Why boys' literacy skills lag behind girls' and how to bridge the reading gap

Published: Saturday, July 28 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Zachary Smith works on an assignment at Antelope Elementary. Reluctant readers can be motivated by subjects that interest them.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Janae and Joseph Wise's Washington state home is a shrine to their passion for reading.

"We have books everywhere," said Janae, a professional blogger, fitness instructor and mother of four young children. As young parents, the Wises built up an impressive home library. Exposing children to books, they assumed, would naturally lead them to love reading. It hasn't quite worked out that way.

"My boys just aren't that interested in reading," Janae Wise said. Her 7-year-old son Hyrum in particular has a difficult time sitting still long enough to finish a story. "I kept asking myself, 'Why doesn't he love reading?' I have to fight this urge I have to force him to read."

The Wises' experience is more than just an anecdotal narrative.

"Parents come into the library every day concerned that their boys aren't reading," said Linda Brilz, youth services supervisor at Boise Public Library in Idaho. But the problem is bigger than "not reading." Across the country and around the world studies show that young men lag behind their female peers in literacy skills by significant margins.

"There is a huge disparity in performance," said William Brozo, professor of literacy at George Mason University's Graduate School of Education.

How serious is the problem? Some of the most compelling data on the topic comes from the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment, an exam given to 15-year olds in 65 countries. On the 2000 PISA exam, girls outperformed boys in reading by an average of 32 points. By 2009, the gap had increased to 39 points.

"To put those numbers in perspective," said Brozo "a 32-point difference means that boys are a year and a half behind girls in reading skills."

The gaps are especially pronounced in some of the highest performing countries, Brozo said. Girls in Finland, for example, outscored their male counterparts by 55 points on the reading section of PISA, he said. In the United States girls outscored boys by about 25 points, he said.

Subpar literacy skills may account for growing gaps in men's and women's educational attainment. In every demographic group women are significantly more likely to earn college degrees, according to the 2011 U.S. Census and the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth.

Gender imbalances in educational attainment trigger unhealthy and expensive social trends, said Richard Whitmire, author of the book "Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind." For example, he links soaring out-of-wedlock birthrates to the fact that college-educated women are having difficulty finding "marriageable mates."

While the scope of the problem is considerable, public policy concern over these gaps is limited. The U.S. Department of Education has yet to conduct a study on gendered reading gaps, according to Whitmire.

"The issue needs immediate attention given the dramatic consequences gender gaps have for men's earning potential, marital possibilities, the share of children raised in single-parent families and the fiscal outlook for the nation," said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

Explaining the Gap

While no one disputes the existence of the gender gap in reading, scholars hotly debate its cause. One set of explanations hinges on biology. Brain-imaging studies show that women have more connections between their left and right brain. These extra connections may allow them to process language better. Body chemistry may also be a factor. Boys have a need for activity and movement that is fed by the testosterone in their bodies. This can make it hard to master reading, which requires longer periods of concentration than elementary mathematics.

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