School & District Management

Boys Read Better When There Are More Girls in Class, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 12, 2017 2 min read
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Having more girl classmates may help boys and girls alike boost their reading skills, according to a new study in the Journal of School Effectiveness and School Improvement.

Using data from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, a benchmarking test of 15-year-olds in 33 countries, the researchers looked at how school resources and social characteristics affected boys’ and girls’ reading performance. In each school, the researchers analyzed the concentration of poverty, the percentage of teachers with a college degree, and the proportion of girls to boys.

On average across countries, students had higher reading scores in low-poverty schools and schools where a majority of teachers had a college degree. But researchers also found girls scored nearly 30 points higher than boys on a 600-point scale, and all students scored better when girls made up at least 60 percent of students in the school:

“Boys’ poorer reading performance really is a widespread but unfortunately also understudied problem,” said Margriet van Hek, the lead study author and a sociologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, in a statement. “Our study shows that the issue is reinforced when boys attend schools with a predominantly male student population. Yet schools can help improve this situation by ensuring a balanced gender distribution in their student population.”

The findings are likely to add to the debate over single-sex education, as districts including Dallas and Washington, D.C. experiment with single-sex classes and schools.

Erin Pahlke, an assistant professor of psychology at Whitman College in Washington, was not part of the Netherlands study but said its results didn’t surprise her; prior research has suggested boys are more likely to be focused and better behaved in classes where they are outnumbered by girls.

“One argument is it changes the classroom behavior, and so impacts the amount of on-task time in the classroom,” Pahlke said. “That’s powerful and important, and a good argument for keeping boys and girls together in a classroom.”

Yet she also noted that the findings might be less about gender and more about high achievement; if girls on average outperform boys in reading, than boys in a class of mostly girls are more likely to be surrounded by high-achieving students, which may also change the tenor of the classroom.

Pahlke has found in prior research that kindergarteners educated in coed classes also tend to have fewer gender-related stereotypes. “Part of the answer could be around how we socialize kids in terms of gender stereotypes. We should be making sure that boys see models like male teachers and we are consistently giving the message that thinking critically and focusing is something for both boys and girls.”

Chart: Students who attend schools with more than 60 percent girls have higher reading scores for boys and girls, according to a new study. Source: Journal of School Effectiveness and School Improvement.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.