Developed countries like the United States have seen a remarkable transformation in education over the last century: Girls and young women—once subjected to discrimination in, and even exclusion from, schools and colleges—have “conquered” those very institutions, as a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently presented. Today, for example, women represent a growing majority of students on college campuses in the U.S., up from around 40 percent in the 1970s.
One understated contributor to this development has been that girls routinely outstrip boys at reading. In two of the largest studies ever conducted into the reading habits of children in the United Kingdom, it was found that boys dedicate less time than girls to processing words, that they’re more prone to skipping passages or entire sections, and that they frequently choose books that are beneath their reading levels.
Girls tend to do almost everything more thoroughly than boys, while conversely boys are more careless about some, if not most, school subjects. And notably, as countless studies reported, girls are also more inclined to read for pleasure.
But it’s not just a phenomenon in the U.K.: These trends in girls’ dominance in reading can be found pretty much anywhere in the developed world. In 2009, a global study of the academic performance of 15-year-olds found that, in all but one of the 65 participating countries, more girls than boys said they read for pleasure. On average across the countries, only about half of boys said they read for enjoyment, compared to roughly three-quarters of girls. (The list generally excludes less-developed countries where girls and women tend to have lower rates of literacy than boys and men.)
But that girls read more than boys the world over doesn’t mean that biology is the driving force. After all, boys tend to be more vulnerable than girls to peer pressure, and that could discourage them from activities like reading that are perceived to be “uncool.”
Are male and female brains biologically different?
It was suggested that psychological factors—like girls’ tendency to develop self-awareness and relationship skills earlier in life than boys—could play a role in the disparity, too, while also explaining why boys often struggle to cultivate a love of reading. Researcher noted that giving boys the right literature, that appeals to their tastes and interests, and you can quickly see changes in reading attitudes.
Schools ought to make a more concerted effort to equip their libraries with the kinds of books—like nonfiction and comic books—that boys say they’re drawn to. The ability to read a variety of kinds of text for a variety of purposes is important for life after school.
Understanding why girls are so much more inclined to read might help eradicate what is proving to be a stubborn gender gap both in the US and around the world: the lagging educational outcomes of boys and men. Reading for pleasure is, as the OECD has concluded, a habit that can prove integral to performing well in the classroom. Any cognitive skill can be improved with practice. If girls are reading more outside of school—if they’re doing so out of an intrinsic motivation rather than because they have to—this provides them with thousands of hours of additional reading over the course of their development.
And those extra hours pay dividends for years to come in the classroom. How important becomes the reading skills and habit when preparing for the standardized tests. We see at Damian SAT ACT Prep time and time again the gap between girls and boys in reading skills. We encourage all our students to read more and start with school material that gives them also an incentive for performance and better grades.