by Dahlia Thompson and Susan Rvachew
Reading literacy skills are crucial to academic success-indeed to overall functioning in modern society.1, 2 Therefore, the consistent underperformance of boys relative to girls on academic measures of literacy achievement is of specific concern to educators and researchers alike. Although the size of the gender gap in reading literacy varies across ecological settings, it has been stable for at least the past century.3, 4 The size and geographic reach of this gender gap is best portrayed by international assessments of literacy skills among school children. One such assessment is the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which has measured grade four students’ learning in reading using fiction and non-fiction reading passages every 5 years since 2001. In 48 of the 50 participating countries in 2016, girls had higher average reading scores than boys.5 Although the gender gap was somewhat narrower on the first administration of the computer-based version of the assessment (ePIRLS), girls still had a higher average achievement than boys in 11 of the 14 participating countries. Girls performed better than boys on the ePIRLS in areas of information retrieval, and straightforward inferencing as well as more complex skills such as interpreting, integrating and evaluating information. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which takes place every 3 years, assesses how well 15-year old students use, reflect and engage with written texts, using different types of texts and passages and including both short answer and multiple choice response types. A systematic review of PISA results revealed that boys did not outperform girls in reading in any of the 43 countries reviewed.6 Across the 43 countries, the male-female difference in overall reading performance ranged from 6 points to 59 points, with an average difference of 33 points, in favour of girls. Moreover, it was observed that in 90% of the 43 countries, boys were at least 50% more likely than girls to be poor readers.
Both boys and girls have improved in reading literacy performance within the past century,5, 7-9 and yet boys’ performance on reading literacy skills remains lower when compared to girls’ performance. Furthermore, this gender gap is observed in both high and low performing readers, and there are consistently more boys than girls amongst those with the lowest reading achievement. As a result, boys are more likely to have a lower school completion rate relative to girls.10 Risk factors such as low socioeconomic status, maternal education and a family history of reading disabilities,11, 12 explain poor performance in both boys and girls but male sex constitutes an additional risk factor since the gender gap in favour of girls persists in these populations.
Given these data it is clear that boys as a group achieve lower levels of reading literacy than girls. Nonetheless it is not clear why this finding is persistent across historical time, geographic areas, and cultural groups. If asked, it is likely that most adults and possibly even many children would hold strong opinions about why boys might perform differently from girls (on average); and yet, the research is not quite clear on the answer. The research evidence does provide strong clues however as revealed by the associated series of blog posts, to be summarized here.
by Hope Anderson
Reading is fundamental for success in modern society.1 Reading difficulties can have persistent and widespread implications on academic, vocational, and social functioning. Thus, ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of reading instruction is necessary to ensure children fulfill their lifelong potential.
Boys underperform girls at reading to a significant degree. This has been documented on a global scale through international reading assessments.2 In one of these projects, girls outperformed boys in 48 of the 50 participating countries, whereas boys did not outperform girls in any of the countries.3 Clearly, this is a worldwide phenomenon putting boys at risk for later difficulties.
While it is unclear why girls outperform boys at reading, it is generally accepted that boys develop language more slowly than girls.4,5,6 As language is a fundamental skill for reading acquisition,7,8 this language gap could provide a potential explanation for the literacy gap. However, this may not be the case as the language gap does not persist beyond the onset of formal reading instruction; specifically, boys seem to catch up early in elementary school.9 Therefore, even though language is the foundation for reading, further exploration is required to determine whether boys’ slower acquisition of language skills plays a role in the literacy gap.
Studies assessing language or literacy typically use one of the many available standardized language assessments. Research regarding language development, including gender differences, is extensive. However, the majority of literature that directly compares girls and boys focuses on early childhood, which makes drawing conclusions surrounding literacy development challenging. In regard to literacy, researchers in the United Kingdom particularly have paid special attention to literacy development through large scale longitudinal studies.
Key Research Questions
- Which early language skills are essential for literacy acquisition?
- How large are the gender differences in early language acquisition?
- Can it be concluded that differences in language development between boys and girls explain the gender gap in literacy?
by Ying Ying Liu
Literacy is an important and complex ability for educational achievement across age groups.13,17,21,22,28 As early as in the first and second grades, children acquire skills related to decoding (sounding out and recognizing written words), spelling and composition (writing words and sentences correctly), reading comprehension (understanding the meaning of what is read), and reading fluency (reading quickly without mistakes).2,3,5,7,17,26,27 Research shows that girls often outperform boys in terms of general literacy as assessed in terms of data from national standardized tests2,7 across age groups. Girls also show better performance in spelling, vocabulary use, as well as compositional organization and fluency.2,7 In addition, reading diagnostic tests also reveal that boys also tend to have higher rates of dyslexia.11,5 However, the reasons leading to this persistent gender gap in reading and writing achievement remain ambiguous.
