Narrowing the gender gap: Literacy


Continuing our focus on the gender gaps in educational outcomes, Matt Bromley asks why boys often underperform in reading and writing when compared to girls – and considers what schools can do to close this gender gap

In part one of this series, I examined some of the biological and societal reasons why a gender gap exists in education and explored some generic strategies for closing it. In this article, I will explore the gender gap in literacy proficiency and look at ways of raising boys’ attainment in reading and writing.

An international PISA survey in 2012 found that 15-year-old boys were more likely than girls of the same age to be low-achievers in school; 14 per cent of boys and nine per cent of girls failed to attain the baseline level of proficiency in any of the three core subjects measured by PISA – namely, reading, maths and science. In fact, six out of 10 students who did not attain the baseline level in any of these subjects were boys.

In this country, attainment data consistently shows girls outperforming boys in reading, with the gap remaining relatively stable from early years to GCSE over the past 10 years. When the National Literacy Strategy was introduced in 1998, only 64 per cent of boys reached the level expected of their age group at the end of primary school compared with 79 per cent of girls, a gap of 15 percentage points. By 2000, the gap had narrowed to six percentage points, but since then it has remained relatively static, meaning 20 per cent of boys (and 12 per cent of girls) start secondary school unable to read at the expected level.

The evidence suggests that the gap is not simply a result of how schools teach students to read. Rather, the foundations are laid much earlier: in 2011, there was a gap of 11 percentage points between boys’ and girls’ achievement in reading at age five (71 per cent of boys working securely within the level expected for their age versus 82 per cent of girls).

Between ages five and seven the gap narrows significantly: in 2011, 89 per cent of girls achieved the expected level in reading in key stage tests compared with 82 per cent of boys. However, from then on it increased again: at age 14, girls outstripped boys in English by 12 percentage points. And at GCSE, only 59 per cent of boys achieved A* to C in English compared with 73 per cent of girls, a 14 percentage point difference.

In fact, the gap between the proportion of girls and boys receiving grades A* or A across all subjects is now at its widest since the top grade was introduced in 1994: in English, 21 per cent of girls achieved A* or A compared with just 12 per cent of boys.

Improving boys’ reading is important because reading and writing achievement are strongly linked. National Literacy Trust data from 2011 shows that 49 per cent of young people who read above the expected level for their age also write above the expected level (42 per cent write at the expected level; nine per cent write below their expected level). 

Conversely, 59 per cent of young people who read below the expected level also write below the expected level (35 per cent write at the expected level; six per cent write above their expected level).

National Literacy Trust data also shows strong links between reading and writing in terms of enjoyment, behaviour and attitudes. 

For example, 65 per cent of young people who enjoy reading “very much” or “quite a lot” also enjoy writing “very much” or “quite a lot”. Young people who read frequently are also more likely to write frequently, with 38 per cent of young people who read daily also writing daily.

Therefore, if schools don’t encourage boys to read more, it is likely that other literacy skills will be affected. What’s more, poor literacy has a negative impact on a student’s achievement in all their school subjects and limits their opportunities in later life.

Why do boys under-perform in reading and writing?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which runs the PISA tests, says there are many possible reasons for boys’ poor performance in literacy and many of them are connected with differences in behaviour.

First, boys don’t enjoy reading as much as girls.  Girls not only outperform boys in reading tests, they are also more engaged with reading than boys at many levels.

A 2011 National Literacy Trust survey of nearly 21,000 eight to 16-year-olds showed that boys are not only more likely than girls to struggle with reading but they are also more likely to enjoy reading only “a little” or “not at all” (56 versus 43 per cent). The 2009 PISA survey found that across all OECD countries just 52 per cent of 15-year-old boys said they read for enjoyment compared with 73 per cent of girls.

Second, and as a consequence of the fact boys don’t enjoy reading, boys read less than girls. In fact, boys spend one hour less per week on homework than girls – and each hour of homework per week translates into a four-point higher score in the PISA reading, maths and science tests.

In 2011, National Literacy Trust research found that 35 per cent of girls said they read outside of class every day compared with just 26 per cent of boys. Meanwhile, the OECD found that – outside of school – boys spent more time playing video games than girls and less time reading for enjoyment, particularly complex texts like fiction. The OECD states: “Reading proficiency is the foundation upon which all other learning is built; when boys don’t read well, their performance in other school subjects suffers too.”

