by Emily Jarvis
One way in which girls and boys differ is in the way that they are raised. The social environment in which children are raised creates different expectations for boys and girls. Girls and boys are expected to play with different toys, to engage in different activities, and to perform differently in different school subjects1. The research reviewed below reveals the ways that adult expectations impact performance in reading and likely contribute to the gender gap in reading achievement which has been shown to exist across ages and cultures2.
Adults hold stereotypes about how male and female children are expected to behave, to play, and to perform academically in different subjects. For example, girls may be expected to play with dolls, whereas boys are expected to play with cars. Historically, girls have been expected to perform better in reading compared to boys, whereas boys have been expected to perform better in mathematics3,4. These stereotypes are placed on children by parents and teachers, who may be unaware of their own biases and the way that they impact their children or students. Children in the early school years pick up on teacher and parent stereotypes about gender roles and expectations, and their academic performance is therefore influenced by the stereotypes that are held by the adults in their life.5
Historically the majority of research on the topic of gender stereotypes in academics has focused on girls’ performance in mathematics. This research revealed social-environmental influences on girls’ math performance and provides a model for thinking about boys’ reading performance. Many people believe that males are naturally better than females in mathematics, despite research that suggests there is no difference in ability6. However, a gender difference has been found in performance, where for many years girls performed poorly in mathematics compared to males3. Poorer math performance by girls was related to a phenomenon known as stereotype threat7. Stereotype threat describes a self-fulfilling prophecy where someone fears reinforcing a negative stereotype about their group to the extent that it interferes with their ability to perform and the stereotype is reinforced. This phenomenon could explain part of the gender gap in reading.
Key Research Question
- Are the gender stereotypes around reading held by teachers and parents internalized by children?
- Does the belief that they are not good readers lead to lower reading performance in boys?
The research in the area of gender stereotypes as they relate to academic performance and reading come from sociology, psychology, and education. Research methods in these areas may be qualitative, quantitative, or a mix of both.
Recent research results
Teahers’ and Parents’ stereotypes
Parents of boys and girls have different expectations about their children’s performance in mathematics depending on their child’s gender. For example, fathers have been found to have lower expectations of girls with average mathematics abilities compared to boys with the same abilities. Mothers of girls believe their children are less talented in mathematics compared to mothers of boys6. These differences in parental expectations based on gender has also been shown to exist in the language domain. While boys underachieve in language classes compared to girls, boys and girls have not been found to differ in verbal abilities. Despite the lack of actual gender difference, parents of girls report their daughters as having greater ability in language classes compared to parents of sons8.
Research has found that many teachers endorse the stereotype that reading is a feminine activity5,9,10,11. Some research has also found that preschool teachers’ beliefs about boys and girls have an impact on beliefs children hold about themselves and their classmates8-10. Whereas children begin school with positive views of themselves, teachers have been shown to associate some traits as negative, especially in boys. As children age, boys are seen as disruptive by teachers, and by the early elementary school years are seen negatively by their peers, and by themselves12. This highlights the way in which teachers’ opinions of children can influence the opinions of the children’s peers, and even their self-evaluations. Boys, especially playful ones, internalize their teachers’ beliefs, and believe that they are bad students as early as grade three11.
Effect of stereotypes on performance
Preschool teachers’ stereotypes and beliefs have been found to impact the reading abilities of boys and girls upon their completion of kindergarten. Male students with teachers who believe girls are better readers are at risk of having low reading motivation and self-concept compared to those with teachers with more egalitarian views. No gender differences in reading motivation are seen for students whose teachers show an egalitarian view of gender and reading skills5,10.
Some research has shown that stereotype threat may play a role in the gender gap in reading8. Boys perform more poorly at reading tasks when they are made aware of the risk of stereotype reinforcement compared to when they are not aware of it. Boys have even been found to perform better than or as well as girls when they are not aware of the threat. This suggests that boys who perform more poorly on reading tasks may do so due to stereotype threat and not because boys are inherently worse at reading tasks compared to girls8.
Research into how stereotypes affect older children is more sparse compared to research into how they affect younger ones. More research on how stereotypes of teachers and parents affect children into their teen and adult years is needed. More research into protective factors against stereotype threat is also needed to help better understand individual differences that put students at risk.
Boys and girls are raised to believe differently about their abilities in academic domains. Girls are often associated with talent in language arts, whereas boys are associated with talent in fields related to mathematics. Children’s belief systems are likely reflections of their parents, caregivers, and teachers, who may explicitly or implicitly instill their own stereotype beliefs in children. These beliefs can influence the way that children perform academically. Historically, girls who believed that boys were inherently better at mathematics tended to perform more poorly in mathematics. Similarly, new research has shown that boys who believe that they are not as good as girls at language related tasks, including reading, perform more poorly at these tasks. This discrepancy in performance may be due to stereotype threat, rather than an actual inherent difference, as some research shows that when these threats are removed boys and girls perform comparatively well on the same tasks.
Implications for parents, services and policy
Parents and Teachers
Parents and teachers should consider the impact that gender stereotypes have on children. Parents might consider teaching their young children that girls and boys are equally capable in all subjects. They may also speak to their children about gender stereotypes, and teach them to question broadly held societal beliefs about the differences between genders. Parents can encourage reading in their sons just as they would their daughters.
Teachers should be aware of their own stereotypes around gender and academic performance, and make a conscious effort not to express them to their students. Best practices for reading instruction and behaviour management of boys and girls should be independent of gender. Teachers should encourage all students to read, and remain unbiased and objective in assessing students’ reading performance.
Education programs should emphasize to teachers in training the impact that their stereotyped beliefs can have on students, and teach ways to remain unbiased and objective when working with young students.
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