Boys’ reading gap – is it in the testing?

Boys tend to lag behind girls in school reading tests, but this gap seemingly disappears as they reach young adulthood. This anomaly has been questioned by researchers across the globe for decades and new research from Norway suggests the content and skills tested in international reading tests need to be reviewed to gauge whether there really is a significant gap between genders.

Researchers from the University of Stavanger looked at two major international reading tests for primary and early-teen aged children in their study (Progress in International Literacy Survey and the Programme for International Student Assessment). Both reading tests measured whether pupils could extract information from a text, draw simple conclusions, interpret and compare information, assess language, content and literary devices in the text. Regardless of which of these aspects were measured, researchers found girls continued to perform better than boys.

However, when 16-24 year old reading abilities were tested in the PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) there was minimal difference between male and female results. Researchers suggested the nature of the administration of tests, their content and the motivation of those completing the test all played key parts in the results which showed girls lead boys in reading ability.

Researcher Judith Solheim said researchers studied the way the three tests were designed, the way they measured reading and their implementation, saying the design of the tests themselves could partially explain why pronounced gender differences in reading in children as they progressed through schooling seemingly disappeared in the 16-24 age bracket.

“Based on earlier research, it appears that PIRLS and PISA – i.e. the tests used in schools – are designed in a way that may favour girls. PIAAC is designed differently. This could be one explanation as to why we are seeing gender differences in the results,” said Solheim.

The PISA and PIRLS tests contain a number of what are described as continuous texts for children to read – such as long, descriptive narratives. Researchers said previous research has found girls and women are generally better at reading this type of text compared to boys and men. Males are generally better at reading ‘non-continuous texts’ such as graphs, forms and advertisements. Prior studies have also revealed the gap between girls’ and boys’ reading abilities was more in favour of girls when students have had to read fictional texts when compared to factual texts.

“Since we know that it is an advantage for girls to read long, fictional texts, it could be giving them an advantage to provide them with this type of text in the reading tests, which could affect the results in terms of measuring pupils’ skills,” said Solheim.

Motivation is also a key factor to consider when looking at reading test results. It is common knowledge among researchers that it is usually more difficult to motivate boys to read a given text than girls.

“The gender of the protagonist, the subject of the text and attitudes to the text or general subject play more of a role for boys in how well they perform when they have to read than for girls,” said Solheim.

She added girls were more likely to do what was expected of them than boys, who were more likely to ask what the point of the exercise was.

“Since we know that boys are more critical about doing things that have no direct significance for them, it is conceivable that they are more likely to avoid expending energy on a test that will not affect their qualifications. Motivation could also explain part of the reason why the differences are greater at lower secondary school than primary school, since it is well known that teenagers are more likely to question authority, such as the school, than younger children.”

Researchers urged test administrators to consider the findings of their study, saying the difference between girls’ and boys’ reading abilities was considered an “educational challenge” by most OECD countries.

“Reading is described as a skill, which we have the potential to achieve. We may question whether the various tests, in their current design, give boys and girls, and men and women, an equal basis for achieving their potential as readers. We now know that reading tests in schools are designed in a way that affects girls positively,” said Solheim.

“This means that the challenge now is to find out how we can create reading tests that accurately demonstrate the actual skills of all boys and girls, and men and women, in terms of reading. That would give us a better basis for saying whether there really is reason to be concerned about boys’ reading skills.”