Country, Family, Schoolmates, and Gender Affect Reading Test Scores

Our guest author is Professor Ming Ming Chiu, Chair Professor of Analytics and Diversity, Special Education and Counseling Department and Director, Analytics\Assessment Research Centre, Education University of Hong Kong

A child's reading skills depends not only on her motivation, ability, and reading instruction, but also on her context—her country, family, schoolmates, and their interactions with her gender, according to large-scale international studies of over a million students in 63 countries across two decades using advanced statistics (including multilevel analysis of plausible values). Children with greater motivation to read than others, spend more time learning to read and do more reading, so they typically have stronger reading skills. Also, children with greater intelligence (IQ) learn to read more readily. Although some children learn to read on their own, most children receive direct reading instruction at home or at school (especially that each letter corresponds to a sound in languages with alphabets like English [alphabetic principle]) while constructing integrated meaning from the sequences of words.

Furthermore, the environment around a child also affects her reading skills, including her country's income, income inequality, and cultural values; her family's money, education, cultural knowledge, and social networks; her schoolmates' information sharing, evaluations, motivations, and norms; and their interactions with gender, such as favoritism, learning opportunities, and social interactions.

Children in richer or more equal countries with respect to personal income often have better reading skills. Richer countries often have better books and teachers in public schools, libraries, and other public learning resources. These learning opportunities help a child become a better reader. Richer countries also have higher standards (e.g., food safety) and better systems (e.g., health care). So their children are healthier, learn more, and have better reading skills. By contrast, many children in poorer countries (e.g., Papua New Guinea) are born prematurely, lack food, or face pollution (e.g., cholera in ponds). So, they are less healthy, spend less time studying, learn less, and have poorer reading skills.

Countries with less equal distributions of family income often distribute learning resources inefficiently, leading to worse overall reading levels. Consider a thirsty girl with two glasses of water. She values the first glass of water and drinks it all. Her thirst quenched, she hardly values the second glass of water and does not finish it. Likewise, an extra book does more for a child who lives in poverty than for a child who lives in affluence. Compared to countries with less income equality (e.g., United States), countries with more income equality (e.g., Sweden) distribute more books and learning resources to children in poverty than to children in affluent families. As such socioeconomically disadvantaged children receive more support in countries with more income, such countries overall have higher reading levels.

Like the adage, "birds of a feather flock together," people often prefer to engage with others like themselves. A child in a country with greater income equality has many peers with similar wealth, clothing quality, etc. So, they have more in common, like one another more, engage more with one another, cooperate more, share learning resources more often, learn more, and have better reading skills. By contrast, a child in a country with less income equality has fewer peers with similar wealth, clothes, etc. So they engage with one another less, cooperate less, share less, learn less, and have poorer reading skills.

Likewise, countries with greater income equality often distribute books, computers and other learning resources across schools more equally. This increases learning efficiency. It also compensates for family differences in learning opportunities, reduces differences in rich vs. poor children’s learning, and yields children with whose reading skills differ less.

Also, a society's cultural values (collectivism, gender role rigidity) can affect a child's reading skills. Unlike children in individualist societies, those in collectivist societies favor group goals over individual goals, attend more to others’ concerns, and view them as caring rather than intrusive. Hence, a child who is motivated to read to please others (e.g., parents, teachers) often shows better reading skills in collectivist societies, but worse reading skills in individualist societies.

Furthermore, cultures with rigid gender roles (e.g., men earn money, women raise children) discourage girls from studying hard to enter traditionally masculine careers. Compared to girls in cultures with flexible gender roles, girls in cultures with rigid gender roles are less motivated to study and have worse reading skills. As a result of girls' lower ambitions in such rigid cultures, their boys face fewer female competitors for limited jobs and need not study as hard to get a job. So boys are also less motivated. Hence, both girls and boys are less motivated to study hard in cultures with rigid gender roles than in other cultures.

Family members, especially parents, can use their money, education, cultural knowledge, or social networks to help their child learn. A family with more money can buy books, tutors, computers, and other learning resources for more learning opportunities. So their child can capitalize on them to improve their reading skills.

