Globe and Mail

Boys and literacy: We can do better

Narrowing the gender gap would raise reading levels

Thursday, March 18, 1999

The worst thing about the obvious is that it presents itself as a tautology. This thing is the way it is, because obviously it is the way it is.

Consider the strange relationship of boys and girls to reading and writing. Last week, Canada's Council of Ministers of Education released its second report on the status of literacy in schools. It showed lots of interesting, non-obvious things.

Sixteen-year-olds who write letters frequently are twice as likely to use E-mail as to write by hand. Between 1994 and 1998, there was a significant decline in the number of kids who devoted their leisure time to reading. Among 13-year-olds, the numbers of non-readers increased to 47 per cent from 36 per cent. And yet, despite the fall of reading as a pastime in student life, there has been no concomitant decline in their skills. Indeed, writing skills across the board went up in the past four years.

What was obvious, at least to the people who tested the 46,000 students whose responses provided the survey's data, was that girls read and write better than boys. The chart below presents the data related to reading.

The CME researchers explained their result by saying: "This phenomenon appears to be nearly universal. It may be attributable, among other factors, to different rates of maturation or cultural influences between the sexes." Translation: This is the way things are, and there is probably nothing much teachers can do about it.

As the English would say: Bollocks.

Over the past several decades, there has been a cottage industry built around female educational grievance. This centred on girls' low test scores in mathematics and science, and on the low numbers of women going into fields requiring science and math. A variety of ways to reduce the boy-girl differences have been put forward: all-girl science and math classes; women in science and engineering serving as role models to girls; attempts to make the "story problems" used to teach math and sciences girl-friendly.

While complete parity has not been achieved, things have definitely improved. The proportion of university women in mathematics and physical sciences in Canada went from 19 per cent in 1972 to 30 per cent in 1995.

Where, one wonders, is the similar effort to help raise boys' reading and writing scores? A telephone call to CME elicited the following answer: Nowhere. This is astounding because, while math and science are important, most of us can easily get through life without knowing what powers the sun or how to compute a square root. On the other hand, reading and writing are transcendent learned skills, used and useful everywhere and in everything. Predictably, cheerfully discounting boys' literacy skills is already producing negative consequences.

University admissions ratios in this country are about 55 to 45 in favour of girls. The ratios at U.S. schools are nearer 60 to 40. Not going to university means fewer higher-education-linked jobs, less money, a harder life for the men of the future.

With this so self-evident, it would seem that, at the very least, we as a society have been complacent about the less-than-literate boys of our culture. At the most, we have been practicing a form of gender bias. What the disproportionate attention paid to girls' schooling problems says is: Boys' deficiencies matter less, because boys matter less.

This is unconscionable. If Canada's ministers of education are looking for the easiest way to improve reading and writing levels across the country, they should address literacy's gender gap. Other jurisdictions, notably England and Australia, have already started programs. The Australians are trying to involve fathers in reading to their sons on the supposition that boys lack reading role models. England is using sports teams in boys' reading promotion.

While it is not clear this do-goodism will work, it is an effort to acknowledge that a problem exists, and that something should be done about it. This country is seeing a problem and ignoring it because it is obvious. That should shame us because we can and must do better.


16-year-old performance levels by gender.
 Level 5Level 4Level 3Level 2Level 1
16-year old females14.244.581.996.3 99.4
16-year old males--21.960.086.898.0

Note: Level 1 is functional literacy while level 5 is a university graduation level.

Source: Council of Ministers of Education, Canada

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