Sex differences in the effects of interest on boys' and girls' reading comprehension.
A small number of studies have explored the relation between interest in a topic and level of reading comprehension for passages about that topic, and have found a link between interest and comprehension (Iran-Nejad, 1987). For instance, Fransson (1977) found that interest factors had a strong influence on college students' comprehension and recall--interested students showed greater comprehension of the text and an awareness of authors' intentions. Goetz, Sadoski, Fatemi, and Bush (1994) showed that level of interest and emotional response affected comprehension of newspaper articles.
Even fewer studies have looked directly at the relation between interest and reading comprehension in children. An early study by Bernstein (1955) examined the relation between interest and reading comprehension, and the results indicated that high interest resulted in superior comprehension and greater reading speed. More recently, de Sousa and Oakhill (1996) explored the effect of interest levels on the comprehension-monitoring ability of 8- and 9-year-old children. Two groups participated in the study; they were matched for single-word reading and vocabulary skills, but differed in comprehension skill. The comprehension-monitoring task was either administered under standard conditions or was presented as a game in which the children had to try to spot problems in the texts in order to help them to solve a crime. The children reported finding the game-like version more interesting, and the performance of the poorer comprehenders was significantly improved in this condition.
A number of studies by Asher and colleagues have provided further support for Bernstein's claims, and have looked at sex differences in response to interest. Asher and Markell (1974) examined variables such as vocabulary, text difficulty, story length and sex differences and also investigated the effect of interest on learning and text recall. The children's interests were assessed by asking them to rate pictures on a scale to indicate how interesting they found them and how much they would like to read more about each of the topics represented by the pictures. Asher and Markell found that there was better comprehension and recall of information from texts that the children expressed a particular interest in reading, and that the effect was more pronounced for boys than girls. A similar pattern of data, showing that boys were more influenced by interest than girls, was reported by Anderson, Shirey, Wilson, and Fielding (1987). They asked children to rate individual sentences in texts for interest. Some sentences were more or less equally interesting or boring to both boys and girls, but others were interesting only to boys or girls. The authors found that, in general, boys correctly recalled more of the sentences rated as interesting by boys, and girls more of the sentences rated as interesting by girls, but the effects of interest were more marked for boys than for girls (see also, Shirey & Reynolds, 1988).
The effects of gender on rated interest seem to be quite pervasive: for instance, Hidi, McLaren, and Renninger (1993, cited in Hidi and Berndorff, 1998) report that the interest ratings of boys and girls differed significantly in the case of 25 out of the 33 topics presented.
Recent work by Ainley, Hidi and collegues (e.g. Ainley, Hidi, & Berndorff, 2002; Ainley, Hillman, & Hidi, 2002) has explored the relation between gender, interest expressed in a text, affective response to the text and persistence in reading in older children (grade 10). Those authors recorded student responses after they read extracts from a set of four literary texts, including affective responses and decisions about how far they would continue reading. Gender was strongly associated with the measures of topic interest and persistence for all four texts. In general, girls indicated higher levels of interest for all four texts than did boys, but the size of the gender difference varied across texts, and was not systematically associated with the gender of the protagonist. The girls were also more likely to persist with reading than were the boys. Although level of interest and affective response to the text contributed to the decision as to whether to continue with a particular text or not, girls were more likely to continue reading, even with the low-interest texts.
In the study by Ainley, Hillman, and Hidi (2002), the effects of interest level on subsequent comprehension performance were not explored, but in further work by Ainley, Andrews, and Hoey (2002) these effects were explored. They showed differences between girls and boys (7th and 10th grade) in the level of interest triggered by texts. The students' expectations of how interesting the text would be contributed significantly to their text comprehension scores through their association with affective responses and persistence with the text. However, there were some texts that boys found more interesting and some that girls gave higher ratings to. Where topic interest was relatively high--based on data from the students' first choice--there were no significant effects of gender on comprehension performance. One limitation of this study is that students' performance and persistence was assessed for only the text that they chose to read: presumably the one they thought would be most interesting.
