Girls read differently – and so do boys

Do we need to worry about boys’ reading skills?
Andre_Grunden,, CC0 1.0
Andre Grunden,, CC0 1.0

The ability to read is essential for learning any subject. And even beyond school, it is of enormous importance for taking part in the life of society. Studies have repeatedly shown that boys have weaker reading skills than girls. Is this a cause for concern?

As early as fourth grade, girls significantly outperform boys in reading. In nearly every country, the Progress in Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) shows a distinct gender gap of 19 points on average in favor of girls. During puberty, the gap widens. According to the 2015 PISA study, 15-year-old girls outperform boys of the same age by an average of 27 points in the OECD countries.

Girls and boys – and later on, women and men – also differ with respect to other aspects of reading. Research has revealed substantial gender differences in how often individuals read during their leisure time, their preferences for reading materials and styles, and how motivated they are to read. For example in Germany, fourth Grade girls have more intrinsic motivation to read and higher reading-related self-concepts, and read more often in their leisure time compared to boys.

Adult women are more likely to read novels for pleasure, whereas men tend to choose books for practical reasons, such as professional development or to expand their knowledge. Male readers make systematic efforts to improve their reading skills, focusing on specific fields and media. Perhaps this is one of many reasons why no gender gap in reading competence has been observed among adults in Germany.

Interestingly, the gender gap shifts not only with age, but also with the types of materials people read. Girls have a particular advantage when it comes to literary texts; that advantage is much smaller for nonfiction. A relatively new factor to consider is the expansion of the range of media used for reading, including digital devices. In this context, the definition of “reading” is the subject of some disagreement. One question is whether the ability to navigate through hypertexts is a part of literacy in the digital sphere. It is also becoming more and more important to be able to evaluate sources of information.

“Interestingly, the gender gap shifts not only with age, but also with the types of materials people read.”

Large-scale assessments such as PISA and PIRLS are gradually abandoning paper-and-pencil tests of reading skills in favor of digital assessments. In Germany, researchers have found a more pronounced advantage for 15-year-old girls over their male peers when a paper-and-pencil test was administered rather than a digital test.

It is hard to say just how concerned we should be about boys’ reading skills. It is clear, however, that more research is needed on the gender gap, with a special focus on different media and different age groups.


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