Girls perform better in reading comprehension tests than boys. This is true in the UK and, according to a Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study, it is true in countries across the world.
But research by educationalists at the University of Turku in Finland has found that boys can catch up with, and even overtake, girls if they read from computer screens rather than books.
Inspired by a Pisa test in 2009 of 15- and 16-year-olds in 19 countries (not including Finland), which found that boys caught up slightly with girls' reading comprehension ability when using computers, digital literacy PhD researcher Meri-Tuulia Kaarakainen and her team tested just over 100 pupils of the same age in Finland.
To conduct the study, they used a program called ReadIT. This piece of software is designed to make reading easier and help children learn to read by providing them with "hypertexts" (digital texts in which it is necessary to follow links to read all the information) and comprehension exercises.
Pupils were each given two hypertexts, taken from a Finnish popular science magazine. They had to answer questions about the hypertexts using the computer. In addition, they were given a "traditional" paper-based comprehension test, using the physical magazine. The researchers found that boys "actually performed better than girls when reading from hypertexts".
The researchers followed up this "pretest" with a study that involved a much larger sample and was conducted more systematically. Using ReadIT with 208 girls and 234 boys (all aged 15 to 16) over 610 lessons, they found that girls read printed books better than boys, but boys' comprehension skills were the same as girls' when it came to digesting hypertexts.
Kaarakainen concedes that the samples were not specifically controlled for intelligence or social background, but is fairly sure that computers are the key variable because her results parallel both the pretest and, to a lesser extent, the Pisa research. She drew on 25 non-ability-streamed classes from nine schools in and around Turku, meaning that other variables were limited by the sample group. Even so, Kaarakainen can only hypothesise as to why computer reading allows boys to catch up with girls.
"Boys are motivated when it comes to reading with computers but are not so motivated with traditional reading," she suggests. "We collected survey data on our sample's computer and internet habits. We found that boys who were very active internet users and who studied computer programming performed best of all on hypertext reading. We interviewed their teachers about their reading comprehension skills and the teachers had rated these same boys as below average and didn't recognise our findings."
However, pupils who used computers mostly for social media and blogging - primarily girls but also some boys - did not perform as well on hypertext reading as more active internet users.
"The teachers rated these girls as above-average readers but we found that they were average in hypertext reading," Kaarakainen says. "So we think that for some reason (most of the boys) are less motivated in traditional schoolwork and more motivated when the work is computer-assisted."
Preparing for the information society
Professor Osmo Kivinen, who is head of the University of Turku's Research Unit for the Sociology of Education, co-authored the research article with Kaarakainen.
"It's very interesting that the boys are not doing worse than the girls," he says. "Maybe it's because boys are doing these things at home. They are playing these computer games and people say this is bad. But they seem to be learning something from doing this, something is happening in their heads ... it helps them, so the results are not so bad."
One of the findings is that boys and girls tend to utilise digital learning environments differently. Boys typically proceeded quickly in a linear manner, while girls moved more slowly, using the more interactive functions offered in the ReadIT learning program.
"It seems to us that girls are 'pedantic' whereas boys are 'assertive' during their online reading sessions. So there are differences in using the digital environment," Kivinen says.
Boys' and girls' results were also the same when reading e-books, so the boys' improvement cannot be easily attributed to perceived superior technical intelligence in contrast to female superior linguistic intelligence, Kivinen adds.
"There seems to be a relation between online or digital reading and ICT skills and students' leisure-time computer usage habits," he says. "In Finland teenagers use computers mainly at home; almost every home in Finland has a computer, whereas the computers per pupil ratio in Finnish schools remains below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average, and consequently computer-assisted teaching or learning is quite rare."
The research, published in Finnish with an English abstract, will be a springboard for further investigation into the dynamics of education in a digital environment. Kivinen says a future study will give pupils tests in which they "set their own problems and find the solutions, because this is what life on the internet is like".
"It is very likely that the online reading environment encourages boys to perform over their normal level, whereas girls remain below their normal level in reading comprehension," he says.
"Using information and communication technology in teaching seems to increase boys' motivation and success. But with girls it seems important to ensure that inadequate technological skills do not jeopardise their ability to cope in the information society in the future."
Kivinen, O. and Kaarakainen, M.-T., (2012) "Pedagogically Differential Digital ReadIT Learning Program for Training Reading Comprehension Strategies", The Finnish Journal of EducationKasvatus, 434: 361-74.
Research Unit for the Sociology of Education, University of Turku, Finland.