The 'Lost Girls' of literacy are struggling with sentence completion and passage comprehension, but we've been blinded to it until now
When it comes to literacy, we know that the main problem is with boys. The gender gap between higher-performing girls and poorer-performing boys is both obvious and widespread.
Girls have been outperforming their counterparts for a long time – at least 60 years in the UK and US – and the latest PISA results show that the gender gap in favour of girls is 23 points in England, 21 points in Scotland, 14 points in Northern Ireland and 11 points in Wales.
The weight of all this evidence, however, has tended to obscure another vital point: the significant minority of girls who have problems with reading.
Our own study, based on data from over 60,000 10 and 12-year-olds in England and Wales shows how big the problem is for these ‘lost girls’. The study looked at two components of literacy: sentence completion and passage comprehension.
The first of these asks a child to pick the right word to finish a phrase or sentence, while the second assesses a child’s ability to understand the meaning and context of a piece of writing. It asks them to draw on a broad hierarchy of skills – from retrieval, through inference and deduction, to the writer’s use of language and the historic and cultural tradition in which they are writing.
High scores in sentence completion coupled with weaker performance in passage comprehension could indicate that a child has mastered phonics and how to decode successfully but does not really understand the meaning of words and text.
Conversely, high scores in passage comprehension and weaker performance in sentence completion could suggest that a child has problems decoding and can be a sign of dyslexia.
The data from 10-year-old girls reveals that 16% of them score so poorly in sentence completion that they are 32 months behind in their reading age. The proportion of 10-year-old girls who have trouble with passage comprehension is even larger – 19%, which means their reading age is 33 months behind the average.
Overall, 11% of 10-year-old girls score below average in both measures, which means nationally, 40,000 girls score so poorly that they have a reading age of a seven year old.
The obvious issue with undetected problem readers is that they can be difficult to identify. Lorraine Petersen, the former chief executive of Nasen and a contributor to our report, explains, “It is more likely that girls will be quiet and controlled about what they are doing and will have strategies so that they don’t get caught.”
As the headteacher of Westhoughton High School puts it, “The lost girls are the ones who avoid the attention that the boys seek.”
A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the way girls deal with learning difficulties is fundamentally different to the way boys do. Whereas boys generally tend to express their frustration in erratic and impulsive behaviour, girls retreat into themselves. They daydream, they mimic the social interactions of more confident peers. They are not as easy to spot.
This presents a real issue for teachers. Whose behaviour commands more attention? The boy who kicks off in class because he is frustrated, or the girl who has similar problems reading but who masks her incomprehension by playing along?
The key, as always, is to identify the problem. Assessment is critical in helping us uncover these students and develop their abilities, and a good starting point is to discover a child’s reading age.
This should be considered as important a part of the contextual information for a class as data on special educational needs or the pupil premium, and it should be referred to when planning a lesson so you can differentiate texts, where necessary.
It is also important to dig that little bit deeper. As well as understanding a child’s capabilities in different aspects of reading, it is worth reviewing information from a range of situations and sources. Attitudinal changes are key, for example, as are signs such as becoming withdrawn in class, keeping their head down and making inappropriate friendships.
Doing this can enable you to be specific about any necessary interventions, as well as help you find the girls – and boys – who may be harder to spot.