American girls read and write better than boys, and it starts as early as the fourth grade, according to a new study published in American Psychologist.
“The common thinking is that boys and girls in grade school start with the same cognitive ability, but this research suggests otherwise,” said David Reilly, lead author and a doctoral student at Griffith University in Australia. According to the study the gaps in performance beginning around age 9.
While there was no single conclusion, there are theories for the results. Biology may be part of the problem: boys are statistically more likely to have a learning disability as well as attention disorders, which have been associated with general reading and writing impairments, according to Reilly. “These can be disruptive in the classroom but might also point to a neurological contribution,” he said. There is also some evidence that girls use both brain hemispheres when reading and writing, whereas boys are more likely to use a single hemisphere of the brain, which Reilly says presumably affords girls some advantages in the classroom.
However, social norms may also play a role. Boys face peer pressure to conform to masculine behavior that may not include sitting quietly and reading a book, and gendered differences in behavioral, such as a tendency towards physical aggression and disobeying rules, may contribute to those struggles.
For the study, researchers analyzed information in the U.S. from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationally representative data sample of standardized test scores from more than 3.4 million students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades over a span of 27 years.
So why does this matter, especially with evidence that boys outperform girls in math in certain demographics? Because reading and writing are life skills that build on themselves throughout years of schooling. “While we’ve concentrated on basic literacy, the demands on students for writing grow stronger as they progress through education,” said Reilly. In particular, it’s crucial for high school and college entry. Each year, more women than men apply for college, and more women than men complete their college degrees. “It has a cascading effect on students, either up or down.”
As large as that gap is in the fourth grade, it widened further in eighth and 12th grades, and the difference was far more substantial for writing than it was for reading.
The study’s authors emphasized that they don’t see single-sex education as a solution for this problem, but rather that we need to better tailor our education system to meet the needs of boys and really encourage them early on to develop a love, not just of reading, but also writing.
While future research should closely examine reasons for gender differences in reading and writing so that educators can design new ways to improve those essential skills in school, don’t wait for the school curriculum to catch up with science—start reading with your kids as early as possible, and as your kids grow, help lead them towards books that reinforce their skills and love of stories.