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The Gender Literacy Gap – Recommendations for Speech-Language Pathologists

by Hope Anderson and Rebecca Nishimura

Introduction

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.

Subject

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.

Problems

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.

Research Context

The majority of research analyzing gender differences in reading instruction is in the field of education. Intervention research on this topic specific to S-LP is minimal. However, educational data can be useful for S-LPs to inform teachers and to guide their own practice.

Key Research Questions

  • Which reading interventions benefit boys?
  • Which interventions benefit reading prerequisites?
  • Which interventions do not provide benefits for reading/prerequisites?

Recent Research Results

Although boys have more difficulty with reading, this may not mean that they require different reading interventions than girls. One study provided a comprehensive reading intervention called MultiLit to middle school students.3 The intervention targeted critical reading skills including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Boys and girls showed similar improvements in all reading skills. These findings serve as reassurance that regardless of the gender, reading intervention can follow similar frameworks. These programs may also lessen the gender gap in schools, as boys are more likely to require S-LP services for reading difficulty.

One study in Ireland used older adult volunteers to provide one on one intervention to struggling first and second grade students who did not yet qualify for special education services.4 Twice weekly, 30-40 minute intervention sessions were shown to be effective at improving reading outcomes. Using the “Wizards of Words” curriculum, volunteers provided one weekly session focused on phonics, and one session that incorporated phonics practice, but focused on comprehension and enjoyment of reading. Boys showed a larger benefit from this intervention than girls.

In one study, teachers were trained to work through comprehension strategies verbally during 20 minute read-aloud sessions.5 Boys and girls improved differently, as boys showed improvements in reading comprehension, while girls showed improvements in vocabulary. S-LPs can recommend that teachers read aloud to their middle school students and train teachers to use this think-aloud procedure.

Language has been identified as a partial contributor of the literacy gap, as boys are often behind girls in language development, especially in preschool.6–9 S-LPs can provide interventions that help children develop a robust language system upon which to build their reading skills. Preliminary research suggests that preschool oral language groups led by an S-LP focusing specifically on language skills that correlate with later literacy skills (i.e., comprehension, narratives, vocabulary, metalinguistics) are equally beneficial for boys and girls.10

Many interventions are promoted for children with reading difficulties. Knowing which interventions are not beneficial is just as important as knowing which ones are effective. Based on a meta-analysis, programs designed to train attention or other executive functions in isolation do not generalize to academics.11 While boys’ poorer executive function is a contributing factor in their poor reading performance,12 interventions targeting this skill in isolation are not beneficial for reading performance.

Use of graphic novels or comic books for teaching literary concepts and increasing boys’ engagement in reading is another popular idea. S-LPs and teachers both often think that boys are less interested in traditional novels and will prefer comics or graphic novels. However, research suggests that using comics for literacy instruction does not close the gender gap in literacy, or increase all boys’ interest in reading in the primary grades.13

Research Gaps

Very little research has looked for differences in boys’ and girls’ responses to interventions. At this point, it is unclear whether qualitatively different interventions for boys than girls should be used to address language and literacy in order to close the gender gap. Popular approaches, such as phonological awareness intervention, do not report data on whether boys and girls benefit equally from the intervention. Intervention studies that include information about performance of the two genders and their relative gains are needed to clarify whether specific interventions can help to close the literacy gap.

Conclusions

At this point, despite evidence of a gender reading gap, very little research has been done to try to eliminate the gap. For remedial reading instruction, the same evidence-based practices are equally effective for boys and girls. However, the achievement gap persists, since both genders improve equally. At this point, interventions that S-LPs are likely to implement to target some of the contributing factors in the reading gap (language skills, executive function, engagement) have not been shown to close the gap. Two interventions that have thus far shown differential effects for boys and girls are one-on-one reading intervention with trained adult volunteers and reading aloud with a think-aloud procedure. One-on-one intervention was more effective for boys than girls who were struggling with reading in first and second grade, but didn’t yet require special education services. In contrast, reading aloud in the classroom while describing the thought process of using comprehension strategies was effective in middle school at improving boys’ reading comprehension. More research into interventions that includes comparisons of the effects for boys and girls is essential to determine what interventions may help to close the persistent gender reading gap.

