Gender Identity And Social Constructions Impact On Literacy Education Essay


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The ability to read well is the most important skill children can acquire. However the ability and desire to read varies significantly among groups of children. Girls are often outperforming boys in reading skills and regularly show more interest in reading based activities (DfES, 2004). Data from the Department of Education shows rather more boys than girls fail to achieve level 4 in English national tests at the end of key stage 2, this is evident in most schools across England (Younger and Warrington, 2005).

Researchers suggest that much of the gender gap in literacy and reading stems from narrow definitions of literacy. They argue that boys are making meaning with texts, but are doing so in ways that the curriculum does not recognise, for example reading information books, magazines, and Internet sites. Coles and Hoyle (2001) propose that, boys read less fiction than girls, suggesting they prefer magazines that are analytical and contain facts more than narrative. These preferences affect their motivation toward school-based reading (Martino and Meyenn, 1994: Barrs,1993 : Millard,1997)

The academic 'under-achievement' of boys at school has been a persistent theme of academic debate throughout the last ten years. However Coheen(1998) points out that this debate was identified back in 1693 by English philosopher John Locke's concern at boys' lack of language skills (Francis,2005). The historical ideas of John Locke can be clearly linked to current gender debate from the Department of Education. However the Department for Education (DfE) believe the increasing availability of national performance statistics has fuelled the debate on the 'gender gap' between the levels of boys' and girls' performance (DfE, 2005).

In response to the gender gap and the effect on boy's literacy development, the Department for Education conducted a research report named 'Raising boys Achievement' published in 2005. The 'Raising Boys' Achievement Project' (RBA) was a four-year project (2000-2004) which focused on issues associated with the apparent differential academic achievement of boys and girls at key stage 2 across schools in England. The report highlighted some of the dilemmas which are inherent within the debate and explores different interpretations and perspectives about boys' 'under-achievement'. The report identified a number of interventions to be introduced within schools; however the 'gender gap' debate is currently showing no signs of diminishing (Dfe, 2005).

Aims of Research

The aims of this review are to clarify the understanding of why boys reading levels are often lower than that of girls of the same age. Beginning with examining biological factors and how the development of boys differs from the development of girls. Moving on to environmental factors such as social constructions, the attitudes of boys and feminine schools, evaluating research that suggests the National Curriculum does not reflect the interests of boys.

Boys Development

The National Curriculum (1988) a current government framework, suggests that all children can be nurtured into achieving academically regardless of genetics or gender. It states one of the purposes of having a statutory curriculum is to 'establish an environment for all children, regardless of social background, culture, race, gender, differences in ability and disabilities to develop and apply the knowledge, skills and understanding that will help them become successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens' (Dfes,1988).

In order to determine if there are any biological links between gender and academic achievement, Halpern conducted research in 1992 'Sex Differences in cognitive abilities'. Halpern's research was driven by her role as director of the Berger Institute for Work, Family, and Children and Professor of Psychology at Claremont McKenna College. Halpern conducted the various studies on gender differences and cognitive abilities as she suggested much of the previous literature was filled with inconsistent findings, contradictory theories and emotional claims that were unsupported by the research (Halpern, 1992). Halpern concluded that there is good evidence that biological sex differences play a role in establishing gender related cognitive ability, such as brain development but suggested environmental factors also have some impact (Halpern, 1992).

In relation to gender and achievement, theories of brain difference are often used to support arguments that boys and girls have different abilities due to biological differences (Francis and Skelton, 2005). The question that apparent cognitive differences between the genders may be explained by how the brain communicates. Research from Biddulph, (1997) claims that the brain is wired differently according to gender, with girls using the right side of their brain and boys use the left. This allegedly explains why girls are better at language, communication and reading and boys at more practical tasks (Biddulph, 1997). However more recent research indicates that the important difference between girls and boys is the size of the brain and the order of the development in the different parts of the brain rather than brains structure. A longitudinal study conducted in 2007 by the National Institutes of Health confirmed consistent sex differences in the speed of the brain's growth (Lenroot et al 2007). The study showed that boys' brains develop differently than girls. They do not develop along the same lines as girl's brains but slower, boy's brains develop at a different order, time, and rate than girls in many areas specifically affecting language, reading, memory, and motor coordination (Bonomo, 2010).

