Boys trail girls in literacy because they skim read books, report finds

Boys are being outperformed by girls in literacy because they read less thoroughly than their female classmates, new research has found.

A study of more than 850,000 primary and secondary school children by University of Dundee professor Keith Topping revealed that boys tend to miss sections out of pages or skip some completely when reading, a trait less pronounced in girls.

As a result, boys are less likely to understand the text they are reading, according to Topping.

He also found that boys will typically choose books that are too easy than those they should be reading to help their literacy skills progress.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said teachers “often have to work hard” to promote reading for pleasure, and “these findings on the gender gap are particularly concerning”.

This year’s GCSE results showed the gender gap among schoolchildren continues to grow.

Girls had an A*-A rate 7.3 percentage points higher than male entrants, and an A*-C rate 8.9 percentage points higher. Maths was the only subject in which boys outperformed girls.

Girls then topped every metric in the government’s new accountability measures – attainment 8 and progress 8 – last week.

Topping’s study, carried out on behalf of education technology provider Renaissance, used assessment programmes to source data and carry out the research.

He said effectiveness was shown by “pre-post measures on STAR Reading”, a computerised item-banked adaptive test of reading accuracy and knowledge.

“Implementation quality” was shown by variables developed from computerised Accelerated Reader software, which measures understanding of a real book the student has chosen, by a quiz completed after they read it.

Topping said his findings became more acute by the time students start secondary school, at which point both boys and girls start reading less thoroughly than in primary schools, and choose to read books below the level required to fully prepare themselves for GSCEs.

“As a result, reading progress is stalled throughout secondary school, meaning that boys are unable to breach the gap with girls by the end of school.”

Hobby said that investment should be made in early years, “which engages girls and boys equally” and would “help address many of the gaps teachers see later on – between boys and girls and disadvantaged pupils.

“Children who are more engaged, more confident readers are more able to readily access other challenges that the curriculum throws at them. Trying to address gaps at secondary school is often too late.”

Topping said the research showed that “we must find a way to encourage boys to read me thoroughly” if they are to catch up with girls, and called on policy-makers to invest in providing professional development for teachers which helps them “coach students to challenge themselves with what they choose to read, and read it thoroughly”.

Dirk Foch, managing director of Renaissance, called for a broader debate on the role of reading in secondary school: “We must work to ensure student literacy development continues to be followed and challenged in secondary school.

“This could mean ensuring that students are guided to a more challenging selection of books at school and that dedicated reading time is introduced into the curriculum to give them allocated time to concentrate on reading thoroughly.”

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