“Reading Is for Girls”

Helping both boys and girls achieve academic success in literacy.

Posted Oct 19, 2012

By Charlotte A. Agger

Recent research reports that female students have just about caught up to their male counterparts in the domains of math and science. This is wonderful news. What isn’t so wonderful, however, is that male students are unquestionably struggling in school—particularly in subjects that involve literacy. 

In fact, studies from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal that—while male and female students are scoring at the same levels across ethnic groups in mathematics—girls are outperforming boys in reading at all grade levels. Furthermore, as students move through school, this persistent gap in achievement between male and female students widens, signaling that the way we are teaching our boys is simply not sustainable.

Apart from these achievement-related concerns, male students are also connected to troubling disciplinary trends, unfounded labeling, and school dropout. For example, male students are more likely than girls to be labeled by teachers as learning disabled, at risk for school dropout, and as having ADHD. Additionally, in virtually every study examining disciplinary data by sex, boys are implicated in a far greater volume of conflicts than girls.

These findings on male achievement and school dropout patterns indicate that researchers, practitioners, and policymakers are not adequately attending to the needs of our male students, and are thereby not providing them with the tools they need to succeed. How can we best address this growing issue? Though the answer is multi-faceted, it certainly includes an increased understanding of socialization patterns; diversity of teaching approaches and materials; and interdisciplinary research on the social, emotional, and cognitive needs of our students. 

Acknowledging the large role that socialization plays in school engagement is imperative. Ensuring that socialization (particularly related to gender) does not result in the disparaging or stereotyping of academic domains is particularly essential. Parents and teachers should emphasize that all school subjects are valuable, and should steer students away from harmful notions, such as “reading is for girls.”  

In addition, pinpointing specific teaching materials and teaching methods that engender student interest and engagement within both boys and girls is critical. Schools should create literacy experiences that focus on the varied topics of interest of the students themselves. Only when we expose students to a wide variety of texts, and have our students engage with these texts, will they find their reading niche.

Also, more research addressing the differential achievement patterns of boys is needed. Further investigation of the causes and consequences of boys’ faltering academic performance will be necessary to craft developmentally-appropriate classroom practices that spark interest and feelings of competence. Research drawing from a broad, transdisciplinary arena will inform us on how to best enrich boys’ schooling experiences. It is important that educational psychologists work to form collaborations with our colleagues in anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, and nutrition to create an integrative approach that addresses the complex and transitory influences associated with boys’ achievement outcomes. 

We must also parse out which boys, exactly, are struggling in school. An abundance of within-group variation exists regarding boys’ achievement patterns in reading and writing. We know that educational disparities are particularly pronounced in males from low-income families; however, further research is needed on why these individuals are struggling and how we can best enhance their learning.

The grim facts that boys have lower GPAs, are graduating from high school and college at lower rates, and seem to exhibit declining academic aspirations exemplify a tangible and pressing issue—one that we must work together to fix. 

Charlotte Agger is a doctoral student in the Educational Psychology, Measurement, & Evaluation program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Educational Disparities. (2012). Ethnic and racial disparities in education: Psychology’s contributions to understanding and reducing disparities. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ed/resources/racial-disparities.aspx 

Skiba, R. J., Michael, R. S., Nardo, A. C., & Peterson, R. (2000). The color of discipline: Sources of racial and gender disproportionality in school punishment. Urban Review, 34, 317-342.

Wigfield, A., Battle, A., Keller, L. B., & Eccles, J. S. (2002). Sex differences in motivation, self concept, career aspiration, and career choice: Implications for cognitive development. In A. McGillicuddy-De Lisi (Ed.), The development of sex differences in cognition (pp. 93-124). Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.

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