Much has been written about the fact boys tend to perform better than girls at math. But this focus has largely overshadowed a larger and more worrisome gender gap in an even more fundamental domain: reading and writing.
A new study featuring data on more than three million American students reports girls outperform boys in reading and writing skills in fourth grade, and that gap increases over their next eight years of schooling.
The gender difference in writing ability is far larger than for reading, which is highly problematic given how essential writing skills are for college success.
"It appears that the gender gap has been greatly underestimated," lead author David Reilly, a psychologist at Griffith University in Australia, said in announcing the findings. "The common thinking is that boys and girls in grade school start with the same cognitive ability, but this research suggests otherwise."
The study, in the journal American Psychologist, analyzes data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress covering the years 1988 to 2015 for reading, and 1998 to 2011 for writing. The researchers focused on tests taken in fourth grade, eighth grade, and 12th grade.
"Gender differences in reading and writing achievement were found across all levels of the ability spectrum," they report. "Girls outperformed boys in mean reading and writing achievement, and these gender differences do not appear to be declining."
Some specifics: "Girls showed significantly higher reading scores than boys across every wave of assessment, and in every wave," the researchers write. "More boys than girls were poor readers, (with) 1.54 times as many boys as girls falling below the minimum standard of literacy by Grade 12.
"The effect was reversed for advanced readers, with more girls than boys achieving the advance literacy standard."
This gap was considerably wider for writing ability. The study found more than twice as many boys as girls were rated as poor writers, while more girls than boys achieved "the advanced standard for written expression."
"The likelihood of being average or higher in writing ability for a student at the end of high school increases from 36.7 percent for boys to 63.3 percent for girls," the researchers state. "A minority of boys attain this standard, but the majority of girls do."
Why is the writing gap so much larger? "Writing represents a more challenging task," the researchers explain, "and larger gender differences are typically found as the complexity of the task increases."
These findings cannot explain whether these differences are based in biology or socialization. But they are clearly worrisome. As manufacturing grows more automated, an ever-greater percentage of well-paying jobs will likely require first-rate reading and writing skills. If, for whatever reason, men can't master them, their economic futures are far from bright.
"The magnitude of the gender gap in writing ability is sufficiently large that it may warrant educational interventions," such as "additional opportunities to practice writing skills," the researchers conclude. But they add that the results do not imply that boys would be better off in male-only schools.
"All the evidence suggests that gender segregation of education reinforces negative gender stereotypes ... which could be harmful for boys with reading and writing, and for girls with math and science," Reilly said. "Rather, it suggests that we need to better tailor our education to meet the needs of boys, and really encourage in them early a love not just of reading, but also writing."