Don't Read Too Much Into Boys' Verbal Scores

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

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.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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."

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