Research has shown that the most important precursors to the acquisition of literacy skills are in the oral language domain and in the code-related domain.29 Particularly, preschool vocabulary (oral language domain; comprehension and verbal), letter knowledge (code-related domain; letter-sound correspondences, letter recognition/writing) and phonological awareness (code-related domain; especially implicit phonological awareness of rime and alliteration) skills, which constitute the building blocks for literacy acquisition, are strongly correlated with actual literacy related performance in later grades.29 In addition, these skills are not all acquired in the same manner. Skills such as vocabulary and letter knowledge are highly dependent on environmental factors24,30 and need explicit instruction while phonological skills seem to be genetic and developmental.8,23
by Rebecca Nishimura
Learning to read is an essential part of childhood education in modern society. Significant time is spent in elementary classrooms helping children learn to decipher letters and words, as well as exposing them to different types of writing to develop reading comprehension skills. As students advance in school, they are increasingly required to learn new content through reading. In the workplace, literacy skills are required for nearly all jobs. Even recreational activities, including using social media and playing video games, require literacy skills. Since literacy is so central to modern society, the causes of the long standing literacy skill gap between boys and girls1,2 are an important area of research to explore. Specifically, it is important to understand whether boys have a particular problem with the cognitive aspects of reading or whether they have difficulty with learning the classroom due to deficits in executive functions.
Executive function has frequently been implicated in skilled reading,3–5 since many cognitive functions (e.g. knowledge of language, knowledge of letter sounds, knowledge of the world) must be coordinated to read and understand a passage. Self-regulation – that is, the ability to plan and adapt one’s behaviour for different situations,6 is an aspect of executive function that includes a variety of more specific skills (e.g. inhibition, directing attention). In the classroom, self-regulation manifests as the ability of children to sit still, attend to their teachers, and work independently, all of which seem important to all types of learning, including literacy instruction. Understanding whether the reading gap is associated with boys’ executive functions may allow us to develop interventions that more effectively target problem areas and help to close this gap in achievement.
Although gender discrepancies in reading have been consistently identified,2 the causes of these discrepancies have not been well-explored. Many studies of predictors of reading ability, best practices in reading instruction, and other literacy areas include equal numbers of boys and girls but do not report on any differences between genders. Executive function is one possible area of difference between boys and girls that might contribute to the gender gap in reading achievement.
by Sarah Bogdanovitch
Learning to read is difficult and to do so children must be motivated to learn. Motivation to read is an important factor that determines reading habits that contribute to reading skill, such as the amount of time spent on reading activities, the variety of different genres a child engages with, and if the child reads at home as well as in school.1 Research indicates that differences in motivation to read between boys and girls appear during the school years and likely play a role in the gender gap found in reading achievement.2,3,4,5,6
Motivation is a complex construct best described as a collection of individual characteristics. Research has identified different types of motivation that can be placed into three categories. With examples specific to reading, these categories are (1) goal orientation, or what a child hopes to gain from reading (e.g. intrinsic goals, such as to gain pleasure from the activity or to master a reading task, or extrinsic goals, such as to gain positive external feedback for reading); (2) self-competence beliefs (whether a child thinks they will succeed at a reading task or not); and (3) social and environmental aspects of motivation (e.g. whether or not reading is perceived to be valuable in their home or classroom).7 According to this research, it is not accurate to describe a child as either highly or poorly motivated to read; rather, scientists describe the child’s motivational profile. Researchers have studied the ways that different types of motivation and motivational profiles impact the development of reading skill.8,9,10
For intervention targeting motivation to read to be effective, it is critical to understand when and how motivation for reading develops—as well as when a gender difference in motivation to read emerges. Most studies use questionnaires to measure motivation. These are typically inappropriate for use with preschool and early school-aged children, making this population particularly difficult to study in terms of motivation.
by Emily Jarvis
One way in which girls and boys differ is in the way that they are raised. The social environment in which children are raised creates different expectations for boys and girls. Girls and boys are expected to play with different toys, to engage in different activities, and to perform differently in different school subjects1. The research reviewed below reveals the ways that adult expectations impact performance in reading and likely contribute to the gender gap in reading achievement which has been shown to exist across ages and cultures2.
