Gender Differences in Literacy Essay

Gender Differences in Literacy

            Public education systems for example those in the US and UK have been built on the belief that they will provide equality of opportunity for all. So far these systems must as well cater for differing abilities in literacy and literacy development. National education systems have are inclined to expect children to have sensibly similar abilities and often suppose children enter education on a ‘level playing field’; i.e., they come into the system with alike resources and backgrounds. It can be argued that schools have historically defined acceptable literacy practices and competencies in a manner which served the interests of the more influential dominant groups and classes. This propensity for schooling and literacy programmes to privilege certain groups takes place against rising concerns over the ‘gender gap’ and ‘linguistic minority learners’.

            Social justice entails that ‘some basic level of material and psychological well-being (that is, income) must not be withheld from individuals by society for arbitrary or capricious reasons’ (Gerber 1996, p. 62). One argument for compulsory schooling is that access to schooling and literacy would foster an environment which will create equal opportunities and increased access to psychological and material well-being by fostering children’s ‘natural abilities’ and catering for their individual needs. This argument assumes that becoming literate and having access to schooling would provide the opportunity to compete according to ability, so that children’s occupational and future life chances would not be hindered by socio-economic disadvantage or other restrictions. It also implies that differences in students’ ability and the school environment are independent of wider social and cultural processes.

            There are, however, particular groups of students who may be perceived as experiencing barriers to literacy development which are associated with their cultural or socio-economic background or their gender. For example, the issues associated with students who are labeled with severe cognitive or individual difficulties are different from the issues relating to students who face socially constructed barriers to literacy development. The latter are seen to have an ‘underlying average ability’, whereas the former group are not seen as being able to achieve at this level. This implies that there can be different ethical issues and pedagogical approaches associated with ‘severely disabled individuals’ from those associated with socially/culturally disadvantaged groups. An understanding of the social processes which underpin these barriers that socially disadvantaged groups face can lead to these groups achieving at the level of more privileged groups, whereas this may not be achievable for severely disabled students. The implication of this is that there are particular concerns that schools need to address:  (Stanovich, K.E, 1986)

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how much emphasis should be placed on catering for individual differences and personal literacy needs versus recognizing the community need for a national schooling system to produce highly literate citizens to participate in vocational and democratic processes;

ways to acknowledge and cater for the barriers to literacy development created by different social status, beliefs, languages and cultural backgrounds;
consideration of the gender gap in literacy achievement and ways that teachers and educators might address this;
ethical and social issues associated with current teachers’ beliefs, professional practice, literacy policies and programmes regarding the development of literacy with linguistic minority learners;
ways in which home-school links can most appropriately support the literacy development of students from a diverse range of backgrounds.

            For a number of years the belief that access to literacy, and greater levels of literacy through education and schooling will in turn lead to increased economic and social progress, personal enlightenment and cognitive development has been questioned. It can be argued that schools act to exclude as well as include. This applies not only to literacy skills, but also to resources and cultural practices. Within schools a selective tradition operates, ensuring that texts, language and literacy genres are more widely distributed and accessible to some social groups than others. This can create a cyclical process. Children’s differing levels of literacy achievement can be influenced by the cultural capital they bring to the classroom from their particular social and cultural settings, and these different levels of achievement are, in turn, key factors in subsequent educational and occupational outcomes.

            Luke (1993) explores the links between differential access to literacy in schooling and socio-economic and cultural factors. He concludes that particular procedures (for example streaming and testing) and choice of texts in the school environment can interact with children’s varying linguistic, socio-economic, gender and cultural backgrounds to heighten differential patterns of success and failure in literacy achievement:

            Different literacies continue to be distributed unequally through schooling. School students from minority groups, lower socioeconomic groups and demographically isolated areas do not gain access as readily to, or mastery of, the same kinds of literacies as those from economically privileged groups within Australian society. Literacy achievement in this country-and with it access to tertiary education, better-paying and high-status jobs-continues to fall along distinctive fault lines of urban/rural location, ethnicity and class. Further, recent research has begun to specify the patterns of differential access to kinds of texts, and social power, by gender.

