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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.