In order to determine whether a child's gender impacts on their reading ability Hawke et al, (2005) from the institute of behavioural genetics, conducted a twin study in Colarado. Data from identical and fraternal twin pairs was analysed. In order to reduce the possibility of any bias, researchers and school staff identified twin pairs prior to any knowledge of their reading ability. If after gaining parental approval the children had any reading difficulties they were invited to take part in the study. Participants were raised in primarily English-speaking, middle class homes, with an average age of 9.5 years (Key Stage 2 age) at the time of testing. After numerous testing and analysis of the results the study concluded there is little or no evidence that gender should have any influence of reading ability (Hawke et al, 2005). However in contrast, a similar twin study conducted by Harlaar et al. (2005) analysed data from participants in the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). This was a longitudinal, population-based study of twin pairs born in England and Wales between 1994 and 1995. Environmental influences were primarily shared between twins, and small to moderate in magnitude. This study of children of a similar age to the Colorado study contrastingly concluded that reading difficulties are more heritable in boys than in girls (Harlaar et al, 2005).

Overall biological studies provide mixed explanations in accounting for gender differences in educational achievement. It has become clear that in order to understand why many boys are not achieving the same reading levels as girls of the same age, we need to examine other factors, such as the way society often influences the lives of boys and girls differently (Connolly, 2005).

Gender Identity and Social Constructions Impact on Literacy

Gender has often received attention regarding pupil attainment within school and on discussions about the socialisation processes outside schools. However focus has changed throughout different historical moments as the positions of men and women changed in society as a whole (Ward, 2004). Researchers have explored the way in which gender identities are socially constructed and how these constructions have impact on education, particularly examining literacy and reading ability (Francis and Skelton, 2005).

Gordon Wells has conducted much research on the importance of social constructions and reading ability. According to Well's understanding of social context, children are not only influenced by the social context in which they develop, but their development as humans is dependent on opportunities to participate with others (teachers, parents, family members, and peers), in the activities that constitute the culture in which they are growing up. Therefore suggesting that the development of children's reading is as much a social issue as an individual achievement (Wells, 2008).

The underachievement of boys in literacy is often due to models of masculinity within society, Laddish culture leads to boys having a negative approach to education. Epstein's (1998) research was conducted after a 1994 Panorama programme, in which a boy from a disadvantaged background was asked 'what he would think about a boy who works hard in school'. The boy replied, "He's not a boy" (Epstein et al, 1998). As a result of this shocking statement, Epstein examined the links between social status and academic achievement. Epstein conducted numerous interviews on boys from various different social class backgrounds and compared it to the research of others. She concluded that much of her research, and that of others, suggests the academic achievement of boys who come from poorer backgrounds and societies is often significantly lower than from those who are from wealthier backgrounds. Epstein's study is also strengthened by more contemporary research conducted by Tucker-Drob et al (2011).Tucker-Drob also looked at how socioeconomic status affects cognitive development, this study found that growing up within a lower income family can suppress a child's genetic potential to achieve cognitively. This study doesn't suggest that boys from wealthier families are genetically more advanced academically, they are often just provided with more opportunities to reach their potential, as suggested within Maslow's (1943) Hierarchy of Needs concept.

Parental Influences have significant impact on boy's literacy and reading development. For example growing up within a single parent or workless household, where education is not valued. This can have impact on many areas of a child's life, not only for the economic disadvantages it brings, but also the dangers of limiting their attitudes towards education and future aspirations (Micklewright and Stewart, 2000). This idea is supported by the research of Alderidge (2011) who suggests as a child's learning intersects with their home and community environment, children from low income families experiences are likely to be mediated by the constraints of their home environment. The capacity in which they are able to engage with school life and participate in school social activities, (such as reading together) is often significantly lower than that of children from wealthier families (Aldridge et al, 2011).

Children's experiences of school are shaped by their family background and the area in which they live, if the parent does not support reading and literacy development, it is likely the child will not value its importance. Boys may look up to male role models with a physical skill or manual trade that does not necessarily require a strong literacy ability (Horgan, 2009). This can be linked to the social learning theory of Vygotsky (1978), who focused on the connections between people and the sociocultural context in which they act and interact in shared experiences (Mooney, 2000). ). The National Curriculum does recognise that the learning environment plays an important role within literacy development, however as it is a common curriculum, it does not allow for the individuals home life/family background and education to be brought together. The National Curriculum does not seek to transmit the culture of society and is not designed to convey what is worthwhile in that culture (Lawson, 1995). This was recognised by Bruner ( 1971) who suggested that education is not a technical business of information processing; but is a complex pursuit of fitting a culture to the needs of its members, and their ways of knowing, to the needs of the culture (Palmer, 2001). This idea was further supported by John White, (1990) who emphasised the importance of community cohesion within education achievement. White argued that not only teachers and parents should reflect what the aims of education should be, but every citizen should have an interest in what their society should be like, suggesting education and communities should be combined (Palmer, 2001).

