Dr. Don Klinger, associate professor of education at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada is trying to figure out why boys, on average, do not read as well as girls.
For the past two years, he has been researching the reading gender gap in Ontario as part of a project with the Education Quality and Accounting Office, an agency of the provincial government.
“It’s a goal of the province to reduce the gap,” said Klinger. “We want a strong knowledge economy. We have a goal in this province where we want 75 percent of the children producing at what we call level three in achievement, which is considered to be the level of literacy you need to be successful. The girls are there; the boys aren’t.”
The reading gender gap is not exclusive to Ontario; it’s an international problem. Girls, on average, are better readers than boys in every country in the world.
I met Klinger in his office at Queen’s to learn about his work. I’m also an educational researcher who is trying to understand the reading gender gap. I have visited schools in the U.S., Japan, and Taiwan to better understand this phenomenon.
Ontario is a good place to research the problem because it has a smaller reading gender gap than most of the countries in the world.
The two primary international assessments that examine the performance of students in reading are the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).
The former assesses the reading comprehension of students in their fourth year of schooling, while the latter assesses the reading literacy of 15-year-olds. Forty countries and five Canadian provinces participated in the most recent PIRLS in 2006. Fifty-seven countries participated in the most recent PISA in 2006.
Internationally, the average score for fourth-grade girls was 17 points higher than the average score for fourth-grade boys. In Ontario, it was 13 points.
Internationally, the average score for 15-year-old girls was 38 points higher than the average score for 15-year-old boys. In Ontario, it was 29 points.
“The gap actually tends to grow as kids get older,” Klinger said. Nobody seems to know exactly why.
Students in Ontario are among the best readers in the world; fourth graders ranked fifth in reading performance when compared with their international peers, and15-year-olds ranked fourth.
Both ranks represent performances significantly above the international average.
While Ontario has a smaller reading gender gap than most of the countries in the world, Klinger is working on making it even smaller.
The Education Quality and Accounting Office “would like to reduce the gender gap, but we’ve said to them that you can’t even begin to address that until you understand it,” he said.
“So that’s what we’re working on. Don’t expect the answers yet because we’re only now starting to look at this. This has not been on the radar really until the last five years. It’s a really complex problem.”
Klinger has concluded that some efforts to close the gap have not been successful. “Single-sex schools don’t work,” he said. “The evidence on this is really clear. When they actually looked at single-sex schools when they do exist, they’re not as effective for boys at all. And even for girls, they’re not benefiting any more.”
“The problem with a lot of these initiatives…is they’re trying to take a simple approach to a really complex problem.”
Klinger believes that boys have the potential to catch up to girls in reading. “The biggest predictor of boys’ reading success is the amount of reading they do,” he explained.
“The boys that read more do better. What you see is girls have higher levels of engagement in reading than boys. But when boys have similar levels of engagement in reading, their scores are similar. One of the potential keys is to get boys to read more.”
“There have been lots of hypotheses about cognitive delays. They say that boys are more delayed in reading than girls. It’s a claim that people make. We don’t see that. Pre-reading measures show that when kids start school there is no gap between boys and girls.”
When I asked Klinger why Ontario was able to close the gender gap in math but not the one in reading, he replied, “Because we focused for years on the needs of girls.”