According to a report by the Boys’ Reading Commission (an All-Party Parliamentary Group), boys’ underachievement in reading is a significant concern for schools across the UK. In a survey, 76 per cent of UK schools said boys in their school did not do as well in reading as girls; 82 per cent of schools said they had been compelled to develop their own strategies to tackle this.

The issue, so says the National Literacy Trust, is deep-seated. Test results consistently show this is a long-term and international trend. 

Boys’ attitudes towards reading and writing, the amount of time they spend reading, and their achievement in reading and writing are all poorer than those of girls. However, boys’ underachievement in literacy is not inevitable. It is not simply a result of biological differences; the majority of boys can achieve in literacy and can become fluent readers.

What can we do to close the gap?

Rather than being biological, the Boys’ Reading Commission found that boys’ underachievement in reading was associated with the interplay of three factors.

First, the home and family environment: at home, girls are more likely to be bought books and taken to the library than boys, and mothers are more likely to support and role-model reading for their children than fathers. 

One obvious solution, therefore, is to ensure that boys are bought books and taken to the library, and that fathers become more active as role-models by reading to their children more often – and are seen to read for personal pleasure.

Second, the school environment: many teachers have a limited knowledge of contemporary and attractive texts for boys and boys are not always given the opportunity to develop their identity as a reader through experiencing reading for enjoyment. 

One obvious solution, therefore, is to ensure that teachers are explicitly educated in what constitutes appropriate choices of texts for boys and also act as role-models in school by being seen to read and discuss books, particularly male teachers in subjects not usually associated with reading.

Third, male gender identities: boys tend not to value learning and reading as a mark of success.  One obvious solution, therefore, is to challenge the stereotype in the ways suggested above: ensure parents and teachers (particularly men) act as effective role-models and are explicit about the importance of reading and writing as a means of learning and explicit, in turn, about the importance of learning as a means of succeeding at school and in life.

A sustained approach 

These solutions are useful starting points but, alone, will not turn underachieving and demotivated boys into readers; rather, a sustained approach is required.

Schools need to encourage positive gender identities that value reading, develop a supportive social context for boys’ reading and counteract the possible negative triggers that can turn boys off.

For example, a refreshed commitment in schools to promoting reading for enjoyment would strongly benefit boys who want to read around their interests.  To enable this to happen, reading for pleasure needs to be an integral part of a school’s teaching and learning strategy (and built into the curriculum) and teachers need to be supported in their knowledge of relevant quality texts that will engage all students.

There is also the danger that a predominantly female workforce (particularly in the primary phase but also in secondary school English departments and libraries) might subconsciously privilege texts that are more attractive to girls. Schools need to ensure male teachers also act as effective role-models to boys.

Younger and Warrington’s four-year research programme (Raising Boys’ Achievement, DfES 2005), which examined the relative effectiveness of the strategies employed by schools to raise boys’ achievement, suggested four different categories of school-based approaches:

  1. Pedagogic: in other words, classroom-based approaches centred on teaching and learning.

  2. Individual: i.e. a focus on target-setting and mentoring.

  3. Organisational: i.e. whole-school curriculum design.

  4. Socio-cultural: i.e. approaches which attempt to create an environment for learning.

It’s good to talk

Younger and Warrington’s analysis showed that pedagogic strategies to improve reading were most successful when combined with a holistic approach, which focused not on teaching reading but on helping boys to become “successful and satisfied readers”.

When this happened and students were given space to talk and reflect on reading, share ideas and discuss why it was enjoyable, standards of reading improved.

Younger and Warrington’s research is backed up by OECD data which shows the clear link between the motivation to read and reading skills. 

They argued that for some boys the desire and motivation to read needs to be explicitly fostered through reading aloud, having a reading environment, having significant amounts of talk about texts, and having high levels of student-to-student book recommendations, and teacher-to-student and student-to-teacher, as well as quality time to read and then talk about what was read. The research stresses the importance of talk in supporting boys’ literacy.

Responding to Younger and Warrington’s paper, the National Literacy Trust made key recommendations.

