance.

The consequence of this was that class management was a priority from the start of the year. It also meant that a number of cooperative learning strategies were not practical.  In consequence I focused on trying to remain positive in outlook, to be consistent with the class and to be optimistic in my expectations of the boys.

To move class management onto a positive footing I introduced two reward initiatives; reward stickers and a good behaviour report for the class.

The reward stickers are simply small praise stickers which are stuck on the cover of a pupil’s book in recognition of a positive effort, answer, contribution or achievement either in the lesson or in their written work. It is easy to use these either for a specific focus as required or for general recognition.  No specific attention is drawn to their use but pupils do take an interest in the number of stickers they have collected and consequently these are counted and the total transferred as they move into a new exercise book.  A number of the boys do take pride in the growing number of stickers and they do promote a sense of achievement and self-esteem.

To address common concerns regarding behaviour I introduced a Good Behaviour Report for the class. At the end of each lesson boys could gain a point in any, or all of five categories of behaviour I identified as those that would most benefit the overall performance of the class i.e. settling to work quickly, completing tasks, asking/answering questions, behaving well.  The foci were always positive and reward gained for achieving each foci rather than a negative consequence for failing to meet it.  Points were tallied and shared with the class across a two week timetable cycle and then rewards given in line with the school’s rewards system.  I ran this over two terms until I felt it had served its purpose of establishing expectations.

One strategy that was a chance discovery was the use of personal behaviour reports. Initially used to focus one of the boys with ADHD who is very easily distracted but who values positive feedback given to his mother.   This was a simplified paper version of the class behaviour report and was based on the idea that I would give his mum a phone call to acknowledge good behaviour if he had a series of successful lessons.  This report was then requested by another boy to help him to focus.  I continued to use these reports for the remainder of the year for those pupils.

Overall, I have found that the boys respond best to initiatives that are positive in nature, immediate in their feedback and tangible in their reward. A sticker given today with praise and either a call home or a positive referral, is more likely to have an impact than the promise of a greater reward in two weeks’ time.

Perhaps the most important approach I have tried to adopt has been to try and build positive relationships with the boys together with conveying an unfailing optimism in their ability to achieve academic success. This is undoubtedly a long-term strategy but a number of conversations with individual boys show that many need an awful lot of reassurance that their efforts are worthwhile and when they do succeed, they hold onto the successes they have achieved, however small or far apart they might be.

Developing writing skills

The principal reason for engaging the boys in learning was to develop their literacy skills to enable them to achieve a GCSE exam grade. With this in mind it has been important to maintain a clear focus on working towards the exam in every lesson.

Underlying this is what is referred to as ‘The Plan’ – a simple formula for framing exam answers to ensure that pupils access all of the marks available in each part of a question. A copy of this is glued into the back of each exercise book and folds out to provide an instant guide for pupils in lessons.  This is supported by the systematic way in which the format of lessons works its way around the four elements of a full GCSE question.   In almost every lesson we use our learning to address one of these four elements, giving their learning real significance.

Writing frames are used to help pupils to collect and record relevant learning as we work through each topic. These can be differentiated to support the needs of different learners, especially those with the greatest literacy needs.  Writing frames also help to ensure that as the course progresses pupils develop an orderly set of work in their books to support later revision.

Blank writing frames are also available for each part of an exam question. These are based on the same format as the exam paper they will sit at the end of the year and provide practise in applying ‘The Plan’ to the exam paper.  With minor differentiation in the form of sentence starters, they help establish the correct vocabulary for the exam and the principle of paragraphing longer answers – a skill many of the boys have yet to master.

Following my visit to a Primary School, I have increasingly used ‘Teacher Writing’ to model the writing process for the whole class using individual pupil’s ideas. This has allowed me to demonstrate how answers might be worded and edited to ensure that they meet the requirements of the exam.  I was pleasantly surprised to see how good the pupils often were in this exercise, especially in terms of correcting spelling and punctuation as well as in the need to explain points fully for the examiner.  However, while most of the boys could record such answers from the board there remains a reluctance to complete extended answers independently.

