Are girls innately better at reading and writing than boys?
This is the question that has plagued researchers for decades with many concluding that most gender differences were small and tending to decline over time.
Now a new study from Griffith University has found girls on average are better than boys at reading and there is an even larger gap with writing ability.
PhD candidate David Reilly, Professor David Neumann, Head of the School of Applied Psychology, and Associate Professor Glenda Andrews examined three decades of US student achievement in reading and writing from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The total sample contained 3.9 million children.
They found for reading, gender differences started early and widened over time with boys outnumbering girls by more than 2:2 in the lower levels of proficiency and girls outnumbering boys in the higher range.
“But the writing ability results are particularly important as this will impact students in high school when writing assessment pieces and wanting to enter college,’’ says Mr Reilly.
He said most research focuses solely on reading ability and the gender gap in writing has been greatly underestimated.
“The magnitude of the writing gender gap was really quite surprising, as was the fact that there was no evidence for a decline in the gap for reading and writing over time.
“Many boys are highly proficient in reading, and yet really struggle when it comes to writing tasks.”
Prof Neumann says the next step for research is to better understand the reasons for the disparity between genders as well as between writing versus reading.
“Other research we have done at Griffith shows that gender differences in performance are related to factors such as a person’s sex role orientation and whether tasks are framed as stereotypically male or female’’ he said.
Mr Reilly said that the gender gap in reading and writing is important for educators and parents.
“We know though that any skill can be cultivated with practice and instruction, and that one of the best ways to improve writing is to get feedback on it from others. It may be the case that an increased focus on writing practice could greatly reduce this gender gap…. and likely translate to better writing for both boys and girls.
“For educational practice, I believe this study shows the need for a greater focus on writing beginning in primary continuing throughout high school, but in an ever-crowded curriculum that is focusing more on STEM, it highlights the increased need for further work.
“One thing that I would like to stress though is that it doesn’t argue that “males and females have radically different learning styles” or bolster claims for single-sex education.
“This research suggests that we need to better tailor our education to meet the needs of boys, and really encourage in them an early love of not just of reading, but also writing and verbal expression.”
The study was published in the prestigious journal American Psychologist this week.