According to the numbers, boys are falling behind. They are dropping out of school at higher rates than girls, they are more likely to be suspended, and their grades are slipping. And not only are boys struggling more in grade school, men are attending college at lower rates than women. What is causing this academic imbalance?
One area of particular concern among professionals—and especially among parents—is the growing achievement gap in reading between boys and girls.
While boys still perform comparatively well in math, underachievement in reading has become more pronounced. To get an idea for the relative size of these performance gaps, a 2013 international study determined that the reading gap (with girls performing better) is three times larger than the math gap (with boys just barely holding the lead). Other studies indicate that young boys are reading at a level a year and a half behind that of girls. Furthermore, boys from low-income families and minority groups seem to struggle the most compared to other demographics, even when compared to girls from the same socioeconomic groups.
Why is this reading gap significant? Because: Reading may help keep children engaged in school, and it fosters skills that help them later in life. Physicians and educators agree that reading helps to sharpen one’s concentration, memory, creativity, and vocabulary. Young readers often evolve into stronger writers, speakers, and thinkers—skills that are highly valued in our society. As President Harry Truman once stated, “Not every reader is a leader, but every leader must be a reader.”
Picking Apart the Gap
Early childhood influences may present one explanation for why a reading gap exists. NPR recently discussed the findings of two Canadian university researchers who examined how parents spend time with their children. These researchers found that parents systematically spend more time doing reading-related activities, such as visiting the library or reciting the alphabet, with their daughters than with their sons. This early exposure to letters and books could give girls a head start that continues to benefit their reading ability and associated skills later on.
Why would parent behavior show such a persistent bias? The NPR story suggests that this is not a conscious preference toward girls. Instead, boys may be inherently more restless, and it would be natural for parents to focus their efforts on a child who is more focused and receptive.
There are definitely some basic biological differences between males and females, which may predispose them to learn or behave differently. Neurological and biochemical studies show that girls have more serotonin—a chemical that calms the body and allows the brain to focus. Boys, on the other hand, have more testosterone, which is associated with activity and aggression.
Certain regions of the female brain, such as the language center, also develop earlier than in the male brain. While brain scans indicate that female brains reach the halfway point in their full brain development by age 11, male brains, on average, do not reach that point until age 15. This does not indicate any intellectual hierarchy; it merely illustrates the fact that the male and female brains are wired in slightly different ways, notably in the pace and timing of development.
NPR’s observation that young boys are by nature less attentive leans on the assumption that biology is destiny, but there are many cultural and social forces that also influence learning. When parents read with their child, for example, it is often mothers or female caretakers who read aloud, which contextualizes reading as a more feminine activity. Later on in development, many pre-teen boys begin to distinctly think of reading as something that girls do more than boys. As a consequence, boys may avoid reading because they perceive it as diminishing their masculinity.
Michael Kimmel, author of The Boy Crisis, explains how teenage boys’ idea of manhood is also tied to academic disengagement. In order to fit in with their peers, boys might adopt a mentality that they don’t care about success in school. This blasé attitude reinforces an aversion to reading and learning in general.
Other theories about the academic crisis point the finger at our school systems, where the majority of the faculty is female and where rules discourage high-energy activities or male learning styles. The international data on student performance show, however, that even in other countries where educational systems and the priority of women’s rights look completely different, achievement asymmetries still exist.
Closing the Gap
While some of the underlying causes behind the reading gap are galvanized by societal conditions, there are measures that we as individuals can take to help boys of any background develop reading skills that will encourage future learning and success:
- Encourage family members—especially fathers or older male figures—to read aloud to boys, bring them on trips to the library, and model reading in a positive way.
- Provide reading materials that affirm each individual child’s interests and identity. Boys should be able to feel that their sense of masculinity and personality is enriched by reading, not threatened by it. For some ideas on good books for guys, visit PBS's Best Books for Boys website or check out Get Those Guys Reading! Fiction and Series Books that Boys Will Love.
- Be patient and reinforcing as children begin to read. Understand that they might find reading very boring or frustrating at first. You can also be creative in your approach. Check out what one parent did to get her son excited about reading.
- Consider providing children with reading material other than traditional books. Comic books, newspapers, baseball cards, magazines—even computer programs, written song lyrics, and recipes—may offer the same opportunities to build reading skills.
- Avoid gender stereotyping; not all boys will struggle with reading or will be interested in the same reading material.
- Implement early interventions that encourage basic school-readiness, such as sending boys to pre-school and kindergarten—particularly boys from low-income families or minority groups.
According to some measures, boys are achieving just as well—or better—than they have before. What do you think? Has your experience in a classroom or with your children shown evidence of an achievement gap linked to reading? If so, what have you done to counterbalance it?*
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