Gender roles in children's literature and their impact on students - MinneTESOL Journal (2023)

This article discusses how gender roles are portrayed in children's literature, the possible implications of these representations and how teachers can best use children's books as a teaching resource.

From an early age, children are formed into who they are as adults. Children adopt specific roles and behaviors as part of their socialization process (Tsao, 2008). They begin to create their own identity, and one element that affects that identity is the literature that children read or are read to (Allen, Allen, & Sigler, 1993). Children's literature has generally been defined as anything children read (Nodelman, 2008), but this is very narrow. In today's world, it must also include works aimed at children, youth and second language learners. Children's literature is intended to provide characters and events that students can identify with and through which to assess their own actions, beliefs, and emotions (Mendoza & Reese, 2001), and is now commonly used in ESL/EFL (Lazar , 1993). . Students with cultural and linguistic diversity can learn about cultural awareness and universal issues present in English-speaking societies (Department of Education, Newfoundland and Labrador, 2009), as this can give voice to underrepresented groups and promote cross-cultural appreciation (Smallwood, 1998). Therefore, children's literature can have a tremendous impact on children and language learners around the world, especially in the areas of culture and gender roles.

Gender roles are an important part of culture (Gazda, 2015; Singh, 1998). However, they often differ from culture to culture and it is important for children and students to understand that these differences exist and not just believe stereotypes. Trepanier-Street and Romatowski (1999) found that it is possible to influence children's gender attitudes through children's literature and related activities. Tsao (2008) points out that picture books also influence gender identities. Books that portray gender bias or sexism can have harmful effects on both boys and girls. For example, stereotypical representations of occupations along gender lines can encourage girls to make more choices.traditionalfemale workspaces. This can put girls in situations where they are submissive. It is hoped that discussing such a controversial topic can inspire teachers to reconsider what and how to teach in the 21st century classroom (Kuo, 2005).

How gender is represented in children's literature

Gender bias is present in the content, language and illustrations of many children's books (Brower, 2016; Heinsz, 2013; Kittelberger, 2002; Trepanier-Street & Romatowski, 1999). The gender roles portrayed in children's picture books influence their audience, but the extent and pervasiveness of this influence and its impact on behavior are not fully understood (Tsao, 2008). Gender bias is reflected in the extent to which a gender is portrayed as a main character in children's books and how that gender is portrayed (Singh, 1998; Brower, 2016). Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada, and Ross (1972) were among the first researchers to note an increasing emphasis on male characters in children's literature, although more recent studies (eg, Turner-Bowker, 1996) have uncovered similar findings. Ernst (1995) examined children's book titles to determine whether boy or girl names were more common in titles. They found that boy names were twice as common as girl names. She also discovered that books that had a gender-neutral name or a girl's name were actually books about boys.

Singh (1998) found that not only are girls portrayed less often than boys in children's books, but both sexes are often stereotyped. According to Ernst (1995), girls are usually portrayed as cute, naive, conformist and dependent. In contrast, male characters are often aggressive, physically strong, adventurous, and able to function fully independently. Similarly, Temple (1993) found that boys tend to take on warrior, adventurer, and savior roles, while girls tend to take on more passive roles, such as caregivers, mothers, princesses in need of rescue, and male support figures. Rudman (1995) discusses how female characters in children's fiction can become active, aggressive, or initially activestubborn, but they soon give up their independence, or aredomesticated, for a male character or situation that occurs in your life. In general, male characters don't do that. Rudman (1995) and Kramer (2001) also noted that female characters were the "carers" and were often portrayed as mothers, nurses, and kitchen help. Turner-Bowker (1996) found that the most commonly used descriptions of women in children's books were beautiful, fearful, and worthless. In comparison, he also found that the most commonly used male descriptions were tall, hideous and fierce. He also found that women were much less likely to be found in photos. Kortenhaus and Demarest (1993) found that while men are often portrayed as competent and achievement-oriented, women are limited in their capabilities and less competent in their ability to get things done.

More recent studies (p. . Tsao (2008) add that male dominance is found in books where the characters are animals, and even the types of animals used to represent the characters also vary according to gender: rats are the most used used to represent the characters, female characters and bears are the most common used to represent male characters.

