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Boys and Girls Learning from Digital Story Books

Poster Presentation, 31st World Congress of the Association of Logopedics and Phoniatrics, Innovations in Supporting Communication Participation, Taipei, Taiwan, August 19 – 22, 2019

Background and Additional Details for the Poster Presentation


Literacy is essential for adequate functioning in the modern world, especially with the ubiquity of digital technologies. At the individual level, literacy is an important determinant of mental and physical health, school completion and vocational attainment. At the society level, the literacy level of the population is associated with economic output, quality of life and social cohesion. The literacy skills of children, teenagers and adults are tracked closely around the world and gaps in literacy skills between and within countries raise alarm and calls for policy solutions. One literacy gap that is especially widespread and longstanding is the gender gap favouring girls, as reported for 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with the gap being equivalent to one year of schooling (OECD, 2015). In Quebec, Canada a gap in writing skills has been observed in the results from the province-wide literacy test administered repeatedly, starting in fourth grade and continuing through high school; this gap favouring the girls (especially in the areas of spelling, morphology and syntax) has persisted despite successful efforts to raise the mean scores overall.

Many hypotheses have been put forward to explain the disadvantage to boys with respect to the acquisition of literacy skills. We explored these different hypotheses in a series of blog posts that discuss the possibility that boys differ from girls with respect to: (1) acquisition of early language skills and (2) emergent literacy precursors; (3) executive function skills; (4) motivation to read; and/or (5) social-environmental influences. Although these hypotheses are well motivated, the research evidence remains inconsistent and inconclusive. Therefore this research program aims to further explore the issues underlying the gender gap in boys’ versus girls’ literacy acquisition in the context of French-language schools in Quebec.

Study 1

In the first study reported, the relationship between boys’ oral language and emergent literacy skills at school entry was examined in relation to their spelling abilities at the end of second grade. It was hypothesized that language and phonological awareness skills at school entry would predict spelling skills at the end of second grade. Furthermore, it was predicted that any gender differences in spelling abilities would be reflected in weaker oral language and emergent literacy skills by boys compared to girls at school entry.

Method. In Study 1 children’s oral language and emergent literacy skills were assessed with an iPad-based app that was developed specifically for the Quebec-French environment (Rvachew, Royle, et al., 2017). The app assesses speech perception, speech production accuracy, phonological awareness using a rhyme matching test, and past tense morpheme production (PHOPHLO: Prédiction des Habilités Orthographiques par des Habilités Langage Oral). At the end of second grade the children completed the BELO (Batterie d’évaluation de lecture et d’orthographe), a standardized dictation test that includes nonwords, real words and sentences (Georges & Pech-Georgel, 2006). Further information about these measures is available in previous open access papers (Kolne, Gonnerman, Marquis, Royle, & Rvachew, 2016; Rvachew, Royle, et al., 2017). The participants were 92 children (56 girls, 36 boys) who were attending a French-language kindergarten in a suburban school located in a middle-class neighborhood. In second grade, 78 children returned for follow-up assessment of their spelling abilities.

Results. The first finding was that there were no significant gender differences in performance on any of the PHOPHLO subtests as shown in Figure 1. As predicted however PHOPHLO performance was significantly associated with BELO performance in second grade. However, the boys obtained significantly worse BELO scores than the girls, despite obtaining equivalent language screen scores at the earlier time point. The advantage to girls for second grade spelling performance was seen for those that passed the PHOPHLO screen and those that failed it, as shown in Figure 2.

IALP Blog Figs 1 and 2

Study 2

The results of Study 1 suggest that gender differences in emergent literacy skills at school entry do not explain the gender gap in literacy skills that is already apparent by the end of second grade. Therefore we conducted a study to observe boys and girls literacy learning in real time, using a shared reading paradigm involving a digital book that we had previously implemented in English-language schools (Rvachew, Rees, Carolan, & Nadig, 2017).


Toward the end of the kindergarten year, 10 adult readers shared a book from the iRead With series with 16 small groups of boys or 17 small groups of girls; the book was shared 3 times in a week (totalling 105 reading sessions in all) and then the children were tested to obtain measures of learning from the book at the end of the week. The shared reading transcripts were carefully examined to identify differences in the adult-child interactions when the dyad or triad of children included boys versus girls. The methods used to analyze these reading transcripts are described in a forthcoming paper along with examples from the transcripts that exemplify the boys’ and girls’ behavior during the shared reading intervention (Rvachew, Thompson Forrester, and Dey, accepted).


Prior to the shared reading intervention the girls and boys in study 2 obtained similar PHOPHLO total scores. Post-tests revealed that the boy groups and girl groups learned similarly from the shared reading sessions as measured by story retell, story comprehension, phonological awareness and word recognition tasks that were linked to the book that the children experienced. We also observed that boys and girls were similarly engaged by the books, both during the shared reading interactions and during post-reading sessions in which the small groups shared the books with no adult present The similar learning outcomes for boys and girls may have occurred because the children received similar literacy inputs from the adult readers regardless of gender: that is, the adults produced the same number of comments about the story, vocabulary and print concepts, as shown in Figure 3. However, adult readers directed significantly more comments about behavior to boys compared to girls. A more detailed examination of these comments revealed that adults intervened to redirect the boys’ attention twice as often compared to the girls (a nonsignificant difference, as shown in Figure 4, left); of greater interest, the adult readers intervened to help the boys regulate their emotions and behavior three times more often compared to the girls (a significant difference, as shown in Figure 4, right).

IALP Blog Figs 3 and 4

Discussion and Conclusion

Although boys learned as well as the girls from a shared reading intervention in kindergarten, there was evidence to suggest that some boys behaved differently or that their behavior was perceived differently by the adult reader, when compared to the girls. Interventions to regulate impulsive behavior or emotional outbursts were significantly more common among boys than among girls. Our analysis suggested that these episodes might be related to specific differences in boys’ executive functions but might also be related to the social environment in which the readings occurred. More specifically, the boys may have been experiencing stereotype threat in the context of these small group interactions.

Teacher interventions to regulate boys’ emotions and behavior distract from learning because they interrupt teaching and sometimes result in exclusions (e.g., time-outs or suspensions). Repeated episodes such as these over the primary school grades may contribute to a cumulative deficit in literacy learning. Self-regulation may be the key to literacy achievement for boys over the long term.

Future work within our lab will include a particular focus on strategies that best support self-regulation in boys, specifically within a literacy learning environment so that they can maximise their language learning outcomes.


Georges, F., & Pech-Georgel, C. (2006). BELO – Batterie d’évaluation de lecture et d’orthographe: Éditions Solal.

Kolne, K., Gonnerman, L., Marquis, A., Royle, P., & Rvachew, S. (2016). Teacher predictions of children’s spelling ability: What are they based on and how good are they? . Language and Literacy, 18(1), 71-98. Retrieved from

OECD. (2015). The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behavior, Confidence, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Rvachew, S., Rees, K., Carolan, E., & Nadig, A. (2017). Improving emergent literacy with school-based shared reading: Paper versus ebooks. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction, 12, 24-29.

Rvachew, S., Royle, P., Gonnerman, L., Stanké, B., Marquis, A., & Herbay, A. (2017). Development of a Tool to Screen Risk of Literacy Delays in French-Speaking Children: PHOPHLO. Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, 41(3), 321-340. Retrieved from

Rvachew, S. & Herbery, A. (2017). PHOPHLO: Prédiction des Habilités Orthographiques par des Habilités Langage Oral.

Thompson, D. & Rvachew, S. (April 19, 2019). Boys and literacy acquisition: Introduction.

Rvachew, S. & Thompson Forrester, D. (accepted). A description of boys and girls nonnverbal and verbal engagement with electronic and paper books. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology.

Rvachew, S., Thompson Forrester, D., & Dey, R. (accepted). Can technology help close the gender gap in literacy achievement? Evidence from boys and girls sharing ebooks. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.


Boys and Literacy Acquisition: Introduction

by Dahlia Thompson and Susan Rvachew


Reading literacy skills are crucial to academic success-indeed to overall functioning in modern society.1, 2 Therefore, the consistent underperformance of boys relative to girls on academic measures of literacy achievement is of specific concern to educators and researchers alike.  Although the size of the gender gap in reading literacy varies across ecological settings, it has been stable for at least the past century.3, 4 The size and geographic reach of this gender gap is best portrayed by international assessments of literacy skills among school children. One such assessment is the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which has measured grade four students’ learning in reading using fiction and non-fiction reading passages every 5 years since 2001. In 48 of the 50 participating countries in 2016, girls had higher average reading scores than boys.5 Although the gender gap was somewhat narrower on the first administration of the computer-based version of the assessment (ePIRLS), girls still had a higher average achievement than boys in 11 of the 14 participating countries. Girls performed better than boys on the ePIRLS in areas of information retrieval, and straightforward inferencing as well as more complex skills such as interpreting, integrating and evaluating informationThe Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which takes place every 3 years, assesses how well 15-year old students use, reflect and engage with written texts, using different types of texts and passages and including both short answer and multiple choice response types. A systematic review of PISA results revealed that boys did not outperform girls in reading in any of the 43 countries reviewed.6 Across the 43 countries, the male-female difference in overall reading performance ranged from 6 points to 59 points, with an average difference of 33 points, in favour of girls. Moreover, it was observed that in 90% of the 43 countries, boys were at least 50% more likely than girls to be poor readers.

Both boys and girls have improved in reading literacy performance within the past century,5, 7-9 and yet boys’ performance on reading literacy skills remains lower when compared to girls’ performance. Furthermore, this gender gap is observed in both high and low performing readers, and there are consistently more boys than girls amongst those with the lowest reading achievement. As a result, boys are more likely to have a lower school completion rate relative to girls.10 Risk factors such as low socioeconomic status, maternal education and a family history of reading disabilities,11, 12 explain poor performance in both boys and girls but male sex constitutes an additional risk factor since the gender gap in favour of girls persists in these populations.

Given these data it is clear that boys as a group achieve lower levels of reading literacy than girls. Nonetheless it is not clear why this finding is persistent across historical time, geographic areas, and cultural groups. If asked, it is likely that most adults and possibly even many children would hold strong opinions about why boys might perform differently from girls (on average); and yet, the research is not quite clear on the answer. The research evidence does provide strong clues however as revealed by the associated series of blog posts, to be summarized here.


Language, Literacy, and Gender: Does a Gender Gap in Language Underlie the Gender Literacy Gap?

by Hope Anderson


Reading is fundamental for success in modern society.1 Reading difficulties can have persistent and widespread implications on academic, vocational, and social functioning. Thus, ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of reading instruction is necessary to ensure children fulfill their lifelong potential.


Boys underperform girls at reading to a significant degree. This has been documented on a global scale through international reading assessments.2 In one of these projects, girls outperformed boys in 48 of the 50 participating countries, whereas boys did not outperform girls in any of the countries.3 Clearly, this is a worldwide phenomenon putting boys at risk for later difficulties.


While it is unclear why girls outperform boys at reading, it is generally accepted that boys develop language more slowly than girls.4,5,6 As language is a fundamental skill for reading acquisition,7,8 this language gap could provide a potential explanation for the literacy gap. However, this may not be the case as the language gap does not persist beyond the onset of formal reading instruction; specifically, boys seem to catch up early in elementary school.9 Therefore, even though language is the foundation for reading, further exploration is required to determine whether boys’ slower acquisition of language skills plays a role in the literacy gap.

Research Context

Studies assessing language or literacy typically use one of the many available standardized language assessments. Research regarding language development, including gender differences, is extensive. However, the majority of literature that directly compares girls and boys focuses on early childhood, which makes drawing conclusions surrounding literacy development challenging. In regard to literacy, researchers in the United Kingdom particularly have paid special attention to literacy development through large scale longitudinal studies.

Key Research Questions

  1. Which early language skills are essential for literacy acquisition?
  2. How large are the gender differences in early language acquisition?
  3. Can it be concluded that differences in language development between boys and girls explain the gender gap in literacy?


Emergent Literacy Precursors

by Ying Ying Liu


Literacy is an important and complex ability for educational achievement across age groups.13,17,21,22,28 As early as in the first and second grades, children acquire skills related to decoding (sounding out and recognizing written words), spelling and composition (writing words and sentences correctly), reading comprehension (understanding the meaning of what is read), and reading fluency (reading quickly without mistakes).2,3,5,7,17,26,27 Research shows that girls often outperform boys in terms of general literacy as assessed in terms of data from national standardized tests2,7 across age groups. Girls also show better performance in spelling, vocabulary use, as well as compositional organization and fluency.2,7 In addition, reading diagnostic tests also reveal that boys also tend to have higher rates of dyslexia.11,5 However, the reasons leading to this persistent gender gap in reading and writing achievement remain ambiguous.


Research has shown that the most important precursors to the acquisition of literacy skills are in the oral language domain and in the code-related domain.29 Particularly, preschool vocabulary (oral language domain; comprehension and verbal), letter knowledge (code-related domain; letter-sound correspondences, letter recognition/writing) and phonological awareness (code-related domain; especially implicit phonological awareness of rime and alliteration) skills, which constitute the building blocks for literacy acquisition, are strongly correlated with actual literacy related performance in later grades.29 In addition, these skills are not all acquired in the same manner. Skills such as vocabulary and letter knowledge are highly dependent on environmental factors24,30 and need explicit instruction while phonological skills seem to be genetic and developmental.8,23


The Role of Executive Functioning in the Reading Gender Gap

by Rebecca Nishimura


Learning to read is an essential part of childhood education in modern society. Significant time is spent in elementary classrooms helping children learn to decipher letters and words, as well as exposing them to different types of writing to develop reading comprehension skills. As students advance in school, they are increasingly required to learn new content through reading. In the workplace, literacy skills are required for nearly all jobs. Even recreational activities, including using social media and playing video games, require literacy skills. Since literacy is so central to modern society, the causes of the long standing literacy skill gap between boys and girls1,2 are an important area of research to explore. Specifically, it is important to understand whether boys have a particular problem with the cognitive aspects of reading or whether they have difficulty with learning the classroom due to deficits in executive functions.


Executive function has frequently been implicated in skilled reading,3–5 since many cognitive functions (e.g. knowledge of language, knowledge of letter sounds, knowledge of the world) must be coordinated to read and understand a passage. Self-regulation – that is, the ability to plan and adapt one’s behaviour for different situations,6 is an aspect of executive function that includes a variety of more specific skills (e.g. inhibition, directing attention). In the classroom, self-regulation manifests as the ability of children to sit still, attend to their teachers, and work independently, all of which seem important to all types of learning, including literacy instruction. Understanding whether the reading gap is associated with boys’ executive functions may allow us to develop interventions that more effectively target problem areas and help to close this gap in achievement.


Although gender discrepancies in reading have been consistently identified,2 the causes of these discrepancies have not been well-explored. Many studies of predictors of reading ability, best practices in reading instruction, and other literacy areas include equal numbers of boys and girls but do not report on any differences between genders. Executive function is one possible area of difference between boys and girls that might contribute to the gender gap in reading achievement.


Are Boys Less Motivated to Read Than Girls?

by Sarah Bogdanovitch


Learning to read is difficult and to do so children must be motivated to learn.  Motivation to read is an important factor that determines reading habits that contribute to reading skill, such as the amount of time spent on reading activities, the variety of different genres a child engages with, and if the child reads at home as well as in school.1 Research indicates that differences in motivation to read between boys and girls appear during the school years and likely play a role in the gender gap found in reading achievement.2,3,4,5,6


Motivation is a complex construct best described as a collection of individual characteristics. Research has identified different types of motivation that can be placed into three categories.  With examples specific to reading, these categories are (1) goal orientation, or what a child hopes to gain from reading (e.g. intrinsic goals, such as to gain pleasure from the activity or to master a reading task, or extrinsic goals, such as to gain positive external feedback for reading); (2) self-competence beliefs (whether a child thinks they will succeed at a reading task or not); and (3) social and environmental aspects of motivation (e.g. whether or not reading is perceived to be valuable in their home or classroom).7 According to this research, it is not accurate to describe a child as either highly or poorly motivated to read; rather, scientists describe the child’s motivational profile. Researchers have studied the ways that different types of motivation and motivational profiles impact the development of reading skill.8,9,10


For intervention targeting motivation to read to be effective, it is critical to understand when and how motivation for reading develops—as well as when a gender difference in motivation to read emerges. Most studies use questionnaires to measure motivation. These are typically inappropriate for use with preschool and early school-aged children, making this population particularly difficult to study in terms of motivation.


Social-Environmental Impacts on the Gender Gap in Reading

by Emily Jarvis


One way in which girls and boys differ is in the way that they are raised. The social environment in which children are raised creates different expectations for boys and girls. Girls and boys are expected to play with different toys, to engage in different activities, and to perform differently in different school subjects1. The research reviewed below reveals the ways that adult expectations impact performance in reading and likely contribute to the gender gap in reading achievement which has been shown to exist across ages and cultures2.


Adults hold stereotypes about how male and female children are expected to behave, to play, and to perform academically in different subjects. For example, girls may be expected to play with dolls, whereas boys are expected to play with cars. Historically, girls have been expected to perform better in reading compared to boys, whereas boys have been expected to perform better in mathematics3,4. These stereotypes are placed on children by parents and teachers, who may be unaware of their own biases and the way that they impact their children or students. Children in the early school years pick up on teacher and parent stereotypes about gender roles and expectations, and their academic performance is therefore influenced by the stereotypes that are held by the adults in their life.5


Home Literacy Environment

by Ying Ying Liu and Susan Rvachew


Research show that much of later academic achievements are dependent on the initial literacy skills acquired during the first few years of education.16,17,20 Girls tend perform better than boys in terms of literacy whether it is measured by standardized assessments2,7 or reading and writing diagnostic tests.2,7 Furthermore, even in preschool aged children, girls have the advantage in certain code-related skills1,4,16,26,27 that are predictive of later reading and writing abilities—that is, girls may outperform boys at tasks that involve knowledge of rhyming, alliteration and letters.  This trend seems to be fairly consistent regardless of the location, culture or language of the population.6,26,27 These gender related discrepancies may put boys at a disadvantage when it comes to learning and literacy acquisition.6,32


Despite this gender gap in early literacy skills, there are ways to help boys get ready for academic learning. Parents can prepare both boys and girls to achieve reading and writing skills as expected when they go to school.  Environmental factors play a large role in children’s learning at school. In particular, parental involvement is highly correlated with how well young students perform5,11,25 at school. In particular, some code-related skills that are essential for reading and writing must be taught explicitly.30  Some studies suggest that boys might underperform due to social stereotypes that may be reinforced by parents and teachers alike.33,36 Verbal feedback and social modeling in the home and school can give boys the impression that reading is “for girls.”  Reinforcing the importance of reading for everyone is an important strategy to support boys’ reading achievement.


Closing the Gender Gap in Literacy Achievement: The Teacher’s Role

by Sarah Bogdanovitch and Emily Jarvis

The tendency for girls to outperform boys in reading, writing and spelling is likely caused by a culmination of contributing factors, including linguistic, cognitive, motivational, and social influences.1  However, gender biases in the learning environment in the early school years appear to play a particularly strong role.2  Gender stereotypes can significantly impact boys’ motivation to read and the value that they place on reading activities; subsequently, reduced reading experience dampens boys’ emerging reading ability.  Although evidence for the gender gap in reading achievement is not as strong in the early years of formal schooling,3 teachers of young students are in a critical place to minimize the effects of gender stereotypes around reading activities. The challenge for these teachers is to build an early foundation for motivation to read in boys without negatively impacting girls’ learning.  Below are some recommendations to begin thinking about gender and reading in the classroom, along with some evidence-based strategies that can foster all students’ love of reading.

  1. Reflect on gender in the classroom

Knowing the strong impact that implicit bias can have on students, teachers can start by examining their own beliefs around gender and reading. Although research shows that there is not a true difference in ability, many people hold the incorrect belief that girls are naturally better readers than boys. Challenging this belief in the classroom could lead to positive outcomes for boys’ reading achievement. Some research suggests that one way to challenge implicit stereotypes is to add counter-stereotype visuals to spaces that are typically gendered.4  In the classroom, it is necessary to consider the visual images, decorations, furniture and objects that are included in reading spaces; these should include associations that are both stereotypically masculine as well as feminine so that the space is welcoming for all genders.


The Gender Literacy Gap – Recommendations for Speech-Language Pathologists

by Hope Anderson and Rebecca Nishimura


Reading is an essential skill for lifelong achievement. Being a proficient reader is beneficial in educational, vocational, and socioemotional spheres of life.1 This places the onus on teachers and other school personnel, including speech-language pathologists (S-LPs), to ensure they are providing high quality, evidence based reading instruction.


Girls are better readers than boys. This gender reading gap has been observed to persist into high school on a global scale.2 As reading is a critical skill for long-term success, instruction and intervention must address this achievement gap to ensure that both boys and girls are equipped to fulfill their potential.


As stated by Speech-Language & Audiology Canada (SAC), “speech-language pathologists (S-LPs) are essential members of educational teams supporting students of all ages with speech, language and communication challenges to achieve their academic and personal potential.” S-LPs play a central role in providing direct literacy intervention, recommending instructional methods to teachers, and designing literacy programs. Because boys have greater difficulty with reading than girls, the majority of S-LP clientele for reading intervention are boys. However, S-LPs must select intervention approaches that are effective and engaging for both boys and girls.