A new Chinese study suggests the belief that boys are better than girls in science and math may be incorrect.
Paradoxically, researchers believe girls’ superior verbal skills explain the math advantage. The research is consistent with studies that have found greater arithmetic skills in girls.
“People have always thought that males’ advantage is in math and spatial skills, and girls’ advantage is in language,” said co-author Xinlin Zhou, Ph.D. “However, some parents and teachers in China say girls do arithmetic better than boys in primary school.”
Zhou, an associate professor at the National Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning, Beijing Normal University, and his colleagues did a series of tests with children ages 8 to 11 at 12 primary schools in and around Beijing and discovered that girls outperformed boys in many math skills.
Researchers found that girls were better at multiple arithmetic tasks including simple subtraction and complex multiplication.
Girls also displayed better skills at numerosity comparison—making a quick estimate of which of two arrays had more dots in it. Girls outperformed boys at quickly recognizing the larger of two numbers and at completing a series of numbers (like “2 4 6 8”).
Boys performed better at mentally rotating three-dimensional images.
Girls were also better at judging whether two words rhymed, and Zhou and his colleagues think this is the key to their better math performance.
“Arithmetic and even advanced math needs verbal processing,” Zhou said. Counting is verbal; the multiplication table is memorized verbally, and when people are doing multiple-digit calculations, they hold the intermediate results in their memory as words.
“Better language skills could lead to more efficient verbal processing in arithmetic,” Zhou said.
Researchers believe the findings can be used to help teach math skills to girls and boys. Boys could use more help with verbal strategies for learning math terms, while girls might benefit from more practice with spatial skills.
Study findings are published in Psychological Science.