Implications for Services and Policy

For older readers who are still struggling, current research evidence shows that usual interventions, featuring phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, and comprehension, are equally effective for boys and girls. They may not close the literacy gap, but they will help boys and girls become functional readers. One-on-one reading intervention with trained older adults is more beneficial for boys than girls. This practice is especially promising for struggling readers who do not yet qualify for special education services and is a time and cost effective model for intervention.

Reading aloud in the classroom, with teachers modelling comprehension strategies as they read, has also been shown to help boys improve their reading comprehension in the middle school years. As S-LPs, this strategy can be used in group intervention to model reading comprehension strategies that are being targeted. Additionally, S-LPs should train teachers in this practice and advocate for its use in middle school. Preliminary evidence suggests that preschool language groups targeting reading comprehension predictors (e.g. narratives, vocabulary) may be beneficial. Since the research is still limited, progress monitoring is essential.

Finally, ineffective practices must be stopped. Isolated training of executive functions, either in live therapy or via computerized programs, does not provide academic benefits, as the skills do not generalize. Additionally, using comics rather than traditional books for literacy instruction is not more beneficial for boys’ engagement in reading or reading ability in the primary grades and should not be emphasized.

1.Oecd SC. Literacy for Life: Further Results from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/catalogue/89-604-X. Published 2011.

2. OECD. PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science (Volume I): Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science. OECD Publishing; 2010.

3. Limbrick L, Wheldall K, Madelaine A. Do boys need different remedial reading instruction from girls? Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties. 2012;17(1):1-15. doi:10.1080/19404158.2011.648331

4. Fives A, Kearns N, Devaney C, et al. A one-to-one programme for at-risk readers delivered by older adult volunteers. Review of Education. 2013;1(3):254-280. doi:10.1002/rev3.3016

5. Marchessault JK, Larwin KH. The Potential Impact of Structured Read-Aloud on Middle School Reading Achievement. International Journal of Evaluation and Research in Education (IJERE). 2014;3(3). doi:10.11591/ijere.v3i3.6463

6. Lee J. Size matters: Early vocabulary as a predictor of language and literacy competence. Applied Psycholinguistics. 2011;32(01):69-92. doi:10.1017/s0142716410000299

7. Kristoffersen KE, Simonsen HG, Bleses D, et al. The use of the Internet in collecting CDI data–an example from Norway. J Child Lang. 2013;40(3):567-585.

8. Silva C, Cadime I, Ribeiro I, Santos S, Santos AL, Viana FL. Parents’ reports of lexical and grammatical aspects of toddlers’ language in European Portuguese: Developmental trends, age and gender differences. First Language. 2017;37(3):267-284. doi:10.1177/0142723716689274

9. Song S, Su M, Kang C, et al. Tracing children’s vocabulary development from preschool through the school-age years: an 8-year longitudinal study. Developmental Science. 2015;18(1):119-131. doi:10.1111/desc.12190

10. Hodge T, Downie J. Together we are heard: effectiveness of daily “language” groups in a community preschool. Nurs Health Sci. 2004;6(2):101-107.

11. Rapport MD, Orban SA, Kofler MJ, Friedman LM. Do programs designed to train working memory, other executive functions, and attention benefit children with ADHD? A meta-analytic review of cognitive, academic, and behavioral outcomes. Clin Psychol Rev. 2013;33(8):1237-1252.

12. Nesbitt KT, Farran DC, Fuhs MW. Executive function skills and academic achievement gains in prekindergarten: Contributions of learning-related behaviors. Dev Psychol. 2015;51(7):865-878.

13. Kerneza M. Comics as a Literary-didactic Method and Their Use for Reducing Gender Differences in Reading Literacy at the Primary Level of Education: Strip Kot Literarnodidakticna Metoda Dela in Njegova Uporaba Za Zmanjsanje Razlik Med Spoloma V Bralni Pismenosti Na Razredni Stopnji Solanja.; 2016.


1 Comment

  1. […] Hope Anderson and Rebecca Nishimura summarize recommendations for speech-language pathologists who may be provide speech-language services to boys with speech, language or literacy delays in the […]

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