The male literacy deficit: Why aren’t boys reading as much as girls?


Elyse Warren is in her second year of a Masters of Arts in Education and Human Development at George Washington University. She also works at PBS Learning Media, where she focuses on educational technology and providing resources for blended learning in the classroom.

Narrowing the gap in the United States between male and female students is a shared goal amongst education policy makers. However, the conversation has been dominated in recent years by a the move to address what was a major disparity between female students and their male peers in the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Now that the gender gap is significantly narrowing due to strong federal programming and better modalities of engaging females in STEM topics in the classroom, we need to take measure of where we are at as a nation in addressing our gender literacy deficit.

Similar to the STEM imbalance faced by females, male students face a global, a long- term trend of falling by the wayside, when it comes to literacy. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), produced by the National Center for Education Statistics, demonstrated this disparity with a staggering thirteen point gap between male and female students in the United States in their first annual Nation’s Report Card in 1971.

On the cusp of the publication of that report, the US women’s rights movement refocused their mission to revolutionizing education reform for girls after the first gender discrimination case was filed in 1969. The case concerned discrimination against a part-time faculty member at the University of Maryland during her application process for a full-time position and prompted a wave of inspiration for women and girls to bring their discrimination cases to justice.  The buzz from this case was so influential that it caused the House Committee on Education and Labor to address these new claims and establish the foundation for amendment Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Needless to say, the case for reinvigorating male literacy, was not on the horizons at the dawn of the first NAEP study.

In 1992, the American Association of University Women, attempted to further cement the vision for education that the women’s rights movement had initiated in the 1970s with a study that was published in the book, How Schools Shortchange Girls. The study depicts a granular portrait of the treatment of girls in the classroom and their performance in comparison to their male peers. In her book, The Trouble With Boys, journalist Peg Tyre highlights the study’s claim “boys are more likely to feel mastery and control over academic challenges, while girls are more likely to feel powerless in academic situations,” in her investigation on male literacy deficits to showcase the general stereotyping of how male students learn.

The study did not go unnoticed and after heavy lobbying, it led to the codification of the Gender Equity in Education Act of 1994, giving schools agency to help girls succeed with funding for new initiatives.

These doctrines tackled the education injustices facing girls and revolutionized the space that teachers and policy makers operate in today.

There is speculation as to whether the reverential mission to help girls has led to apathy when it comes to male deficits, but the correlation and causation are unclear. The male to female ratio of teachers is skewed heavily towards females in the United States. Education and the classroom are dominated by female activity. In turn, young male students have been shown to respond by not actively participating in reading activities, as the reading topics are “girly” or otherwise engendered. Research illustrates that a lack of male role models reading or being seen reading at home has a direct impact on literacy and desire to read among young male students.

The old adage, “boys will be boys,” applies here as well. Biologically, boys are prone to slower language development than girls and face a higher risk of reading problems or stuttering. Research indicates that during infancy the left hemisphere,  which is responsible for language comprehension, develops after the right in males. To complicate this even further, the female brain’s Broca, the instrument that helps with language, has 20 percent more neurons than the male brain.

Boys are also are subject to more higher behavioral issues in the classroom. Diagnoses of attention disorders such as ADD/ADHD that affect literary comprehension increasing at a rate of 5% per year, unprecedented in the 21st century, and also significantly skewed towards boys with a diagnoses rate of 13.2% in comparison to girls at 5.6%.

This does not mean that females are better readers than males. The data indicate that cognitively there are differences in how we process what we learn. This, however, does not mean that we cannot try to address these differences in the classroom and provide a just education for all our students.

So what can we do about this? Serendipitously, the NAEP published their annual Nation’s Report Card last week. Testing eight subjects across grades four, eight, and twelve, we see that, despite new initiatives such as the Common Core and more testing, the US has declined in overall math and reading.

Nestled in this data, within the achievement gap section, we find the gender deficits. In 2012, the gap had closed to about five points between male and female students who were nine years old. Since then, it has remained the same. On the flip side, the gap disparity has been stagnant at eight points for ages 17 and slightly narrowing from 8 points at age 13 since 1992 in the recent assessment.

The evidence shows that the gap is narrowing, but it is still poignant– and it’s a global problem. Finland, with an education system idolized across the world, faces the highest gender deficits at gaps of 62 compared to the US ranking at 31 on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Biology may be partially to blame for this drastic gender gap, but maybe it also has to do with what the boys are reading.

In France, researchers tried to answer that question providing books aligned to boys’ interests, but ultimately concluded that there was not enough evidence to prove a causation in their correlation. Enjoyment only went up by .11 points and literacy actually decreased by 15.26. Brookings Senior Fellow Tom Loveless analyzes this data featured in the 2015 Brown Center Report On American Education and believes that, while of course the enjoyment of reading can increase desire to read, it is not enough evidence to conclude that enjoyment is the root of the issue.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, one of President Obama’s senior cabinet members since 2009, announced his resignation in early October. His tenure and reform initiatives, were subjected to waves of bipartisan criticism from seasoned educators. However, one concept that was mutually conclusive was the gap in male achievement across not only literacy in K-12 but also in success through college.

In one of his statements, before he took his position as Secretary, Duncan stated in response to the swelling achievement gap amongst college boys that, “it seems to be getting worse,” and it is. Long term trends indicate that the situation is progressing and the idea of an affirmative action program for male students has been thrown about to help balance the disparity between all students regardless of background.

Loveless points to a need to fund better assessments that test smaller populations and also provide assessments that get a better grasp on whether enjoyment of reading can be raised and help close gaps. I suggest a more bottom-up approach. We need to provide funding for professional development for our teachers in English Language Arts, similar to what we do for girls in STEM, to better understand the cognitive differences and what they can do  to better meet the needs of their students. Federal funding needs to be allocated for statistically significant age nine years, and- as Loveless alludes- to we need to provide better assessments, that can track whether these changes are significant at ages 13 and 17 on the NAEP tests.

We need only take note from our friends in England to see that national programs such as the National Literacy Trust, which provides male role models for male students, are effective and voluntary tools to help with these gaps. With better assessment and research, we can resolve the problem and close the global gaps that riddle even the best programming.

PS21 is a non-national, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

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