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Boys and Literacy Acquisition: Introduction

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 informationThe 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.

First, Hope Anderson explores the role of early language skills in a post entitled Language, Literacy, and Gender: Does a Gender Gap in Language Underlie the Gender Literacy Gap? It is revealed that girls do have the edge on boys for early expressive language development. Boys quickly catch up to girls however so that they begin school with roughly equivalent language abilities and therefore it is not clear that differences in the trajectory of language development could explain all the gender gap in reading acquisition.

In the next post, Emergent Literacy Precursors, Ying Ying Liu describes the emergence of language- and code-related precursors to the acquisition of reading skills. These include vocabulary size, letter knowledge and phonological awareness. It appears that the advantage to girls is most noticeable at school entry for taught skills such as recognizing letters and matching letters to sounds. Therefore, there is an opportunity to close the gap by ensuring that boys acquire emergent literacy skills during the preschool period.

Rebecca Nishimura reviews the evidence on The Role of Executive Functioning in the Reading Gender Gap. Executive functions are related to reading acquisition and develop more slowly in preschool aged boys compared to girls. A particularly important aspect is self-regulation in the classroom making this a potential target for interventions but only if it can be shown that poor self-regulation skills in boys directly contribute to the reading gap.

Motivational and social factors are discussed by Sarah Bogdanovitch who asks Are Boys Less Motivated to Read than Girls? The answer is complicated but there is evidence that a gender gap in motivation to read emerges by third grade with the cause being extrinsic factors in the social environment.

These factors are considered by Emily Jarvis who examines the literature on Social-Environmental Influences on the Gender Gap in Reading. This research shows that boys who believe that they are not as good as girls at literacy related tasks perform more poorly at these tasks. Therefore, the gender gap may be due to stereotype threat, rather than actual inherent differences in ability between boys and girls.

After reviewing background research on the potential causes of the gender gap, recommendations to close the gap are provided. In the first recommendations post, Ying Ying Liu and Susan Rvachew review the literature on the home literacy environment. Formal and informal strategies that parents can use to support emergent literacy learning in the home are suggested.

Sarah Bogdanovitch and Emily Jarvis discuss the teacher’s role in closing gender gaps by examining their own implicit biases. Tips are given on the ambient classroom environment, choice in reading material, addressing gender stereotypes, and promoting a mastery-oriented classroom.

Finally, Hope Anderson and Rebecca Nishimura summarize recommendations for speech-language pathologists who may be providing speech-language services to boys with speech, language or literacy delays in the schools. These recommendations highlight the importance of using effective and evidence informed practices with all children.

Closing Remarks

To all those who take the time to engage with our series, thank you! Our team thoroughly enjoyed putting this series of resources together, and we hope they prove helpful!


Pictured (Left to right): Rebecca Nishimura, Ying Ying Liu, Sarah Bogdanovitch, Emily Jarvis, Hope Anderson, Dahlia Thompson.


  1. Cobb-Clark D, Moschion J. Gender gaps in early educational achievement. Journal of Population Economics. 2017; 30(4): 1093-1134.
  2. Kell M, Kell P. Literacy and Language in East Asia: Shifting Meanings, Values and Approaches. Singapore: Springer Singapore; 2014.
  3. Voyer D, Voyer S. Gender differences in scholastic achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin Psychological Bulletin, 2014; 140(4): 1174-1204.
  4. Hedges L, Nowell A. Sex Differences in Mental Test Scores, Variability, and Numbers of High-Scoring Individuals. Science. 1995; 269(5220): 41.
  5. Mullis I , Martin M, Foy P, Hooper M. PIRLS 2016 International Results in Reading, 2017. Retrieved from Boston College, TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center website:
  6. Chiu M, McBride-Chang C. Gender, Context, and Reading: A Comparison of Students in 43 Countries. Scientific Studies of Reading. 2006; 10(4): 331-362.
  7. Lundberg I, Larsman P, Strid A. Development of phonological awareness during the preschool year: The influence of gender and socio-economic status. Reading and Writing, 2012; 25(2): 305-320.
  8. OECD. Reading performance among 15-year-olds. In: OECD . PISA 2015 Results (Volume I) : Excellence and Equity in Education. 2016; OECD Publishing: Paris.
  9. Robinson J , Lubienski S. The Development of Gender Achievement Gaps in Mathematics and Reading During Elementary and Middle School : Examining Direct Cognitive Assessments and Teacher Ratings. American Educational Research Journal.2011; 48(2): 268-302.
  10. Homsy M, Savard S. Décrochage scolaire au Québec : dix ans de surplace, malgré les efforts de financement. Montréal: Institut du Québec; 2018
  11. Law J, Dennis J, Charlton J. The relationship between gender, receptive vocabulary, and literacy from school entry through to adulthood. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. 2013. 15(4): 407-415.
  12. Lee J, Al Otaiba S. Socioeconomic and gender group differences in early literacy skills: a multiple-group confirmatory factor analysis approach. Educational Research and Evaluation. 2015. 21(1): 40-59.


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