It is not always girls who are less influenced by interest variables, however. For instance, a study by Fay (1998) showed that after viewing episodes of a science television programme, both boys and girls (aged 5-10) were more interested in learning and doing science activities, and showed a better understanding than children in a control group. However, in this case, it was the girls who were at an initial disadvantage; they tended to have less science and technology knowledge and experience than did the boys, but viewing the TV programme increased their interest in viewing science-based TV programmes (more than it increased the interest of boys). The girls in the experimental (TV viewing) group showed a particular benefit over those in the control group; viewing the TV programme helped to develop and support their knowledge, and they performed as well as boys on the comprehension measures.
The findings presented above--that boys are often more susceptible to the level of interest of reading materials than are girls--is particularly relevant to the study we present here. There is also evidence that boys in primary school do not read as well as girls (Asher & Gottman, 1973; Asher & Markell, 1974). Although this difference may arise for various reasons, lack of motivation to read, and interest in reading materials more generally, may be contributory factors. One possible explanation for this could be that material that boys have to read is either inappropriate or fails to stimulate their interest. The research cited above has shown that interest may be a strong motivating factor in both the amount of reading and level of comprehension of what is read.
There is little published work on the reading preferences of boys and girls. However, as part of a small-scale study (conducted at the University of Sussex; Whiley, 1997) we administered a questionnaire about reading preferences to groups of girls and boys (aged 10-11 years). The results showed clear differences between the groups: the boys more often said that they preferred reading factual books, whereas the girls showed a preference for storybooks. Not only might these preferences have an influence on children's motivation to read (the majority of books for beginning readers are storybooks, and there is a clear expectation that children of junior school age will read fiction) but it might also have an influence on how well children perform in national assessments of reading ability.
In British schools, all year 6 children have to sit Key Stage 2 SATS tests--and one of the components of the English SATS test is an assessment of reading comprehension. In 1999, the theme of the comprehension assessment was spiders: the main text for comprehension was a text about spiders, called Spinners. When the results of these national tests were published, it was apparent that boys' scores in reading comprehension had increased by 14% relative to those of the previous year, and there was speculation that this increase was due to the 'more boy-friendly content' of the 1999 paper compared with the 1998 paper Leaving home, the main text of which was an extract from a novel about some children who were evacuated during the war (Barber, 1999; Hackett, 1999). Of course, entirely different children sat the 1998 and the 1999 SATS papers, so there may have been other, unexplored, differences between the cohorts that could have explained the results. Furthermore, it is difficult to know whether the results were related to relative levels of interest in the passages, since level of interest was assumed and not measured directly. Thus, the explanation for the boys' improvement in performance is based on the unsubstantiated assumption that boys would find the text about spiders more engaging than the extract about the wartime evacuation.
In the present study, we test these assumptions directly by comparing the comprehension performance of the same group of children on both texts. In addition, we assess the children's reading preferences, and relate those to their subsequent comprehension performance. We chose to test year 5 children, rather than year 6 children for whom the SATS tests are designed. The main reason for this choice is that the year 6 children are already subjected to a number of tests, and it did not seem reasonable to subject them to yet another one. However, the children who participated in this study were attending a private school, were in general high achievers, and the teachers judged that they would be able to cope well with the year 6 tests.
If the assumptions underlying the analysis of the boys' unexpectedly improved performance in the 1999 SATS comprehension test are correct, then we would expect the boys to express a preference for, and to do relatively better on, the Spinners than on the Leaving home test. It is not clear whether girls' comprehension is affected so much by their level of interest (see Ainley, Andrews et al., 2002) but, if it is, then we might expect the girls to show the opposite pattern: relatively better performance on the Leaving home text.
In addition, the effects of level of interest might be moderated by comprehension skill. We therefore assessed the participants on a standardized test of comprehension ability (the Neale Analysis of Reading Ability; Neale, 1989). Asher and Markell (1974) suggested that the influence of interest in a text may be relatively greater for poorer readers; presumably on the assumption that only if a text is particularly compelling will poorer readers try to overcome their comprehension problems in order to understand it.
There were 32 participants, 16 girls and 16 boys, from year 5 classes. All participants attended the same school (a private school in Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK) and were 9 to 10 years old.
