RRF Newsletter 51 back to contents
Illiterate boys: The new international phenomenonDr Bonnie Macmillan

Boys are in trouble. Increasingly, it is coming to the attention of anyone who listens to the news or reads a newspaper that boys are struggling to read.  

Together two recent international surveys of reading achievement have measured reading ability in more than 50 countries (OECD/Unesco, 2003; Mullis et al., 2003). The results show that at both the age of 9 and 15, boys’ reading skills are substantially worse than girls’. For the first time in the history of such surveys, the gender gaps in performance are significantly large in virtually every country.  

Of the countries surveyed recently in 2001, 37 were also surveyed in 1991. In 13 of these, where sex differences did not exist ten years ago, they are now in evidence. In addition, the gap between boys’ and girls’ scores has widened over the last ten years in every country but one. Sex differences in reading are not only showing up in more and more countries, they are also growing larger. 

What is happening? Why are boys having such trouble keeping up with girls in their ability to read? And why are more and more boys falling further and further behind?  

Speculation about the causes of boys’ underachievement

There is much speculation in the media about the possible causes of what is becoming a growing international phenomenon. Many factors have been blamed (see Table 1). These range from biological reasons such as boys’ slower maturation, to environmental factors such as the pre-dominance of female primary school teachers.  

First, a look at the biological factors: could any of these be the reason that boys’ reading skills are inferior to girls’? The sexes do differ biologically. But they always have. Even though, with the advent of new brain scanning techniques, we know more about the sex differences in brain organisation and development than we did ten years ago, these differences have always existed. What have not are the sex differences in reading ability. There are few test figures available, but a large survey of English 11-year-olds in 1957 revealed that there were no sex differences in reading (Morris, 1966). In Scotland , as late as 1992, testing of 8-year-olds revealed no sex differences in reading ability (Scottish Education Department, 1992). If biological differences did not produce gender differences in reading achievement in the past, why should these factors be entertained as a possible cause of the problem now?  

Table 1    Proposed causes of boys’ underachievement in reading:


Biological factors


1)       Boys tend to have poorer speech and language skills than girls do

2)       Boys are more curious, active, and have short attention spans

3)       Boys’ fine motor skills are poorer than girls (printing and writing are difficult and unpleasant)

4)       Boys are more assertive, competitive (co-operative group learning less appealing to them than it is to girls)

5)       Higher testosterone levels in the male foetus and during infancy affect a part of the brain governing control of aggressive behaviour (boys are more badly behaved, more disruptive in class)


Environmental factors

1)       Too many female primary school teachers (gives boys the message that school is a female place?)

2)       Boys get discouraged when girls are doing well at reading (reading is not ‘cool’)

3)       Reading tests requiring written answers disadvantage boys

4)       Less time for leisure reading than in past (TV, internet, computer games)

5)       Fathers are not reading enough to, or in front of, their sons

6)       School starts at an age when boys are too immature to cope

7)       Schooling fails to engage boys’ strong right-hemisphere abilities


As far as the environmental factors go, I could point out that the sex of a child’s teacher has no impact on performance (Wilkinson, 1998): that the questions in the recent international surveys of reading ability were largely multiple choice; or that delaying the start of school for a year has no benefits and is likely to lead to a substantial drop in IQ (Cahan & Cohen, 1989; Ceci, 1991; Morrison et al. 1997). (The largest reading ability sex differences in the world occur in countries such as Denmark , Finland and Sweden where children don’t start school until age 7). But all this is a rather pointless exercise when there is just one important reason, not listed in Table 1, that exposes all of these suggested causes as red herrings.  

The real reason behind boys’ reading underachievement

Quite simply, boys can read equally as well as girls do, and sometimes outperform girls, in classrooms where they are taught to read by certain methods. They perform just as well as girls regardless of their teacher’s sex, their school starting age, the kinds of reading tests they take, or any of the other biological and environmental factors that might be in play. Any teacher that uses these particular methods not only immediately (if inadvertently) eradicates sex differences, but also produces significantly better reading attainment among boys and girls than with the use of other methods. In light of the experimental research (see Table 2), many of us are convinced that the steady change in teaching methods over recent decades is the cause of the new gender divide in reading ability.   

But others are not convinced. In fact, have you noticed how easily the teaching methods idea is dismissed by educators and government officials? Not only is this explanation often blatantly ignored, some (frightened, perhaps, about this possibility?) actually assert that sex differences in reading have been ridiculously exaggerated and are nothing new (Epstein, et al., 1998). Others, while noting that  boys’ poor performance in reading is being ignored as the “big issue”, acknowledge that it is an issue that no one seems able to explain or “knows how to fix” (Johnson, 2003, p. 9). If there are any educators who consider the teaching methods idea, even fleetingly, it is likely they ask: why should certain instructional methods disadvantage boys? Why should the current methods which we have endorsed for years, and which after all, include a little bit of everything (i.e. something for everyone), disadvantage boys?  

