By Elisabeth Rongved/The Reading Centre, University of Stavanger
It is well known that girls develop language skills earlier than boys. A study from the Norwegian Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger also reveals that kindergarten-age girls are more interested in reading and other activities that promote linguistic awareness.
"This is thought-provoking. When boys participate less in language activities, there is a danger that they lose out on important linguistic stimulation that promotes key language skills as they start learning to read. They may also miss out on the positive experiences of reading that girls get," says Elisabeth Brekke Stangeland, Ph.D. Candidate at the Reading Centre at the University of Stavanger.
Previous studies of children's language skills have mainly been based on reports from parents. This study gets it material from The Stavanger Project, where kindergarten staff have observed the children’s language development.
Boys less interested
As part of her doctorate, Stangeland studied 1005 kindergarten children in Stavanger. The children were between 30 and 33 months old at the time of the study, which showed that the girls were more interested and willing participants in language activities offered by the kindergarten such as reading and singing.
"Linguistic awareness is a prerequisite for learning to read. Linguistic awareness means that a child becomes aware of the language itself. They may for example notice that words can rhyme, they recognise their first letter, or they start playing with words. This awareness is promoted particularly through activities such as reading, singing and reciting rhymes, which leads to self-reinforcement," says Stangeland.
The Norwegian Kindergarten Act is characterised by a strong emphasis on the childrens’ right to express their views, and Norwegian children have the opportunity to take part in planning and assessing the kindergarten activities.
“Children are different. Some love to sit in a chair reading, while others are preoccupied with projects and barely have time to sit down. It is important to address the individual child's interests and desires. Boys in Norwegian kindergartens are stimulated and they obviously develop linguistically. However we may consider the results of this study alongside research that shows differences in reading skills of older girls and boys. It is important to do what we can to ensure that boys and girls are equally prepared for school,” says Stangeland.
Meeting the boys on their terms
Linguistic awareness in children is stimulated both at home and in kindergarten, but 95 % of Norwegian 3-year-olds go to kindergarten, making it an important arena for language development.
Stangeland emphasises that boys are monitored and followed up in Norwegian kindergartens and that the staff are generally active in encouraging boys to participate in language activities.
"Nevertheless, we often see that boys opt out of these activities. We need to ask ourselves why this is the case. Are the activities attractive to boys? Are they offered to boys on their terms? A typical scene in a Norwegian kindergarten has the girls sitting around the table, participating in activities and talking to an adult, while the lively boys are on the floor playing. We owe it to the boys to meet them in their own environment and offer them language activities on their terms," says Stangeland.
"Previous studies have also shown that kindergarten teachers have different expectations of girls and boys. We take it for granted that boys are active and perhaps somewhat restless. Therefore, we do not expect activities that involve sitting quietly to be their first choice.”
Stangeland has asked herself how kindergarten can influence language development in boys and girls.
"It is stated in the curriculum for Norwegian kindergarten that 'Boys and girls should have equal opportunities to be seen and heard and encouraged to participate together in all activities'. As linguistic awareness is not acquired on its own, it is important to provide this type of linguistic stimulation for all children," says Stangeland.
Gender differences in reading
There is an important connection between language development in children in their early years and how well they learn to read. There have been differences between the reading abilities of Norwegian girls and boys for many years, and these differences persist up to a much later school age. International studies show that, in terms of reading ability, Norwegian secondary school boys are a full school year behind girls of the same age. Norwegian boys have a more negative attitude to reading than girls. Also, far more boys than girls drop out of upper secondary school.
"We have not looked at whether the differences in reading abilities between boys and girls have any connection with participation in language activities in kindergarten. However, we do know that systematic linguistic stimulation promotes language skills in children. Unequal participation in activities that promote linguistic stimulation may be a factor in reinforcing the differences that already exist between children. If these gender differences persist, we can imagine that girls will have an advantage and boys and girls will start out on a different footing when they start primary school," Stangeland points out.