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Gender Gap in Reading and Math

Kathryn Young Thompson

When we were considering having Laylee tested for our school district’s advanced academic program, they told us that boys and girls manifest giftedness differently.  Of course every child is different and these are just generalizations but usually boys tend to act out in school when they’re not being challenged, while girls who are gifted tend to go the opposite direction.  The gifted girls tend to be more compliant and, although they may be bored, tend to put on a good face and try to please their teachers.

We were told that sometimes teachers have a harder time identifying which girls need more of a challenge because they’re not as vocal about their needs.  I was reminded of these academic gender differences when I read about a study recently conducted by professors at the University of Illinois on the gender gap in math and reading.

The study that looked at national longitudinal data showed that a gender gap still exists with boys doing better in math and girls doing better in reading.  While boys and girls start out virtually equal in math, a gap grows with boys moving ahead through fifth grade.  However, girls are able to catch up some in middle school.

With reading, on the other hand, girls start out ahead and boys who have a hard time with reading at the beginning of their school careers tend to stay behind throughout school.  The researchers suggest that this is a reason for teachers to put a lot of effort into helping boys who are struggling with reading early on.

Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that my kids have followed these trends so far and the statistic about boys having trouble catching up gives me additional motivation to work with Magoo on his reading.  He’s still in kindergarten but I don’t want him to fall behind.  I’m still waiting for that magic moment with him when the entire of process of reading just clicks.  Right now it’s a word by word, page by page, struggle.

One interesting thing the researchers found was that teachers tend to think girls are doing better at math, even when that isn’t the case.  Professor Sarah Lubienski said. "This might be because girls tend to be perceived as 'good girls' in the classroom, and then teachers assume that they understand the material because they complete their work and don't cause trouble."

This looks like one more case where basic gender differences make it difficult for teachers to assess what's actually going on below the surface.  Where a boy's disruptive behavior might make him stand out so that a teacher will pay attention to his needs and possibly label him as gifted, it looks like he's just as likely to convince her that he's not meeting learning targets.  Boys will be boys and girls will be girls.  Now we just need to look past their behavioral issues and focus on their skill sets to determine where they need help academically.

Kathryn Thompson is a mom to two school-aged kids, a toddler, and a deceased betta fish. She can also be found at The Parenting Post, and occasionally the gym.