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Gender issues in primary literacy education essay

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The ‘ gender gap’ within literacy at Key Stage 2 has recently become a greater issue as the under-achievement of boys within reading and writing has been highlighted as a cause for concern (Barrs and Pigeon, 1998; Millard, 1997; Wood, 2000). As both male and female pupils are taught in the same way, it is therefore important to explore and discuss the issues which have lead to boys in the primary school falling behind the girls. The National Literacy Trust (NLT, 2010) has surveyed 17, 000 young people about their reading practices. The results of this study showed that 39% of girls admitted to reading every day, compared with 28% of boys. Furthermore the study also revealed that 19% of boys say they only read in class while just 11% of girls agree with this statement, 24% of boys think reading is boring, compared with 13% of girls and 45% of girls like going to the library, while only 35% of boys do. Such results only serve to confirm that the disparity in how both genders view themselves as readers, as well as the process of reading. This is especially important as further NTL studies have shown that reading frequency is strongly linked to attainment levels, with 60% of those who read every day achieving above the expected levels for their age compared with just 5% of those who “ never” read achieving above the expected levels. When discussing the ‘ explanations’ of low achievement levels of boys in Literacy at Key Stage 2, we must not only consider formal factors within the school and classroom, but also any cultural and social influences on the pupil.

To begin it would be prudent to look at what may be considered the most important factor influencing an individual’s literacy practice, how they see themselves as readers. This is also known as their ‘ reader self concept’. Henk and Melnick (1995) believe that individuals are influenced by this concept, and the process of making the simple choice of whether reading is worth it. The individual, they believe, calculates the effort that would be needed for the reading task and therefore makes a decision on whether reading is to be avoided or not. Further studies, from Clark and Foster (2005), and McKenna et al (1995) have found that boys generally have more negative self concepts than girls, and therefore conclude that boys hold more negative views towards reading. Such self concepts and view points lead to a low level of motivation towards reading, both within school and at home and may explain why males are less likely than females to read for pleasure (Cipielewski & Stanovich, 1992; Libsch and Breslow, 1996; Logan & Johnston, 2009).

There are a number of research projects which suggest that these self concepts vary between the genders due to innate literacy ability. They state girls develop their verbal skills quicker than boys, and show between the ages of 18 to 24 months to have superior verbal abilities to boys (Galsworthy et al, 2000). In addition Locke et al (2002) found that girls’ language abilities and non-verbal abilities were significantly better than boys when entering into education. Therefore, there is evidence that suggests that from the very start of formal schooling there is a slight gender gap in literacy. Galsworthy goes on to state that due to these early differences,

“ a teaching approach which does not rely heavily on verbal skills for word reading may benefit boys.”

Coupled with this, Thompson (1987) believes that evidence shows a difference in strategies in the way boys and girls deal with reading. This belief lies in the evidence showing that boys and girls learn differently, therefore, it is important that there are gender friendly approaches to teaching in place in the classroom. Johnson and Watson (2005) conducted research to back these claims up, they found that with regards to reading and spelling, a technique focussing on a ‘ systematic synthetic phonic’ method produced a much more positive response from boys, whereas, female pupils performed to a higher standard when taught with an ‘ analytic-phonic approach.’

The research above not only shows that boys learn in a different way to girls, but also suggests that they also enjoy different types of text. Barrs (1998), Hall and Coles (1997) and Moss (1999) each recommend a change in how reading communities are created in school, with the majority, they all concur, tailored towards the reading style and preferences of female learners, whilst male learners’ needs and preferences are grossly underrepresented. They form this opinion due to school libraries focussing their attention on fiction and narrative. Whereas, they state, boys have been shown to prefer non-fiction texts. Moreover, Millard (1997) and Probst (2003) agree suggest that current curricular emphasis and the text choice of the teacher do not match the interest, or the needs of male pupils. When interviewed about such changes taking place in primary school throughout the country, National Literacy Trust Director Jonathan Douglas stated in 2010:

“ We have recently experienced huge success with a project that inspired boys to read through the excitement surrounding the football World Cup. More things like this must be done to instil a love of reading in boys, and to change their negative attitudes. We need to show boys that reading and writing are ‘ cool’ and are the first step on a promising career path and towards a successful life”

A lack of understanding of the issues above has the potential to lead to boys avoiding reading. Millard (1997), states that these cognitive differences are not the only issues facing boys in terms of under achievement in literacy. She emphasizes the importance of reading role models at home and in school, particularly as reading is being perceived as a feminine activity due to female members of the family and primary school teachers, of which the majority are female, providing the prime support for reading. It would be important, therefore, for both male and female role models within the home or school to show reading as an enjoyable activity and above all else, its uses. By witnessing these adults value reading in this way the child can begin to understand that reading is an important activity. Rasinski and Fredericks (1991) state that:

“ It is crucial that children see their parents use reading for a variety of purposes from entertainment to maintaining a job. Parents should show children the many ways that they use reading.”

