Why do more boys than girls have a reading disability?

Lisa Limbrick, Kevin Wheldall and Alison Madelaine (2011). Why Do More Boys Than Girls
Have a Reading Disability? A Review of the Evidence. Australasian Journal of Special
Education, 35, pp 1­24 doi:10.1375/ajse.35.1.1

It is a question asked by many educators, why is it that boys present with greater prevalence of reading disability than girls?  Limbrick et. al. carried out a literature review to explore this phenomena.

Articles were included in this review if they met specific inclusion criteria: (a) published in a refereed academic journal; (b) reported findings of an empirical study; and (c)published in the past decade, although some highly influential earlier studies will be included (for example, Shaywitz, Shaywitz, Fletcher, & Escobar, 1990). A number of key descriptors were used in searching for relevant articles, including ‘boy(s)’,‘gender’, ‘reading’, ‘disability’, ‘dyslexia’, ‘reading difficulty’, ‘low progress reading’,
and ‘poor reading’(p.3).

The researchers examined the validity of
  1. phonemic awareness, 
  2. auditory processing, 
  3. behaviour, 
  4. neurology, 
  5. variability in cognitive ability scores, 
  6. motivation 
as explanations for gender differences in reading. Many studies present contentious findings in relation to the prevalence of gender differences.  Some argue that there are minimal to no difference between boys and girls and others suggest that ratios of up to 4.51:1 exist (p.1).  There are many explanations for this as with most prevalence studies the measures used and the methodologies employed impact upon the identification of students with reading difficulty.  The researchers provide the example that whilst some researchers approach poor reading as a neurological difficulty others see it as a language approach.

There is a wide range of explanations for the difference in males presenting with reading difficulties.  Some research suggest that it is differences in phonemic awareness.  This is critical at the stage when children learn to read.  If more boys than girls struggle with this then it would account for the reporting of more males with reading difficulties.

Another theory is that auditory processing explains the gender differences due to the greater proportion of males who present with auditory processing difficulties.  Auditory processing is the ability to listen and decode what is being heard.  As a result, as boys have been found to process sound differently to girls it has been hypothesized this is the reason for gender differences in reading difficulty.

The observation of problem behaviour as an explanation I would discount, however, there is a substantial body of research to link problem behaviour and reading difficulties.  It is unclear the relationship between behaviour and reading difficulties and I am of the mind that the reading difficulty proceeds the externalising of problem behaviour.

A more valid explanation than behaviour would be boys motivation to read.  Whilst I would not propose that this is a valid claim there is a growing body of research suggesting that girls have a higher motivation to read than girls.  I meet just as many parents who say their daughters are not motivated to read, yet do not present with reading difficulties.

Neurological differences between boys and girls provide the suggestion that due to girls predominately being bilateral and boys being more left lateral orientated boys present with greater variance in reading difficulty.  Linked to neurological explanations are the cognitive difference between males and females.  It is evident that boys show greater variance in cognitive ability than girls.  Boys have shown greater deviation of mean cognitive ability with more boys at the bottom and top of the distribution.

Critique of conclusion
The researchers conclude that there is a substantial body of research that supports the claim that girls outperform boys on measures of reading difficulty.  From the review of literature it does not appear that there is one single explanation that would wholly account for the gender variance of reading difficulty.  The researchers did state however that phonological awareness presented as one of the strongest predictors for accounting for the 54% of variability (p.17).  The majority of studies exploring phonological awareness did not report on gender differences therefore results proved inconclusive.  The same was found for auditory processing.  There are significant gender differences in students presenting with difficult behaviour with more boys referred to in studies. However, it still remains unclear if the problems with poor behaviour and reading are caused by, linked or due to.

Cognitive variance provided no conclusive evidence to variance in reading scores and it appeared that reading gender differences are part of a larger phenomenon and not part of variance in cognitive ability.

Based on the findings two conclusions were made

1. each explination has merit for varience of gender difference for reading difficulty.  All students would benifit from a sound knowledge in phonological awarenessm positive behaviour and attention and an intrinsic morivation to read.  Although these factors relate to successful readers they do not explain why more boys than girls present with difficulty in reading.

2. Gender does not have a strong correlation for reading outcomes.  Therefore, approaches to reading should focus on the outcomes of all students.  I agree with the researchers here when they provide examples that strategies promoting phonological awareness and positive behaviour improve the reading of all students.  The same can be said for strategies that improve the motivation of students to read.

I found the findings of the study somewhat unsatisfactory and even dismissive of a gender difference between the prevalence of difficulties in reading between boys and girls.  I would disagree with with the claim that differences are not as large as we perhaps perceive.  Instead I posit that reading difficulties are but one manifestation of global variance in the prevalence of difficulties that boys present with compared to girls.  It was noticeable the lack of reference to studies in achievement variance between boys and girls. This limited the scope of the study and therefore the researchers were not able to find gender difference in reading.  I found perhaps that exploring the explanations in isolation and failing to see their correlations and causal impacts on reading, missed to take into account the complexity of reading difficulty, in turn failing to see gender difficulties.