Why girls have better verbal skillz than boys

August 12, 2010

This is the penultimate post in my Lise Eliot series. I’ll let her do all the talking, as I’m saving my juice for tomorrow’s post.

Females do outscore males on most measures of speaking, reading, writing and spelling from early childhood and throughout life, but the gaps are generally small and change with age.

Language differences emerge early in development. As infants, girls begin talking about one month earlier than boys and are some 12 percent ahead of boys in reading skills when kindergarten begins. Girls’ advantage in reading and writing continues to grow through school, until by 12th grade, an alarming 47 percent more girls than boys graduate as proficient readers, with an even larger gap for writing, a conclusion drawn from several decades of data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

These gaps appear to shrink in adulthood, however. The average woman scores higher than just 54 percent of men on a combined measure of all verbal skills, indicates a 1988 analysis by psychologist Janet Hyde and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin — Madison.

Similarly, there is scant proof that girls and women are better neurologically wired for reading. If anything correlates with reading skill, it is quite simply the amount of reading children do for pleasure outside school. Girls read more than boys, and this additional exposure makes a difference in their academic performance.

Beginning at birth, a child’s language exposure is the single most important determinant of his or her later verbal abilities. Large studies in several different countries demonstrate that gender accounts for at most 3 percent of the variance in toddlers’ verbal ability, compared with at least 50 percent determined by a child’s environment and language exposure. Thus, the more parents can immerse their sons in conversation, books, songs and stories, the better are boys’ chances of getting off to the right start in language and literacy skills. ABC and rhyming books are great for teaching phonemic awareness — the link between sounds and letters that is the first hurdle in learning to read.

Schools with strong reading programs have managed to eliminate the difference between boys’ and girls’ scores, proving that this worrisome gap is more a matter of education and practice than inborn literacy potential.

Next time: the dreaded math gap.

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