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Gender and Literacy: Using a Feminist Lens to Promote Multiple Literacies and Advance Teacher Expertise

In the last three decades, a call of alarm has sounded claiming a boy crisis in literacy education. PISA & NAEP scores show a gender gap in literacy across grade-levels and across countries. We see girls outperforming boys in reading tests study after study. However, mean test scores only tell us part of the story. There is more disparity within each gender than there is between the genders. There are more boys at the bottom of the test score distribution but there are also more boys in the top (Cole, 1997).

If we really want to know if there is a crisis in literacy education, then we need to look at more than test scores. Contemporary research has looked at economic and social outcomes based on gender. Fleming (2000) reported that wage gaps between men and women persist, poverty continues to disproportionately affect women and children, domestic and sexual assault leaves women as victims more often, and gender bias and stereotypes are rampant in and out of classrooms.

Although research has examined gender-related inequities in and out of school (notably Sadker, Sadker & Zittleman, 2009), less research explores the current school experiences of girls and the role that school plays in helping all gender identities disrupt inequitable systems. This NCTE symposium attempts to address that gap by exploring various aspects of literacy through a feminist theory lens. Feminist theory is dedicated to examining issues of equality and dismantling sexism as well as other forms of oppression.

Amy Vetter will begin our symposium with Exploring Girlhood: The Literacy Experiences of One Girl in a Young Writers’ Camp. Dr. Vetter’s study explores how Addison, a high school girl in a young writers’ camp outside of school constructed and enacted writer identities.

I will follow with Dialogism: Feminist Revision of Argumentative Writing Instruction, in which I explore how feminist pedagogy can inform the instruction of writing aligned to the ELA CCSS for 9th-12th.

The third presentation by Tara Anderson is Deconstructing Gender Binaries With YA Literature will describe the value of literature that goes beyond the “LG” in “LGBTQIA” and with specific strategies for guiding students through critical conversations about gender.

Our fourth presenter, Brooke Langston-Demott will discuss her study (Critical Literacy: Challenging Traditional Gender Positions) focused on instruction dedicated to examining gender issues through literature in a fifth grade class.

We will end by inviting you to enter the conversation and share what educators can do to change the current gender inequities that exist in and out of classrooms. Not able to come? Join our conversation on Twitter #FeministPedagogy

NCTE Convention    |          Nov. 21 @4:15     |               Room M100E


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Is there a boy crisis in education?

In the last three decades, a call of alarm has sounded claiming a boy crisis in education (cf. Dutro, 2002; Watson, Kehler, & Martino, 2010).  This “war against boys,” as popular press author Hoff-Sommers terms it, is rooted in the war of the sexes. While there are test scores to back Hoff-Sommers’s points, the research is taken out of context. I want to specifically examine sex differences in literacy to prove that there is not a boy crisis and to sound a call to action to stop the war of the sexes in education.

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA; OECD, 2013) and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, 2011, 2014) are two of the biggest assessments in education and both tests show a gender gap in literacy across grade-levels and across countries. We see girls outperforming boys in reading tests in research study after research study (Robinson & Lubienski, 2011). However, there is more disparity within each gender than there is between the genders. That means that being a girl does not mean that you will be a good reader any more than being a boy means that you will be a poor reader. Also, there are also research studies that show no difference in boys’ and girls’ reading scores. This means that reading ability is not innate; it is not genetic (Clinton et al., 2012; Watson, Kehler, & Martino, 2010). Something else may be going on.

I believe this something else is gender stereotyping, reading as related to their socially constructed gender identities (Clinton et al., 2012; McGeown, 2015). Boys are supposed to be active and rambunctious. Girls are supposed to be quiet and reserved.  Since reading is a quiet activity, it is considered feminine. But we now have girls’ roller derby and women in the Citadel, so we know that some girls are active and competitive and some are quiet and reserved. However, our ideas of what it means to be a model woman or a model man haven’t evolved as quickly. Go down any toy store aisle and you will see our society’s traditional stereotypes of the sexes still alive and well. These stereotypes do not serve our boys well when it comes to literacy learning.

