Girls perform better at reading and writing tests, study reveals
Girls and boys have their differences – spanning everything from the obvious physical differences to the more subtle emotional and social disparities between the two genders. While these differences may be apparent, whether or not they provide any advantage to a certain gender can be a messy and controversial discussion.
However, new research from the American Psychological Association suggests that, by as early as fourth grade, girls perform better than boys on standardized reading and writing tests, and this achievement gap only grows wider as children age.
“The common thinking is that boys and girls in grade school start with the same cognitive ability, but this research suggests otherwise,” says David Reilly, a doctoral student at Griffith University and lead author of the study published in American Psychologist. “Our research found that girls generally exhibit better reading and writing ability than boys as early as the fourth grade.”
Reilly and his colleagues assessed data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which contains a nationally representative data sample of standardized test scores in the U.S. from over 3.4 million students in fourth, eighth, and 12th grades, spanning almost three decades. These scores showed that, on average, girls scored significantly higher than boys in both reading and writing in fourth grade, and this disparity only increased in eight and 12th grades – with the differences being much larger for writing than for reading in each case.
“It appears that the gender gap for writing tasks has been greatly underestimated, and that despite our best efforts with changes in teaching methods does not appear to be reducing over time,” says Reilly.
What could be the underlying reasons for this difference in ability? The authors suggest that gender differences in behavioral problems, such as physical aggression and disobeying rules – along with attention disorders – may be to blame for boys’ being at a disadvantage. Boys are also statistically more likely to have a learning disability, and may face peer pressure to conform to masculine norms that push reading to the side. Furthermore, other research has found that girls tend to use both brain hemispheres when given reading and writing tasks, while boys are more likely to use a single hemisphere of the brain.
“Bilateral language function presumably affords some benefits, which could explain the female advantage observed on such tasks,” explains Reilly. “Boys may also struggle to write as well as girls because it is an ability that requires solid reading skills, as well as competency in verbal fluency, spelling and grammar,” adds co-author David Neumann, PhD, also of Griffith University.
The study’s findings are necessarily suggesting that boys and girls have significantly different learning styles, nor does it point to single-sex education being a solution. “All the evidence suggests that gender segregation of education reinforces negative gender stereotypes, and makes gender more salient, which could be harmful for boys with reading and writing, and for girls with math and science,” says Reilly. “Rather, it suggests that we need to better tailor our education to meet the needs of boys and really encourage in them early a love not just of reading but also writing.”