Literacy and Gender: Researching Texts, Contexts and Readers
Dr Linda Barlow-Meade
|Review published||23 October 2008|
In ‘Literacy & Gender’, Gemma Moss debates the increasing visibility of boys’ underachievement in literacy from a ‘literacy as social practice’ and feminist perspective. She examines strategies that boys use to minimise the visibility of their underachievement. She argues that degrees of success in literacy lie in the structure of schooling and the role the reading curriculum plays in constructing a hierarchy of learners in class. The work is underpinned by reference to social constructionism, (see Burr:2003 for a straightforward introduction to social constructionism).
Moss acknowledges that there is currently little empirical evidence about boys’ underachievement in literacy (p1). In order to address this gap Moss draws on an ethnographic study that examines the social organisation of literacy in the primary school and the ways in which literacy becomes gender differentiated. She questions whether boys’ underachievement is due to a feminised literacy curriculum which does not incorporate boys’ interests (p2) and if a feminist model that was applied to girls’ underachievement fits when applied to boys (p3).
Each of the six highly engaging chapters presents theoretical discussion which is then developed, illustrated and analysed by the use of ethnographic research evidence. The evidence highlights three main topics of interest: the increasing visibility of boys’ underachievement; the strategies boys use for coping and the structure of schooling,
Regarding ‘visibility’, Moss suggests that until recently, boys’ underachievement in literacy has largely been unremarked, (p13).
She notes that, in a traditional educational model boys are dominant and girls are subordinate, i.e. boys are ‘positioned’ (see Davies & Harre) as winners, not losers (p19), but these relative positions have changed. All manner of disasters were predicated on this change in gendered educational attainment, e. g. the demise of traditional family values; the redundancy of the male breadwinner etc. However, there is a contradiction regarding these predictions. Girls’ relative increase in attainments could be said to have been brought about by a Conservative government who, while extolling the virtues of Victorian family values, also introduced a National Curriculum which eliminated gendered choices at 14 (p20).
One explanation of boys’ underachievement relative to girls’ relates to biology; that is boys develop later than girls. This discourse links education with biological determinism, where educational traits are ‘natural’ aptitudes, however, biological determinism is no longer widely accepted. Moss makes the point that, in today’s managerial discourse, education failure can and will be fixed. In this managerial discourse it is the process (teaching) that determines the outcomes, not the raw materials (biology) (pp21-22). Hence a new or modified process must be found to achieve desired outcomes.
So, how might it be ‘fixed’? What processes might be used? Moss looks at strategies that boys use in an attempt to cope with literacy in the classroom.
She suggests that part of the problem has been the lack of curriculum content that takes account of boys’ interests and a lack of non-fiction texts, considered to be boys’ preferred genre (pp60-61).
Narrative fiction is thought to be feminine because of its affective, emotional content, whereas non-fiction is thought to be masculine because of its functional, factual nature, devoid of emotion. The validity of this argument questionable when one considers that most non-fiction texts, although heavily illustrated, also employ prose for the reader to engage with, it’s not just a list of facts and pictures. Looked at from this perspective, it is difficult to see why non-fiction texts are considered to be masculine.
Generally speaking, boys designated as weak readers are the ones who chose non-fiction texts (p139). What might be the reason for this? Although the school see these as ‘work’ books, i.e. they cannot be taken out of the school, nevertheless, in the classroom they represent an opportunity for weak readers to ‘talk’ about what they know, by reference to the pictures rather than the text.
Moss remarks that knowledge is more than just knowledge of a text (p139), it is also the verbal contributions of readers through discussion, where it’s not essential to refer to the text at all. This enables weak readers to ‘save face’, to take on the role of expert without being an expert at reading. There is a politics to knowing and not knowing (p145). Where a display of knowledge matters, boys compete for superiority of knowing, adopting many different strategies rather than admitting that they don’t know something.
Whilst this strategy may ‘save face’ for weak readers, it is unclear how this use of non-fiction texts can aid reading development.
As well as ‘visibility’ and ‘strategies’, Moss also looks at the structure of schooling. She considers whether school organisation and the curriculum actually create gendered outcomes in literacy.
She notes that schools act as gatekeepers, having the power to define what literacy means and to translate that meaning into curricula and classroom practice. How well a child can read is key to their position in the classroom, where ‘positioning’ may be viewed as discriminatory.
The book concludes by considering the implications of the research findings for teachers and their classroom practice and how they fit with current policy contexts.
Although one wouldn’t normally introduce substantial new material in a final chapter, Moss introduces the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) in this chapter because it was introduced after her research was concluded and because it has had a major impact in literacy in schools and the movement to raise standards.
This book will be of interest to literacy, education, and social constructionist researchers, to teachers, educational policy makers and anyone interested in applied linguistics, education or gender studies.
Burr, V (2003) Social Constructionism (2nd ed) London, Routledge
Davies, B & Harre, R (no date) Positioning: The Discursive Production of Selves, http://www.massey.ac.nz/~alock/position/position.htm [accessed 18/10/08]