Monday, March 02, 2009

Why Boys Need Alternatives with Reading and Writing

Many reasons have been suggested as contributors to the gender gap in reading - attitudes and behaviors and testing bias are topics that are discussed frequently

Contrast this to more closely related scores (PCAP-13) on math and science tests:

But what receives too little attention in educational pedagogy are the differences that exist in the ways that boys process language. Once a student learns to learn through listening and reading, it is assumed instruction will be the same for all students. But the cards are unfairly stacked against boys, and the differences may be all the greater in the elementary and middle school years before interhemispheric connections have been allowed to really develop.

If you give girls and boys language tasks, most girls will process the information in the same way (in a specialized language area) whether they are listening to words or seeing or reading them. This is no doubt would help them with word storage and retrieval (sound of words are matched to their appearance) as well downstream tasks like reading and writing.

But for boys, sensitivity to the modality of how words are presented means that an extra steps need to be taken to match words that are picked up by listening and words that are read on the printed page. No wonder dyslexia is much more common in boys - the separate system means that the sight and sound of words are learned as distinct processes. As a result, verbal competence may be strong in one domain (oral speech for instance), but be weak in another (reading).

Boys' different ways of processing language also may make their academic performance more susceptible to processing difficulties - whether visual or auditory. If girls have one processing system down, language learning or expression may still be fine. However, because boys require two areas and a matching of visual-auditory inputs, impairment in one system may cause the whole language coordination process to fail.

Importantly too, gender differences such as these are likely to contribute to the increased work that many boys have to contend with regarding word retrieval, speaking, and writing. Parents may notice that some boys will have an easier time answering questions from what they have learned by listening; when asked to summarize or comment on what they have read, they become more tongue-tied. It may not be that they haven't comprehended their reading fully - it may be that it is harder to access the information quickly when having to switch from visual (reading) to auditory-oral expression mode. The visual-auditory gap may also be why some boys may need to read word-for-word outloud or to themselves (i.e. not silently read) in order to fully comprehend or remember the story. And as mentioned in our previous post, why visual font changes and comic book presentations of stories may reduce the work of reading especially in boys.

Some careful consideration needs to made of instructional implications for boys given some of these new discoveries. Learning by listening and learning by reading are not synonymous; route-congruent factors(listening - oral presentation, reading - written response) may need to be considered when a learning gap or frank underachievement is seen, and an insistence on the availability of auditory-visual supports (reading along with books-on-tape, detailed handouts for lecture courses) should be a requirement of every classroom.

Different Processing of Language in Boys and Girls pdf
Why Boys Don't Like to Read pdf
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Boys Longer Processing Times
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Boys Learn Differently in the Classroom
Eide Neurolearning Blog: More Visual Learning.


  1. Would this relate to how we learn to read, such as phonetics vs visually recognizing a word? It strikes me that phonetics ("sounding out" a word based on vowels and consonants) makes the visual aural and, if that is so, makes a case for learning to read phonetically, at least for boys.

  2. I assume the first chart is showing scores, but it isn't labeled.

  3. Bill: Yes, this is correct - but often the problem is that boy's visual memory is better than their auditory / auditory sequence memory (check out of the More Visual Learning post). There is a developmental catch-up for boys, but they will still be identified as late readers (and will recognize themselves as late readers).

    Dave: Yep, you're right. Sorry about that! The y-axis indicate scores and the charts are originally taken from the the Why Boys Don't Like to Read Link which I notice is broken. We'll correct it now!

  4. Skills are sequenced: Listening, speaking, reading and writing are developed in order. This article is another example of when we see boys as the ones who, because they are wired differently, lags behind and need alternative pedagogical approaches in the area of language processing - a really key area in our emerging social knowledge society.