Table 2    Reasons that point to teaching methods as the cause of the new gender divide in    reading:

Causational evidence

  • Convincing Scottish research evidence demonstrating no sex differences under a single focus method of instruction (Johnston & Watson, 1998).
  • Convincing evidence that 5 years after this form of instruction boys outperform girls in word reading ability by 7 months, and by this time have an average reading age 31 months above their chronological age; (boys’ average reading comprehension and spelling abilities are 5 and 11 months, respectively, above CA) (Johnston & Watson, 2003).
  • Convincing research evidence revealing huge achievement differences under different methods of instruction (Grant, 2001; Deavers, Solity & Kerfoot, 2000; Johnston & Watson, 1998; Stuart, 1999; Sumbler & Willows, 1996).


Correlational evidence

  • The most dramatic sex differences are occurring in countries widely known for popular  ‘mix of methods’ teaching: New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Australia, Switzerland, Australia, England, Canada, USA (OECD/Unesco, 2003; Mullis et al., 2003),
  • Sex differences in reading do not exist in schools using certain, single focus, methods of reading instruction (Lloyd & Macmillan, 1999; for review, Macmillan, 1997).
  • Examination of teaching methods information (included in recent international surveys) shows the adoption of a ‘mixture of methods’ is now evident in nearly all countries.
  • Sex differences in reading developed only recently in Scotland compared to England , after a far more gradual infiltration of the ‘mix of methods’ approach.



How could teaching methods be to blame?

Perhaps it is the failure to understand this particular issue that leads many educators to discard the teaching methods explanation so hastily. Teaching methods are rarely named in speculating about causes. After all, how could a single factor – the teaching method – possibly produce such large sex differences in reading achievement?  

Essentially there are two kinds of reading instruction. For simplicity, and due to biological rather than ideological reasons, I label these two methods the zero and the flaky. The zero methods ‘zero in’ on teaching just one skill while the flaky methods consist of bits and pieces of everything, often described as a ‘combination of different methods’. As it happens, the zero methods produce no sex difference in reading, while the flaky methods produce substantial differences disadvantaging boys. 

So finally, the important question to answer is: Exactly WHY do flaky methods seriously retard boys’ reading progress? The reasons why, including the relevant research, are listed in Table 3.  

Table 3   Why certain methods seriously disadvantage boys and others do not :


    Relevant research







- boys have a different timetable of brain development with later development of left-hemisphere (LH)skills than girls (Hanlon et al., 1999).  

- neural networks connecting the two halves of the brain develop more slowly in boys compared to girls (Habib et al., 1991).





- boys have superior RH visual- spatial skills from an early age (Levine et al., 1999).  

- boys’ brains specialize more

- during reading, boys’ brains are primarily active in left-hemisphere regions, whereas the activity seen in girls’ brains is more bilateral (Pugh et al., 1996).




- boy have greater difficulty than girls translating sounds into letters

- but, they are equal to females in their ability to translate letters into sounds (McGuinness  & Courtney, 1983).




 - letter-sound knowledge is the most important determinant of early reading success (Sprugevica & Hoien, 2003).

-  and, boys have less letter-sound knowledge than girls at start of school (Iverson, et al. 1970).  


  - at ages 6-8, boys have significantly poorer visual memory abilities than girls

  - but boys are equivalent to girls in their auditory memory abilities (memory for speech and speech sounds)  et al,1999; Harrison et al.,1996).    


  - boys are not quite as good as girls of the same age in their ability to track print visually across a page without losing their place (Soderman et al., 1999).



A variety of ‘real’ books are often introduced from the beginning. Time is spent largely on activities that activate regions in the right-hemisphere (RH) of a boy’s brain (memorising stories, sentences, words and word chunks as whole units; use of pictures to guess words). Since girls (aged 4-12) are inclined to focus on details, they will be more likely, in spite of this teaching, to pay attention to the letters within words. Boys, by contrast, are inclined to focus on whole shapes, and so will be more likely to see words as whole shapes, in just the way that they are being taught to do (Kramer, et al., 1996). This kind of teaching, therefore, results in severely retarding the proper development of LH sites, as well as slowing the growth of the necessary right- to-left hemisphere neural links. Due to a different time-table of brain development than girls, boys are more vulnerable to this teacher-inflicted mental retardation.


