Boost your vocabulary throughout your life to be a better reader

Science and Health

A number of factors affect how we learn to read for the first time. Some of these factors benefit girls more than boys. Our reading skills and understanding of a text depend on the ability to decode texts, learn the letters of the alphabet, and know the different words and how they sound. However, vocabulary is also important,” insists psychology Prof. Hermundur Sigmundsson of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

He is behind a special edition of Frontiers in Psychology together with Profs. Heikki Lyytinen from the University of Jyväskylä and Elena Grigorenko from the University of Houston.

Vocabulary is something you have to work on your whole life, stressed Sigmundsson. “We have to work on our vocabulary from birth, throughout our school years, and really our whole lives.” This is where gender differences are found. It is a well-known fact that more boys struggle to read than girls. Vocabulary is probably a big part of the problem, he continued. 

“We challenge and expand our vocabulary in several ways; such as creative writing or giving a performance – but how boys and girls are raised, about biology and about habits also play a role.

Boys struggle with reading comprehension in all 67 countries where PISA tests are conducted. In the Nordic countries, boys struggle most in Iceland, where 34% and in Norway, where 26% of the boys don’t read well enough to understand a text they are presented with after completing 10 years of school.

Father reading to a baby boy. (credit: PEXELS)

“All in all, expanding their vocabulary is probably a bigger challenge for boys,” he suggested. “Boys tend to have a smaller vocabulary because they read less than girls. Research also shows that adults talk less with boys than they do with girls right from the moment they are born. This may be linked to the fact that baby girls often babble more and therefore get more response. We also read less to boys than to girls, and this is another important factor.

Lack of interest in reading has started affecting Finnish boys’ academics

Finland is one of the most literate countries – and also one of the most “digitalized” – where the use of computer games is highly popular among boys. Lack of interest in leisure reading is a serious issue, they wrote, as it has started affecting the school achievements of Finnish boys, as documented by an increasing gender difference with advantages for girls. Of note is that boys face reading difficulties, although they have no cognitive limitations explaining the problem. 


“To improve our reading comprehension, we need to read a lot, especially books,” advised the psychologist. “Boys face greater challenges here too. The challenge then lies in expanding vocabulary through creative writing, reading books and learning to understand these books,” he concluded.