By: Simon Collins

Patrese Herewini, with Saent, 15 months, and Envy, who are involved in a programme called Talking Matters, which uses Kiwi audio technology to encourage speech in children. Photo / Doug Sherring

Girls know almost 20 per cent more words than boys by the age of two, a new study has found.

The Growing Up in New Zealand study, which is following almost 7000 children born in Auckland and Waikato in 2009-10, has also found that two-year-olds know 30 per cent more words in affluent neighbourhoods than in poor ones.

Lead author Professor Elaine Reese says the gender and the socio-economic gaps persist throughout childhood, and girls and richer students do better than boys and poorer students in reading and writing in national standards in primary schools and in the PISA (Programme in International Student Achievement) tests at age 15.

“The fact that we are seeing these gender differences and other differences so early is a concern,” she said.

“The good news is we know what we can do to change it – finding books that boys will be interested in looking at, and having conversations with boys about things they want to talk about.”

The study gave parents lists of 100 common English words and asked which words their children had spoken by the age of two. They were allowed to count words the children pronounced incorrectly, such as “sketti” for “spaghetti”.

On average, girls had spoken 51 of the words by age two, but the boys had spoken only 43 of the words.

Children had spoken 52 of the words in the wealthiest third of areas, 49 in the middle third and 40 in the poorest third.

There were similar differences between children of mothers with degrees (52 words) compared with mothers whose highest education was intermediate school (40 words), and between Europeans (52 words) and non-Europeans (34 words).

There was also a slight advantage for first-born children (49 words) over later children (45 words).

Reese said the gap between girls and boys showed up in many studies around the world, but the causes were still being debated.

“When people interpret the reading gap [at older ages], there are those who point to boys spending more time playing video games and girls spending more time reading for pleasure,” she said.

“I would say that the main cause is how we are talking to boys and girls; that’s my hunch because we know what a huge difference the language environment makes for children’s language development.

“There are several theories about that. One is that it’s a stereotyping behaviour where we end up doing quiet activities more often with girls, including conversation and reading books.

“There are other theories that boys are less interested in those quiet activities and are doing more rough and tumble play.”

A test on a mother-child interaction task similar to looking at a picture book found that mothers living in poorer areas asked their children fewer open-ended questions than mothers in wealthier areas.

“Mothers from medium-deprivation areas were also using fewer emotion words compared with mothers in less deprived [wealthier] areas,” Reese said.

“Mothers were also using more disciplinary strategies with boys than girls, a pattern that probably speaks to the difficulty at times of engaging young boys in quiet activities like book-reading.”

The study also found that 12 per cent of the children, including 40 per cent of Māori children, were described by their mothers as able to understand te reo Māori.

However, only three of the 584 children whose mothers completed the questionnaire in Māori spoke only Māori words at age two, and the other 581 spoke far more English than Māori words – 41 English words and four Māori words for girls, and 34 English words and five Māori words for boys.

“For the bilingual children, English may be already dominating their Māori language acquisition,” the authors wrote.

“The future of te reo Māori depends upon this generation of new Zealand children and their parents, grandparents and teachers acquiring and using Māori in everyday speech at home and in educational settings.”

Funding for the Growing Up in New Zealand study has been cut, forcing the researchers to survey only 2000 of their original 7000 children in the next data collection wave. Almost 4000 people have signed a petition asking Prime Minister Bill English to restore its funding.

Source: NZ Herald


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