The learning differences between boys and girls are well documented, but researchers have just discovered how they process and memorize words differently. The study, which was published in PLOS ONE, reveals how children process 29 different regular and irregular verbs.

"Most researchers agree that the way we use language in our minds involves both storing and real-time composition," Dr. Cristina Dye, the study's lead researcher and a specialist in child language developement at Newcastle University, said in a press release. "But a lot of the specifics about how this happens are unclear, such as identifying exactly which parts of language are stored and which are composed.”

Researchers analyzed the answers given by 45 children who were 8 to 12 years old and found differences between girls and boys in how they memorize words and phrases using their mental dictionary. "Most research on this topic has concentrated on adults and we wanted to see if studying children could help us learn more about these processes," Dye said.

The children were given two sentences, one featuring the verb included in the sentence and the other second contained a blank. Children were instructed to produce the past-tense form of the verb. For example: “Every day I walk to school. Just like every day, yesterday I _____ to school.”

"What we found as we carried out the study was that girls were far more likely to remember forms like 'walked' while boys relied much more on their mental grammar to compose 'walked' from 'walk' and 'ed'. This fits in with previous research which has identified differences between the sexes when it comes to memorizing facts and events, where girls also seem to have an advantage compared to boys,” Dye said.

Girls were more likely to memorize words and phrases by relying on their mental dictionary, while boys tend to use their mental grammar. Mental dictionaries of the mind store sounds, words, and common phrases, while mental grammar stores the composition of longer words and sentences, such as going from "walked" to "walk." They also compared the children’s test results to data collected from 71 adults, ages 18 to 50 and found the same results between men and women, which points to a distinct gender gap between language processing.

"One interesting aside to this is that as girls often outperform boys at school, it could be that the curriculum is put together in a way which benefits the way girls learn. It may be worth further investigation to see if this is the case and if so, is there a way lessons could be changed so boys can get the most out of them too," Dye said.

Source: Dye CD, Walenski M, Prado EL, et al. Children's Computation of Complex Linguistic Forms: A Study of Frequency and Imageability Effects. PLOS ONE. 2014.