Why Jane Reads Higher Than Jack

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Source: Gaelle Marcel / Unsplash

Common beliefs about boys ‘and girls’ literacy skills are decidedly gender-specific and indeed stereotypical. We know two well: boys are good at math; Girl reading. It is alarming that gender stereotypes have such a profound impact on reading in children and at a young age.

Francesca Muntoni and her colleagues at the Universität Hamburg wanted to know whether their own stereotypes of classmates and students who prefer girls to read influence reading results. She and her colleagues went to the classroom to see if their peers had an influence. They tested over 1,500 boys and girls as fifth graders and again sixth graders with an average age of 11 years.

I asked Dr. Muntoni, the lead researcher, for an insight into how gender stereotypes in the classroom context affect the children her team studied.

Q: Have you noticed that gender stereotypes about reading are prevalent in the classroom?

A: We asked students whether girls or boys generally read better, have more fun reading, and read more in general. We interpreted the answers as confirmation of the stereotypes. On average, children agree that reading is for girls.

Q: Have students’ gender stereotypes about their reading skills influenced their performance?

A: It wasn’t just classmates’ gender stereotypes that related to how motivated students in the class were to read, how they rated their own reading skills, and how well they did reading.

We also found that students’ own gender stereotypes who prefer girls to read have an impact on their reading outcomes. Interestingly, stereotypical gender differences were observed: boys who thought reading was girls were less motivated to read, had weaker reading-related ideas about their own competence, and showed less optimal results on the reading test. Girls experienced positive effects of their own gender stereotypes on their reading literacy beliefs.

However, overall there were more negative effects for the boys than positive effects for the girls, which is very alarming.

Q: Can you explain how students’ gender stereotypes affect their academic outcomes? Did you differ significantly between boys and girls in your study?

A: We did not examine these processes directly in our study. However, previous research has shown different ways that gender stereotypes can affect students academically.

You can think of it this way: Reading is stereotypical as a female domain. Such stereotypes can affect boys by leading them to devalue their own actual reading ability while being less motivated to read, which in turn affects their reading performance. In addition, significant others – as we call important people in children’s lives, such as their classmates – can consciously or unconsciously create a climate in which certain behaviors, preferences or talents are viewed as typically male or female. The more or less gender-specific behavior of the students can then be reinforced or punished by the reactions of their classmates. For example, if a boy wants to talk to his friends about a book with a girl, the experience is different for everyone.

It is important to note that not only the gender stereotypes of classmates, but also those of parents or teachers can have an impact on students’ academic outcomes.

Q: What was the most striking thing you found?

A: Our study expands our knowledge of the relationship between students’ gender stereotypes and their educational outcomes. We should be aware that gender stereotypes have a significant impact on student competency beliefs, motivation and performance, and that these effects apply to both the gender stereotypes of students and their classmates.

However, the most striking thing we discovered was the fact that we found not only short-term but also long-term effects on boys’ motivation to read, competency beliefs, and performance. This means that the effects of stereotypes were still observed even after 18 months. This finding suggests that gender stereotypes in class can have a profound effect on boys’ reading development.

Q: Are these stereotypes different from those of parents and many educators?

A: In two other studies, we also asked parents and teachers about their reading-related gender stereotypes. In these studies we found similar effects: The poor reading skills of boys was related to the negative stereotypes of their parents about reading, which are related to the fact that boys devalue their reading skills. In fact, boys felt less literate and less motivated to devote themselves to a reading task when their parents thought that reading was for girls. In addition, teachers who advocated the gender stereotype had higher expectations of girls when it came to reading, which as a self-fulfilling prophecy is related to higher reading performance of girls, but has a detrimental effect on boys’ reading performance.

Q: Do you have any recommendations on reducing stereotypes in reading gender in the classroom, as academic outcomes are significantly influenced by gender stereotypes? Are There Ways Parents Can Help?

A: Our results lead to the question of what students – including teachers and parents – can do to counter gender stereotypes and to reduce socially determined gender gaps in reading. Teachers play a particularly important role in creating a teaching context in which neither girls nor boys are affected by stereotypes from their classmates. You should place great emphasis on socializing boys and girls without expecting stereotypical behaviors, rather than reinforcing stereotypes about gender-specific skills.

This also applies to parents as they play an important role in socializing children about gender roles. Encouraging parents to set positive role models about gender stereotypes in reading should be the first goal in promoting boys’ success in reading.

To improve boys’ engagement in reading in school, students, parents and teachers should understand that their stereotypical attitudes and behaviors can have consequences. It is important for students to monitor their gender stereotypes to counter their impact on classmates’ outcomes and to create a gender equitable learning environment.

Connected: How To Get Your Children To Read More: Proven Ways To Teach Your Toddler Or Reluctant Teen To Enjoy Reading.

Copyright @ 2020 by Susan Newman

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