The basic task of a parent reading for pleasure, therefore, has the potential to influence the child’s perception of reading and would consequently have an enormous power and long standing effect on the child’s educational success. Without being allowed to view reading in such contexts, the value of reading is not appreciated by a majority boys (Millard, 1997). Millard’s concluded that the opinion of many of the boys questioned regarded reading as merely ‘ a stage to go through’, and that once they had learnt how to read, they could see little reason in continuing to do so.

Furthermore, with regards to writing, research by Millard has shown through interviews with teachers that this gap is perceived to widen throughout the primary years of education. The interviews not only show that gender differences are prevalent in relation to poor attitudes towards literacy and use of language etc. But also show that when discussing their stories, teachers report male pupils as having ‘ good ideas’, and showing greater creativity and imagination than female learners. Furthermore, Maynard and Lowe (1999) in their research found that teachers, when interviewed, reported that their male learners seemed to enjoy writing activities, whereas their female learners showed a great interest and enjoyment at such tasks. This is reported to be because of the boys’ greater reluctance to write stories and their difficulties in coping with the many demands of story and fiction writing. Similarly, Kanaris (1999) has stated that this is due to the different ways in male and female primary school children use writing to construct meaning:

“ Girls generally write longer, more complex texts. They tend to use a wide range of both verbs and adjectives and develop their texts with more focus on description and elaboration. Boys’ writing tends to be more ‘ event focused’ and is much more egocentric . . . (they are) less likely than girls to remove themselves from the centre of the action and tell their stories from the viewpoint of an observer.”

Kanaris’ study considers that written stories by male pupils, therefore, lack detail and description and, like their preferences for reading, tend to concentrate on facts using language of ‘ cartoons and comics’ rather than the descriptive language asked for by the teacher, furthermore, boys were also identified as less worried than the girls about appeasing the teacher with correct answers and increased effort. This particular mannerism was identified by Pollack (1998) as a ‘ suicide gene’ due to the boys’ lethargy towards appeasing the teacher leading to underperformance, and he states that,

“ When boys are not successful in school, their confidence is impaired…leaving them more likely to endure disciplinary problems, be suspended from school or dropping out of school”.

These disciplinary problems are widely discussed within education literature as possible causes of male underachievement in literacy. (Mac and Ghaill, 1994; Rudduck et al., 1995; Younger and Warrington, 1996; Salisbury and Jackson, 1996; Warrington and Younger, 1999) The evidence in such reports returns to how boys see female roles and male roles within society etc. The researchers concur that the notions of masculinity that boys bring with them to education are in direct conflict with the ethos of the school in that they place very little value in the power of authority.

Younger et al (1999) and Myhill (2000) believe that due to these particular perceptions that boys are bringing to school they begin to play up to peer group pressure upon image and attitude, affecting motivation and commitment towards their work. Such studies have shown participation in class have been low, and even show that some higher achieving boys contribute less constructively than others within classroom discussion. Swain (2000) and Tinklin et al (2001) believe that this behaviour is an act to construct their own image of masculinity within their friendship and peer groups.

Furthermore, Younger et al state that during whole-class discussions whilst their contribution is less constructive, there is evidence of boys dominating in the classroom. Taking the form of calling out more often than girls, and hence are reprimanded more often. Whilst such behaviour can be detrimental to their own achievement in literacy, as being reprimanded can lead to a drop in motivation as previously discussed, this particular form of classroom behaviour is also to the detriment of girls. Their reaction to boys’ dominance in class room discussion has resulted in lowered expectations and poorer attitudes towards learning (Howe, 1997).