Unfortunately, too little or too slowly seems to be changing. In a recent study by McGrabe, Fairchild, Grauerholz, Pescosolido, and Tope (2011), they came to the following conclusion:

One thing that has surprised us is that the portrayal of women has not steadily improved between 1900 and 2000; In fact, it was more unequal at mid-century. Books have become more male-dominated. (p. 197)

His study was based on nearly 6,000 books published between 1900 and 2000 and reached the following conclusions:

  1. In 57% of published children's books, the male protagonists are men, while only 31% have female protagonists.
  2. No more than 33% of children's books published in a given year feature adult women or female animals as main characters, but adult men and male animals appear in up to 100% of books.
  3. Male animals are central characters in over 23% of books each year, while females appear in just 7.5%.
  4. On average, 36.5% of books in each year surveyed contain a man in the title, compared with 17.5% containing a woman.
  5. Although books published in the 1990s were at near parity for human characters (with a ratio of 0.9:1 for child characters; 1.2:1 for adult characters), a significant discrepancy of nearly 2 to 1 remains for characters. male and female.

ESL/EFL Classroom Tips

Teachers can make a difference in how children's literature is used as a resource in the classroom. Rudman (1995) believes that it is important for teachers to first identify and articulate their own attitudes towards gender. Teachers can further evaluate the goals they have for their students and the goals of their program or school. While some argue that teachers should create lesson plans that directly combat gender bias, it may be wiser to discuss gender issues as they arise or, more indirectly, incorporate them into lesson plans. The important condition that needs to be created in the classroom is awareness of gender issues both on the part of the teacher and the students. Perhaps the best way to integrate children's literature and gender issues into ESL/EFL classrooms is through critical thinking activities. By incorporating critical thinking into daily classroom activities, teachers can help students understand how texts are constructed (Bainbridge, Heydon, and Malicky, 2009; Gazda, 2015). Teachers can also use support activities, such as graphic organizers, to guide and help students with these activities.

(Video) Creating and Disseminating Knowledge: The Role of Regional OA Journals in the Field of TESOL.

Children's books can be used as catalysts for discussions (Gazda, 2015; McGowan, McGowan, & Wheeler, 1994; Lowther, 2014), writing activities, and individual or group projects. It is important that teachers support group discussions with children by asking thought-provoking questions and facilitating exchanges between students (Singh, 1998). During discussions with children, teachers can validate female and male voices and listen to different individual opinions (Trites, 1997). Lenski (2008) reiterates that it is important to understand that texts offer a unique view of the world. Culturally and linguistically diverse students may be asked to compare and contrast their part of the world with the world in the book or the place in the world where the story took place. Students can also be asked to compare the physical and psychological characteristics of male and female characters, who are often stereotyped. There are almost endless opportunities for teachers who have a better understanding of higher level thinking and critical thinking skills.


Children's literature is a widely used cultural and learning resource. It has the power to affect a child's identity by making inferences about gender, and gender is perhaps the most fundamental perspective from which children view and experience the world and their place in it (Taylor, 2003). Books intended for children and used by ESL/EFL teachers reflect social attitudes and perpetuate discrimination in societies (Rudman, 1995). Unfortunately, as Short (2001) points out, teaching can resemble a political agenda. Kuo (2005) also states that there are no politically innocent books for students and that a classroom is always full of different values ​​and perspectives brought by teachers, students and texts. Therefore, teachers can Take steps to ensure that the learning environment is less gender biased.

Teachers can choose books where the characters have different personalities, regardless of gender. Teachers can try to make a conscious effort to select books for students that reflect justice and inspire both sexes. There are also books that offer realistic and engaging stories that deal with issues of gender and abilities. In recent decades, the increasing representation of women in titles, central roles and images seems to indicate that more and more authors of children's books are aware of and sensitive to changes in women's roles (Tsao, 2008). And although there is now research that suggests very little is changing (McGrabe, et al., 2011), it is important that children are exposed to books that can break stereotypes. Perhaps the most important thing teachers can do, however, is teach children critical thinking. By developing critical thinking skills, children can develop their own independent thinking, gain a better understanding of social issues, and become more engaged and responsible citizens in the future.


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Aaron Mermelstein

Professor Aaron David Mermelstein is a Washington State Certified K-12 Instructor with a Ph.D. in TESOL. He taught ESL in elementary and high schools before moving to Asia, where he has spent the last 19 years teaching EFL at the post-secondary level and training graduate students to become EFL teachers. His areas of expertise include: classroom management, student-centered teaching, curriculum design, and extensive reading. He is an Assistant Professor of TESOL in the Department of Western Languages ​​and Literature at National Kaohsiung University.

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