Study: Girls Read and Write Better than Boys

Girls are better at reading and writing than boys as early as fourth grade, according to a study, and the gap continues to widen until senior year.

Scientists generally agree that boys and girls are psychologically more alike than they are different. But reading seems to be an exception, with growing evidence suggesting a similar pattern in writing. The study, published in the journal American Psychologist, provided further evidence to support this view.

David Reilly, lead author of the study and a doctoral student at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, said the study questioned the commonly held belief that boys and girls start grade school with the same cognitive abilities.

"It appears that the gender gap for writing tasks has been greatly underestimated, and that despite our best efforts with changes in teaching methods does not appear to be reducing over time," he said.

children-reading-stock American girls can read and write better than boys, according to a recent study. Getty images

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Factors explaining the results could include learning difficulties being more prevalent among boys; the pressure to conform to masculine ideals and the idea of reading and language being feminine; and slight differences in how boys and girls use their brain hemispheres, the authors believe.

To investigate how literacy levels differed between boys and girls in the U.S., the team at Griffith University studied data collected over three decades in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This database of test scores on over 3.9 million students in the fourth, eighth, and 12th  grades broke down national and state performances in a range of subjects, and considered such variables such as disabilities or whether children were English learners. Reading and writing was measured according to children’s understanding of a range of different passages and genres, for instance reports, poetry and essays.

Overall, girls were found to perform significantly better in reading and writing tests by fourth grade when compared with boys of the same age. As children progressed to eighth and 12th grades, girls continued to overtake boys, but the difference was more pronounced in writing than reading.

GettyImages-499449873 Differences in reading and writing abilities among boys and girls continue into high school, researchers found. Getty Images

But what caused this divergence in abilities? Evidence suggests behavioral problems, such as being disruptive in class or being aggressive could be linked to neurological conditions, the authors wrote. What is known as lateralization, or the tendency for some functions to occur on one side of the brain, could also play a role. Boys are believed to use one hemisphere when reading or writing, while girls appear to use both.

The data did not, however, provide evidence to argue in favor of the two genders having different learning styles, and therefore the research should not be used promote single-sex schooling. 

Keith Topping, a professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee, told Newsweek while the study’s findings on reading were not particularly surprising, he explained: “what is new is the information about writing. This is not entirely surprising, as better readers make better writers. But the gap in writing is wider than the gap in reading, so clearly something else is going on as well.”

One flaw of the study, he said, was how the National Assessment of Educational Progress measured reading and writing.

“If their reading tests have not provided an equal balance between fiction and nonfiction, this is likely to have disadvantaged boys, who are known to be more interested in nonfiction. Likewise with the writing tests. And how did they do the writing tests, since assessing writing is notoriously subjective.

“Another issue is whether girls (being more conformist) are more likely to apply themselves to the tests, while the boys have a much more careless approach. Peer pressure may be relevant to this.”

Topping also argued that the researchers confused reading and writing with cognitive ability. "I would not make much of the higher incidence of learning disability among boys—it certainly does not explain these results. Likewise, neurological conditions and laterality differences do not explain the results."

 Laura Shapiro, a senior lecturer in the psychology of teaching at Aston University, U.K., told Newsweek the study is “really important.”

“It is concerning to see evidence that the gender gap in reading and writing starts early, and widens over time. This is particularly concerning because reading and writing are fundamental to academic progress."

A critical remaining question is whether boys’ academic progress is hindered by poorer basic reading and writing skills, or a lack of motivation to read in their spare time, she said. "This is what teachers really need to know. The present study paves the way for follow up research to answer these important practical questions."

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