First, schools should promote reading for enjoyment and involve parents (particularly fathers) in their reading strategies. Schools should provide students with opportunities to read around their own interests, and enjoy reading. Schools should have a reading strategy and should focus on the needs of groups of students who are more likely to fall behind – including boys – as well as the effectiveness of the school library in supporting these strategies.

Second, every teacher should have an up-to-date knowledge of reading materials that will appeal to disengaged boys. Schools should have a library at their heart and the school librarian should play an important role in enthusing teachers with the knowledge of reading materials. Schools should be encouraged to invest in their library provision.

Third, school libraries should target students (particularly boys) who are least likely to be supported in their reading at home, perhaps by working in partnership with children’s centres to target younger families who most need support. Libraries should also encourage students to take part in important initiatives, such as the annual Summer Reading Challenge initiative.

Finally, every boy should have weekly support from a male reading role-model. One boy in five thinks reading is more for girls than boys. This reflects the fact that mothers are more likely than fathers to support their children’s reading, that mothers are more likely to read in front of their children, and that the teacher who teaches a student to read is more likely to be a woman.

Many boys will be supported in their reading by males within the home, but for those who aren’t, the recruitment of male reading volunteers is a helpful strategy for schools to employ. Schools could make use of volunteering initiatives to engage young men in the support of boys’ reading.

Younger and Warrington also recommended the following:

Pedagogic approaches

  • Teachers should use a variety of interactive classroom activities including both short, specific focused activities and more sustained, on-going activities, as and when appropriate.

  • Teachers should acknowledge the central importance of talk – of speaking and listening as a means of supporting writing.

  • Teachers should take advantage of the gains to be achieved through companionable writing with response partners and through group work.

  • Teachers should be prepared to take risks to bring more creativity and variety to literacy.

  • Teachers should make more integrated use of ICT so that quality presentations can be more easily achieved, and drafts can be amended with greater ease.

  • Teachers should use a proactive and assertive approach in the classroom, which avoids the negative or confrontational, conveys high expectations and a sense of challenge, and uses praise regularly and consistently.

Mentoring approaches

  • Schools should have a coherent and integrated approach to target-setting and mentoring in which mentors prioritise their time to give credibility to the process.

  • Schools should ensure there is a mutual understanding and shared commitment to all aspects of the mentoring process, as well as a common belief and conviction among teachers and students in the system.

  • Mentors should be credible to students; collaborative and supportive on the one hand, offering strategies, advice and encouragement, but crucially they should be assertive and demanding on the other, so that disengaged students have the opportunity to protect their own image and use their mentor’s pressure to “excuse” their own involvement in academic work.

Socio-cultural approaches

  • Schools should ensure boys are actively involved in whole-school activities, such as artists-in-residence schemes, poetry weeks, dance sessions run by professional dancers, and drama productions which allocate lead roles to disengaged boys.

  • Schools should establish paired reading schemes between boys in different year groups with the explicit rationale of promoting self-esteem among the older “expert” boys.

  • Teachers should be willing to take risks in order to engage individual students in roles where they are actively supported to make choices and to achieve success.

  • Teachers and other staff should be fully committed to creating opportunities that afford students the space they need in order to articulate their feelings and emotions.


Of course, focusing on improving boys’ proficiency in literacy is not without risk. First, schools need to be careful not to disengage girls who struggle with reading by catering solely for boys. Many approaches that effectively support boys are also helpful to girls, but not all.

Second, it is tempting to treat underachieving boys as a homogenous group, but of course they are not. Not all boys are interested in the same things or have the same difficulties. Not all boys have difficulties because of the same circumstances, either. And, perhaps more importantly, not all boys struggle with reading and writing.

In focusing on raising boys’ attainment in English, there is a danger that schools will imply that all boys underachieve and are not expected to do well because literacy isn’t for boys: this might become a self-fulfilling prophecy by reinforcing it as a social norm.

  • Matt Bromley is an experienced school and college leader, an education writer and consultant. He is currently the group director of teaching and learning for a large further education college and multi-academy trust. Find out more at and follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley

Narrowing the gender gap
This is the second of three articles on narrowing the gender gap. The third article, exploring the gender gap in maths and the sciences, is due to be published in SecEd on June 18. Read the articles at


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