| Boys continue to struggle with reading and writing
By Jen Horsey
TORONTO (CP) - While girls may have overcome the gender gap
in science and math at school, recent research from around the
world shows boys continue to struggle with reading and writing,
raising new concerns they could find themselves lagging behind
for the rest of their lives.
"In a matter of less than a decade and a half, males have
gone from being a disproportionate number in universities and
specialty programs to a number that's perhaps 30-plus per cent,"
said Paul Cappon, director general of the Council of Ministers
"And it's falling."
As recently as the 1980s, debate over the gender gap in schools
focused almost exclusively on girls' poor performance in science
and math, virtually ignoring indications even then that boys
were struggling with reading and writing.
"We were very concerned about classroom interaction patterns
and the success of girls, mainly in the areas of math and science,"
said Cecilia Reynolds, an associate dean at the Ontario Institute
for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
A national study by the Council of Ministers of Education released
this week found Canadian girls are out-performing boys in literacy
skills by a wide margin. The council's School Achievement Indicators
Program test for writing evaluated thousands of 13- and 16-year-olds
last year. Among 13-year-olds, about 10 per cent more girls
than boys met expected skill levels. Among 16-year-olds, about
17 per cent more girls than boys wrote at an age-appropriate
"We always knew that girls were doing quite fine in the
areas of literacy and languages and writing. But we also always
knew the boys were not," said Reynolds, who is now working
on a book on the subject. "But there was not a great deal
of concern because in the greater economy of things, boys were
always getting the better jobs, getting the better salaries."
Boys used to have an advantage over girls in math and science,
something some educators believed made up for their other deficits.
But recent science and math testing has shown any performance
gap that once existed between boys and girls in those subjects
has all but disappeared in Canada.
Some even speculate that next year, when the council next tests
Canadian students in science, the girls may move ahead of the
boys. That puts the girls squarely in the lead when it comes
to university entrance or achievement in the labour market,
Only 42 per cent of university graduates are male in Canada,
and that number is dropping each year, he said. "There's
such an obvious, linear, direct relationship between level of
education and income," said Cappon. "We've got to
be concerned about that."
He worries the social fabric of Canada is undergoing a rapid
and dramatic shift where women will be expected to carry an
excessive child care and income-generation burden.
"Asking women to provide most of the human capital in society;
that's a lot," he said.
But while experts agree that now is the time to turn their attention
to the long-standing literacy gender divide, their explanations
for it, and their solutions, widely vary.
In a culture that favours equal opportunity and advocates political
correctness, some have found it's difficult to discuss this
troubling gender gap without entering into the touchy domain
of sexism. Reynolds, an educator with a women's studies academic
background who is quick to label herself a feminist, cautioned
it is important to address differences between boys and girls
without assigning blame.
"Some of the literature is suggesting some educators are
blaming women teachers and saying that in the '70s and '80s,
when we did all these things for girls, we somehow forgot about
the boys," Reynolds said. "I don't really buy that
"I don't think we forgot about the boys. I think perhaps
we didn't pay sufficient attention to the learning needs of
boys." She has worked for a decade to educate teachers
about the different learning needs of both sexes.
Some say boys continue to lag behind in writing and reading
because of what Cappon calls the "feminization" of
education. Increasingly, teaching is becoming dominated by women
as more young women enter the profession and more older men
retire, he said. That leaves boys with few male role models
in the classroom.
"It's women doing the teaching. Boys in the socialization
process will tend to discount the importance of that particular
subject area when it's only women teaching it," he said.
Factors that start even before boys enter the education system,
such as girls' proclivity to be more verbal and boys' desire
to be more active, may also contribute to the problem, he said.
He also said the kinds of reading materials available in schools
may better suit girls than boys. "It turns out boys and
girls don't necessarily like the same things," he said.
The current wisdom is that boys' reading preferences include
concrete facts and instructional material that will help them
better understand a particular area of interest, whereas girls
are more attracted to stories that explore inter-personal relationships.
Think about the boy who devours columns of hockey statistics
while his sister and her friends are reading books like The
Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.
In Canada, there are a variety of approaches to level out skill
levels at school. Educators nationwide are closely watching
a pilot project in New Brunswick designed to prompt boys to
read. One part of the project has male role models from nearby
St. Thomas University, including some hockey players, going
into classes at a Fredericton, N.B., elementary school to read
Students at the test school are also being encouraged to read
material of their choice together in small mixed-gender groups,
followed by a discussion project that allows participants choices
including illustrator, group leader or summarizer.
Heather Richmond, an associate education professor at St. Thomas
and one of the project leaders, said part of her goal is to
add books expected to appeal to boys to the school's collection.
She, along with Cheryl Miles, a teacher seconded to work on
the project, plan to present their preliminary results next
month in Ottawa.
But some argue the only way to ensure equitable treatment of
boys and girls in the education system is to segregate them.
Some schools recently used this tactic to improve girls' performance
in science and math, but with the latest emphasis on literacy
and boys, some now say full separation is the only solution.
The founder of a United States organization promoting single-sex
education points to the success of the inner-city James
Lyng High School in Montreal as one shining example. The
school introduced single-sex classrooms five years ago and since
then, absenteeism has dropped, pass rates are high and the rate
of students going on to college has nearly doubled, said Leonard
Sax. "So many people in the education community seemed
to be paralyzed by a feeling that it's politically incorrect
to talk about innate differences in the ways girls and boys
learn," said Sax, who started the National Association
for Single Sex Public Education last year.
Sax, a family doctor and psychologist, argues hard-wired differences
between boys and girls mean it's impossible for both to learn
successfully in the classroom together.
"Almost every substantial choice you have to make will
benefit one gender and disadvantage another," said Sax
from his office in Poolesville, Maryland.
He said girls hear better than boys and that part of boys' reasons
for falling behind is simply that they can't hear the teacher.
There are also key differences in the way boys and girls respond
to confrontation, Sax said. Girls, he said, shrink away from
a confrontational teaching style under which many boys would
For her part, educator Reynolds argues the study of brain function
is a relatively new science which is barely understood and shouldn't
form the basis for education policy. She also emphasized that
these gender differences are statistical, with individuals everywhere
bucking the trend. "I don't think we have to freak out
and get overly concerned," she said. "I think we do
have to pay attention to what we're doing in our homes with
our boys and in our classrooms with our boys and that there
may be things we could do differently, and better, and these
scores could actually change."