A modified version of the Neale Analysis was prepared for the children, to measure their listening comprehension ability. The method used was similar to that adopted by Oakhill and Patel (1991), and provided a rapid assessment of the children's listening comprehension skills (Oakhill, 1982, has demonstrated that children with a reading comprehension problem also have difficulty with listening comprehension). Passages from the revised Neale Analysis (1989, Form 1, Levels 1-4) were read to the children and they were required to write answers to the questions provided for each passage (a total of 28 questions). The children were also asked whether they would prefer to read a text about spiders or one about children in the Second World War, before being presented with the test materials. The exact format of the question is shown in Appendix A.
The actual SATS test booklets used in the Key Stage 2 tests for 1998 (Leaving home) and 1999 (Spinners) were used. The questions about the texts were of four different types: short answers, which required only a word or a phrase (and which carried one mark); several line answers, which required a phrase or several sentences (and carried up to two marks); longer answers, which required a more detailed explanation of the child's opinion (and carried up to three marks) and multiple-choice answers, where the child had to circle the correct response (one mark for each correct response). Some example questions are shown in Appendix B. The children wrote their responses in the answer booklets. The SATS tests were marked according to the standard marking schemes.
All the children did both the SATS tests in the same order (Leaving home then Spinners), so that test was a within-subjects variable. There was one between-subjects variable: the sex of the participants.
All participants were tested in classroom conditions (class size = 16 pupils) over 3 consecutive weeks on the same day and at the same time each week. In the first week, all participants completed the reading questionnaire, which had questions about their reading preferences. The children were then told that some information was required about their listening comprehension ability. The Neale Analysis of Reading Ability (Form 1) was presented as a listening comprehension test. All participants were read a set of instructions by the tester, in this case the class teacher. A practice passage was read first and then the children completed the answer booklet for all six passages in the same order as they appeared in the booklet. The teacher read each passage slowly and clearly, and then read each of the questions associated with that passage before going on to the next one. The teacher paused between questions, to give the children time to write their responses in the answer booklet, and did not continue until she was happy that all children had at least attempted each question.
In the second week, the class teacher informed the participants that they were taking part in a psychology experiment on reading and that they were going to read the Leaving home passage and answer the SATS test as if they were sitting the real SATS paper. The participants were allowed 45 minutes to complete the test. In the third week, the class teacher administered the Spinners passage to all participants in the same way.
Reading preferences questionnaire
A summary of the responses to the questionnaire about preferences concerning the particular passages that they would be required to read showed a striking pattern. The boys showed an overwhelming preference for the text about spiders, with 13 out of 16 saying that they would prefer to read a text about spiders, whereas 15 out of 16 girls showed the opposite preference, saying that they would prefer to read the text about children during the Second World War. A chi-square analysis on these preference scores showed a highly significant association between sex and text preference: [X.sup.2](1) = 18.29, p < .001.
Neale and SATS comprehension results
The results of the Neale Analysis and the SATS tests were scored according to the relevant marking guidelines. The performance of the boys and girls on the two texts is shown in Table 1.
A 2 (sex: male vs. female) X 2 (text: Leaving home vs. Spinners) ANOVA was conducted on the comprehension scores. Overall, the Spinners text was easier, resulting in a significant main effect of text type F(1, 30) = 7.71, p < .01, [[eta].sup.2] = .20, and girls did better than boys: F(1, 30) = 18.37, p < .00, [[eta].sup.2] = .38. However, these main effects were qualified by a large significant text by sex interaction F(1, 30) = 38.70, p < .001, [[eta].sup.2] = .56. This interaction arose because the boys' performance was substantially better on the Spinners than on the Leaving home test (t(15) = 9.77, p < .001) whereas the girls' performance did not differ significantly for the two tests (t(15) = 1.45).
