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.
Unfortunately, research that directly addresses how best to close the gender gap is sparse. Many studies have examined how parents can help their children develop pre-reading skills that will support the acquisition of reading when they begin formal reading instruction at school.5,8,11 Usually these studies are observational studies with a longitudinal follow-up component but some studies involve experimental methods including randomized controlled trials. More studies that specifically try to close the gender gap by focusing on issues that may be specific to boys, such as for example self-regulation skills or motivational factors, are required.
- What can parents do to help children succeed at school (with an emphasis on boys)?
- What kinds of attitudes should parents adopt regarding their children’s literacy acquisition?
What can parents do to support the acquisition of literacy skills in the home?
Existing research reveals that the home literacy environment5,15,34 plays an important role in literacy attainment. Literacy related experiences in the home may be formal or informal. Formal literacy experiences involve direct teaching of code-related elements such as print awareness, letter-sound correspondence, vocabulary and spelling. For example, parents may teach their child the alphabet, help their child to spell their name with plastic letters or writing tools, and point out commonly occurring words and symbols. Informal literacy experiences include meaning focused shared-reading activities that promote oral language skills. Formal and informal literacy experiences prepare the child to benefit from formal reading and writing instruction after school entry.
Shared reading is one of the most powerful contexts for teaching children language skills and print concepts. Many studies have identified reading strategies that are most effective for child learning. These studies have shown that an interactive reading style works best: that is, involve the child by asking questions and relating story elements to the child’s own life. In addition, there are also existing early childhood literacy intervention programs that teach parents how to carry out shared reading activities, ultimately improving the Home Literacy Environment. For example, the Motheread/Fatheread Colorado15 program aims to improve the quality of shared reading between parents and children. It teaches parents how to engage in dialogic reading and make the activity more enjoyable and interactive. Parents who participated in this program increased their child’s engagement in reading and their children achieved improved vocabulary and language comprehension skills. Effective programs of this type are culture-inclusive and respect the literacy levels and needs of the families that are involved with the program.
Other studies have found that the nature of the reading interaction between parent and child changes depending upon the characteristics of the book. It is can be helpful for children to be exposed to a range of book types so that they experience a variety of language inputs when sharing books with their parents. For example, a study by Deitcher, Aram and Goldberg8 investigated whether the complexity of the book affected the parents’ reading practices when engaging with their preschool aged children. The parents were asked to participate in shared reading activities with two types of alphabet books (busy/less busy). The alphabet books differed in terms of illustration complexity as well as the number of words. The study revealed that when parents are using the busy book, the parent talked more overall and made a lot of references to the illustrations. In contrast, when parents are reading the less busy book, they referred much more to the plot and interacted more with the child. In addition, they also referred way more to the writing system and literary elements. In terms of behavior regulation, the parents seem to shape the interaction more when the busy book is used while they adopted a more supportive role when the less busy book is used.8 Also on the topic of book type, other research shows that boys are very motivated by electronic books. Boys can be easily distracted by the features of the books however so that parents may need to adopt a different style of book sharing when using these tools with their children. Information the use electronic books with children can be found in the Technology and Early Childhood Education section of the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development.
What kinds of attitudes should parents adopt regarding their children’s literacy acquisition?
Studies have shown that girls tend to have more positive attitudes toward reading than boys.25 Furthermore, children’s attitudes towards reading are influenced by their parents’ view of reading. Specifically when parents have a gendered view of reading and when they have more traditional views of gender roles in general, boys’ motivation to read will be affected.
Parenting styles may also play a role as revealed in a study that was conducted on preschool children’s reading readiness level in China. Children’s reading readiness was measured and parenting profile for the mother and father was determined via questionnaire. Parenting styles were classified into three categories: supportive parenting (warm, responsive), easygoing parenting (permissive) and tiger parenting (authoritarian). Children’s reading readiness was highest when both parents had supportive profiles. When both parents were had the “tiger parent” profile there was an association with poorer achievement in the child.34
Research has found that parent-child interactions,5,15,34 especially in the context of shared-reading, are highly predictive of the children’s later literacy ability. Hence, parents are encouraged to engage in reading with their children as much as possible by adopting an interactive and supportive approach. Ensuring that boys experience male role models who enjoy reading is crucial. When sharing books with boys it is important to choose books that are of interest to the child no matter the genre or topic, validating the boy’s interests whatever they are. Talking with the child about the book and helping the child to relate their personal experiences to the book is a valuable learning technique.8 In addition, there are community programs which help parents to learn to read with their children. One helpful aspect of these programs is the opportunity to interact with other parents and share tips and problem-solving techniques. Parents are also encouraged to treat children of both genders as equals in terms of literacy skills and focus on cultivating their interest in an accepting and supportive rather than controlling fashion. Parents can show children that they enjoy reading, demonstrate the many different ways that literacy can be used in daily life, and introduce their children to a range of literacy-related activities. Most importantly parents should have fun with literacy and with their children.
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- 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.
- Burgess, Stephen R., et al. “Relations of the Home Literacy Environment (HLE) to the Development of Reading-Related Abilities: A One-Year Longitudinal Study.” Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 4, 2002, pp. 408–426., doi:10.1598/rrq.37.4.4.
- 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.
- Cobb-Clark, Deborah A., and Julie Moschion. “Gender Gaps in Early Educational Achievement.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2015, doi:10.2139/ssrn.2701637.
- Deitcher, Deborah Bergman, et al. “Alphabet Books: The Nature of Parents’ Shared Reading between and across Books.” Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 2018, p. 146879841881410., doi:10.1177/1468798418814103.
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- Gestsdottir S, von Suchodoletz A, Wanless SB, et al. Early Behavioral Self-Regulation, Academic Achievement, and Gender: Longitudinal Findings From France, Germany, and Iceland. Applied Developmental Science. 2014;18(2):90-109. doi:1080/10888691.2014.894870
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- Hirsh, Holen K., et al. “Results From a Randomized Controlled Trial of the Motheread/Fatheread Early Literacy Intervention: Evidence of Impact in a Rural Community.” Early Education and Development, vol. 30, no. 2, 2018, pp. 216–237., doi:10.1080/10409289.2018.1544813.
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