How Boys and Girls Differ as Readers

Do boys and girls differ in their reading skills, reading motivation and reading activities?

Do boys and girls like to read different things?

Are sex differences really that straightforward?

As a researcher, these are just some of the questions I’ve been studying over the last few years.  Here are some of the answers:

Do boys and girls differ in their reading skills?

Girls typically value reading more highly than boys and report more positive attitudes to reading

The simple answer is yes, boys and girls differ statistically in their reading skills. For example, in PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study), the largest international study examining the reading skills of 10-year-old children from 45 countries around the world, girls outperformed boys in 44 countries (sex differences were statistically significant in 40 countries). Therefore, sex differences in reading skill exist regardless of the education system, culture or writing system in which they are studied. While Scotland does not participate in PIRLS, the closest comparison would be England, which had one of the widest sex differences in reading attainment. However, it is important to note that even with statistically significant sex differences, there is considerable variation in the scores of boys and girls, and considerable overlap between boys and girls scores. 

Are girls more motivated to read and engage in reading activities?

Yes. Sex differences in reading motivation are consistently found, with boys reporting lower levels of motivation to read compared to girls. Girls also typically value reading more highly than boys and report more positive attitudes to reading. Interestingly, however, research suggests that boys and girls may not differ significantly in their reading confidence. In terms of engagement in reading activities, girls report reading more frequently than boys. The National Literacy Trust’s survey of Children’s and Young People’s Reading in 2015 (based on 32,569 children and young people age 8-18) found that 49.5% of girls and only 35% of boys reported reading daily outside of class. Furthermore, a higher proportion of boys agreed with the statement, “reading is more for girls than boys.” Of course, as with reading skills, it’s important to appreciate that there is considerable variation among and between boys and girls.

Do boys and girls like to read different things?

‘Gender neutral’ books, such as those by J.K. Rowling or Roald Dahl, are not necessarily neutral

Yes again. Referring back to the National Literacy Trust’s recent survey of Children’s and Young People’s Reading, a higher percentage of girls report reading fiction at least once a month compared to boys (50.3% vs 37.8%). Furthermore, a higher percentage of girls reported reading more text messages, websites, magazines, social networking sites, emails, lyrics and instant messages compared to boys. On the other hand, more boys than girls reported reading non-fiction, newspapers and comics at least once a month. 

Are sex differences that straightforward?

No, of course not. In my research I have been interested in acquiring a more nuanced understanding of sex differences in reading by examining sex differences from a gender identity perspective. Gender identity looks at the extent to which children identify with traditional masculine and feminine traits. We all know there is considerable variation in the personalities and interests of girls and boys; therefore, assuming all boys like to read the same thing, or that all girls are more motivated to read than boys is nonsense. Through exploring gender identity I’ve found that children (whether boys or girls) who identify more closely with feminine traits (traits such as being caring, kind, compassionate) are more motivated to read than children who identify more closely with masculine traits (traits such as being dominant, leadership). Furthermore, I’ve found that children’s gender identity is a better predictor of their motivation to read than their sex. In another project, when asking children about their engagement with fiction books, I found that ‘gender neutral’ books, such as those by J.K. Rowling or Roald Dahl, are not necessarily neutral – children who identified with feminine traits were more likely to read them than children who identified with masculine traits.

So, what is the take home message? Well, there is evidence of statistically significant differences in the reading skills, motivation, engagement and interests of boys and girls. However, our understanding of sex differences needs to be more nuanced than this. As teachers, I’d encourage you to challenge gender stereotypes in your classroom, but also appreciate that boys and girls will have certain reading preferences (which may conform to gender stereotypes), which they should be allowed to enjoy. Understanding and responding to your pupils as individuals, rather than based on their sex, is what’s most important.

 

References:

Clark, C. (2016).  Children’s and young people’s reading in 2015. Findings from the National Literacy Trust’s annual survey 2015. National Literacy Trust. Downloaded from http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0003/1643/Young_people_s_reading_2015_-_Final.pdf on 4 April 2017.

Eccles, J., Wigfield, A., Harold, R. D., & Blumenfeld, P.  (1993). Age and gender differences in children’s self- and task perceptions during elementary school. Child Development, 830-847

McGeown, S., Goodwin, H., Henderson, N., & Wright, P.  (2012). Gender differences in reading motivation: Does sex or gender identity provide a better account? Journal of Research in Reading, 35, 328-336. 

McGeown, S. P.  (2013). Sex or gender identity? Understanding children’s reading choices and motivation. Journal of Research in Reading. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2012.01546.x

McKenna, M. C., Conradi, K., Lawrence, C., Gee Jang, B., & Meyer, J. P.  (2012). Reading attitudes of middle school students: Results of a U.S. Survey. Reading Research Quarterly, 47, 283-306

PIRLS (2011). Downloaded from: http://timssandpirls.bc.edu/pirls2011/downloads/P11_IR_Chapter1.pdf on 4 April 2017.

Dr Sarah McGeown

Dr Sarah McGeown is a Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology in the School of Education. Her literacy research spans a range of areas, including early reading acquisition and development (phonics), reading and spelling, sex differences in reading, reading comprehension with different text types and reading motivation and engagement. She is committed to working with teachers, policy makers and literacy organisations to encourage greater use of research evidence to support practice. More details of her research can be found here: http://www.readresearch.education.ed.ac.uk/