How can schools and teachers help boys perform better in reading?

Teenage boy sitting on the floor in a library and reading a book

By Gabor Fulop

Statistician, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Key points:

– Boys tend to be over-represented among students who lag behind in reading performance
– OECD analysis highlights three key areas of action for bridging the gap in reading between girls and boys: Disciplinary issues, teacher-student relationships, and the culture of assessment and accountability

Education systems strive to equip all students with the skills required to thrive in life. Yet, inequalities in education abound. Students from affluent families tend to do better than their less fortunate peers. Somewhat more surprisingly, performance also varies by gender, irrespective of family background. For instance, boys tend to be over-represented among students who lag behind and lack basic proficiency in reading that is necessary to meet the challenges of today’s knowledge societies.

Girls and boys are often raised and socialised differently, which, in turn, leads to differences in their interests, aspirations and attitudes towards learning. Gender stereotypes are also present in the classroom. Teachers may hold certain beliefs about boys’ and girls’ interests and abilities that may bias – deliberately or not – their expectations of and interactions with students. Thus, gender stereotypes can eventually lead to disparities in learning outcomes and can partly explain why girls tend to outperform boys in reading, while boys do better than girls in mathematics. So the question arises: how can schools and teachers help boys in catching up with girls in reading performances at school?

By applying a machine learning technique to a dataset that combines two large international surveys, we can go some way to answering this question. The two surveys in question are the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), which asks teachers and school leaders about their working conditions and learning environments, and the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the cognitive and social-emotional skills of 15-year-old students. We call this the TALIS-PISA link.

Analysis of these data highlights three key areas that could play a role in bridging the gap in reading performances at school between girls and boys: disciplinary issues, teacher-student relationships, and the culture of assessment and accountability.

Addressing disciplinary issues

According to the data, boys seem to be more disturbed than girls by classroom disciplinary problems. This suggests that boys might be more affected by deteriorated learning conditions, as they tend to be exposed to greater peer pressure than girls. They are also more likely be the students disturbing lessons. Overall, boys seem to be less able than girls to stay focused on their schoolwork when there are disciplinary issues in the school.

It might also be the case that reading is more attractive to girls if teachers’ practices in reading classes consciously or unconsciously favour verbal and communication skills, which mature earlier for girls than boys. As a result, girls may read more and develop better reading skills while boys lose interest in reading and become more disruptive.

Enhancing teacher-student relationships

Boys tend to benefit more from a positive relationship with their teachers. In schools where the average school teacher considers teacher-student relationships to be positive, gender disparities in reading performance are smaller, in favour of boys. This suggests that, at the age of 15, boys (more than girls) are in need of support from their teachers to self-regulate and be achievement-focused.

Doing extracurricular activities with students is not only beneficial for teacher-student relationships but can also improve the disciplinary climate.

One way to improve relationships with students is to spend quality time with them outside regular lessons. Doing extracurricular activities with students is not only beneficial for teacher-student relationships but can also improve the disciplinary climate. That said, teachers’ workload should not be increased to include more extracurricular activities unless the time they spend on activities such as administrative work, which is less effective for student development, is reduced.

Promoting an achievement-focused culture

Boys are more likely to perform as well as (or even better) than girls in reading in schools where a culture of student assessment, teacher accountability and appraisal prevails. The more often teachers evaluate their students by administering their own assessments, the smaller the difference in reading performance between girls and boys, in favour of boys. This finding suggests that boys benefit from more regular testing as this allows them to better self-regulate and focus on schoolwork. Yet, this might also partly reflect girls’ increased anxiety about frequent testing and induced competition.

In addition, the more school leaders ensure that teachers feel responsible for their students’ learning outcomes and the more often teachers are formally appraised by external individuals and bodies, the better boys perform in reading compared to girls. Giving teachers opportunities to reflect on their teaching practice and finding ways to support low- and middle-achievers, among which boys are over-represented in reading, could help overcome gender inequalities.

Improving the disciplinary climate, enhancing teachers’ relationships with students (boys in particular), and promoting an achievement-focused culture within schools are all potentially useful levers to bridge the gap in reading performances between girls and boys.

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