Although the purpose of this study was to explore the effects of children's professed interests on their reading comprehension, and the children were asked (prior to the presentation of the comprehension materials) about their preference for reading about one or other topic, the two tests were not, of course, identical in all ways apart from their subject matter. For instance, the test that focused on spiders contained some factual information as well as a story and a poem. Thus, in the analyses reported so far, the influence of genre differences cannot be entirely discounted. However, this issue can be addressed by considering performance on subsections of the tests. The Spinners text was divided into four sections: (1) a factual text about spiders and web building (16 questions); (2) a poem about spiders (18 questions); (3) the story behind the nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet (12 questions); (4) a final section with questions about the whole booklet (4 questions). The Leaving home text contained only two sections: (1) an extract from a novel (46 questions); (2) a selection of letters to the author of the novel, together with an interview with the author (12 questions). The data for the different sections are shown in Table 2 (as percentages correct). Since both tests contained a story section (Section 1 in Leaving home and Section 3 in Spinners) it was possible to compare the boys' and girls' performance on the story sections alone. Since the scores for the two subsections were out of different totals, the scores were standardized prior to the analysis. The individual scores for two of the girls were missing, so they were excluded from these subanalyses. The analysis including only the two story sections showed that there was a significant interaction between topic of the test (Leaving home vs. Spinners) and sex: F(1, 28) = 6.60,p < .02. The interaction arose because the difference between boys' and girls' performance was larger on the story section of the Leaving home test (Section 1), t(28) = 6.98, p < .001 than it was on the story section of the Spinners test (Section 3), t(28) = 2.36, p < .05. Thus, the boys were advantaged on the text for which they showed a preference only when the story sections of the two tests were compared.
Since the above analysis included rather little data from the Spinners test, a further analysis (again on standardized scores) was conducted on the story section from Leaving home and the story and poem sections (combined) from Spinners. Once again, there was a significant interaction between text (Leaving home vs. Spinners) and sex: F(1, 28) = 10.26, p < .003. Again, this interaction arose because the difference between boys' and girls' performance was larger on the story section of the Leaving home test (Section 1), t(28) = 6.98, p < .001 than it was on the story and poem section of the Spinners test (Section 3), t(28) = 2.33, p < .05.
Thus, the pattern of results for the story (or story plus poem) subsections of the tests mirrors the pattern found overall: the difference between boys' and girls' performance is considerably less marked on texts for which boys show a preference. Girls expressed equally marked preferences, but performed comparably whatever the topic of the texts, regardless of their expressed preference.
As previously mentioned, we were also interested in whether or not it was the poorer comprehenders who were more influenced by level of interest in the text. In order to address this issue, we divided the children into better and poorer comprehenders, based on their listening comprehension scores. A plot of the distribution of scores showed that there were two main groups: those with scores of 30 and above and those with scores below 30. This division resulted in equal numbers of good and poor comprehenders within the girls, but an unequal distribution among the boys (5 good vs. 11 poor). The performance of the different groups, thus divided, is shown in Table 3. As can be seen from the table, the sex by interest level interaction was apparent for both good and poor comprehenders, and an analysis of variance on these data did not show any evidence of a sex by passage by comprehension skill interaction (F < 1).
Because boys were overrepresented among the poor comprehenders, one interpretation of the interaction between sex and interest level of the text is the effect of interest is stronger for poorer comprehenders. Although the examination of the data as a function of ability level suggests this is not the case, the numbers in that analysis were very small (only five participants in some groups), so we tested the possibility in a different way: by running an analysis of covariance. The overall ANOVA was rerun with listening comprehension as a covariate. The interaction between text (Spinners vs. Leaving home) and sex remained highly significant even when level of comprehension skill was taken into account: F(1, 29) = 38.91, p < .001.
The results of this experiment support previous research (Ainley, Andrews, & Hoey, 2002; Ainley, Hillman, & Hidi, 2002; Asher & Markell, 1974; Bernstein, 1955; de Sousa & Oakhill, 1996), that interest in the content of a text can affect reading comprehension. The boys in this study showed significantly better comprehension for a text that was considered to be the more 'boy-friendly', and which they themselves expressed a greater interest in reading, whereas the girls' performance was not related to their expressed interest. This result is consistent with findings from earlier studies--that the effect of interest level on comprehension is more pronounced in the case of boys (Asher & Markell, 1974), and that girls are more likely to persist with reading than boys, and do well, even on low-interest texts (Ainley, Andrews, & Hoey, 2002; Ainley, Hillman, & Hidi, 2002).