            There is an ongoing debate over the causes of children’s differential achievement and access. It is popularly attributed to mass media and popular culture, purported decay in morality and family structure, and deficit socialization among client groups. As we will see in further examples here, children come to schools with different world-views and values, beliefs and practices-among which are schemata for and about literacy. For now, suffice to say that there is a century-long history across English-speaking countries of trying to defer ‘blame’ for differing educational access and outcomes to ‘fault’ in children and parents. Who gets what kinds of literacy, and thereby who is positioned to be able to demonstrate competence with texts in which contexts, is in part the product of schooling. Further, problems children encounter with primary school literacy are linked closely to failure in other aspects of schooling and to unequal credential outcomes.

            To return to our starting point, literacy refers to a range of possible reading and writing practices. Some such practices have evolved for criticism, others not; some for the conserving of extant cultural values and knowledges, others for the critique and transformation of those same values and knowledges; some are active, some passive; some, rightly or wrongly, are seen as signs of virtue and power in the society, others not. All literate practices are not of equivalent power in terms of the socio-economic benefits and cultural knowledges they yield. Nor do schools successfully impart to all socially powerful or critical literacies. This should not come as news to teachers, policy makers, or teacher educators. But what the definition offered here suggests is that the question is not one of ‘more or less’ literacy, but of ‘what kinds of literate practices’ are and should be disbursed to children.

(Luke 1993, p. 17)

            A consideration of the link between literacy and disadvantage entails grappling with and rethinking some of the common assumptions about the barriers to literacy development for children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Luke’s work draws attention to the need also to consider the contexts and purposes for literacy in the wider classroom and school environment, including the choice of texts, resources and programmes, as well as focusing upon particular techniques with individual children.

            Making appropriate links between the experiences and backgrounds which children bring to school and specific programmes that can support the literacy development of individual learners can be challenging. Lankshear and Knobel (2002) offer a conceptual framework for literacy intervention and critique of specific programmes that may be useful for the construction and choice of literacy intervention strategies and programmes in professional contexts. Their work draws upon a socio-cultural perspective which focuses on what it means to read and be a reader in terms of social interactions with others and the wider socio-cultural environment. Taking this perspective leads them to consider ways in which pupils’ difficulties with reading and writing need to be addressed through an understanding of the wider social and cultural contexts and social practices, and students’ backgrounds and experiences in relation to mastering literacy. They argue that literacy programmes need to go beyond an emphasis on the mastery of skills associated with decoding print in the classroom. Early intervention programmes such as Reading Recovery, they point out, focus on mechanics and code breaking, which diverts attention from the mastery of other aspects of literacy, particularly text use and text analysis. These programmes can therefore only make a limited contribution for students who have difficulties with literacy, as they are not aiming to extend students’ abilities to mastering the richness, fullness and depth of that demanded of a literate person. This argument is all the more interesting in the light of the phonics versus real books whole-language debate explored earlier in this book, where critics of Reading Recovery have argued that it does not have enough emphasis on specific-that is, phonemic skills-essential to decoding print.

            Boys ‘underachievement’ in literacy has been documented for some time and there is reliable evidence that boys have dominated literacy remediation classes. Until recently educators and school administrators appeared unconcerned about gender imbalance in remediation resourcing and the gendered difference in children’s literacy performance at school. During the 1980s and early 1990s most of the concern related to ‘gender gaps’ in achievement was targeted at girls’ lower achievement in maths- and science-based subjects. In the late 1990s, however, boys’ underachievement in education became a recognizable topic for educational debate and discussion. Policy-makers and politicians are now focusing on boys’ poor performance and achievement in literacy, as boys are seen to trail behind the girls in reading and writing assessments.

          The debate over boys failing to achieve in reading and writing compared to girls is not confined to the United States. The issue has also received attention in academic publications in the UK, Canada and Australasia. For example, there is evidence in Australia, New Zealand and Canada that girls outperform boys in literacy-based tasks.