Teaching practices encourage boys to stay stuck using their RH skills when, compared to girls, the development of LH skills is especially critical to their ability to read. This ‘flaky’ teaching operates to encourage neural growth in RH brain sites. The wrong neural circuits are developed so that the patterns of brain activity that are seen (via brain scanning), when a child reads, come to resemble those of dyslexics (Sarkari, et al., 2002).                         




Letter-sound knowledge, if taught, often involves performing a LH task first. A whole word is shown, teacher pronounces it, asks questions about the sounds (LH) heard in the word in order to infer sound-to-letter relationships. Since sound-to-letter translation is difficult for boys, activities such as invented spelling or the kind of word analysis described, discriminate against boys.  


Letter-sound instruction is incidental, often only during the process of ‘reading’ books, and usually in the wrong direction for boys (sound-to-letter). Boys, with less alphabet knowledge to start with than girls, are especially disadvantaged.



Right from the beginning children are taught to memorise written words as visual wholes. Boys ultimately fail compared to girls. Frustration and lack of confidence ensue.




Children are expected to develop this tracking ability at the same time as learning to read (via chanting whole texts along with their teacher and memorising whole books). Proper eye tracking skills are disrupted by frequent attention to pictures, guessing at words as whole shapes and attention to only some letters of words. Initial sounds of words are often the focus to begin with, before attending to sounds in final and middle positions of words.


Children are not expected to read books from the beginning. Initial teaching focus is on letter-to-sound associations, an activity that links a RH (letters) with a LH (sounds) task. This: 1) forces boys to make the shift from RH to LH processing, 2) accelerates boys’ development of LH skills and 3) speeds the growth of neural connections between the two hemispheres of a boy’s brain. 








MRI brain scanning shows more clearly than ever before exactly what happens in the brain during normal reading (Sereno, Rayner & Posner, 1998). The ‘zero’ instructional sequence mirrors these processes exactly: letter identification, letter-to sound translation, blending of sounds, a pronounceable word arrived at, and its meaning accessed from memory. After 80 hours of this kind of instruction, the change in the brain activity of dyslexics is striking. Their brains behave like those of normal readers (i.e. there is more LH versus RH activity) (Simos et al., 2002).


Emphasis is on letter-to-sound translation, where the sexes perform equally. For boys, letter-to-sound translation involves right-hemisphere processing first (identifying the letter), and left-hemisphere processing second (recalling its sound). The task starts with what is easiest for boys.



Letter-to-sound associations are taught in isolation and intensively to begin with, so boys quickly catch up to girls in this fundamentally important area.




Good visual memory is not needed since every letter in a word is translated one-by-one into sound. (Memory for sounds does not differ between sexes, so there is no discrimination against boys).





Children not taught to read by chanting whole texts. They receive much practice reading words in isolation before being introduced to readers that contain regularly spelled, easily decodable words. They are taught to sound out all the letters of a word, sequentially one by one, from left to right.  This teaching develops the right kind of eye movements, the kind that occur during fluent text reading.

Whether by sheer chance, or a desire to cater to the individual needs of all students, flaky teaching methods are characterised by a propensity to dwell on the very practices, due to the biological brain differences between the sexes, that are most likely to retard boys’ reading progress.

By contrast, whether by sheer chance, or careful attention to what best accelerates reading achievement for everyone, zero methods manage to circumvent the biological brain differences between sexes that have the potential to cause problems for boys when they are learning to read.

Oddly, flaky methods give boys exactly what they don’t need, while zero methods give them precisely what they do. Are governments and educators going to tolerate continued discrimination against boys, or is it time for a bit of ‘zero tolerance’?  


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Ceci, S.J. (1991). How much does schooling affect general intelligence and its cognitive components? A reassessment of the evidence, Developmental Psychology, 27, 702-22.

Epstein, D, Elwood, J.. Hey, V. & Maw, J. (Eds.) (1998) Failing boys? Issues in gender. London : Open University Press

Grant, M. (2001). A five year journey with synthetic phonics. Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter, No. 46.

Habib, M., Gayraud, D., Oiva, A. Regis, J, Salamon, G. Khalil, R. (1991). Brain and Cognition, 16(1), 41-61.

Hanlon, H., Thatcher, R., & Cline, M. (1999). Gender differences in the development of EEG coherence in normal children. Developmental Neuropsychology, 16(3), 479-506.

Harrison, B., Zollner, J. & Magill, W. (1996). The hole in whole language: an analysis of the basic skills of 615 students. Australian Journal of Remedial Education, 27(5), 6-17.