Peer pressure is often thought to have significant impact on boy's academic achievements. Francis's (2000) research identified the effect peer pressure has on boys academic performance, suggesting it is not 'cool' for boys to be seen as hard working in class and trying hard within school. This behaviour could occasionally attract ridicule from other boys within the class. Francis's research was supported by the research conducted by Warrington et al (2000) who also highlighted the concerns of peer pressure on boy's academic achievement. Warrington has conducted much research on 'laddish behaviour' and states that individual motives are crucial to understanding why individuals act as they do. Only when we understand why a child does or does not engage in an achievement-related behaviour at school can we begin to understand how we might encourage or change this behaviour. Warrington's research drew upon two bodies of work, the sociological theories and research on masculinities and femininities, and social psychological research and theories on academic motives and goals. Interviews were conducted with 153 pupils (75 girls and 78 boys) in five different schools. Pupils were selected for interview on the basis of gender and their responses to earlier questionnaires. Warrington study concluded that 'Laddish' behaviours are attractive to many students both for academic and social status reasons and suggested that some boys often pretend that they are not doing as much work as they are in order to avoid derision from the other boys in class (Connolly, 2005).

In 2003 Ofsted also highlighted the impact of peer pressure on boy's academic achievement, suggesting that a few schools and departments set out methods to address boy's underachievement. There was significant evidence that seating boys and girls alternately helped attitudes towards learning. The boys themselves acknowledged that they worked better when not sitting with male friends (Ofsted, 2003).

Boys Attitudes towards Education and Reading

When examining educational achievement and how boys are achieving lower reading levels than girls of the same age, it is important to evaluate the different attitudes of the children. Those with negative attitudes towards school and reading are likely to underachieve in many aspects of their education (Martino and Meyenn, 2001).

Researchers Davies and Brember, (2001) conducted a 5 year longitudinal study in order to examine the attitudes of boys and how this differs from girls in relation to their education. 388 Year 2 boys and 364 girls were chosen from five randomly selected primary schools, within one Local Education Authority. Their attitudes towards school and school activities, such as reading, were measured using the 'Smiley' instrument. This same measure was then repeated with the children 4 years later to discover the effect of experience on their attitudes. The children's gender and occasion were used as the independent variables. The study concluded that throughout Years 2 to 6 all the children's attitudes became significantly more negative towards the curriculum, interaction with the teacher and discipline and more positive about interacting with peers. The study however highlighted that while the boys were significantly more negative towards the curriculum on both occasions, the girls' negativity grew quicker in the later junior years and was only catching up with the boys' mean score by Year 6. (Davies and Brember, 2001).

Interestingly a similar recent survey conducted by the National Literacy Trust in 2009 also found that boys attitudes to reading and writing in the United Kingdom fell significantly behind those of girls of the same age, in terms of their enjoyment, and feelings towards reading and writing, more boys considered it a laborious task, and not an enjoyable activity. The boys surveyed in the National Literacy Trust report emphasised their lack of interest in the subject, which is often the focus of negative attitudes towards reading and therefore has a negative impact on reading achievement (Clark and Dugdale, 2009).

Coles and Hoyle (2001) conducted research on the type of text boys prefer to read. They propose that, boys read less fiction than girls, suggesting they prefer magazines that are analytical and contain facts more than narrative. As the National Curriculum requires children to read a variety of texts including classical narratives (Moon, 2001), Coles and Hoyle's research found that many boys are often becoming uninterested in the reading these texts and therefore reading achievement is lowered (Coles and Hoyle, 2001). This was also evident in research conducted by Mckechnie in 2006, who interviewed boys aged between 4 and 12, in order to get their own views on reading. The study concluded that boys 'are' reading, although they are not reading the preferred type of texts as set within the National Curriculum (McKechnie, 2006). This concept can be linked to the historical ideas of Plato, who said, 'Do not train boys to learning by force and harshness, but lead them by what amuses them, so that they may better discover the bent of their minds' (Plato).

