Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Sex/gender differences in reading and education

I am in the process of preparing a conference paper discussing gender differences in reading (and education more widely).  However, in need of a break from it, so thought a quick post about the topic would provide a welcome rest….

I’ve carried out quite a bit of research exploring gender differences in reading.  While my initial publications referred to ‘gender’ differences, my preference now is to refer to ‘sex’ differences as I am becoming increasingly interested in the distinction between the two.  Indeed, the terms sex and gender are typically used interchangeably in the research literature; however while sex refers to biological differences between boys and girls (and is typically the focus of research exploring sex/gender differences), gender refers to the characteristics typically associated with being male or female. Both boys and girls will vary in the extent to which they identify with traditional/stereotypical masculine and feminine traits (i.e., their gender identity).  It is this variation among boys and girls that interests me more – i.e., can sex differences commonly found within education be better understood from a gender identity perspective?

To date, I have carried out two studies on this topic (see references below).  In Study 1 (McGeown et al., 2012) we explored sex differences in children’s  motivation to read (girls, on average, typically report greater reading motivation) and in Study 2 (McGeown, 2013) explored sex differences in book choices (comparing books ‘aimed’ at boys, girls or gender neutral).  In the first study, we found that children’s (both boys and girls) identification with feminine traits was more closely related to their motivation to read, than their identification with masculine traits.  In the second study, we found that children’s identification with feminine traits was more closely related to the likelihood that they would read gender neutral books (and books aimed at girls).  In addition, girls were more likely to transcend gender boundaries when it came to book choices (i.e., were more likely to read books marketed towards boys, than boys were to read books marketed towards girls).

What both studies illustrate however, is that for both boys and girls, identifying with traditional/ stereotypical ‘feminine’ characteristics (e.g., being kind, caring, compassionate, etc – see Boldizar 1991 for questionnaire used) is associated with greater motivation to read and greater book reading.  This suggests that reading is still perceived as a more feminine activity.

In terms of educational significance, I have suggested that interventions to de-feminise reading, such as providing male role models as readers or more male orientated environments for boys to develop their reading skills could be useful. Also, interventions that are focused towards promoting reading between fathers and their children may also be effective at reducing children’s early perceptions that reading is a more feminine activity.   I also suggest that careful consideration should be given to the types of books available in schools; boys in particular will benefit from having access to books predominately aimed at males, as they are less likely to transcend gender boundaries and may still perceive ‘gender neutral’ books as more feminine than masculine.

Beyond these two studies however, I believe that this focus on gender identity could be a helpful one for studying other ‘gender’ trends within education, as it removes this dichotomy between boys and girls.  Indeed, any psychology/educational researcher interested in sex/gender differences knows that there is greater within group variance (i.e., variation among girls or variation among boys) within specific aspects of education (e.g., attainment, motivation, etc) than there is between group variance (i.e., differences between boys and girls).  As noted by Hyde’s (2005) ‘gender similarities hypothesis’ an over emphasis on studying or discussing gender differences suggests that males and females are more different than they actually are.  Perhaps studying gender identity instead is a better way of understanding the gender trends that are typically found within education.



Boldizar, J.P. (1991). Assessing sex typing and androgyny in children: The Children’s Sex Role Inventory. Developmental Psychology, 27(3), 505–515.

Hyde, J. S.  (2005).  The gender similarities hypothesis.  American Psychologist, 60, 6

McGeown, S., Goodwin, H., Henderson, N., & Wright, P.  (2012).  Gender differences in reading motivation:  Does sex or gender identity provide a better account?  Journal of Research in Reading, 35(2), 328-336. 

McGeown, S. P.  (2013).  Sex or gender identity?  Understanding children’s reading choices and motivation.  Journal of Research in Reading. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2012.01546.


Monday, 3 November 2014

Collaborative research between teachers, researchers (and students)

I attended a lunch a few months ago aimed at improving collaborative research between teachers and researchers.  While I appreciate that this distinction may not be helpful - the boundaries between the two are very much blurred (i.e., teachers in schools often engage in research/practitioner led enquiry, similarly University based academic researchers also teach), the principle behind the meeting was to improve the nature and quality of relationships between school based teachers and University based researchers. 

This was an exciting event for me as it is something which is very close to my heart.  I’ve published quite a bit in the academic literature now, almost all my research being focused on different aspects of children’s learning; however had never truly collaborated with teachers in the research process.   In my first post of this Blog, I discussed the challenges involved in this process; on re-reading this post, it is perhaps more negative than I would have wished it to be!  However, these challenges do exist, and need to be overcome, to attain, what I think could be substantial benefits (to teachers, researchers, and ultimately students) from research collaboration.

Since the lunch, I have had meetings with a number of Head teachers and teachers, speaking openly and honestly about the research we plan to conduct together and the nature of our working relationship.  Teachers main concerns are typically the amount of time they will need to invest in this (given their existing high workloads) and to what extent the research will be truly collaborative.  With regard to this last point in particular, we’ve discussed teachers and even students becoming researchers of the topic we plan to study (mental toughness – see earlier blog for more info).  To me, this latter suggestion is particularly exciting: engaging students in research from the beginning and allowing them to become active researchers, co-creating knowledge on this topic, has enormous potential (for both the research and the student).  As a researcher, regardless of the topic under study, I’m aware of the skills that can be developed from conducting research, as well as the enjoyment and satisfaction (usually!) found in doing so.  Developing student’s curiosity and interest in a topic and then allowing them the opportunity to create or further knowledge of that topic has the potential to be both an exciting and rewarding process.  

While I appreciate that this ‘student as researchers’ approach will not always be appropriate (i.e., the nature of the research will determine whether this is suitable or even feasible), as a researcher interested in student’s learning and education, I believe that students (and teachers) could have a more substantial role both in the process of research, but also in our research decisions (i.e., the types of research questions we ask, our methods, our understanding of educational implications etc).  Indeed, by working more closely with teachers and students, and truly collaborating on research projects, we benefit from both the expertise of a knowledgeable researcher and the educational insights of teachers and students.