For several decades, all around the world, girls have consistently outperformed boys on reading tests. Weaker vocabulary, poorer engagement, lower motivation and a lack of role models for boys have all been considered as possible causes to explain this disparity. This, however, could change. Recent results from the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) suggest that the global reading gap is decreasing. But maybe not for the reasons researchers, teachers, parents, and governments might have hoped for. It seems that the gender gap in reading has diminished not because boys are doing better, but because the performance of girls has declined. While, on average, female students continue to achieve considerably better than their male peers, evidence shows that they are not doing as well as they used to.

According to the PISA findings, the levels of both male and female students have gone down among low achievers (girls by 21 points and boys by 13 points). On the other hand, among high achievers, the results have improved among both genders, with an increase of 12 points for the boys and 3 points for the girls.

These patterns being similar across a range of countries, several cross-national factors could be responsible for those changes. But the fact that some countries bucked the global trend indicates that some political choices, the impact of individual educators, as well as local circumstances, might make a real difference in this issue. In all cases, closing the reading gap remains a crucial and pressing global challenge.

Picture: Alice in Wonderland, by George Dunlop Leslie (Wikimedia Commons, w/Effects)