Gender and Early Childhood Literacy

Elaine Millard. Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy. Editor: Nigel Hall, Joanne Larson, Jackie Marsh. Sage Publication. 2003.

This chapter considers the multiplicity of ways in which children’s gendered identity is implicated in their taking up of literacy practices both at home and in school. The print and media environment which surrounds children from birth, early literacy events in the home and the formalization of literacy encounters within school, all carry messages of what it is to be an effective reader and writer. The education of the young is often overdetermined by parents,’ teachers’ and educators’ wish to transmit their own understanding of what is acceptable behaviour in social situations through the medium of story. As a result, the sharing of stories at home and in school becomes overloaded with a multiplicity of value judgements. Learning to read and write, therefore, can be shown to involve children’s initiation into social and cultural practices, and of significance amongst these are the multiplicity of narrative and other textual messages that convey aspects of what it might mean to be female, or to be male. