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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

Problem/Research Gaps

One reason that may contribute to gender gaps in reading and writing is the possibility that boys might be less prepared to learn to read than girls when they start school. Specifically, their oral language skills, letter knowledge and/or phonological awareness skills might be less well developed in comparison to girls during their first few years of formal education. If this were the case, such a gap in early precursors to reading might explain later gaps in literacy achievement. However, the existing research on the younger children is still rather limited compared to the older school-aged children and mixed evidence was found on this topic. In fact, there are various types of assessments for these skills as they are multidimensional constructs,1,3,5,6,31 and the differences in terms of performance of boys versus girls are often smaller and less consistent than for students in higher grades.1-6,15,16,31

Research Context

Existing literature on the topic of gender differences on emergent literacy faculties made use of diverse methods ranging from parental reports,4 in-lab observations,4 clinical assessments1-6,25,26,31 as well as standardized scholastic assessments.2,5,7 These data were also collected in various areas of the globe1-6 and are not specific to one particular culture or language,1,4,5 suggesting that the literacy gap between girls and boys is a worldwide phenomenon.

Key Research Questions

  • Are there gender discrepancies in the acquisition of emergent literacy skills?
  • Do these gender differences vary in terms of whether the skills are acquired developmentally vs. taught? 

Recent Research Results

Regarding general oral language and vocabulary skills, research investigating gender differences in language acquisition during infancy in French-Canadian children using parent reports and direct observations has found that baby girls tend to acquire a greater productive vocabulary earlier and to produce longer and structurally more complex words and sentences compared to boys.4 These early female advantages seem to last up to 28-29 months of age after which point boys appear to catch up to girls in terms of every component except syntactic complexity (the grammatical complexity of utterances).1 These findings were also supported by other studies of similar nature.13,17,21 However, research on the language abilities of slightly older children reveal mixed evidence.3 Although in terms of production, girls significantly performed better, babies of both genders seem to perform similarly on word comprehension.2 Further related research1 used a more objective measure of receptive knowledge in children aged from 5:0 to 6:7 years old from the North West area of England on a picture-word matching task and no significant gender differences are found, suggesting that girls and boys are on par with each other in terms of comprehension skills, consistent with the studies on younger children.1,4 In contrast, for later productive vocabulary, boys from grades 1 to 3 tested on word-finding assessments seemed to perform better than girls2 as opposed to the finding on infants.4

Letter knowledge, assessed both in terms of the ability to recognize letters and to match them to corresponding speech sounds, is one of the most important skills for reading acquisition.10,18,27 Existing literature on this aspect of preliteracy seems to provide fairly consistent evidence on the existence of a female advantage in the younger age group.2,3,25,26,31 Gender differences in the knowledge of uppercase/lowercase letters as well as letter-sound correspondences in Norwegian children who just started school from various socio-economic backgrounds were examined in one study.25 Girls performed significantly better in both actual letter knowledge as well as letter-sound knowledge. Furthermore, the gender gap seems to be more than simply caused by differential developmental rates as they tend to persist through the school year without intervention although both groups of children showed improvement as they progressed through the curriculum.25,26 Other studies using letter-naming subtests of standardized and clinical assessments in different countries also support the same female advantage.2,3,6,31

Contrarily, no common consensus has emerged regarding whether the abilities of boys and girls differ in phonological knowledge,1,3,5,6,31 specifically, the ability to manipulate and make sense of individual units of speech in written language. Measures may include segmenting and blending sounds into words, speech-sound knowledge, non-word repetition and phonological working memory.6,31 Some studies point toward the evidence that girls tend to have better phonological awareness3,6,27 while others indicated no gender difference in the performance of these skills.1,5 For instance, in a study of phonological skills in 3rd grade bilingual English-Northern Sotho students,31 both general and task-specific female advantages were found. The authors suggest that phonological abilities allowing the identification and manipulation of syllabic and phonemic components of words are essential to successful word-decoding; thus boys who have not yet developed enough phonological processing skill may not be effective enough at word-decoding for proper reading comprehension.31 However, a different study1 of 1st and 2nd graders in the North West area of England showed diverging evidence suggesting that male and female phonological abilities are comparable.


A substantial female advantage both in terms of preliteracy skills as well as in actual literacy skills was found in most of the literature on preliterate children,1,2,5,7,25,26 suggesting that the gender gap might still be present to an extent before formal reading/writing instruction. This difference is most noticeable in terms of “taught” skills such as letter knowledge2,3,6,25,26,31 on which the female students consistently perform better while mixed evidence is found for oral language as well as phonological skills.1,4,13,17,21 Though, it is also to be noted that while girls definitely seem to excel in particular components of preliteracy, boys almost never outperformed girls on any of the skills measured.1-7,25,26,31 In addition, this trend favoring females seems to be fairly consistent regardless of language or areas of the world and seems to become more apparent as children progress through the educational system.4,5,22,25,26

Implications for parents, services, and policy

As existing research on the topic leans toward evidence of gender differences as early as during the preliteracy years, it is important to plan for interventions early on to minimize the impact of these discrepancies when boys enter higher grades where literacy skills are essential for their overall achievement. As much of the difference is related to code-related skills2,3,6,25,26,29,31 which need to be explicitly taught, interventions should mainly focus on improving them to a level that would allow initially low-performing boys to have a more solid base to construct actual literacy skills upon. 


1. Adams, Anne-Marie, and Fiona R. Simmons. “Exploring Individual and Gender Differences in Early Writing Performance.” Reading and Writing, vol. 32, no. 2, 2018, pp. 235–263., doi:10.1007/s11145-018-9859-0.

2. Berninger, Virginia W., and Frances Fuller. “Gender Differences in Orthographic, Verbal, and Compositional Fluency: Implications for Assessing Writing Disabilities in Primary Grade Children.” Journal of School Psychology, vol. 30, no. 4, 1992, pp. 363–382., doi:10.1016/0022-4405(92)90004-o.

3. Below, Jaime L., et al. “Gender differences in early literacy: Analysis of kindergarten through fifth-grade Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills probes.” School Psychology Review, 39, 2010, pp. 240–257.

4. Bouchard, Caroline, et al. “Gender Differences in Language Development in French Canadian Children between 8 and 30 Months of Age.” Applied Psycholinguistics, vol. 30, no. 4, 2009, pp. 685–707., doi:10.1017/s0142716409990075.

5. Chan, David W, et al. “Prevalence, Gender Ratio and Gender Differences in Reading‐Related Cognitive Abilities among Chinese Children with Dyslexia in Hong Kong.” Educational Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, 2007, pp. 249–265., doi:10.1080/03055690601068535.

6. Chipere, Ngoni. “Sex Differences in Phonological Awareness and Reading Ability.” Language Awareness, vol. 23, no. 3, 2013, pp. 275–289., doi:10.1080/09658416.2013.774007.

7. Cobb-Clark, Deborah A., and Julie Moschion. “Gender Gaps in Early Educational Achievement.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2015, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2701637.

8. Dougherty, R. F., et al. “Temporal-Callosal Pathway Diffusivity Predicts Phonological Skills in Children.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 20, 2007, pp. 8556–8561., doi:10.1073/pnas.0608961104.

9. Dunn, Lloyd. , et al. “The British picture vocabulary scale.” London: NFER-Nelson, 1997.

10. Dehaene, Stanislas., and Laurent Cohen. “The unique role of the visual word form area in reading.” Trends in Cognitive. Sciences. 15, 2011, 254–262. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2011.04.003

11. Ho, Connie. S.-H., et al. “The Hong Kong test of specific learning difficulties in reading and writing (HKT-SpLD) manual”, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Specific Learning Difficulties Research Team, 2000a.

12. Hoff, Erika. “The Specificity of Environmental Influence: Socioeconomic Status Affects Early Vocabulary Development Via Maternal Speech.” Child Development, vol. 74, no. 5, 2003, pp. 1368–1378., doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00612.

13. Hyde, Janet S., and Marcia C. Linn. “Gender differences in verbal ability: A meta-analysis.” Psychological Bulletin,104(1), 1988, 53-69. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.104.1.53

14. FRLL, Institute of Education. “Diagnostic test of word reading processes”, GL Assessment Limited, 2012 London.

15. Johnston, Rhona S., and Joyce Watson. “The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment, a seven year longitudinal study.” Scottish Executive Education Department, 2005

16. Johnston, Rhona S., and Joyce Watson. “Teaching synthetic phonics.” Exeter: Learning Matters, 2007.

17. Kern, Sophie. “Lexicon development in French-speaking infants.” First Language,27(3), 227- 250, 2007. doi:10.1177/0142723706075789

18. Levin, Iris, et al. “Learning of Letter Names and Sounds and Their Contribution to Word Recognition.” Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, vol. 93, no. 2, 2006, pp. 139–165., doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2005.08.002.

19. Logan, Sarah, and Rhona Johnston. “Investigating gender differences in reading.” Educational Review,62(2), 175-187, 2010. doi:10.1080/00131911003637006

20. McCarthy, Dorothea. “McCarthy Scales of Children’s Abilities.” New York. Psychological Corporation,

21. Maccoby, Eleanor and Carol Jacklin. The psychology of sex differences. Stanford, CA. Stanford University Press, 1974.

22. Mullis, I., et al. PIRLS 2001 International Report: IEA’s Study of Reading Literacy Achievement in Primary Schools in 35 Countries, 2003, Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College.

23. Muter, V., et al. “The phonological abilities test. London.” The Psychological Corporation, 1997

24. Petrill, Stephen A., et al. “Genetic and Environmental Effects of Serial Naming and Phonological Awareness on Early Reading Outcomes.” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 98, no. 1, 2006, pp. 112–121., doi:10.1037/0022-0663.98.1.112.

25. Sigmundsson, Hermundur, et al. “Letter-Sound Knowledge: Exploring Gender Differences in Children When They Start School Regarding Knowledge of Large Letters, Small Letters, Sound Large Letters, and Sound Small Letters.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 8, 2017, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01539.

26. Sigmundsson, Hermundur, et al. “Gender Gaps in Letter-Sound Knowledge Persist Across the First School Year.” Frontiers in Psychology,9. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00301

27. Schneider, Wolfgang, et al. “Training Phonological Skills and Letter Knowledge in Children at Risk for Dyslexia: A Comparison of Three Kindergarten Intervention Programs.” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 92, no. 2, 2000, pp. 284–295., doi:10.1037//0022-0663.92.2.284.

28. Stoet, Gijsbert, and David C. Geary. “Sex Differences in Mathematics and Reading Achievement Are Inversely Related: Within- and Across-Nation Assessment of 10 Years of PISA Data.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 3, 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057988.

29. Storch, Stacey A., and Grover J. Whitehurst. “Oral Language and Code-Related Precursors to Reading: Evidence from a Longitudinal Structural Model.” Developmental Psychology, vol. 38, no. 6, 2002, pp. 934–947., doi:10.1037//0012-1649.38.6.934.

30. Weisleder, Adriana, and Anne Fernald. “Talking to Children Matters.” Psychological Science, vol. 24, no. 11, 2013, pp. 2143–2152., doi:10.1177/0956797613488145.

31. Wilsenach, Carien, and Patricia Makaure. “Gender Effects on Phonological Processing and Reading Development in Northern Sotho Children Learning to Read in English: A Case Study of Grade 3 Learners.” South African Journal of Childhood Education, vol. 8, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.4102/sajce.v8i1.546.



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