Hey et al. (2000) conducted interviews with primary school children in order to look into why such behaviour from the ‘ higher ability’ pupils is happening. The pupils often admitted to feeling like they have to pretend not to be interested in work as an attempt to keep their place in the hierarchy within the classroom. With this in mind coupled with research from Van Der Gaer et al (2009) in which they studied enjoyment of work and the results achieved in specific subjects within school. Whilst they agree that girls seem to enjoy literacy more, and are more engaged in the exercises, when taken this difference in gender into account the results acquired by the pupils didn’t show as bigger disparity between boys and girls as might be expected. They therefore believe that any gender gap in attainment is not down to ability, but mostly down to engagement in the subjects. It is interesting to note at this point that research shows whilst boys are struggling within a subject that is perceived as ideally suited towards female learners the gap appears in subjects in which are seen traditionally as male, such as science and maths (Millard, 1997).

Following on from Van Der Gaer et al, Mead (2006) published a paper that stated that the overall achievement of boys has been increasing, and are now performing at a level as high as it has ever been. The problem is, they believe, that girls are too performing at their highest levels ever. Research such as this, therefore, suggests that it is not a case of boys underperforming in terms of what is expected of them, as they are gaining the highest marks that they ever have. It’s more a case of girls within literacy performing above expectations.

When approaching the teaching of literacy within the classroom, the above issues need to be considered in order to effectively include both genders within the subject. Initially within the classroom, I would work towards improving boys’ achievement within literacy through the introduction of material deemed appropriate to the learning styles of male learners, whilst still allowing for female pupils to be taught in a way that suits their learning/reading styles (Millard, 1997; Probst, 2003; Johnson and Watson, 2005). With regards to reading, some suggestions to do this include reading fiction based on topic that stereotypically interest boys such as football based fiction or music etc. If using this technique within my classroom, it is imperative to allow learners the opportunity to select books that they would like to read this will ensure that the high levels of achievement by female pupils will continue, whilst allowing the male pupils to achieve higher as Former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Charles Clarke, wrote in the Excellence and Enjoyment Strategy (2004),

“ What makes good primary education great is the fusion of excellence and enjoyment. Children learn better when they are excited and engaged – but what excites them and engages them best is truly excellent teaching, which challenges them and shows them what they can do.”

Through the implementation of such teaching approaches would also help further issues within the gender gap in literacy, namely that of male motivation towards reading and school.

As discussed previously, a lack of male role models towards reading has led to male pupils creating the opinion that reading is somewhat a female activity which is not important for achievement (Millard, 1997). As a male teacher it is my role to act as a good role model for male learners in order to show good practice of reading and its uses etc. Furthermore, the reading and evidence suggesting that parental involvement in reading is important would also influence my teaching of children both in and out of the classroom. Due to research stating the importance of parental involvement towards reading and writing, I would encourage parents of my pupils to become more active towards literacy outside of the classroom and school environment. This however, might be difficult to implement as Toomey (1993) found in research of over forty families actually resulted in no major difference in attainment being recorded. It would therefore be appropriate to train and develop the parents’ skills at facilitating their child’s literacy skills, rather than just merely asking them to ‘ listen’ to their child’s reading, with no strategy to work from (Hayden, 1995).

Whilst looking at the benefits of being a male teacher and that becoming a good role model to boys within the primary school, as well as all other learners, such a responsibility can help act as a deterrent towards a lack of constructive involvement in the classroom and a drop in acceptable behaviour of boys in school. Swain (2000) and Tinklin et al (2001) state that such behaviour is an attempt to construct an image of masculinity within peer groups, however, by developing my approach to teaching it is possible to project a masculine persona whilst also being interested in learning (Hey et al., 2000; Younger et al, 1999; Myhill, 2000), furthermore, Larsen-Freeman (2000) state that this approach would be successful as learning becomes even more effective due to it being “ facilitated in a cheerful environment”, whilst enthusiasm has been identified as a prominent teacher behaviour that affects student learning (Carlise & Phillips, 1984).

Finally, within the classroom i would be aware of the differences between male and female learners with regards to learning styles. As discussed, Gipps (1996) and Warrington and Younger (2000) state that female pupils have a more co-operative style to learning and as such are more likely to collaborate with each other leading to a much more successful time within education. Whilst boys it is believed (Hey ey al, 2001) have a completely unaware of the benefits that talking and sharing has towards learning. Therefore, a seating arrangement that encourages the communication between the genders may be appropriate in order to help encourage both genders learn from each other and develop learning styles from their peers (Vygotsky, 1978; Bennett & Dunne, 1992).

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