Boys are way behind girls when it comes to reading. Why is this happening and how can it be fixed?

By: - July 13, 2021 7:00 am

3rd grader reading. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Florida boys do not read as well as girls. That’s what all sorts of data show.

In 2019, for example, 4th and 8th grade girls alike scored 9 points higher than boys in Florida, according to a federal reading exam called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s report card.

On the international scene, a study conducted in 2018 showed that boys had lower reading achievement than girls in 40 countries, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. That study related to 15 year olds.

So why are boys not scoring as high as girls on reading assessments? Several factors likely are involved, experts say, everything from stereotypes to socio-economics.

The Florida Legislature in 2021 unanimously approved a bill to create a task force aimed at closing the gap between boys and girls in reading performance.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill in mid-June, and Monday, the governor appointed two members of the task force, both parents of boys — one at the pre-school level and the other in an elementary grade. The House and Senate will appoint five members each, with varying credentials.

Rep. Traci Koster, a Republican who represents parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough county, sponsored HB 7033, the reading achievement bill related to boys’ performance.

“I think that people recognize the importance of reading” in all aspects of education, Koster told the Phoenix. “If a child can’t read, then they can’t do their math assignments because they can’t read their math problems. They can’t read their history books. They can’t read their science books.”

The point of the task force, Koster said, is “to study why this is happening and what resources can we provide to try to level the playing field.”

An article called “Differences in Reading and Writing Achievement: Evidence From the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) discuss some of the reasons that boys don’t read as well as girls.

“It has been claimed that the regions responsible for language tasks are strongly lateralized to the left cerebral hemisphere in right-handed males, but that language regions in females are more likely to be distributed across both the left and right hemisphere,” according to the article.

But research is mixed on that scenario, and William Brozo, professor emeritus of education at George Mason University in Virginia, thinks that looking at the biological level is “worthy of speculation,” though its likely that other factors are involved as well.

“My concern with always pinning it to a biological factor is that it sometimes becomes something preordained or a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he told the Phoenix. “So that teachers just start to look at boys and go: ‘Well, my boys are never going to achieve as well as my girls so I am not going to put as much effort or energy in trying to help them get there.’”

Other factors contributing to boys’ lower achievement on reading assessments may be societal pressure, such as gender stereotypes.

“Obviously, if you’re encouraging boys to be very active, it’s sort of anathema to what it takes to be a reader. You have to sit quietly, you have to concentrate, you have to look at a text,” Brozo said. “Even today, there are expectations on what it means to be a boy or what it means to be a girl. Even though those are starting to break down somewhat – those are still powerful factors.”

But he sees income and socioeconomic levels as a significant factors, too.

“Even among higher socioeconomic groups, boys may still under-perform relative to girls, but then they tend to catch up because they have so many safety nets,” Brozo said. “It’s really those low socioeconomic groups where we find, both boys and girls under-performing compared relative to, let’s say, white upper-class kids – but boys doing especially poorly.”

He noted that low-income struggling readers tend to also be students of color.

For example, Black male 4th graders on average scored 205 on the 2019 NAEP reading exam in Florida. In contrast, white male 4th graders scored 230.

Black female 4th graders on average scored 217 on the 2019 NAEP reading exam in Florida, while white females scored 237.

So in both cases, based on black and white students tested, girls scored higher on the reading exam.

Another reading initiative designed to address reading for low-income students passed in the spring legislative session. HB 3, sponsored by Rep. Dana Trabulsy, provides a free monthly book delivery to the homes of low-income elementary-aged kids who are struggling with reading. Trabulsy is a Republican who represents part of St. Lucie County.

The legislation, called the New Worlds Reading Initiative, received unanimous support during the 2021 session, with help from House Speaker Chris Sprowls. In addition to providing books to struggling students, the initiative will set up resources to help families get involved and engaged.

Overall, low-income students scored 216 on the 2019 NAEP reading exam in Florida. Students who were not-low income on that test scored 238.

Low-income boys scored 212 and low-income girls scored 220 on that exam.

For students who were not low-income, the boys scored 233 and the girls, 243.

Brozo said that the New Worlds initiative is spot-on.

“I think the idea of trying to make more books accessible to low-income families is absolutely essential,” he said.

That said, in all the effort to boost reading scores for boys, there wasn’t a similar state task force focused on girls this legislative session.

NAEP scores show that Florida girls score lower than boys on mathematics in some grades.

In 2019 for example, 4th grade NAEP scores showed that boys on average scored 5 points higher in math than girls.

But in 8th grade, NAEP noted that “male students in Florida had an average score that was not significantly different from that for female students.” In 8th grade, boys were up just one point in math over girls.

The inroads for girls in science and math have been a testament to “dispel these stereotypic myths in these areas so that girls can feel much more empowered to pursue a STEM field – for instance,” Brozo said.

He reiterated Rep. Koster’s rational for the boy-focused task force about reading being foundational for student success.

“If you’re a good reader, you tend to do well on the math literacy. You tend to do well on the science literacy,” Brozo said.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.