The question then arises as to why the interest level of the material has a greater effect on the reading comprehension of boys. We can only hypothesize as to why this might be the case. It may be that differential motivational factors can help to explain why boys were affected by the interest level of the material, but girls performed relatively well regardless of whether or not they professed to find the material interesting. One potential explanation--originally put forward by Asher and Markell (1974)--is based on the theory and data that have linked children's sex-stereotyped views on reading and perceived it as a feminine activity (Kagan, 1964; Stein & Smithells, 1969). If girls perceive reading as sex-appropriate and, therefore, a more acceptable activity, they might be more likely to read well regardless of their interest in a particular text. However, if reading is regarded as sex-inappropriate for boys, then they may require an additional incentive, such as a particularly interesting text, in order to read well. Of course, this hypothesis is based on rather old data on boys' and girls' attitudes to reading. However, a recent questionnaire study on voluntary reading at home (which was part of a large-scale longitudinal study conducted at the University of Sussex) indicates that the girls, at the first three time points in the study (school years 3, 4 and 6) engaged in more out of school reading, and that the amount of reading at home was significantly related to reading comprehension in years 3 and 4, even though the boys were not significantly poorer in word reading accuracy or reading comprehension at any of the three time points. This sex difference in out of school reading suggests another possible explanation for girls being less influenced by interest level. If girls engage in more voluntary reading than do boys, they might develop their reading in a wider range of topic areas and genres.
It is also possible that the current results are not specific to reading comprehension, and reflect the trend that boys' academic performance generally is more influenced than girls' by level of interest. For instance, Hidi et al. (1998) found that boys benefited more than girls in a cooperative learning task that was designed to increase interest in science. In addition, Hidi, Berndorff, and Ainley (2002) showed a close relation between ratings of liking writing in different genres and writing efficacy, and a trend towards girls having higher liking and efficacy scores than boys. They also found that a collaborative writing intervention was considerably more effective in improving writing efficacy for boys than for girls.
It is not clear from the present study precisely which factors mediate the effects of level of interest on reading comprehension, but it is likely that a high level of interest will trigger motivation to understand, and that this in turn will activate processes that are important in comprehension, such as text- and knowledge-based inferences (see deSousa & Oakhill, 1996 for evidence that increased interest has an influence on comprehension monitoring--an important subskill in comprehension). As previously mentioned, there is support for the view that topic interest is related to affective response, which increases persistence and, thereby, learning.
Whatever the precise processes underlying the relation between interest and comprehension, our findings highlight the necessity of taking content into account when setting reading tests and also, more generally, in helping children to choose reading material. The literature has shown that individual interest is an important factor in academic motivation, learning and writing, in both children and adults (see Ainley, 1998; Renninger, 1998; Schiefele, 1992, 1998).
However, whereas catering to students' interests may be considered to be an appealing way to promote learning in the classroom, utilizing individual interests in educational settings may be a time-consuming and effortful task (Hidi & Anderson, 1992; Hidi & Berndorff, 1998). Teachers may have problems in providing individualized programmes, especially since not all children will have interests that can be harnessed in the school situation. Thus, although it might not always be feasible to utilize individual interests in education, the elicitation and maintenance of situational interest could make a significant contribution to students' motivation, and might improve learning in all content areas. The crucial difference between indvidual and situational interest can be summed up as follows: 'Individual interest is conceived of as a relatively stable evaluative orientation towards certain domains, while situational interest is a temporary emotional state aroused by specific features of an activity or task' (Schiefele, 1998, p. 93). The work of Fay (1998), Yotive and Fisch (1998) and Hidi et al. (1998) suggests that related activities (such as TV programmes, visiting speakers, school trips etc.; see below) could be used to increase interest and consequent learning more generally and might help to even out gender differences in response arising from prior interest levels. Although home environment is the usual source of children's interests, Folling-Albers and Hartinger (1998) show that it is quite possible for the school to stimulate interests through teaching. Building up a positive interest in all areas to be taught cannot, however, be a primary goal of teaching. The focal point of work in school is the structuring of learning contexts that promote interest, i.e. school activities should focus on stimulating 'situational interest, interestingness' (see Hidi & Berndorff, 1998).
