The Reading Gender Gap
You’ve heard of the gender gap in maths education — but there’s one in reading, too.
On average, boy children outperform girls in maths. It’s a fact that has been deeply documented and has, thankfully, garnered a lot of attention and interventions designed to narrow this gender gap from the earliest ages. But it has, perhaps, overshadowed a different, even wider gender gap in education: Reading — which, according to international studies, is where boys struggle compared to girls, at three times the rate of the maths divide.
A hidden gender gap in education
It’s a problem most parents of young, struggling male readers sense, and fight desperately to support, but few connect to a larger problem. This is likely because, according to a report examining the maths performance gender divide, “in contrast to, say, verbal test scores, math test scores serve as a good predictor of future income. Although the magnitude of the effect of math performance on future income varies by study, the significant and positive effect is consistently documented.”
But comparisons between the two gender gaps in education stop there. In mathematics, the main issue is that few girls rank among the very best; globally, many girls are doing reasonably well and relatively few are actually bad at math. In reading, however, the big disparities lie at the bottom of the scale: the worst male readers are really, really bad.
This has major consequences, first and foremost for the students themselves, but also for society. More than 50,000 primary school students in Norway receive special education; a disproportionate 68% of them are boys. Special education costs run into the millions of dollars. These figures are readily available from Norway, where Hermundur Sigmundsson, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) psychology department, is looking into how best to identify potential struggling readers among very young children, especially boys, in order to develop early interventions that prevent them ever falling behind.
The root of boys’ reading struggles
Using a test developed by special educator Greta Storm Ofteland, a co-author alongside Sigmundsson of a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, the team assessed the letter-sound knowledge — popularly known as phonics — of 224 girls and 261 boys, who altogether had an average age of six.
“Letter-sound knowledge is what best predicts how well students will be able to read later,” Sigmundsson said. “We found a significant difference between girls and boys in all four variables [upper letters and sounds and lowercase letters and sounds], in favor of the girls.”
Six is a critical age. Earlier this year, a study found that by age six girls are less likely to associate their gender with the possibility of brilliance. There’s no reason to think boys are less likely to have fixed ideas about their potential; by age five, all children, both girls and boys, have developed a sense of self-esteem, whether that is a good or bad feeling about themselves. Boys who struggle to read at this age may not be receiving the same social messages that cause them to doubt the potential of their gender, but may start to identify as someone who is simply no good at reading.
Nature is a factor that drives the struggle, the researchers said, as well as nurture. Difficulty reading can be hereditary; on top of that, most girls begin talking earlier than most boy babies on average. Parents tend to talk more with girls from birth, unintentionally giving girls more practice with letters and sounds than boys; children don’t learn letters and sounds without being exposed to them.
(Sigmundsson dismissed the argument that the gender gap in reading is due to girls maturing earlier than boys. Although this difference exists, it doesn’t adequately explain the disparity, he said.)
Once a child starts lagging behind in reading, it’s likely they’ll become less interested in it as well. Reluctance to read increases. On top of that, students are no longer required to read as much at school as they were before. This probably most affects children who don’t choose to read in their free time, widening the gap between readers and struggling readers, girls and boys.
Helping the child struggling to read
“One major problem is that a lot of the support efforts come too late,” Sigmundsson said. “If we could catch children earlier who are struggling and give them the right training and follow-up, we might not have to do so much remedial work with them they get older.”
Sigmundsson said the way to do that is to focus on teaching phonics — that is, teaching single letters and their sounds first (B makes a ‘buh’ sound), rather than jumping directly into words (‘button’ starts with B) — as early as possible, not through memorization but through experience and stimuli, which is how a child learns. He points to other recent research that has found people get good at exactly what they practice, developing specialized nerve connections in the brain through repeated actions, whether that’s playing an instrument or reading.
While phonics, with its deep support from research, is the established teaching strategy for reading in countries like the UK, US and France, it has not yet informed curriculum in Sigmundsson’s Norway, nor here in India. But Sigmundsson’s findings suggest it’s the most effective way of closing this gender gap in education, and India’s school boards — responsible for teaching reading to thousands of boys and girls who may not have literate parents to support their reading development at home — would do well to to take a cue.
“We have to give the boys a boost by finding where each individual student stands,” Sigmundsson said. “We can do that by emphasizing letters and the sounds that are associated with them. We need to make sure that all children have a good command of letter-sound relationships as early as possible once they start school.”