Dr. Helen

Math for Girls is a Concern, but where is a Similar Concern for Boys and Reading?

Barbara Oakley, author of a new book Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens, has an op-ed in the New York Times on how to teach girls math:

For parents who want to encourage their daughters in STEM subjects, it’s crucial to remember this: Math is the sine qua non.

You and your daughter can have fun throwing eggs off a building and making papier-mâché volcanoes, but the only way to create a full set of options for her in STEM is to ensure she has a solid foundation in math. Math is the language of science, engineering and technology. And like any language, it is best acquired through lengthy, in-depth practice….

A large body of research has revealed that boys and girls have, on average, similar abilities in math. But girls have a consistent advantage in reading and writing and are often relatively better at these than they are at math, even though their math skills are as good as the boys’. The consequence? A typical little boy can think he’s better at math than language arts. But a typical little girl can think she’s better at language arts than math. As a result, when she sits down to do math, she might be more likely to say, “I’m not that good at this!” She actually is just as good (on average) as a boy at the math — it’s just that she’s even better at language arts.

The concern for girls and math is nice, but I wonder how much the lack of emphasis on language arts has hurt boys? Boys often struggle with reading. According to this Psychology Today article entitled “What Is It with Boys and Reading?” (notice the lack of compassion in the title), many boys have trouble:

On the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), boys have scored significantly lower than girls in reading at all grade levels every year since 1992 (the first year for which NAEP scores are available). And the gap grows larger, not smaller, as children get older, such that, by twelfth grade, more than twice as many girls as boys (5% versus 2%) scored as “advanced” in reading on the 2015 NAEP. Not surprisingly, given these data, boys are also for more likely than girls to be identified as learning disabled in reading.

We live in a very verbal world where the stakes for those without these skills is high. It’s high time we started caring as much about boys who have trouble with language arts and reading as we do with girls who have trouble with math. Maybe then, both genders will get the skills they need to succeed.