Boys and Girls Learning to Read: It's A Mixed Bag

Experienced teachers know that students learn in different ways and often take different paths to get to the same learning outcome.  According to a recent study, such differences are especially prevalent when boys and girls are learning to read. In fact, international research shows that in all age groups, girls outperform boys on measures of reading. This new study on gender differences aims to understand why this gender based performance gap exists and to gain insight into how it can be reduced.

The Gender Difference

To begin to answer these questions, the authors first examined previous findings on this topic. They describe that boys and girls excel in reading using different instructional strategies because of “learning preferences and differences in memory and information processing.” One example of such variance, which the authors use as the base of inquiry in their study, is seen in synthetic phonics instruction. This instructional approach, also known as blended phonics, has students learn letter sounds and then put them together to learn to read words.

Based on previous research, the authors hypothesize that this method of learning to read is better geared to female children because of its “step-by-step” nature. Further, they claim that it is “more suited to children using analytic strategies, who are more likely to be girls.” The authors explain that boys are generally better suited to bigger picture approaches, and as the study’s results show, this means they excel at tasks calling for more holistic methods, like learning to read new irregular words, which don’t rely on decoding.

Blended Phonics

To get to this conclusion and to delve deeper into how the synthetic phonics approach affects the literacy gender gap in early childhood education, the authors set out to compare girls’ and boys’ performance when taught exclusively with this blended phonics approach to their performance with a mix of instructional approaches. Over 350 students between the ages of 4 and 5 years from schools in diverse settings in England participated in this study.

The study had three groups: (a) the control group which used synthetic phonics methods and decodable vocabulary only, (b) the second group was learning to read words that could be decoded (“Phonically Decodable”) by a variety of teaching methods, and (c) the third group was learning to read words that couldn’t be decoded (“non-Phonically Decodable”) by a variety of teaching methods. The study’s duration was about a year, and it included assessments at the start and end to measure participants’ reading growth and mastery.

The pre- and post-tests showed that:

  • Boys in the group using “non-Phonically Decodable” words advanced more than boys in both of the other groups across all areas assessed, which included “letter sound knowledge, early word reading, and passage reading comprehension”
  • Consistent with past research, girls in all of the study groups outperformed boys across all assessed areas
  • The group using the “non-Phonically Decodable” approach had better scores overall, for boys and girls, when compared to those of the other two groups

Mix It Up

Based on these findings, the authors concluded that a mixed approach to teaching, including the use of more complex vocabulary beyond decoding, resulted in a narrower gender gap when learning to read. Given the observed positive outcomes from a mixed teaching approach, the study concludes by urging educators to use blended phonics as just one instrument of many, so that all children are on the path to reading achievement.

StepUp Summary

StepUp facilitates Learning through Movement, an approach based on neuroscience research on the way neural networks are created and strengthened. By combining rhythmic exercise with academic drills, students achieve greater fluency in essential reading skills. For example, students do fast picture naming and rhyming as they exercise. On-time naming is an important visual-verbal processing skill that indicates mastery of new words and their meanings. Furthermore, children who perform StepUp exercises develop better coordinated eye movements. Eye teaming (skills controlling how we use and aim our eyes together) are essential for seeing visual detail and for tracking left/right through rows of print while reading. At home, instead of saying, "Sound it out" parents can help by using the following prompts when reading with their children:

  • “Let’s try the first sound.” 
  • “Let's look at the picture.” 
  • “What makes sense?” 
  • "Let's put it into chunks” by pointing out smaller words in the bigger one.
  • “Let’s reread" to get a running start from the beginning of the sentence.
  • “Close your eyes. Now open and look again” to see if his brain recognizes it as a sight word, without trying to sound it out.
Watch this video to see StepUp to Learn in action!

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