Adults hold stereotypes about how male and female children are expected to behave, to play, and to perform academically in different subjects. For example, girls may be expected to play with dolls, whereas boys are expected to play with cars. Historically, girls have been expected to perform better in reading compared to boys, whereas boys have been expected to perform better in mathematics3,4. These stereotypes are placed on children by parents and teachers, who may be unaware of their own biases and the way that they impact their children or students. Children in the early school years pick up on teacher and parent stereotypes about gender roles and expectations, and their academic performance is therefore influenced by the stereotypes that are held by the adults in their life.5
by Ying Ying Liu and Susan Rvachew
Research show that much of later academic achievements are dependent on the initial literacy skills acquired during the first few years of education.16,17,20 Girls tend perform better than boys in terms of literacy whether it is measured by standardized assessments2,7 or reading and writing diagnostic tests.2,7 Furthermore, even in preschool aged children, girls have the advantage in certain code-related skills1,4,16,26,27 that are predictive of later reading and writing abilities—that is, girls may outperform boys at tasks that involve knowledge of rhyming, alliteration and letters. This trend seems to be fairly consistent regardless of the location, culture or language of the population.6,26,27 These gender related discrepancies may put boys at a disadvantage when it comes to learning and literacy acquisition.6,32
Despite this gender gap in early literacy skills, there are ways to help boys get ready for academic learning. Parents can prepare both boys and girls to achieve reading and writing skills as expected when they go to school. Environmental factors play a large role in children’s learning at school. In particular, parental involvement is highly correlated with how well young students perform5,11,25 at school. In particular, some code-related skills that are essential for reading and writing must be taught explicitly.30 Some studies suggest that boys might underperform due to social stereotypes that may be reinforced by parents and teachers alike.33,36 Verbal feedback and social modeling in the home and school can give boys the impression that reading is “for girls.” Reinforcing the importance of reading for everyone is an important strategy to support boys’ reading achievement.
by Sarah Bogdanovitch and Emily Jarvis
The tendency for girls to outperform boys in reading, writing and spelling is likely caused by a culmination of contributing factors, including linguistic, cognitive, motivational, and social influences.1 However, gender biases in the learning environment in the early school years appear to play a particularly strong role.2 Gender stereotypes can significantly impact boys’ motivation to read and the value that they place on reading activities; subsequently, reduced reading experience dampens boys’ emerging reading ability. Although evidence for the gender gap in reading achievement is not as strong in the early years of formal schooling,3 teachers of young students are in a critical place to minimize the effects of gender stereotypes around reading activities. The challenge for these teachers is to build an early foundation for motivation to read in boys without negatively impacting girls’ learning. Below are some recommendations to begin thinking about gender and reading in the classroom, along with some evidence-based strategies that can foster all students’ love of reading.
- Reflect on gender in the classroom
Knowing the strong impact that implicit bias can have on students, teachers can start by examining their own beliefs around gender and reading. Although research shows that there is not a true difference in ability, many people hold the incorrect belief that girls are naturally better readers than boys. Challenging this belief in the classroom could lead to positive outcomes for boys’ reading achievement. Some research suggests that one way to challenge implicit stereotypes is to add counter-stereotype visuals to spaces that are typically gendered.4 In the classroom, it is necessary to consider the visual images, decorations, furniture and objects that are included in reading spaces; these should include associations that are both stereotypically masculine as well as feminine so that the space is welcoming for all genders.
by Hope Anderson and Rebecca Nishimura
Reading is an essential skill for lifelong achievement. Being a proficient reader is beneficial in educational, vocational, and socioemotional spheres of life.1 This places the onus on teachers and other school personnel, including speech-language pathologists (S-LPs), to ensure they are providing high quality, evidence based reading instruction.
Girls are better readers than boys. This gender reading gap has been observed to persist into high school on a global scale.2 As reading is a critical skill for long-term success, instruction and intervention must address this achievement gap to ensure that both boys and girls are equipped to fulfill their potential.
As stated by Speech-Language & Audiology Canada (SAC), “speech-language pathologists (S-LPs) are essential members of educational teams supporting students of all ages with speech, language and communication challenges to achieve their academic and personal potential.” S-LPs play a central role in providing direct literacy intervention, recommending instructional methods to teachers, and designing literacy programs. Because boys have greater difficulty with reading than girls, the majority of S-LP clientele for reading intervention are boys. However, S-LPs must select intervention approaches that are effective and engaging for both boys and girls.