+ Girls Shown to Be Better at Language Than Boys

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An article by Howard Wolinsky, in the Chicago Tribune, tells of research done at Northwestern University’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.  The study suggests that girls are superior to boys in language abilities, such as reading.

The reason: girls’ and boys’ brains perform differently while doing language tasks.

There may be implications in the way boys and girls are taught in the classroom, as well as the way men and women communicate with each other.

A neuroscientist at the lab, Doug Burman, says, “Language areas of the brain are more active in girls.  But even more surprisingly, boys and girls rely on different areas of the brain for processing language accurately.”

Burman and his fellows report their results in the March online issue of the journal Neuropsychologia.

Richard Haier of the University of California at Irvine has told ScienceNOW Daily News that the research fits nicely with his studies on sex differences in the brain areas used in intelligence tests.  He adds, “This paper is part of a growing awareness that not all brains work the same way.”

The Key: Brain Activity      

Thirty-one boys and the same number of girls, ages 9 to 15, were put through a series of rhyming and spelling tasks as they lay in an fMRI scanner.  They read words on a mirror over them, or heard words through a headset.

Clicking on a button to indicate their answer, they made “rhyming judgements” to indicate whether words rhymed (“jazz” and “has”), as well as “spelling  judgements” to indicate whether word pairs were spelled similarly (“pint” and “mint” would be, but not “jazz” and “has”).

Researchers ofund that  the testing activated areas in the brains of both boys and girls, but girls had more intense activity than boys in certain language centers.

This difference was observed even after considering the effects of many factors, including accuracy on the tasks.

Previous studies, factoring fewer variables, either found weak differences that could not be directly related to language skills, or no difference at all.

Looking at IQ tests that tested language abilities, the Northwestern researchers confirmed that girls outperformed boys overall.

Boys, they found, relied more on vision and hearing to make language judgements, while girls were using more abstract — rather than sensory — parts of the brain.

What difference does it make?

“For girls, it doesn’t matter whether you are reading or hearing the words, the information gets converted into abstract meaning, an abstract thought,” Burman says.  “For boys, the research suggests it’s really going to be very important whether they’re hearing or reading words.  That is going to determine how well they’re processing the language.”

He said that based on these results, girls may have an advantage in testing, at least in elementary and middle school.  Boys may have more difficulty with written tests; possibly faring better with oral tests on lectures, and written tests for reading. 

Advice for Parents

Burman says, “It might be important for parents of boys to really work at teaching them both visually and through hearing.  If you’re reading a story to a boy, it might be better for young boys to have a picture book, where they can reinforce what they’re hearing with what they see.”

Further research is needed, he says, to determine if girls have a developmental advantage, and if boys eventually catch up.

Men keep directions simple, while women provide detailed directions with landmarks and cues for each turn, says Burman, drawing on his observations of himself and his wife.

“Men may be wired to react, to have associations, with a visual object or a visual word, enabling them to react quickly.  Having additional information is just serving as a distraction,” offers Burman.

“For women, everything is being processed in terms of language.  The more information they have that’s relevant to an abstract concept of where they should turn, the more helpful it will be for them.”

source: www.chicagotribune.com.  Howard Wolinsky article on 4/1/08.

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