Sex Differences in Speech Acquisition

Boys underperform at school. One hypothesis is that boys’ poorer spoken language and comprehension at the start of schooling, aged 5, might be part of the reason, the initial disadvantage being amplified by the reduced engagement with school lessons which results.

In December I carried out a rapid literature review to examine the questions: (a) Is it true that boys have, on average, poorer language acquisition than girls prior to school age?, and, (b) If so, what biological and environmental factors are known to contribute to this sex difference?

The review was not done for the purpose of making a post here, but I thought I might as well make it available to anyone interested. It is here: Sex Differences in Speech Acquisition by Pre_School Children A Rapid Review.

12 thoughts on “Sex Differences in Speech Acquisition

  1. Seamus Ariat

    Probably a bit off topic but: In the 1980s ‘O’ Levels were replaced by GCSEs. Key changes were the introduction of course work and continuous assessment. Also the syllabus, in a lot of subjects, was dumbed down. The specific, and explicit, reason give for the introduction of course work and continuous assessment was that it was believed that this would suit girls better. The rules were changed to suit one “side” i.e. girls. What it also opened up was the opportunity to discriminate against boys. Studies (which are not widely reported in the MSN) have shown that female teachers mark girls significantly higher in coursework than they mark boys. How is that for systemic sexism and bias? These studies have been carried out in North America, the UK and Western Europe and they find systemic bias against boys by women.

    Do boys have inferior language skills to girls? Maybe so but I haven’t noticed. In this area as in many others, one has to be mindful of who is doing the “Research”. Generally very biased against males. What I can say from my own experience is that boys find many areas of education tedious in the extreme. More so with increasing feminisation. They are not engaged and, unlike girls, resist what bores them.

    My two boys did as little as they could at school and my three girls stressed themselves out with study.

    1. Mike Bell

      Turns out: it’s not coursework that makes the difference.
      The coursework element in GCSE exams was removed by Michael Gove. As this had been proposed as a reason for boys’ underachievement, we waited with baited breath for the GCSE results. Result: no difference, the girls still did better.
      The slower language development of boys (on average) is well documented and provides a much better explanation – those who arrive at primary school knowing fewer words are at a disadvantage. Boys are the majority in that group.
      However, all is not lost. early intervention on vocabulary (pre-school) can close the gap.

      1. Seamus Ariat

        Strange then that divergence in exam results happened just as coursework was introduced. Also academic research found the bias against in marking of coursework.

        As noted boys are bored witless by feminised Curricula.

        Just saying.

  2. Greg Allan

    I’m in Victoria, Australia, and worked in my state’s education administration from the late seventies to late nineties.

    Some relevant highlights…
    Mid eighties the state started closing technical schools which turned out to be one of our biggest ever mistakes.
    Early nineties saw significant changes in curriculum and methods of delivery after feminists railed about schools not being sufficiently “girl friendly”. Christina Hoff Summers dealt with much of this in “The War Against Boys”. Critical for boys has been the gradual disappearance of activity based learning.

    Fast forward to just a couple of years ago when universities were noticing that first year physics students couldn’t do any of the relevant maths. It turned out our HSC physics had morphed into a largely history subject. The maths and experimental components had almost disappeared completely. This was not done to help boys but serves as an example of the changes made to accommodate girls.

    I’ve tutored many teenagers in mathematics over the years. It breaks my heart to encounter boys who are excellent in the subject but who end up failing because they can’t write pretty essays.

    During the nineties phase myself and others were warning of a grim future for boys in education. Typically we were roundly denounced as “misogynists” for our trouble. All I can do nowadays is remind folk that “we told you so”. Those changes were made with foreknowledge of the impact it would have but the gynofacists insisted.

    1. William Collins Post author

      I have written extensively on the sex bias in education, and once specifically on how the physics A Level was changed explicitly to appeal more to girls:
      The way forward, in the short term at least, must be home schooling and then, hopefully, the emergence of free or very cheap online higher education. The bit that’s missing is an independent body that can offer degrees by simply providing an exam service – not the learning environment – and hence cheap.

    2. David Rees

      Re: Mr Greg Allan,

      I don’t doubt anything you have written, your words now have me wondering if many Boys are failing their Exams simply because they cannot write “Pretty Essays” (as you very nicely put it).

      Anyhow please accept my Highest Regards from here in the U.K.

  3. Roger Slemmer

    Two things that I think have an impact on the verbal skills of young children.

    1. Play patterns. Female children seem to have more of an imaginative pattern. Males a more physical pattern. Thought vs. action.

    2. Eye contact. Females are more visually connected with others. Males more physically. Who is there vs. what is done.

  4. Douglas

    Thank you for posting that.

    I see your review wandered into the territory of volume of grey matter. Archaeological anthropologists are often wary of claiming too direct a link between volume of brain and any aspect of intelligence, since some quite small-brained hominids have left evidence of relatively advanced societies, and some with brains even larger than modern humans don’t even seem to have managed to tie sharpened stones to sticks to make an effective spear. Similarly, today one cannot simply measure the amount of brain and conclude IQ, EQ, or any of the other measures of intelligence. Whether one can measure a part of the brain and make any kind of assumption is still unproven, I believe.

    There have been several studies which have at least partially attributed girls’ better early language skills to the fact that both men and women talk more to a girl child than a boy child (e.g. What is interesting is that this does not seem to be based on what they believe is the sex of the child but is dependent on the actual sex of the child, which some take to imply that girls give feedback more likely to encourage ‘conversation’ .. right from week one! Of course, the difference need not be great: a 1% improvement in feedback which causes an initial 1% more verbalisation from the adults will grow week by week as the greater comprehension creates greater feedback, encouraging more conversation from the adults, etc..

    1. Michael McVeigh

      I have read that women’s brains, although smaller, work differently in that the signals pass much quicker and across hemispheres better than men’s. It’s probably true that we are only now scratching the surface of understanding human brains.
      Other studies have shown that when babies cry, girls are picked up by their parents quicker than boys. We have so much to learn.

      1. Douglas

        I’m wary of making much of the fact that male brains are, on average, larger. For one thing, it is generally accepted that humans barely use much of their brain anyway. Perhaps more pertinent is that many types of humans had larger brains (reckoned by the size of skull) than homo sapiens, including Homo neanderthalensis, who had a larger brain than us, and all other hominids who have died out since.

        1. Mike Bell

          Agreed. If brain-size mattered then big people would be cleverer than smaller people. No evidence for that.
          As a former secondary school teacher I can attest to the brilliance of some yr8 (12 yr old) students. They are physically tiny, but brilliant.

    2. Groan

      Yes it seems that that generally we are born with relatively small differences, which then become larger over time partly through nurture. We tend to forget that until perhaps 100 years ago these sorts of marginal differences could make immense differences to survival. The other thing of course is puberty. In a sense the whole Trans debate highlights the very significant differences both physical and mental made during this period. Indeed the fight to “block” puberty by the appliance of medical science and the inability to reverse the effects of puberty, so often highlighted by those opposed to trans in women’s sport simply illustrates the size of the changes puberty brings. And then there is the simple logic of the effect on females of gestating and nursing children and the males relatively brief role in the biology.
      It always strikes me how often feminist research on children concentrates on the very young. When a few years later those very children will find themselves with very much changed bodies.


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