In order to answer the question of how to address this gender gap, researchers in the field are taking a number of perspectives and therefore arriving at diverse explanations of how parents and teachers might bring about change and address this issue. These researchers draw upon differing disciplinary influences and orientations and approaches to research, but most presume that gender differences in literacy achievement are socially constructed rather than innate and biologically constructed. Implicit in these approaches is the belief that educators and parents can actively construct and shape environments which can foster childhood and adolescent literacy development. Because they take this socio-constructionist view rather than draw upon biological explanations, they are not forced to be resigned to the notion that biology is destiny in literacy. Below are examples of recent researchers seeking to provide explanations and suggestions for educators on possible curricula and pedagogical approaches to address this issue?

            Gambell and Hunter (2002) provide five hypothetical models to explain gender differences in literacy, where literacy is defined as a measurable contextualized and communicative act which encompasses both reading and writing. These five models locate the widening of the gender gap in literacy achievement in different locations and the gendering processes that may take place in those locations-that is, in the home, within the student, in the classroom, within the assessment instruments, and in identification with the text.

            One way in which language practices within our schools might be reinforcing the ‘textual construction of femininity and masculinity’ is through the choice of fact or fiction text. It has been argued that the dominance of female teachers in primary schools has led to a dominance of narrative- and fiction-based text in the primary curriculum. This is seen to be to the detriment of boys, who express a preference for non-fiction. In a study called the ‘Fact and Fiction project’, Moss (2002) set out to look in detail at what the current school curriculum does with fact and fiction texts, in order to look at the impact that these genres might have on the different development of boys and girls as readers. This study, like the Lankshear and Knobel critique of reading programmes, draws upon the socio-cultural approaches to literacy.

            The Moss research project focused on ‘literacy events’, which are the particular ‘situated moments’ when reading is achieved within the school curriculum during the course of a school day. In considering each literacy event the researchers looked at three dimensions: ‘the context in which it took place; the readers who were involved and their relationship to the process; and the texts that were incorporated into the literacy event’ (Moss 2002, p. 188). They identified and documented the different kinds of literacy events that were orchestrated and marked out through the teachers’ designation of the use of space, time and resources.

            Moss points out that the project findings had direct implications for the delivery of the National Literacy Hour in English schools, even though the study was conducted before the hour was introduced. These findings imply that there is a need to consider how the literacy events and their impact on gender differentiation might occur within the pedagogies and approaches advocated by the literacy hour, for example how texts might be shared during the twenty minutes of teacher time given to group reading. They also indicate that there is a need to work within the pedagogies of the literacy hour to address gender differentiation in reading and encourage children to read more widely, when there is a deemphasis on silent reading and the management of small-group activities encourages a greater emphasis on setting comprehension exercises.

            This research project also raises an issue which is common to other socio-culturally based approaches to reading and literacy difficulties. Socio-cultural approaches to literacy may not fit that easily with prescribed approaches such as the literacy hour as they place a more progressive emphasis on process, context and interaction and flexibility rather than documented prescribed approaches and pedagogies for decoding print. (Weedon, C. and Reid, G, 2001)

            Despite the concern over boys’ underachievement and female superiority in literacy tests, there is continued male dominance in the workplace. Ultimately, even in the language-based professions such as law and journalism, men not women tend to dominate the positions of power. This raises a number of questions about how this can happen despite the fact that girls have a clear academic superiority in school-assessed literacy tasks, how concerned schools should become over the gender gap in literacy achievement, and what happens in high-school literacy curricula in relation to the differential achievement of boys and girls.

            Alloway and Gilbert argue that ‘Despite rhetoric to the contrary, literacy competence seems not to be highly valued in the economic world of work, and school success at literacy is not a valued or prized competence’ (1997, p. 50). In order to address this issue, they focus on the secondary-school environment and adolescent students, and the implications of the gender gap in literacy achievement for secondary teachers. In their view schools produce a ‘domain of knowledge’ and a ‘set of technologies’ in school-based literacy skills which are associated with humanities-based subjects such as English. These subject areas are ‘feminized’ and therefore do not fit ‘dominant constructions of masculinity’. They argue that locating and defining literacy skills in this way excludes a consideration of literacy skills to include electronic and visually based skills, which are more readily accessible for boys.

