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Closing the Gender Gap in Literacy Achievement: The Teacher’s Role

by Sarah Bogdanovitch and Emily Jarvis

The tendency for girls to outperform boys in reading, writing and spelling is likely caused by a culmination of contributing factors, including linguistic, cognitive, motivational, and social influences.1  However, gender biases in the learning environment in the early school years appear to play a particularly strong role.2  Gender stereotypes can significantly impact boys’ motivation to read and the value that they place on reading activities; subsequently, reduced reading experience dampens boys’ emerging reading ability.  Although evidence for the gender gap in reading achievement is not as strong in the early years of formal schooling,3 teachers of young students are in a critical place to minimize the effects of gender stereotypes around reading activities. The challenge for these teachers is to build an early foundation for motivation to read in boys without negatively impacting girls’ learning.  Below are some recommendations to begin thinking about gender and reading in the classroom, along with some evidence-based strategies that can foster all students’ love of reading.

  1. Reflect on gender in the classroom

Knowing the strong impact that implicit bias can have on students, teachers can start by examining their own beliefs around gender and reading. Although research shows that there is not a true difference in ability, many people hold the incorrect belief that girls are naturally better readers than boys. Challenging this belief in the classroom could lead to positive outcomes for boys’ reading achievement. Some research suggests that one way to challenge implicit stereotypes is to add counter-stereotype visuals to spaces that are typically gendered.4  In the classroom, it is necessary to consider the visual images, decorations, furniture and objects that are included in reading spaces; these should include associations that are both stereotypically masculine as well as feminine so that the space is welcoming for all genders.

  1. Encourage choice

Consistent positive experiences with reading—no matter the material—is associated with the development of long-term reading habits. Therefore, it is important to build in time for independent reading during which all students can experiment with different reading material. Have ample options of diverse types of reading—fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, magazines, picture books—and validate students’ choices. Research shows, however, that good readers are students who read across a broad span of genres. During read-aloud times, think of presenting books in ways that appeal to boys and girls, and do not assume the types of books that either girls or boys want to read.

  1. Gendered socialization practices

The achievement gap between girls and boys in science and math education has been closing in the past several decades.  Although the work is not finished, addressing gender stereotypes in education has been instrumental in making this change.  More research has been done on girls in math and science to show that gender stereotypes can present in subtle and insidious ways. One study showed that changing linguistic nuances when talking about science made girls more willing to persist in a challenging science activity.5 Given the parallels between the gender gaps in stem and reading, the way that we talk about reading with boys can be instrumental in addressing gender stereotypes and in moving towards closing the gender gap in reading. This research has shown that teachers can influence the acquisition of stereotypical gender roles even in preschoolers. There are three primary mechanisms for transmitting gendered social roles: modeling stereotypical roles in the classroom; directly expressing stereotyped beliefs about male and female roles to children; and, encouraging behaviors that are consistent with gender stereotyped roles while discouraging behaviors that are inconsistent with these roles. Recent research shows that preschool aged boys are less motivated to learn to read when their teachers hold more traditional views about gender roles compared to boys whose teachers hold more egalitarian views.6

  1. Mastery-oriented classroom

Intrinsic motivation—or reading to gain mastery of a task—is associated with better reading outcomes that extrinsic motivation – or reading to gain external rewards.  Research with older students and reading shows that classrooms that are mastery-oriented result in gains in reading achievement for both boys and girls as compared to performance-oriented classrooms.7  In the classroom, teachers can use several strategies to encourage the development of intrinsic motivation to read.  For example, (1) avoiding social comparisons between students based on behavior, ability, and gender; (2) giving students autonomy in reading choices and not assuming boys will be more interested in a certain type of book; (3) praising students for taking on challenging tasks, not just completing many easy tasks.

What’s not so important

There is no strong evidence saying that boys benefit from having male teachers8,9 or from learning in single-sex classrooms.10,11

Bottom line

Given the integral role that teachers play in students’ early reading experiences, they are well-positioned to address gender stereotypes around reading.  Above all else, the quality of the educational environment is the most important factor for the emerging reader.  The teacher’s role is to foster all children’s beliefs in their ability to read, a desire to engage with a wide variety of genres, and willingness to take on challenging texts.

References

1. Logan S, Johnston R. Investigating gender differences in reading. Educational review. 2010;62(2):175-187.

2. Wolter I, Braun E, Hannover B. Reading is for girls!? the negative impact of preschool teachers’ traditional gender role attitudes on boys’ reading related motivation and skills. Frontiers in psychology. 2015;6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01267

3. Limbrick L, Wheldall K, Madelaine A. Reading and Related Skills in the Early School Years: Are Boys Really More Likely to Struggle? International Journal of Disability, Development and Education. 2012;59(4):341-358.

4. Cheryan S, Plaut VC, Davies PG, Steele CM. Ambient belonging: how stereotypical cues impact gender participation in computer science. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2009;97(6):1045-1060. doi:10.1037/a0016239

5. Rhodes M, Leslie S-J, Yee KM, Saunders K. Subtle linguistic cues increase girls’ engagement in science. Psychological science. 2019;30(3):455-466. doi:10.1177/0956797618823670

6. Wolter I, Braun E, Hannover B. Reading is for girls!? the negative impact of preschool teachers’ traditional gender role attitudes on boys’ reading related motivation and skills. Frontiers in psychology. 2015;6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01267

7. Hochweber J, Vieluf S. Gender differences in reading achievement and enjoyment of reading: the role of perceived teaching quality. The journal of educational research. 2018;111(3):268-283. doi:10.1080/00220671.2016.1253536

8. Antecol H, Eren O, Ozbeklik S. The Effect of Teacher Gender on Student Achievement in Primary School. Journal of Labor Economics. 2015;33(1):63-89.

9. Lee J, Rhee D-E, Rudolf R. Teacher gender, student gender, and primary school achievement: evidence from ten francophone african countries. The journal of development studies. 2019;55(4):661-679. doi:10.1080/00220388.2018.1453604

10. Mulholland J, Hansen P, Kaminski E. Do single-gender classrooms in coeducational settings address boys’ underachievement? an australian study. Educational studies. 2004;30(1):19-32.

11 Stotsky S, Denny G. Single-sex classrooms and reading achievement: an exploratory study. Journal of school choice. 2012;6(4):439-464.


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