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.
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
- Which early language skills are essential for literacy acquisition?
- How large are the gender differences in early language acquisition?
- Can it be concluded that differences in language development between boys and girls explain the gender gap in literacy?
Recent Research Results
Research exploring the specific language skills necessary for literacy acquisition underscores the importance of overall language development. This research may focus on language composite scores (i.e., measures of global language ability) or measures of specific language components (i.e., vocabulary or grammar) to examine the relationship between early language development and later literacy development. These studies suggest that overall language ability is more heavily correlated with literacy than any particular language component.10 Nonetheless, some language skills are considered more heavily influential on reading acquisition than others. For example, one study suggested that at grade two, grammar was a more essential language skill for reading comprehension and word recognition than vocabulary or narrative (i.e., storytelling) skills.7 Still, most specific language skills appear to contribute to reading ability in some capacity. Research suggests that children with reading comprehension difficulties score lower on measures of semantics (i.e., word meaning), morphosyntax (i.e., grammar), and overall language, in addition to presenting with a larger discrepancy between IQ and language ability than typically developing children.11 Other research has included inferencing as a critical listening comprehension skill that contributes to reading.12 Vocabulary size and growth rate have also been shown to correlate with various literacy skills including reading comprehension, decoding, reading fluency, and word recognition.4,11,13,14 Further, early measures of vocabulary, as early as the age of two, are considered to have predictive value for later literacy skills such as in grade five.4 Ultimately, global language development, rather than individual language skills, appears to foster reading acquisition.
While it is reliably established that language skills are essential for reading, it is difficult to draw conclusions about gender differences in development of these skills due to research gaps in school age language development. Girls are often found to score higher on language assessments, but predominantly in preschool and early elementary school when formal literacy instruction is just introduced. During these stages, girls have been suggested to have slightly better expressive and receptive language, including sentence complexity and length.4,5,6,15 Research suggests that girls often have larger vocabularies in preschool,5,6,15 which was previously identified as a predictor of later literacy skill.4,13 Importantly, the limited available research on school age children has suggested a convergence of this language gap by the age of six,9 no gender differences at all in early childhood,16 or inconsistent findings across language profiles.15 Findings regarding gender differences in vocabulary during primary school are also mixed. One study observed that girls had larger vocabularies than boys until the age of six9 while another observed that it persisted until the fifth grade.4 It is worth acknowledging that if a gender gap is noted in regard to language it is consistently in favour of girls;4,9,15 however, this language gap is not significant enough nor timed accordingly to fully explain the literacy gap.
The current work provides a cross-section of two separate bodies of literature: one exploring language skills necessary for literacy acquisition and the second exploring gender differences in these language skills. The foundation of these findings could be considered more robust if literature provided a comprehensive look into gender as a function of both language and literacy development simultaneously. Unfortunately, when assessing language and literacy, research rarely comments on gender differences within the sample.
The importance of oral language for reading is well documented, but further attention could also be paid to language development among school age children. Currently, the majority of research identifying gender differences in language development focuses on young children before the onset of formal literacy instruction.
Because boys appear to catch up to girls in regard to language development before learning to read, it is unclear whether language abilities explain the literacy gap. Additional research into language development during primary school could aid in developing firm conclusions about the significance of language in disentangling the causes of the literacy gap. Nonetheless, providing a rich language environment for young children at home and at school is a feasible way to foster optimal language and reading acquisition among boys and girls alike.
Implications for parents, services, and policy
Ultimately, funneling time and resources into language intervention for early readers does not appear to be the solution to the literacy gap. However, it is true that language development is important for reading development and should be fostered among all children to ensure they achieve optimal reading success by creating stimulating language environments at home and at school.
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