Don't Read Too Much Into Boys' Verbal Scores

Boys' poorer reading levels in a recent study are feeding a troubling tendency to lower literacy expectations for boys, say Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett. It's just as destructive as the old myth about girls' math inferiority.

Caryl Rivers /Rosalind C. Barnett(WOMENSENEWS)-Are we creating a new myth to parallel the one that says girls can't do math? Are we, in fact, starting to believe that boys are simply not "wired" for reading and other verbal skills?

Will mothers (and fathers) start looking at their sons and begin steering them away from careers that involve writing and verbal skills because boys are just not suited for such pursuits?

Something similar happened with girls in 1980 after the media hyped the idea of a male "math gene" that girls didn't have.

That idea has since been discredited, but mothers in particular took it seriously. A longitudinal survey by Jacqueline Eccles of the University of Michigan and her colleagues found that, 10 years later, mothers who knew about the articles had lowered their expectations of their daughters' math abilities. There's proof positive that flawed-but-widely-published media stories can do harm.

So mothers need to know that their sons are not verbal basket cases. But this idea-popular with the media in the last few years-has resurfaced in the wake of a new study by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy group. It found that girls are reading better than boys in all 50 states.

However, media stories on the study too often have included unscientific ideas. An ABC News blog on March 17 said that: "While girls' brains are more verbally oriented, often making reading skills easier for them, boys' brains are visually oriented." There is no reliable scientific evidence for that statement.

Meanwhile, reporting on the study, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote: "Some people think that boys are hardwired so that they learn more slowly, perhaps because they evolved to fight off wolves more than to raise their hands in classrooms."

Media Eagerly Takes Up Narrative

Such articles dovetail with a narrative that has been eagerly taken up by the media in the past few years. A number of critics have suggested that boys' reading material be dumbed down to "informational texts" and stories about adventure and combat.

Houston neurologist Bruce Perry, quoted in Newsweek in 2006, claimed that because of boys' hardwired disadvantages, putting girls and boys in the same classes is a "biologically disrespectful model of education."

The New Republic claimed in 2006 that a "verbally drenched curriculum" is "leaving boys in the dust." That same year, The Hartford Courant suggested that "because boys don't want to read books from beginning to end, informational texts are ideal."

Are American boys really in reading freefall? Are they verbal incompetents?

Not really. The newest study sounds alarming, but if you look at the fine print, there's less than meets the eye.

The authors of the study noted that girls did outperform boys in every state between 2002 and 2008. However, in the large majority of states, the gender difference in proficiency scores in reading at the elementary-, middle- and high-school grades was less than 10 percentage points. Moreover, between 2002 and 2008, boys made slightly more gains in reading than did girls.

The takeaway message, on the last page of the report, is that "there is a great deal of overlap in the distribution of reading scores between males and females; many boys do well in reading and many do not, and the same is true of girls."

Fine-Grain Analysis Shifts Picture

The study did not report the reading achievement scores for boys and girls separately by race or social class. Previous research suggests that when these fine-grain analyses are done, the picture shifts dramatically. Statistics indicate that white and Asian boys in suburban schools do not lag behind in reading, nor do they drop out of schools at high rates. Black and Hispanic boys, especially in inner cities, do poorly, but girls in those areas don't score much better. Rural white boys and working-class white boys, especially in poverty areas, often do poorly. All these kids urgently need special help.

The Washington-based think tank Education Sector reported that over the past three decades, boys' test scores are mostly up. Even though young women have become the majority of college students, more boys are going to college and more are getting bachelor's degrees

Reading achievement by 9-year-old boys increased 15 points on a 500-point scale between 1971 and 2004, while girls' scores in that age group increased seven points, remaining five points ahead of boys.

Reading achievement for 13-year-olds improved four points for boys and three points for girls, with girls 10 points ahead. Among 17-year-olds, there was almost no change in reading achievement, with girls up one point, boys down one point, and girls 14 points ahead.

These very reliable data hardly paint a picture of most boys sinking faster than the Titanic in verbal abilities. In fact, when University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde synthesized data from 165 studies on verbal ability and gender in 2005, she found a female superiority so slight as to be meaningless. But those who argue-wrongly-that boys' brains aren't made for reading get a lot of media attention.

Propagating Differences

Best-selling author Michael Gurian ("The Wonder of Boys") claims that boys' and girls' brains are so different that they should be taught in separate classrooms. Gurian runs teachers' workshops around the United States and speaks often at national teachers conferences.

But the best science disagrees. Lise Eliot, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Chicago and the author of "Pink Brain, Blue Brain," conducted an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from childhood to adolescence. She concluded there is "surprisingly little evidence of sex differences in children's brains."

Eliot warns, "Even teachers are now preaching the gospel of sex differences goaded on by bad in-service seminars [and] by so-called brain-based learning theories."

One teacher quoted by Newsweek said she was giving boys more videos to watch and less material to read. Leonard Sax, author of "Why Gender Matters," suggests that literature teachers should not ask boys about characters' emotions but should only focus on what the characters actually do.

If teachers and parents take this advice, boys with the potential to be the next John Updike, Arthur Miller or Robert Frost may just go off to business school.

Many of us remember a time when boys had to read Shakespeare, Hardy, Longfellow and other classics as early as eighth grade, when boys were the majority of valedictorians, dominated the debate teams and edited the school newspapers. Have boys' brains or hormones changed over the past 30 years? Not likely. But many boys do read less and play video games and watch TV more. Maybe one thing that's changed is our expectations. If we don't believe that boys have good verbal skills, they'll believe it too.

Caryl Rivers of Boston University and Rosalind C. Barnett of Brandeis are co-authors of "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, And Our Jobs" (Basic Books, 2004).