In reading tests at school, girls tend to be ahead of boys, in all age groups and in all countries. But in young adults, there is suddenly no longer any difference between men's and women's reading skills. Why is that? Could the answer be in the way the tests are designed?
Girls are often said to be better at reading than boys. At least, that is what international reading studies like PIRLS and PISA show. The differences are clear in Norway, in the other Nordic countries, and right across the OECD. The gap is apparent amongst the 10 year olds measured in PIRLS, and it is even wider in the group of 15 year olds who take part in PISA.
The reading tests measure whether the pupils can extract information from the text, whether they can draw simple conclusions, interpret and compare information, and assess language, content and literary devices in the text. And regardless of which of these aspects is being measured, girls perform best.
The differences disappear in adults
But something happens when we measure the reading skills of adults. When the reading skills of 16-24 year olds are tested, the gender differences have suddenly become imperceptibly small -- or have disappeared altogether. This has been shown in studies including the major PIAAC study, which tests adults' skills in literacy, numeracy and ICT.
And while being able to read well is an important factor in enabling participation in education, work and society, there are no major gender differences in the Nordic region in these areas -- which we might expect, if girls leave school with better skills than boys in reading, which is a fundamental skill. Although more women than men gain higher secondary or tertiary qualification, women are not ahead of men with regard to employment rate, participation in society or income -- it is actually the reverse. Norwegian men are more likely to hold managerial positions than women, they are more involved in local politics, and Norwegian men earn more than Norwegian women.
Several hypotheses have already been put forward to explain why girls' reading skills appear to be better than boys' at school age. A difference in intelligence has been rejected, since girls obviously do not have higher IQ than boys. The same goes for the theory that the difference could have something to do with specific teaching methods, since reading is taught using a variety of methods. Some researchers claim that girls are subject to different requirements and expectations than boys, and that this could explain why girls appear to be better at reading. However, if this is the case, it cannot fully explain the differences. And we still do not have the answer to why this difference seems to disappear when the pupils leave secondary school and move into adult life.