It’s My Write: Girls More Fluent, Thoughtful in Writing Process than Boys on Essay Tests

By David Lariviere

Researchers who study children have observed for decades the many contrasts in how boys and girls develop physically, emotionally and intellectually as they grow up.

In March, a journal article titled, “Are There Gender Differences in How Students Write Their Essays? An Analysis of Writing Processes” was published, showing the differences in the approaches the two gender groups take in composing their essays. The paper was co-authored by Mo Zhang, Randy Bennett, Paul Deane and Peter W. van Rijn, and the data came from the CBAL® research initiative at ETS.

“We know from NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) that middle-school girls achieve on average higher scores than boys. In this study, we began to explore the ’why’ question,” says Zhang, an ETS Research Scientist. The NAEP data was just used as a reference point with the core of the report based on CBAL.

By using the CBAL data collected using keystroke logs, aspects of the writing process can be recorded. With this information, researchers can then study how a writer composes text. Zhang explained that “girls were found to generate and enter text more fluently than boys, and they also conducted more text editing than boys.”

There appears to be a general female advantage in language skills … which may make reading and writing seem easier to female students in the early grades, when attitudes and motivation toward specific subjects first develop.

~ Paul Deane

Girls also showed less evidence of needing to pause between linguistic boundaries than boys suggesting that girls might be more easily able to generate text than boys. The study found that these differences were detectable after controlling for essay scores suggesting that these differences cannot be attributed solely to disparities in writing skill level.

So the obvious question is, what can these gender differences be attributed to? “I think we have to do more work on that. We don’t entirely know why,” says Zhang.

Yi Song, a researcher in the Student and Teacher Research group at ETS, wasn’t surprised by the results. “Their findings are consistent with the existing literature on gender differences in writing. In elementary and middle schools, girls generally perform better on writing tasks than boys. Their research reveals the differences in the writing process between girls and boys, which is both novel and important.”

Deane concurred on the early girl power. “There appears to be a general female advantage in language skills … which may make reading and writing seem easier to female students in the early grades, when attitudes and motivation toward specific subjects first develop.”

For example, students who are less proficient writers tend to be less fluent, type more slowly, spend less time on their essay and use fewer words than students who compose more proficiently.

~ Mo Zhang

That tie between reading proficiency and writing skill is strong, says Zhang. The keystroke logging process allows researchers to “gain a lot of new knowledge about someone’s writing.” Familiarity with the keyboard is an important element without which it is more difficult to achieve a higher score.

One of the follow-up studies conducted by ETS researchers was to determine what factors are associated with good and bad writing, Zhang said. “For example, students who are less proficient writers tend to be less fluent, type more slowly, spend less time on their essay and use fewer words than students who compose more proficiently,” Zhang explained. In addition, “more proficient writers tend to pause more before and after sentences, presumably so that they can better formulate and organize what to say next.”

Deane added “one possible interpretation of our results is females may have made more use of information from previous activities to plan for the essay task.” The research does not address how to get students to adopt those practices but does suggest that male students especially might benefit from more explicit writing strategy instruction.

This study looked at both argumentative and policy writing, two subgenres of persuasive writing, as the focus of the report.

Song, who employs an area of expertise in argumentative writing, has done research which shows that after four lessons that target the skills of integrating arguments from both sides, the writing scores get better. She acknowledged that writing a convincing and organized argumentative essay is “challenging” for middle-school students but that districts shouldn’t wait until high school to do it.

The main finding of Song’s investigations was that the majority of eighth-grade students weren’t able to “detect fallacious arguments,” or clearly explain problems in the arguments. Students were also found to be “off-task,” and to lack the ability to “connect their criticisms with the particular parts being critiqued.”

Ultimately, in addition to trying to determine why girls perform better on writing exams, Zhang wants to be able to provide “actionable feedback to teachers and students.” She added, “one of the next steps is to see whether interventions treating specific weaknesses will help improve writing practice and outcome.”