‘Teacher Writing’ also supports the process of ‘Think, say, write’, encouraging pupils to verbalise and rehearse an answer, with teacher input, before committing it to writing.


Overall, I feel that we have made some progress as a class. The pupils do understand the structure of exam answers and what is required to answer them.  They have become familiar with a wide range of key vocabulary though they are not always confident in its use.  The boys can engage in discussion and express opinions verbally and they have demonstrated the ability to frame exam answers when supported by ‘Teacher Writing’.

Behaviour continues to vary from lesson to lesson but we have had more productive lessons as the year has progressed. A clear format for lessons has been established and pupils understand the routines that shape lessons.

In the mock exams at the end of Year 10 results were still below target; however it was encouraging to hear from scribes that pupils did understand the structure of exam answers and tried to frame their answers accordingly. The ‘Teacher Writing’ activities had also helped pupils with the weakest written skills to make best use of their scribes by enabling them to try and put answers into the format that had been practised in lessons.


This is a challenging class to teach on many levels but with the challenge comes reward that is often measured in the small steps the boys have taken in their academic work or sometimes in those precious moments when ‘a penny drops’ or a pupil wants to stay a few moments beyond the lesson to make a point or ask a question. However, it has also been a rewarding process professionally if only in making me review, refine and re-think every lesson that I teach them.

On a broader level I have learnt a number of important lessons as a teacher:

  • Allow time to embed practice, even when it doesn’t seem to be working at first. Pupils like routine and clear expectations. If you have core behaviours or skills to teach you must stick with them even if you need to vary the way in which they are delivered.
  • Develop teaching strategies to meet the individual needs of your pupils. It is important to start from where the pupils are at academically and not simply expect them to fit the mould set for the majority of pupils. This requires patience, reflection and differentiation. Such differentiation can often be subtle and simple in practice.
  • It is important to build self-esteem at every turn. Pupils with low self-esteem take an awful lot of building up and their confidence can be very easily knocked. This takes a conscious and planned effort to maximise the opportunities to celebrate success and consistently reinforce, in the pupils’ eyes, your belief in their potential, where they may lack it themselves.
  • Identify your priorities for the course/class and stick to them. Even when you are not successful, you must be prepared re-iterate and re-define your priorities until they are achieved.
  • Develop routines and build expectations of how pupils will behave or learn. In time pupils come to accept and often rely on these routines, and will then hopefully, rise to these expectations.
  • Keep it simple. In developing new teaching strategies look for simple activities that vary and enhance your repertoire but are not overly complicated or onerous in terms of their planning and preparation. They must also be clearly focused on clear teaching points. Once you have found a strategy that works stick with it but be creative in the way you present and use it.
  • Time invested in resources or strategies that can be re-used is time better spent than investing hours in elaborate activities that have limited use.
  • Be persistent. Teaching a group of Year 10 boys with such a broad range of needs has been challenging. I have often left lessons frustrated, angry or doubted my own ability to teach but with patience and persistence I have learnt more about myself as a teacher and come to recognise the even greater challenges some of these pupils face both academically and in their future lives.

Next Steps

  • Continue to maintain or raise expectations the boys have of themselves academically and socially
  • Continue to work on using and developing the strategies that have proved effective so far
  • Work to develop greater resilience in pupils when faced by challenge or failure
  • Remain optimistic about the benefits to pupils of making small steps in their learning
  • Seek to establish a culture in which pupils are willing to write full exam format answers independently


  1. ‘Me Read, No Way’ – A practical guide to improving boys’ literacy skills.

Ontario Ministry of Education (2004)

  1. ‘Gender issues in school: What works to improve achievement of boys and girls’

Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009)

3. ‘Using the National Healthy School Standard to raise boys’ achievement’, Gary Wilson  Department for Education and Skills, UK. (2003)

Further reading:

Improving Boys’ Literacy

Improving literacy in secondary schools: a shared responsibility – OFSTED

Featured image: Texting boy by Fangirl on Pixabay (original image) licensed by CC0 Public Domain











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