Why Johnny Can't Read: Schools Favor Girls

Studies have long shown that boys in the United States and around the world do not read or write as well as girls. There are several reasons, according to the common wisdom:

  • Girls mature more quickly.
  • Boys are more likely to suffer dyslexia and other reading disorders.
  • Race and poverty play a role.

But a new study finds that the problem cuts across socioeconomic lines and pins part of the blame squarely on schools, whose techniques cater to the strengths of girls and leave boys utterly disinterested.

Can't read a newspaper

The research, by psychology professor Judith Kleinfeld at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, finds that nearly one-quarter of high school seniors across the United States who are sons of white, college-educated parents have woeful reading skills, ranking "below basic" on a national standardized test.

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"These boys cannot read a newspaper and get the main point," Kleinfeld told LiveScience. "These boys cannot read directions for how to use equipment and follow them."

And the problem is getting worse.

The federal government's 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that 26.3 percent of high school seniors scored below basic in reading skills. In a finer analysis of that data, Kleinfeld found that 23 percent of white sons of college-educated parents scored below basic, up from 13 percent in 1992. (Among girls with white, college-educated parents, only about 6 percent fall into the below-basic category.)

Kleinfeld presented her results last month at the White House Conference on Helping America's Youth in Indianapolis. She has not yet submitted the findings to a journal for peer review.

Lack of motivation

The problem is partly developmental, Kleinfeld said.

"Girls mature more quickly than boys," she said. "They enter school with bigger vocabularies and better fine motor skills, so it's easier for them to learn to write."

And as boys enter junior high and high school, their motivation wanes.

"Many boys are disengaging from school," Kleinfeld says.  "The U.S. Department of Education’s surveys of student commitment show that boys are far less likely than girls to do homework or to come to school with the supplies they need."

In an interview, one boy summed up the problem for Kleinfeld. He said: "Why would anyone want to read novels? They aren't even true!"

What schools should learn

In separate research that Kleinfeld is also preparing for publication, she has possibly gotten to the root of the problem.

"Here's a fascinating fact," she said. "There is no literacy gap in home-schooled boys and girls."

"Why? In school, teachers emphasize reading literature and talking about character and feelings," she said. "This way of teaching reading does not turn boys on.  Boys prefer reading nonfiction, such as history and adventure books. When they are taught at home, parents are more likely to let them follow their interests."