By the time they reach school, many boys are already lagging behind in literacy: at age five, there is a gap of 11 percentage points between boys’ and girls’ achievement in reading. More and more boys struggle with reading and literacy as they progress through the school system and by age 16 girls are matching, or more often outperforming, boys in every GCSE subject except for construction. Boys are also less likely to enjoy reading and less likely to spend time reading outside of class.
I chair the Boys’ Reading Commission and we have found that while this literacy gender gap has been around for a very long time, the issue is becoming more pressing. The National Literacy Trust’s survey of schools across the country carried out for the Commission this year found that three quarters of schools are worried about boys’ underachievement in reading, while the gap between how much boys and girls enjoy reading or choose to spend time reading is widening.
Literacy is a significant issue for all: a recent CBI study found that many employers are having to provide basic skills training for their school leaver recruits and the Government has rightly focused on ensuring all young children have the necessary decoding skills.
However, specific action is required to address the gender issue. Boys with poor literacy will struggle at school and throughout life. We need to act to ensure all our children fulfil their potential and contribute to making the UK economy globally competitive.
So what is making boys more likely to struggle with reading? The Commission has found it is not biological and therefore not inevitable. Not all boys struggle with reading and while the literacy gender gap is seen internationally, there are notable exceptions including Chile and the Netherlands. Something we are doing as a society is making boys more likely to fail at reading.
The Commission has found that the gender gap begins in the home, with parents supporting boys very differently from girls. In school, what is taught and how it is taught and assessed all impacts on boys’ achievement, while boys’ gender identities, influenced by society’s expectations and reinforced by their peers, can negatively impact on their attitudes to reading, the amount of time they spend reading and ultimately their reading skills. Unfortunately it is those boys who are least likely to be socially mobile who are often most vulnerable to these triggers.
The gender gap is certainly a complex issue - there's no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution. The good news is that initiatives to address boys’ reading will in most cases also support girls who are disengaged and struggling with their reading.
I hope the Commission’s report will help to raise wider awareness of this issue and inspire parents across the country, as well as informing the teachers and librarians who are already working hard to meet this challenge.
You can download the full report from the National Literacy Trust website.