Gender gap in literacy development: challenges & resources

Friday 29 September 2023

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«The 2023 has been declared as the “European Year of Skills” and lifelong learning is a key aspect of improving individual competences and contributing to the community. However, without sound basic skills, particularly reading literacy, it becomes impossible to meet the increasingly complex challenges of our contemporary world».

(PIRLS, 2021)

Recent studies affirm the existence of a significant gender gap related to the development of language skills affecting boys, especially in the area of reading literacy.

Numerous surveys offer various definitions of this skill, but many agree on the importance of possessing good reading skills «to achieve one’s goals, develop one’s knowledge and potential, and take an active role in society» (PISA, 2018) and being «able to construct meaning from texts in a variety of forms» (PIRLS 2021).

Reading skills among Italian adolescents

According to PISA (2018) data, Italian 15-year-old students score below the OECD average (487) for their reading ability. The figure, contextualized in the different geographical areas of the country, shows a worrying and divisive reality: better results in northern areas than in the South and South Islands. This confirms the regional gap (Northwest 498 and Northeast 501, South 453 and South Islands 439). Moreover, although the percentage of students in our country achieving at least the minimum level of proficiency in reading is similar to the international average percentage, «students in the Northern and the Central areas show that they can solve more complex tasks than their peers in the South. Many students in the South (more than in the Centre and North) do not reach the minimum level of proficiency and this defines them as “low performers”» (OECD Pisa Summary of Italian Results, 2018).

Nevertheless, the aspect that should deserve more attention is precisely that related to the gender gap. Regardless of the geographic area analyzed, girls perform better in reading than boys in Italy, with score differences ranging from 19 points in the Northwest to 35 in the South Islands. The girls’ advantage also exists because of a higher presence of boys who do not reach the minimum level of proficiency: about 28 percent of Italian boys are low performers, while girls who demonstrate a lack of minimum reading proficiency are about 19 percent. Among the top performers (levels 5 and 6) girls are present to a greater extent, particularly in the South Islands.

According to the OECD, level 2 is considered the minimum level of reading competence and it refers to the «ability to use reading skills to acquire knowledge and solve a wide range of practical problems. Students who do not reach level 2 (low performers) often have difficulty dealing with reading materials that are unfamiliar to them or of a certain length and complexity. They usually need to be prompted with cues or instructions before they can engage with a text» (PISA, 2018).

Reading skills in elementary school

In contrast, the PIRLS surveys, which are more recent than the latest PISA data, cover students around 9 years of age (fourth grade of elementary school). They report that Italian students demonstrate an average score of 537 points-a higher result than the international average score for all participating countries. Despite this, areas in the South, and particularly the South Islands, report significantly lower average scores than areas in the North and Center, and the gender gap in reading skills to the advantage of girls continues to be confirmed. At the international level, in the majority of participating countries this advantage translates into an average difference of 16 points, while at the national level the figure, although smaller, is equally significant: +7 points.

The consideration of the data of the PIRLS 2021 survey must certainly take into account the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on school learning. However, it offers us important data to reflect on: «in Italy, students achieve in 2021 an average result significantly lower by 11 points than the one measured 5 years earlier, bringing the results of Italian students back in line with those of 20 years ago (PIRLS 2001) and 10 years ago (PIRLS 2011)» (PRILS, 2021).

The actions of the BoysLingo project

To analyze these circumstances, which affect male and female students internationally, the partner organizations of the BoysLingo project met in May 2023 in Cyprus, hosted by the CARDET organization. During the meeting they studied together the responsibilities of the gender gap in language learning at the national level in Poland, Italy, Ireland, Cyprus and Greece. Contextually, they surveyed boys’ reading habits, preferences and attitudes toward reading, and then outlined a set of tools, methods, recommendations and best practices to be offered to primary and secondary school teaching staff. All with the goal of fostering an inclusive, interactive school experience capable of promoting equal educational achievement for all.

The partners’ research efforts have been summarized in two key project documents: the BoysLingo Handbook and the collection of Good Practices. Both resources are available for reference, and translations into the respective partnership languages will be uploaded shortly.

While Italian elementary school seem to succeed in offering inclusive learning opportunities, the reported data show that young people in their entry to secondary schools tend to lose interest or motivation to enhance their language skills, particularly reading. It is clear that this is an age group that is extremely sensitive to new stimuli: for this reason, and to close the gender gap affecting reading skills, innovative methods and practices can continue to be proposed. The ultimate goal is to nurture in young people a love of reading, an interest in learning through it, both at school and in their own leisure time. In this way, a reading habit that can also strengthen other language skills associated with it can be encouraged, thus enabling important achievements not only academically, but also professionally and, above all, personally.

Aware of the importance of educational figures in this process, the BoysLingo partnership invited the teaching staff involved in each country to share their experience on the main difficulties encountered by children in relation to the various areas of language learning. Thanks to their input, 8 learning scenarios were created in Italian: 4 intended for use by elementary school students, 4 aimed at secondary school students. A total of 40 learning scenarios in English, 20 for each grade, were also created in the other languages of the partnership. These, exploiting the potential of Mobile Learning and Ludicization (Gamification), will be collected in the BoysLingo App and tested in classrooms at the beginning of the new year to facilitate teaching activities and offer support in language lessons.

Recent studies claim that the best results in reading performance are achieved by students who enjoy reading. Underlying the gender gap discussed would appear to be an important motivational component, in addition to social, economic and cultural factors. In fact, the highest percentage of students who say they «like reading a lot» are girls: 46 percent of girls versus 37 percent of boys internationally and 47 percent of girls versus 35 percent of boys in Italy (PIRLS, 2021). Therefore, through the resources of the BoysLingo project, we intend to offer faculty the necessary knowledge to stimulate interest in reading in boys. By promoting the integration of digital and playful tools into their teaching practices, faculty will be able to increase boys’ classroom participation and motivation to learn

If you would like to read the Handbook and the collection of Good Practices of the project, please visit our website: Otherwise, download our brochure to learn more about the BoysLingo project:  

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About the project

BoysLingo – Enhancement of boys’ language skills through gamified mobile learning is financed by DG EAC, Erasmus+ Programme, KA220-SCH – Cooperation partnerships in school education.


For further information

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