Literacy researchers have suggested that literacy learning is complex (Peterson, 2006). This complexity is illustrated through the important role that literacy plays in the development of individual and social identities (Watson, Kehler, & Martino, 2010). What one reads and how one reads impacts one’s sense of self. In a similar way, whether one chooses to read and what one chooses to read are expressions of one’s identity. More specifically, Goldberg and Roswell (2002) asserted, “When reading and writing, children are operating out of gender identities, and they are also using the occasion of reading or writing to construct or negotiate those identities in some way” (p. 7). Thus, recent work that has centered on the development of basic literacy skills may not adequately address critical social factors that would enhance boys’ literacy development.

Test scores only tell us part of the story. There are more boys at the bottom of the test score distribution but there are also more boys in the top (Cole, 1997). If we really want to know if schools are shortchanging boys, then we need to look at the economic and social outcomes of schooling as well (Weaver-Hightower, 2003). As described above, gender stereotypes may serve our girls well in school, but they do not serve them well after school. Women still do not make as much as men for the same work.

In all, the vast majority of boys and girls are succeeding well-enough in school to move on to fulfilling lives because there is no innate difference in boys’ and girls’ abilities to read, write, or perform any other school task.  This is not to say that all boys and all girls do succeed. Unfortunately, low income, urban African-American male students disproportionately fall behind their peers in a number of statistics (see Thomas & Stevenson, 2009 for a full discussion, see Wiseman et al., 2014 for a discussion related to literacy).

One of the solutions to boys’ underachievement is the responsibility of all of us, whether we are teachers, parents, neighbors, employers, coaches, or friends. We must stop the pitting of the sexes against each other. If we stop looking at gender as binary, or dualistic, then we can see that we all possess both feminine traits and masculine traits along a continuum.  And if we all possess them, then maybe they aren’t masculine or feminine but just human traits after all. Boys need to see both men and women role models that value reading as do girls.  The WNBA/NBA Read to Achieve Program is one such program that brings role models into the classroom to read with students. You don’t have to be a professional athlete to be a reading role model though. Everyone can model for children that reading is valuable and worth the time and effort it takes to read.


Clinton, V., Seipel, B., Broek, P., McMaster, K. L., Kendeou, P., Carlson, S. E., & Rapp, D. N. (2012). Gender differences in inference generation by fourth-grade students. Journal of Research in Reading, 37(4), 356-374.

Cole, N. S. (1997). The ETS gender study: How females and males perform in educational settings. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Dutro, E. (2002). “Us boys like to read football and boy stuff”: Reading masculinities, performing boyhood. Journal of Literacy Research, 34(4), 465-500.

Hoff-Sommers, C. (2000). The war against boys: How misguided feminism is hurting our young men. New York: Simon and Schuster.

National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2014). Nation’s report card 2013. Retrieved from http://www.nationsreportcard.gov/reading_math_g12_2013/#/changes-in-gaps

OECD. 2013. PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do – Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading and Science. Paris: OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264201118-en.

Peterson, S. (2006). Influence of gender on writing development. In C. MacArthur, S. Graham, & J. Fitzgerald, (Eds.), Handbook of writing research (311323). New York: Guilford.

Robinson, J. P. & Lubienski, S. T. (2011). The development of gender achievement gaps in mathematics and reading during elementary and middle school: Examining direct cognitive assessments and teacher ratings. American Educational Research Journal, 48, 268-302.

Thomas, D. E. & Stevenson, H. (2009). Gender risks and education: The particular classroom challenges for urban low-income African American boys. Review of Research in Education, 33(1), 160-180.

Watson, A., Kehler, M., & Martino, W. (2010). The problem of boys’ literacy underachievement: Raising some questions. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(5), 356361.

Weaver-Hightower, M. (2003). The “Boy Turn” in Research on Gender and Education. Review of Educational Research, 73 (4), 471-498.

Wiseman, A. et al. (2014). UNC Scandal & Literacy Levels: Racism, Relationships and Reading Instruction [blog]. Scholar’s Corner. Retrieved from http://www.publicschoolsfirstnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/UNC-Scandal-Response.pdf