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The Gender Gap in Reading

Are parents responsible?

Girls are better readers than boys. Study after study reveals that girls are more advanced in their reading skills in just about every way, at just about every age, and in just about every country around the world (Mullis et al., 2007).

Moreover, girls appear to enjoy reading more than boys, a preference that could serve to widen the reading gap even further (Hughes-Hassell & Rodge, 2007). It makes sense that when you’re good at something, you like doing it, and if you like doing something, you spend more time doing that thing, whether it is reading, swimming, or playing the piano. And when you do more of something, you tend to get better at it.

Why? Is this gender gap due to some inherent difference between boys and girls? Or is it due to some way that parents are supporting their daughters’ reading more than their sons’?

Until recently, there was very little indication that parents were acting differently in their support of reading with daughters and sons. The research on shared book-reading with young children consistently failed to find gender differences in the way parents were reading books with sons and daughters, either in terms of frequency or quality. Nor was there evidence in the early school years to suggest that parents were somehow providing more support to their young daughters’ beginning reading efforts compared to their sons’.

Yet a new study indicates just that: Economists Michael Baker and Kevin Milligan showed that parents of young children born in the millenium in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada spend more time in reading and early literacy activities with their preschool daughters than sons. For instance, in the U.S., parents reported spending an average of 3 minutes longer in each book-reading session with daughters than with sons. This difference sounds tiny, but if book-reading occurs on a daily basis, that small daily difference adds up to over 100 extra hours of book-reading that girls receive per year. This differential investment in girls over boys began in the first year of life, so girls may have received up to 500 extra hours of book-reading than boys by the time they enter school. Because we know from other research that time parents spend with their children reading books and teaching letters and words is strongly linked to children’s later reading achievement (Sénéchal & Lefevre, 2002), it is likely that this differential parental investment in girls over boys goes a long way toward explaining the reading gap.

These findings are based on how often parents report spending time in these activities with their daughters and sons, not on direct observations. That said, if we can assume that parents’ reports are accurate indicators of the time they actually spend in these activities, we must ask why do parents invest more in their daughters’ literacy than they do in their sons’? Baker and Milligan conclude that parents experience a larger “opportunity cost” in reading to boys versus girls because boys may be more active and thus more difficult to engage in book-reading and teaching activities than girls. There is compelling evidence that girls have higher levels of self-control than boys from a young age, so perhaps it is simply easier for parents to read to them for longer (Matthews, Ponitz, & Morrison, 2009). In my view, we still don’t know exactly why parents are investing more in girls’ literacy than boys, only that they are.

Of course there are other potential explanations for the gender gap in reading, and these other explanations can co-exist with the difference in parental investment. Research shows that many teachers hold views of boys as “troublesome” and under-achieving, whereas they see girls as “compliant” and high-achieving (Jones & Myhill, 2004). These different perceptions of boys’ and girls’ behavior and abilities from a young age can affect their achievement (Alvidrez & Weinstein, 1999).

We know that the reading gap exists. The reason for that gap is probably multitudinous: Yes, there may be initial small differences in girls’ and boys’ responses to books and to quiet activities that result in parents interacting with daughters and sons in subtly different ways. Those subtle differences may then get compounded in the early school years if girls comply more readily with their work than boys. Their early reading skill may then lead girls to read in their spare time more often in the critical primary school years, which in turn advances their reading abilities exponentially.

I have two adolescent sons, both of whom are excellent readers. One seemed to start out that way – from the time he was a baby, he loved books and everything about them – holding them, chewing on them, looking at the pictures, AND listening to the stories. My other son was not a natural book lover. As a toddler, he vastly preferred to play with Duplos or action figures or zoom around in his Cozy Coupe than to settle down to a shared book-reading session. Through gentle and consistent shared reading sessions, sometimes on the floor amidst the blocks, with action figures as additional characters, he has become a book lover, although even now he can be picky about the genres and the books he will read.

Parents are not fully responsible for the gender gap in reading, but parents can go a long way toward narrowing that gap for their sons. It will take extra doses of patience and creativity to share books with a reluctant reader, but the payoff is tremendous in where it could lead your child.

See my book “Tell Me a Story: Sharing Stories to Enrich Your Child’s World” (Oxford, 2013) for more tips on how to engage your sons AND daughters in reading and storytelling.


Alvidrez, J., & Weinstein, R. S. (1999). Early teacher perceptions and later student academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 91, 731-746.

Baker, M., & Milligan, K. (2013). Boy-girl differences in parental time investments: Evidence from three countries (No. w18893). Canada: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Hughes-Hassell, S., & Rodge, P. (2007). The leisure reading habits of urban adolescents. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 51, 22-33.

Jones, S., & Myhill, D. (2004). ‘Troublesome boys’ and ‘compliant girls’:gender identity and perceptions of achievement and underachievement. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 25, 547-561.

Matthews, J. S., Ponitz, C.C., & Morrison, F.J. (2009). Early gender differences in self-regulation and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101, 689-704.

Mullis, I. V. S., Martin, M. O., Kennedy, A. M., & Foy, P. (2007). PIRLS 2006 International Report: IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study in primary schools in 40 countries. Boston: Lynch School of Education, Boston College.

Sénéchal, M., & LeFevre, J. A. (2002). Parental involvement in the development of children’s reading skill: A five-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 73, 445-460.