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The Role of Executive Functioning in the Reading Gender Gap

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.

Research Context

Research into the role of executive function in reading typically focuses on two populations: emerging readers and students with reading disabilities. These studies rarely include statistical information about the performance of boys and girls, beyond noting that their sample included roughly 50% boys and 50% girls. Executive functioning as a construct has been studied using a wide variety of measures of executive functioning, including observational scales, questionnaires, and experimental tasks. The definition of executive function, and the components included, tend to be varied. Relatively few recent studies examine gender differences in executive function, and even fewer examine gender differences in reading as related to self-regulation.

Key Research Questions

  1. Is there a consistent gender difference in self-regulation skills?
  2. Is self-regulation important to reading development?
  3. Does variation in self-regulation ability account for some of the gender gap in reading?
  4. How does self-regulation affect reading ability?

Recent Research Results

Recent research suggests that there is a slight gender gap in self-regulation abilities in young children.6–9 This difference is not seen in all studies.10–12 However, studies that have not shown a gender gap tend to include smaller samples of children. In some of these studies, there is a non-significant difference favouring girls.12 Research into the developmental trajectory of self-regulation suggests that different children follow different developmental paths in self regulation.6 Most children develop good self-regulation skills before or during preschool. However, 20% of children show limited self-regulation development during preschool, and continue to lag their peers in self-regulation skills by 6 to 18 months. The majority of these later developing children are boys.

The role of self-regulation in literacy is well established for students with reading disabilities,5,6 who have significantly worse executive function skills than their typically reading peers. Furthermore, self regulation skills in kindergarten predict academic achievement (including reading) in later elementary school.10 In particular, improvements in working memory and self-regulation skills are significantly related to improvements in early literacy skills, including letter knowledge and emergent spelling.4 The role of self-regulation in literacy has been established in a variety of countries (USA,9 Iceland,13 Hong Kong,14 France,10 Netherlands4), suggesting that this skill is important to literacy regardless of culture and writing system.

Variation in self-regulation skills have been linked to gender differences in reading ability in both the United States15 and South Korea.11 However, the results of the studies were more mixed. Self-regulation skills were found to have more of an impact on girls’ learning than on boys’ in the North American study. In contrast, poor self-regulation had a larger effect on boys’ reading skills in South Korea. A variety of factors, including differences in cultural expectations, might explain this discrepancy.

When children’s behavior is observed directly in the classroom, the role of self-regulation in literacy achievement becomes clear.9 This research suggests that children with poor self-regulation spend less time engaged in learning related behaviours in the preschool classroom. Engagement in learning related behaviours was found to account for 19.5% of the role of executive function in literacy gains. Boys were generally found to spend more time in time-out and unengaged with learning activities than girls.

Research Gaps

More research examining how executive function skills are related to literacy development would help to create more targeted interventions or modify teaching methods to assist students with poor self-regulation skills in the classroom. In addition, cultural factors that may affect the interaction between gender, self-regulation, and literacy should be examined to understand cross cultural variation in research results. Since executive function does not account for all of the gender-related variation in reading achievement, closer examination of other factors, including language skills and cultural expectations, will help to develop our understanding of the gender reading gap. Evaluation of the effect of interventions targeting self-regulation on the development of literacy would help to further clarify the role of self-regulation in reading and reading intervention.


Reading is a complex task, relying on the coordination of many different mental processes (e.g. connecting letters to sounds, connecting words to meanings, connecting world knowledge to text). Coordinating multiple cognitive processes is typically understood to be the role of executive function.3 While gender differences in executive functioning appear to be small,8,12 they account for some differences in literacy achievement in young children.9 It is not clear whether differences in self-regulation explain all of the gender gap in literacy achievement. Since research demonstrates that self-regulation is important to all forms of academic achievement, 16 gender differences in this important ability should not be discounted. Some, but not all, of the ways in which self-regulation impacts literacy development are now understood. Children with better self-regulation spend more classroom time engaged in learning opportunities than children with less-developed self-regulation. However, learning behaviours do not explain all of the effects of self-regulation on academic achievement. Further research may expose other mediums through which self-regulation impacts reading development.

Implications for parents, services, and policy

Young boys are particularly likely to enter preschool classrooms with poor self-regulation skills. Since self-regulation has a significant impact on reading and academic development, classrooms must be prepared to support the development of self-regulation skills for their students. A variety of self-regulation interventions have been developed for classroom use, and their application should be considered, particularly in classrooms with more boys or lower socioeconomic status children, who are more likely to have poorly developed self-regulation on entering preschool. Since boys tend to spend more time in time-out, educators should consider different strategies to either reduce time spent in time out, or ensure that that time is made up with educational activities. Keeping in mind that children in preschool classrooms are at different points in their development of self-regulation, classroom learning activities should be structured to reduce executive function demands to allow all children to benefit from learning opportunities. Strategies like using shorter, more frequent periods of instruction and using predictable routines can help to reduce the executive function burden by allowing children to anticipate what will happen next and reducing the need to focus their attention for long periods of time.


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2. Chiu MM, McBride-Chang C. Gender, Context, and Reading: A Comparison of Students in 43 Countries. Scientific Studies of Reading. 2006;10(4):331-362. doi:10.1207/s1532799xssr1004_1

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