Meanwhile, parents with more education create better learning environments at home, engage their child, organize her study times, and reward her to help socialize her into society. For example, highly educated parents often choose age-appropriate books for their child. Moreover, they discuss the books, ask intriguing questions ("why did he kiss her dog?") and explain clearly ("caring about her dog shows that he cares about her"). Thus, their child learns social skills, learns reading skills, and becomes more confident. Such parents are more likely to organize their child’s regular reading times (e.g., bedtime). They also often praise her efforts ("by reading many books, you become a better reader").

Parents with more paintings, poetry books, music and cultural knowledge can use them to highlight the value of their culture. By discussing cultural values and norms ("listen and paraphrase"), parents role model suitable behaviors. This helps their child learn the values of their family, school, and society, especially teachers’ and schoolmates’ expectations. Knowing these expectations, a child can behave well and build better relations with her teachers and schoolmates. They, in turn, can offer more learning opportunities.

Parents with more income, education, or cultural knowledge often have larger and richer social networks of family, friends and acquaintances. Connecting their child with their social network increases the number of people who can give her learning opportunities. Using her family's greater wealth, education, cultural knowledge, or social network, such a child often reads diligently, has stronger reading skills, and succeeds in school.

However, siblings or grandparents might compete with a child for parents' limited time and resources, thereby reducing a child's learning opportunities. Compared to a child in a nuclear family, children in larger families often have fewer learning opportunities and poorer reading skills.

Schoolmates and Peers
As children are often at school, their schoolmates can help them learn by sharing information, evaluating ideas, motivating them or maintaining positive norms. For example, a peer can explain the meaning of an unfamiliar word, "A quetzal is …". Or, when a child proposes an idea, a peer can further justify its validity ("1 + 1 = 10, yes, in binary, 10 = 2"). Or, she can detect and correct its flaws to help a child learn ("but you need to carry the one, so 11 + 9 = 20, not 10"). Also, a peer can zealously talk about Pippi Longstocking's charm to motivate a child to read the book and discuss it. Or, after a child does poorly on a reading test, a friend can hug her and then study together for the next test. Peers can also show better reading attitudes, study together, and do well on reading tests to cultivate a culture of strong norms and high expectations.

Compared to boys, girls often have better reading attitudes, enjoy reading more, read more books, and have better reading skills. However, these gender effects differ across countries, families, and schools.

In countries/cultures that favor sons, families often give more books, tutors and learning opportunities to their sons than to their daughters. Also, such families often keep having children until they have at least one son. In such cultures, girls are more likely than boys to have many siblings who compete for scarce family resources for learning (time, books, etc.).  So, girls often have worse reading skills in these male-dominant cultures than in gender-equivalent cultures.

However, studies show that in richer or more equal countries, girls have better public schools, public learning resources, and learning opportunities (which can compensate for lesser ones at home). Hence, they show greater reading skills and outperform boys more in these countries than in poorer or less equal ones.

Compared to boys, girls also talk more with their family, teachers and peers. As a result, they learn more social skills, are more motivated, and learn more reading skills. Moreover, a child who interacts with more female peers, benefits from their better reading attitudes, discussions, and high expectations to learn more reading skills. Hence, even in male-dominant societies, girls generally outscore boys on reading tests (by an average of 4%).

In short, beyond a child's motivation, ability and reading instruction quality, her context affects her reading skills. Specifically, countries that are richer, more equal, or have more supportive cultural values offer children more opportunities and encouragement to learn to read, on which they can capitalize to read better. Also, children can use their family members' money, education, cultural knowledge, and social networks to aid their reading. Schoolmates and peers can share information, assess a child's ideas, motivate them, or maintain positive reading norms. Hence, our government's and schools' policies, procedures, and practices can capitalize on a child's contextual resources to aid her reading and redress contextual deficits.

Figure 1

Anyanwu, J. C. (2016). Accounting for gender equality in secondary school enrollment in Africa. African Development Review, 28(2), 170-191.

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Klasen, S. (2002). Low schooling for girls, slower growth for all? Crosscountry evidence on the effect of gender inequality in education on economic development. The World Bank Economic Review, 16(3), 345-373.

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