Boys narrowing literacy proficiency gap, but girls still ahead

Efforts to get more boys reading fiction are paying off. They are catching up on girls in literacy skills.

International reading tests in which Irish fourth-class pupils took part last year have revealed that girls’ scores are still better than boys’, just as they are in 47 of the other 49 countries that took part.

But the gap between them on the Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLS) tests is just 12 points, compared to an international average of 19.

The gap is down from the 15 points it was five years ago.

The team of researchers at the Educational Research Centre (ERC), who oversaw testing at 148 primary schools, said both genders had improved, but a factor in boys closing the gap was their performance in reading literary texts.

Pupils were tested in four main areas, to assess how well they read to learn things, rather than just their ability to read.

Each child had to read
two pieces of text of 800 words each, one a literary text and the other informational, and answer questions about what they had

An element of the Department of Education’s literacy and numeracy strategy (it was introduced in 2011) was to get primary schools using a broader range of texts in class, as well as devoting a suggested, extra half-hour a day to improving literacy and numeracy in primary schools.

This widened use of texts was to be particularly aimed at boys, to address fears that they have traditionally tended not to do as well as girls in literacy tests.

Boys have also had higher levels of literacy problems than girls, further prompting extra efforts to get them interested in reading.

These initiatives by schools are believed to have played a role in closing the gender gap shown in PIRLS.

Since the same testing was done in 2011, boys’ scores here increased by 17 points, compared to a 13-point
improvement for girls.

But on the literary text assessments, the gap has fallen from 23 to 17 points in five years.

“It’s not because girls have done badly, but because boys have caught up,” said Eemer Eivers, co-author, with ERC colleagues, Lorraine Gilleece and Emer Delaney,
of the initial report on Ireland’s performance in PIRLS 2016.

As well as testing more than 4,600 pupils in these paper-based tests, they oversaw online reading tests that were also taken by 2,500 of those children. The gap between boys and girls was slightly narrower on this ePIRLS test, because it only looks at informational texts, on which boys usually do better than girls.

Other main elements of the literacy and numeracy strategy, at primary level, included significant investment in teacher-training, and making standardised tests for pupils in second, fourth, and sixth class compulsory.

While many schools were already doing these, there is now also a requirement to communicate each child’s scores to their parents and how they compare with peers nationally,

Department of Education chief inspector, Harold Hislop, said this has helped to create more informed discussions about literacy at parent-teacher meetings.

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