For decades, it’s been a prevailing belief: girls are at a disadvantage in the classroom, especially when it comes to certain subjects. But the classroom gender gap might not be what you expect. These days, it’s more likely to be male students that just can’t seem to keep up with their female counterparts.

Richard Whitmire, education reporter and author of Why Boys Fail: Saving our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behind, says that the problem starts early, but is most notably reflected by two indicators: rising aspirations by female high school seniors while those of male students stay flat, and lagging representation of men in college graduation rates. “Among those earning bachelor’s degrees it’s almost 58 percent female,” he said, “and among community colleges it’s 62 percent female.”

What’s behind the new gender gap? Theories of why boys are struggling in today’s classrooms abound. In her controversial book The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men, Christina Hoff Sommers writes that classrooms remodeled to serve the needs of girls are creating a reverse sexism that hurts boys. Less structured learning environments and less focus on grades and competition are hallmarks of a changing school landscape that, according to Sommers, puts boys at a disadvantage.

Others speculate that a lack of boy-friendly reading material, a scarcity of male teachers, and the disappearance of recess may be hurting boys in the classroom. So which of these theories is really behind the problem?

In his book, Whitmire says, he sifted through all the theories cited as sources of the problem. Whitmire argues that, while some of these factors may contribute to the problem, there’s one major issue that’s holding boys back. “If you solve this one big thing,” he says, “then you could solve the brunt of the issue, and that is the literacy issue.”

Reading and writing have always been an integral foundation for classroom learning. But more recently, Whitmire explains, an extra emphasis on literacy in the early years sets many male learners back from the get-go. “School reform pushed literacy demands into earlier and earlier grades,” Whitmire explains, and boys are at a developmental disadvantage when it comes to early literacy challenges. Where girls tend to pick up reading earlier, boys typically need more time. The problem is that without awareness, support and effective instruction, they may never catch up.

According to Whitmire, parents should keep a close eye on what is going on at school if they want to prevent problems. “If your son is struggling, and the teacher says ‘Oh don’t worry, boys always get a slow start and they always catch up,’ that should set off alarm bells. Don’t assume that all of a sudden boys are going to catch up.”

Peg Tyre, author of The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do, agrees. In her book, she outlines the following warning signs: “Watch out for teachers who complain that boys are too active, who clamp down on boys’ fantasy play, who allow boys to languish in reading and writing, who chastise boys for poor organization or bad handwriting.”

Whitmire advises that parents keep an eye on their son’s attitudes and school performance to identify trouble early on. “Any boy who doesn’t take an interest in reading in early elementary school or who has very limited writing skills,” he says, may be in trouble. What then? Here are three tips to help parents get their sons on track:

  • Make reading and writing guy-friendly. “Things that young boys like to read about may not be considered literature by teachers,” says Whitmire, so make sure that boys get plenty of reading material that appeals to them, from sports magazines to sci-fi adventures. The same goes for writing. “A lot of teachers won’t let boys write about intergalactic space wars, which is what they really care about,” says Whitmire. Provide a space at home for boys to pursue their imaginations, and make sure that they’re able to express themselves through writing at school.
  • Rep for recess. Due to increasing academic demands on students and schools, recess has gone the way of the dodo in many districts. However, research shows that young students benefit academically, as well as physically and behaviorally, when they get breaks to blow off steam on the playground. If recess is endangered at your school, express your concerns to the administration and band together with like-minded parents to bring back breaks in the school day.
  • Tap into private tutoring. Some research has shown that boys benefit from a heavy phonics approach, so if they’re not getting enough instruction in school, it might be beneficial to line up more help on the side. The same goes for elementary school, when the focus in the classroom shifts from reading fluency to reading comprehension and literary analysis. For boys that may still be getting comfortable with reading, ongoing literacy tutoring could provide a boost.

If you’ve tried these tactics and your son is still struggling to succeed, it may be time to take more drastic action. “Ask for another teacher, complain to the administration, or change schools,” says Whitmire. “It’s very hard to play catch-up.”