In sum, the studies reviewed, and the present one, suggest that there are differences in interests between boys and girls and that boys' cognitive performance, in particular, might be more influenced than girls' by their level of interest in a topic. These findings should encourage further research into the role of gender differences in the development and utilization of situational interest.
As far as tests are concerned, it would probably not be feasible to design parallel tests on a range of topics, and to allow children to select the one they prefer. However, it should be possible to ensure that reading tests are less homogeneous and that each test, for example, contains passages on different topics (some of which are likely to be of interest to girls, and some to boys) and that they cover a range of genres (not just narrative and poetry), perhaps with fiction and non-fiction sections in each paper. If we wish to encourage boys to do more reading, then it is important to ensure that they are directed to books with content that they find interesting and motivating. It would, of course, be difficult or impossible to ensure that reading matter, and reading tests in particular, are specifically geared to children's individual interests. However, making children aware of their interests and encouraging them to select materials that they think will be interesting to read, could be helpful to them. Of course, children will need to read and understand material that they do not find particularly interesting, and not only in test situations. Thus, it is necessary to ensure that children are taught adequate strategies for reading comprehension that will enable them to extract the meaning of a text regardless of their personal level of interest in the content of that text.
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Received 1 September 2004; revised version received 24 April 2006
Appendix A: Reading questionnaire
If you had a choice, which would you choose to read out of the following? Please tick one box only:
-- A story about insects and spiders
-- A story about children in the Second World War
Appendix B: Example questions from the two tests
On pages 4 and 5 you can find out how a garden spider spins a web. It takes the spider about
(1) One day
to spin a web.
(6) Write down two facts from the text which show that spiders' silk is very strong.
(8) What are the main contrasts the poet makes in the first and third parts of the poem?
(6) Look at the section called Why did Miss Muffet run away? on page 9.
Using the information in that paragraph, imagine what Dr Muffet is saying to Patience, as he is putting the spoon in her mouth.
Clara was in bed when her mother, Lotte, came to
(1) wake her up
talk to her
give her a present
tell her off
(9) Clara whispers, 'I'm not crying'. (page 7) Explain the reasons why Clara was pretending not to be upset.
(4) In her interview, Adele says she is a little nervous on Monday mornings. Explain why you think she feels nervous.
Jane V. Oakhill* and Alison Petrides
Department of Psychology, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, UK
*Correspondence should be addressed to Jane Oakhill, Department of Psychology, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Brighton BNI 9QH, UK (e-mail: email@example.com).
Table 1. Percentages of correct responses on the SATS passages Text Sex Leaving home Spinners Boys 38.25 (5.64) 60.38 (11.48) Girls 61.31 (12.11) 65.00 (12.56) Note. Standard deviations are shown in parentheses. Table 2. Percentages of correct answers as a function of sex and section of text Text section Leaving home Leaving home Section 1: Section 2: Spinners Section 1: Sex Novel extract Letters to author Factual text Boys (N = 16) 41.71 (7.58) 25.00 (25.27) 84.37 (10.20) Girls (N = 14) 62.58 (8.79) 61.90 (32.64) 77.23 (17.09) Text section Spinners Spinners Section 2: Section 3: Spinners Section 4: Sex Poem Story Overview Boys (N = 16) 53.82 (13.72) 46.35 (18.50) 35.94 (38.70) Girls (N = 14) 61.90 (14.59) 63.10 (20.34) 60.71 (32.10) Note. Standard deviations are shown in parentheses. Table 3. Percentages of correct answers on the two text types as a function of sex and comprehension skill Text Sex Comprehension level Leaving home Spinners Boys Good (N = 5) 42.07 (4.82) 61.60 (7.54) Poor (N = 11) 36.52 (5.28) 59.82 (13.19) Girls Good (N = 8) 67.24 (11.95) 68.75 (13.44) Poor (N = 8) 55.39 (9.55) 61.25 (11.21) Note. Standard deviations are shown in parentheses.
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|Author:||Oakhill, Jane V.; Petrides, Alison|
|Publication:||British Journal of Psychology|
|Date:||May 1, 2007|
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|Next Article:||Empathizing and systemizing: what are they, and what do they contribute to our understanding of psychological sex differences?|