Reading & Literacy

Gender Gaps Found to Be Wider in Print Than Digital Reading

By Liana Loewus — November 24, 2015 2 min read
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Girls outperform boys in reading, but the gender gap shrinks when digital texts are used, according to a new analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That’s because boys do better with computer-based reading than print-based reading, while the opposite is true for girls.

The finding is one of many released today in a 560-page report looking at how 46 nations compare on a variety of education indicators.

The report looked at, among other things, the results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, a test given to 15-year-olds internationally. The most recent PISA scores showed that on average, girls outperformed boys by 38 points on a paper-based reading test—or about a year’s worth of formal schooling. But on a computer-based test, girls outperformed boys by just 26 points.

More specifically, 15-year-old boys scored 4 points higher on the computer-based reading test than the paper-based test on average, while 15-year-old girls performed 8 points lower on the digital test than the paper-based one.

“In all participating countries, the gender gap in performance was wider in print than in digital reading,” the report states.

The OECD report suggests a reason for this as well: Boys tend to play more video games.

Here’s the exact claim made in the report:

[The PISA results] suggest that boys tend to do better in reading when they take a computer-based test largely because of their greater familiarity [with] computers, which, in turn, is linked to the greater amount of time they spend playing video games. The more frequently students play one-player video games and collaborative online games, which boys tend to play more than girls, the worse their relative performance on paper-based tests. Frequent video gaming appears to “crowd out” other activities, such as doing homework regularly, that help students to acquire reading and mathematics skills. In computer-based tests, the negative effects of video gaming may be counterbalanced by its positive effects on students’ ability to navigate through digital texts. And students who frequently play video games will, necessarily, be more at ease—and may even prefer—taking a test using a computer.

It’s a bit confusing, but basically, the claim is that video-game playing brings boys’ scores down on print tests because it takes away from their studies. However, it also brings their scores up a bit on computer-based tests because it makes them more familiar with computers.

Now’s as good a time as ever to offer my typical caveat about “malPISAnce,” or the misuse of PISA scores. (See also: misNAEPery.) The international test results do not explain why particular countries performed a certain way, only that they did. So any explanation that gets at causation should be viewed skeptically, and treated as a hypothesis in need of more research.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.