            Alloway and Gilbert’s suggestions for how teachers can address the issue of a gender gap in literacy assessments while considering the complex issue of which gender is ultimately advantaged and disadvantaged is reproduced below:

            While, for instance, groups of girls may achieve well at school-based literacy, many school literacy practices have not been advantageous for girls (Gilbert, 1989). The compatibility of the ‘literate’ self with a ‘feminine’ self has not necessarily served girls well in terms of introducing them to a range of other ways of taking up social positions as girls and women (Walkerdine, 1990). In addition, there is little social valuation of school literacy competence. Being good at reading and writing has not necessarily led to careers in language-based professions-or even to well-paid jobs. It is still predominantly girls who become secretaries and typists for male managers and bosses; it is still predominantly women who do the word-processing while men write software programs.

            But teachers who pick up these issues should be wary of falling prey to the ‘competing victims syndrome’ (Cox, 1995) whereby girls’ interests and boys’ interests are pitted against one another. A basic tenet of working on the boys and literacy agenda should be that both girls’ and boys’ interests in improved literacy performance are promoted; boys’ gains in literacy should not be promoted at the expense of girls’ gains; efforts to enfranchise the boys should not disenfranchise the girls. Rather than developing programmes that are ‘good for girls’, or ‘good for boys’, we need instead to focus on a critique of school literacy practices and the assumptions upon which they rely, and to widen our understanding of literacy and literate practice. We need a critique of the ‘literate self’ in terms of how such a construct affects both girls and boys. We also need an understanding of the social, textual construction of femininity and masculinity, and how language practices within the school reinforce such constructions. And we need access to a range of skills and technologies that will help in such critiques and understandings.

(Alloway and Gilbert 1997, p. 57)

            Thus in addition to the complexities related to social-cultural factors, there is also the need to account for individual differences and levels of disability. Literacy educators and the school system therefore have to address the equity and social-justice issues against a complicated and varied background of social and individual differences.


            Alloway, N.G. and Gilbert, P. (1997) ‘Boys and Literacy: Lessons from Australia’, Gender & Education 9(1), pp. 49-60.

            Cox, E. (1995) ‘Men Must Change the System, Not Play the Victim’, The Australian, 9 February, p. 13.

            Gambell, T. and Hunter, D. (2002) ‘Surveying Gender Differences in Canadian School Literacy’, in J. Soler, J. Wearmouth and G. Reid (eds), Contextualising Difficulties in Literacy Development: Exploring Politics, Culture, Ethnicity and Ethics London: RoutledgeFalmer.

            Gerber, M.M. (1996) ‘Educational Ethics, Social Justice and Children with Disabilities’, in J. Soler, J. Wearmouth and G. Reid (eds), Contextualising Difficulties in Literacy Development: Exploring Politics, Culture, Ethnicity and Ethics London: RoutledgeFalmer.

            Gilbert, P. (1989) ‘Personally (and Passively) Yours: Girls, Literacy and Education’, Oxford Review of Education 15(3), pp. 257-65.

            Lankshear, C. and Knobel, M. (2002) ‘New Times! Old Ways?’, in J. Soler, J. Wearmouth and G. Reid (eds), Contextualising Difficulties in literacy Development , London: RoutledgeFalmer.

            Luke, A. (1993) ‘The Social Construction of Literacy in the Primary School’, in L. Unsworth (ed.), Literacy, Learning and Teaching: Language as Social Practice in the Primary School , Melbourne: Macmillan Education.

            Moss, G. (2002) ‘Texts in Context: Mapping out the Gender Differentiation of the Reading Curriculum’, in J. Soler, J. Wearmouth and G. Reid (eds), Contextualising Difficulties in Literacy Development , London: RoutledgeFalmer.

            Stanovich, K.E. (1986) ‘Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Reading’, Reading Research Quarterly 21

            Walkerdine, V. (1990) School Girl Fictions, London and New York: Verso.

            Weedon, C. and Reid, G. (2001) Listening and Literacy Index: Group Tests for Profiling Literacy Development and Identifying Specific Learning Difficulties , London: Hodder & Stoughton.


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