Literacy: New study on boys and reading

New research on the gender divide finds that we’re unconsciously spending more time reading with our daughters than we are with our sons.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

You may have heard about the phenomenon some have labelled the “boys’ crisis in education” — the disparity between girls’ and boys’ achievement levels. A new Canadian study hints that this gap may actually begin at home, when children are preschool age and younger, and can be linked to how we’re unintentionally parenting our kids based on their sex. The project, which examined national survey data measuring reading habits of first-born children, found moms and dads consistently spent more time on literacy-related activities, like reading, singing and going to the library, with their daughters than their sons. What’s more, the researchers suspect these differences could account for as much as one-third of the gap between boys’ and girls’ average reading test scores.

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“Even at school entry, there’s a test score gap in favour of girls,” notes Kevin Milligan, co-author of the study and an associate professor of economics at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. By the time Canadian kids are 15 years old, there’s a spread of 32 points between the genders, as measured by the Program for International Student Assessment test.

These results surprised even the researchers. Initially, the economists had set out to determine whether the two sexes received equal treatment in countries without a strong cultural preference for sons. (In places where sons are commonly prized over daughters, boys tend to receive more overall “investment,” like more time spent breastfeeding.) But what about in Canada, the US and the UK?

“We picked three countries where we had data on all sorts of ‘inputs,’ and started looking at things that are important to children’s development,” explains Milligan’s co-author, Michael Baker, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto. Interestingly, parents spent roughly the same amount of overall time with first-born kids of both sexes — the gap only emerged when researchers zeroed in on literacy-linked activities.

Of course, studies like this one — which re-crunch existing population data rather than conducting new, direct experiments, and rely on people reporting their own behaviour — have limitations. For starters, human beings are prone to lie a little when self-reporting, in order to make ourselves look better. But the findings were compelling. Not only was the trend favouring girls consistent across all three countries, it also held true when the investigators dug deeper into the data and looked specifically at families with sets of boy-girl twins.

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Milligan and Baker are still trying to figure out why parents might spend more time teaching letters and reading books with their daughters than with their sons. It’s possible, for example, that as western parents, we’ve become so hyper-aware of giving our girls an equal start in life that we’ve overcompensated. Another theory is that reading to boys may simply require more effort, on average. Boys may struggle to sit still and pay attention, or they may catch on more slowly, prompting some parents to keep sessions shorter. That girl/boy difference is something Baker observed in his family. “My son didn’t take to reading as quickly as my daughter,” he says.

Rebecca Rogers of Toronto, mom to six-year-old twins named Emily and Ben, reports the same thing. “The difference between my two is stunning,” she says. “Emily will sit with proper posture, pointing to the words. It’s so enjoyable to practise her reading with her, whereas we’re not quite at the enjoyable part with Ben. He will half-stand, jump up and down, and sing the entire book because he’s just being goofy.” (Mind you, both Baker and Rogers reacted by spending more time reading with their sons. Today, at 13, Baker’s son is an enthusiastic, proficient reader. And while Rogers’s little guy hasn’t yet mastered reading, he’s enthralled by listening to stories — even his sister’s chapter books about fairies.)

The good news? Some simple strategies can make literacy-building activities and reading more fun — both for you and the boy in your life — and boost his chances of growing into a confident, competent student.

SEE DAD READ
At least three recent studies have found that boys who viewed reading as a feminine activity were less motivated to read. In a 2003 Canadian study, 24 percent of second-grade boys said that reading was “a girl thing.”

“It’s very important, I think, for kids to see their dads read, for a variety of purposes — for work and for pleasure,” stresses Charles Ungerleider, a professor emeritus of the sociology of education at UBC. “Often, dads do read, but their kids don’t see it.” In addition to reading to their sons, dads should make a point of letting him see you scanning stories in the newspaper or on your iPad during breakfast, reading reports for work, using an instruction manual, or reviewing the rules of a new game.

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THINK BEYOND BOOKS
Telling stories, singing songs, repeating nursery rhymes and playing word games are just a few of the activities that build a child’s vocabulary as soon as he starts learning language skills, and these activities don’t require sitting still. Have your toddler tell you a story while on a walk. Or, once your preschooler starts learning letters, ask him to spot letters in signs, or point out objects with names that begin with a particular sound — on car trips, at the park or on grocery-store runs. Beginners can also learn to recognize the words on a game board. Rogers’s twins love listening to audio chapter books in the car, which will likely expand their vocabulary and pique their interest in reading.

RELAX READING RULES
Some beginning readers don’t respond well to correction or by-the-book reading rules. Rogers discovered her son does better when practising his reading with his dad, who ignores the teacher’s recommendation to point to each word. Some libraries offer programs where kids read aloud to the ultimate non-judgemental audience — a trained therapy dog. “It makes some kids more comfortable reading aloud and gives them confidence,” says Frances Cutt, the literacy facilitator at the London Public Library in London, Ont.

FIND BOY-FRIENDLY BOOKS
Sure, we love The Paper Bag Princess and strive to be gender-neutral parents who send daughters to hockey and sons to dance class. But there is evidence boys are drawn to different types of reading material than their female peers. At least two studies have found that boys tend to prefer non-fiction, magazines, scary stories and comic books. A third study, by the (now-disbanded) Council on Learning, revealed that boys who had regular access to comic books reported higher levels of reading enjoyment and were more likely to read other material.

Kate Sanagan, a Toronto mom of two, has noticed that the early-reader graphic novels called ToonBooks have made a major difference with her five-year-old son, Henry. “He wasn’t interested in other ‘learn-to-read’ books,” she says. “But we found this book called Benjamin Bear, and he loved it. It’s funny, jokey stuff, and the pictures seem to speak to him somehow.” (Humorous books — like Captain Underpants — are also popular with boys.) Cutt sums it up this way: “It’s all about finding the right material, and making it fun.”

MIND THE GAP

In general, boys…

* take longer to learn to read than girls do
* read less often than girls
* rate their reading ability lower than girls
* express less enthusiasm for reading
* have less interest in leisure reading and more interest in “utilitarian” reading
* tend to be better at information retrieval and work-related reading tasks than girls

Source: Me Read? No Way! A Practical Guide to Improving Boys’ Literacy Skills, by the Ontario Ministry of Education

A version of this article appeared in our October 2013 issue with the headline “Boys and books,” pp. 60-2.

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