Are there gender differences in reading and language abilities?

Differences in language abilities between the genders have been observed and reported for many years. For instance, the following differences have been found in research:
  • Girls begin to talk sooner and more clearly than boys [1].
  • The average 20-month old girl has twice the vocabulary of the average 20-month old boy [1].
  • Boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with stuttering [2] and handwriting [3].
  • There are no gender differences in vocabulary knowledge, [1], but females tend to have more advanced spelling and grammar skills [3].
These observed differences have led to many questions. Are these language differences innate or are they due to social factors? If boys and girls have difference language skills, should they be schooled separately in single-sex classes?

What kind of research is being conducted to address questions related to gender differences?

Science cannot answer these questions directly, but it can help us better understand the nature and possible source of these observed gender differences. In the last fifteen years, a technique called “functional magnetic resonance imaging” (usually shortened to “fMRI”) has allowed scientists to explore whether gender differences exist in the brain that could explain known differences in language abilities. fMRI allows scientists to measure blood flow in the brain during different behavioral tasks, mapping associations between activity in the brain and various activities. Demonstrating such differences does not prove that they are innate; the activity of the brain is shaped by our experiences as well as our innate brain structure. Finding gender differences in the brain would indicate, however, that there is a biological basis for differences in language abilities, and could provide further insight into the nature of those differences.
 
Recently, my research colleagues, Tali Bitan and James Booth, and I decided to explore whether gender differences are present in the brain activity of children performing language tasks. What kind of language tasks, you ask? In one language task, each child was presented with two words, one visual and one auditory, and they were asked to determine whether the two words rhymed. A second language task required the child to judge whether two words presented sequentially shared all letters after the first consonant or consonant cluster.
 
Except for one child study, fMRI studies that had previously found gender differences for language had tested adults, showing activity in language areas on both sides of the brain for females but mostly on the left side for males. These results were controversial, however, with an equal number of adult studies failing to find any gender differences. Among children, the only fMRI language study that showed gender differences found a slightly larger increase in language-related activity among girls as they got older than what was seen for boys. Because these effects were small and other child studies failed to uncover such gender differences, the authors concluded that differences in brain activity between boys and girls were too small to have much practical significance. Within this context, my co-authors and I designed a fMRI study to clarify gender differences in language processing. The children participating in the study were between the ages of 9-15 years.

Gender Differences Brain Research Findings

Our fMRI study shows that:
  • Girls had greater brain activity in three known language areas in comparison to boys when completing reading comprehension or word meaning tasks.
    • Inferior frontal gyrus – an area involved in word meanings and other language functions.
    • Superior temporal gyrus on both sides of the brain – involved in sounds of words.
    • Fusiform gyrus on the left side of the brain – area involved in the spelling of words and their visual identification.
  • Boys, as well as girls, use both sides of their brains for language-related activities, but this is more apparent for girls because their language-related brain activity is stronger. Because the right-side brain activity in boys is weaker, the dominance of their left side is more apparent.
  • Girls’ language ability was dominated by auditory/listening areas of the brain for accessing and processing information related to spelling and rhyming.
  • Boys’ language ability was dominated by visual areas of the brain for accessing and processing information related to spelling and rhyming.

Why do these differences exist?

We suggested in our report that the results might reflect the developmental advantage of girls, who are known to be more advanced developmentally through late childhood. If the sensory systems are not developed as fully in boys, a sensory “bottleneck” might occur that limits how completely (or effectively) information about the words projects to the language areas involved in making the language judgments. If so, this gender difference in language processing would disappear when the brain development in boys catches up with girls.

Implications

Reliance on different brain areas for accurate language performance suggests that boys and girls are processing language information differently. Parents and teachers should keep the following in mind:
  • Testing Implications: Boys may perform best when tested in the same sensory modality as what was used for learning the information. For example, if the teacher verbally explains something, a boy would do better with a verbal test than a written test.
  • Reading Comprehension Implications: Boys may have to learn by seeing, as well as by hearing. This might be facilitated by parents reading picture books with their young boys, or by older boys reading aloud.
  • Implications for Single-Sex Classrooms and Schools: Some have suggested that our finding of gender differences of language processing supports single-sex classrooms. Although there are valid social reasons why people might choose a unisex classroom, using our results to support this position is simplistic.
We should remember that there is much overlap in language skills among boys and girls, and that overall differences in language skills are small. Our findings of gender differences in the brain would better serve to remind us that not all children process information the same, and that an effective education depends on tailoring the teaching (and testing) methods to the strengths and weaknesses of each child.
 
 
 
References
  1. Kimura, D. (2000). Sex and cognition. Cambridge, MA: A Bradford Book/The MIT Press.
  2. Howell, P., Davis, S., & Williams, R. (2008). Late childhood stuttering. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 51(3), 669-687.
  3. Berninger, V. W., Nielsen, K. H., Abbott, R. D., Wijsman, E., & Raskind, W. (2008). Gender differences in severity of writing and reading disabilities. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 151-172.