Iverson, I. , Silberberg, N & Silberberg, M. (1970). Sex differences in knowledge of letter and number names in kindergarten. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 31, 79-85.

Johnson, T. (2003) “It’s time to scrap failing schools”. Times Colonist, Wednesday, July 16th. Victoria , B.C. Canada , p. 9.

Johnston, R. and Watson, J. (1998). Acceleration Reading Attainment: The Effectiveness of Synthetic Phonics. Interchange 57. The Scottish Office Education and Industry
Department. Copies: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/search2/search.asp

Johnston, R. & Watson, J. (2003). Accelerating reading and spelling with synthetic phonics: a five-year follow up. Insight 4,  Interchange 57, RECS Unit of the Scottish Executive Education Department.

Kramer, J., Leonard, J., Ellenberg, L. & Share, L. (1996). Neuropsychology, 10(3), 402-407.

Levine, S., Huttenlocher, J. Taylor, A., & Lansgrock, A. (1999). Early sex difference in spatial skill. Developmental Psychology, 35(4), 940-9.

Lloyd, S. (2002). Jolly Phonics Part 5, Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter, No. 49.

Lloyd, S.  &  Macmillan, B (1999). (In collaboration, ten years of reading scores were examined statistically for gender differences. Results showed synthetic phonics teaching resulted in equal performance for boys and girls in every year).

Macmillan, B. (1997). Why schoolchildren can’t read. London : Institute of Economic Affairs.

McGuinness, D.&  Courtney, A. (1983) Sex differences in visual and phonetic search. Journal of Mental Imagery, 7 (1), 95-104.

Morris, J. (1966). Standards and progress in reading. London : The National Foundation for Educational Research.

Morrison, F.J., Griffith , E.M. & Alberts, D.M. (1997). Nature-nurture in the classroom: entrance age, school readiness, and learning in children, Developmental Psychology, 33(2), 254-62.

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OECD/Unesco (2003). Literacy Skills for the World of Tomorrow –Further results from PISA 2000. OECD: Paris , France . 

Pugh, K., Shaywitz, S., Shaywitz, T., et al. (1996). Cerebral organization of component processes in reading. Brain, 119(4) 1221-1238.

Sarkari,S., Simos, P., Fletcher, J. Castillo, E., Breir, J. Papanicolaou, A. (2002). Contribution of magnetic source imaging to the understanding of dyslexia. Seminars in Pediatric Neurology, 9(3), 229-38.

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Sereno, S., Rayner, & Posner, M. (1998). Establishing a time-line of word recognition: evidence from eye movements and event-related potentials. NeuroReport, 9, 2195-2200.

Simos, P.G., Fletcher, J.M., Bergman, E, et al. (2002). Dyslexia specific brain activation profile becomes normal following successful remedial training. Neurology, 58(8), 1203-13.

Soderman, A., Chhikara, S., Chen Hsiu-Ching & Kuo, E. (1999). Gender differences that affect emerging literacy in first grade children: USA , India , and Taiwan . International Journal of Early Childhood, 31(2), 9-16.

Sprugevica, I. & Hoien, T. (2003). Enabling skills in early reading acquisition: A study of children in Latvian kindergartens. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 16, 159-177.

Stuart, M. (1999). Getting ready for reading: early phoneme awareness and phonics teaching improves reading and spelling in inner-city second language learners. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 69, 587-605.

Sumbler, K. & Willows, D. (1996). Phonological awareness and alphabetic coding instruction within balanced senior kindergartens. Paper presented as part of the symposium Systematic Phonics within a Balanced Literacy Program. National Reading Conference, Charleston , SC. December.

Watson, J. (1999). An investigation of the effects of phonics teaching on children’s progress in reading and spelling. PhD thesis, University of St Andrews , Scotland .

Wilkinson, I. A. G. (1998). Dealing with diversity: achievement gaps in reading literacy among New Zealand students. Reading Research Quarterly, 33 (2), 144- 167. 

Editor’s comment: Dr Bonnie Macmillan’s article spells out very clearly the issues with boys and the literacy gender gap. What is worrying is that Professor Brooks in his seminar report does not even mention the issue of the mixed methods reading instruction affecting boys detrimentally and yet he refers to starting ages and the pace of phonics introduction. Is this because Brooks is in denial that the NLS promotes the mixed methods approach which, according to the evidence in Dr Macmillan’s article, is the main cause of the gender gap in the first place? Surely the DfES phonics seminar and Brooks’s report should have scrutinised the gender gap issue in this kind of detail?




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