Feminisation and Learning Styles within schools and The National Curriculum

A frequently made allegation about why boys are underachieving at reading within the National Curriculum is that it is a result of feminisation of schools and education as a whole (Francis and Skelton, 2005). Critiques argue the content of the curriculum no longer reflects the interests of boys.

One of the main features of schools, often linked to the gender debate, is the predominance of female teachers. This has been argued to have a significant impact on school pedagogy and culture. The absence of male role models is said to create problems for boys in terms of behaviour, social interaction and motivation. Neall, (2002) suggests that what female teachers perceive as bad behaviour is often just boys using their imaginations to make things interesting and teachers, male or female, need to keep boys stimulated and challenged. Gurian (2002) proposes that feminism within schools has created a shift towards the privileging of female learning styles, methods of discipline and assessment practices.

The National Curriculum is often associated with a number of arguments relating to the gender gap within schools. Within the National Curriculum, children are required to read books together as a whole class. Critiques argue that this approach favours the learning styles of girls over boys and may be impacting on the reading achievement of boys. Arnot et al, (1998) conducted research to examine if different learning styles of boys and girls can be linked to educational achievement. The research concluded that there is evidence that girls outperform boys on sustained tasks that are open ended and require independent thinking. While boys appear to be willing to sacrifice a deep understanding, for correct answers achieved at speed (Arnot et al, 1998).This research therefore suggests that reading together as a whole class favours the learning styles of girls. After reviewing various research reports on gender learning styles, Maby (2004) states that improvement for boys' performance requires fresh teaching methods, teachers need to identify children's learning styles, so they can adapt lessons to fit all children. However critiques argue this is not possible as the National Curriculum is a heavily structured framework; teachers are often restricted by attainment targets and time limits (Kelly, 2004).

In order to identify if learning styles between the genders impact on a child's reading ability, The Department for Education conducted a research report, 'Raising Boys Achievement' in 2005. The report examined a number of case study's and highlighted the importance of identifying pedagogies which are believed to be 'boy-friendly' and likely to be more effective in engaging boys in learning. These lessons are defined as having a fast pace, a series of short and tightly focused activities, clearly defined and achievable aims and short-term targets where there is frequently an emphasis on competition (DfE, 2005). The report concluded that when children are taught based on their individual learning styles the educational achievement is likely to improve, however some boys suggested that their preferred learning style might change through time and therefore need to be regularly checked (DfE,2005).

Gender Lessons from Finland 400

Conclusions 400

In conclusion it has become clear that there is a gender gap in reading, with boys underperforming in relation to girls of the same age, largely publicised recently within the media. A significant amount of research has been conducted by a variety of researchers and authors to determine if, and how the gender gap can be closed, however the discussions around gender and achievement are far more complex than the media suggests (Francis, Skelton, 2005).

After examining the brain development of boys and girls and a number of gender based twin studies, the biological differences in boys' and girls' development suggested mixed explanations in accounting for gender differences in educational achievement (Connolly, 2005).

Researchers have explored the way in which gender identities are socially constructed and how these constructions have impact on education, particularly examining literacy and reading ability (Francis and Skelton, 2005). Epstein (1998) concluded the underachievement of boys in literacy is often due to models of masculinity within society, Laddish culture, economic status and peer pressure can all lead to boys having a negative approach to education. This was supported by research from Tucker-Drob et al (2011) and Wells, (2008).

Research on Boys' attitudes towards learning found that those with negative attitudes towards school and reading are likely to underachieve in many aspects of their education (Martino and Meyenn, 2001). The National Literacy Trust in 2009 found that boys attitudes to reading and writing in the United Kingdom fell significantly behind those of girls of the same age, in terms of their enjoyment, and feelings towards reading and writing, more boys considered it a laborious task, and not an enjoyable activity (Clark and Dugdale, 2009).

The feminisation of schools is a frequently made claim about why boys are underachieving at reading within the National Curriculum (Francis and Skelton, 2005). Critiques argue the content of the curriculum no longer reflects the interests of boys and the National Curriculum is designed largely suited to girls learning styles. Maby (2004) and Arnot et al, (2008) suggest that improvement for boys' performance requires fresh teaching methods, and teachers need to identify children's individual learning styles wherever possible. However this is not possible as the National Curriculum is a heavily structured framework; teachers are often restricted by attainment targets and time limits (Kelly, 2004).

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