Literacy Gap Between Boys & Girls. Boy-friendly Educational Approaches for Disinterested Male Students

[Jeannette Kavanagh, Apr 12, 2007]

In Australia, the Achievement Improvement Monitor (AIM) test data show that boys are struggling in literacy, compared to girls. That literacy gender gap is universal.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a collaborative effort by member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to produce reliable and internationally comparable indicators of student achievement. Every three years, beginning in 2000, PISA assesses the achievement of 15 year-olds in literacy, mathematics and scientific literacy.

PISA administered common international tests and background questionnaires to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each of the thirty-two participating countries. The PISA goal was to compare how well students in early secondary school are prepared to meet the challenges of today's knowledge-based society.
In 2000, the USA’s neighbour Canada, ranked second in reading behind Finland, and sixth in mathematics. The US ranked fifteenth (15th ) in reading, and an abysmal nineteenth (19th ) in mathematics. The UK ranked seventh in reading and eighth in math. The biggest shock of all was that Germany lagged behind most of her European Union sister states, at 21st in reading and 20th in mathematics.

PISA confirmed another trend in education, namely that there is a significant gender gap in reading and writing. Girls performed significantly better than boys on the reading and writing tests in all countries. Even in Finland, the top-ranked participant, there was a gender gap in the results in reading. Finnish girls scored 571 while boys scored only 520. In Canada the literacy gender gap was similar with girls’ scores being 551 and boys gaining 519. Girls in the USA scored only 518 but American boys lagged behind at 490. The same literacy gender gap was noted in all participating countries.

Lower academic achievement can also have a negative impact on self-esteem. As the
Canadians noted, ‘poor reading performance can have a profound effect on performance in other subjects’. Boys were marginally ahead of girls in mathematics but it’s language literacy that is essential to academic success.Those figures have numerous negative implications. A smaller percentage of boys than girls finish high school – another worldwide phenomenon. Even when the boys do graduate high school, a smaller percentage of them are now enrolling in college or University.

One theory purports that schools simply don’t suit boys. Flinders University in South Australia interviewed 1,800 boys from 61 schools about boys’ declining rates of achievement and retention – another international phenomenon. A
summary of their main findings is that "most boys don’t value school; school work is boring, repetitive and irrelevant. Also, school … expects adult behaviour but doesn’t deliver an adult environment and there are not enough good teachers."

Boy-friendly Teaching

The 2000 PISA results were a shock, but one that lead to positive changes in curriculum and ways of teaching. To ensure greater academic success for boys, our literacy teaching strategies must be more engaging for boys. We must:

> Allow greater choice in topics and the way assignments are completed, presented and assessed.
> Focus classroom activities on ways to harness boys’ energy.
> Ensure that lessons allow for movement rather than expect hours of sitting still and being sedate.
> Make learning more activity-centred rather than pen and paper
> Increase the range of literacy practices that are taught
> Encourage team effort and collaborative learning. Boys can succeed when they contribute to part of a group project, rather than fail the entire task
> In selecting topics for reading and writing, see boys’ interest in real life tasks as a bonus not a deficit. Select more ‘how to’ books, non-fiction texts, comics, magazines based on their interests.
> Encourage students to create audio books, e-books, websites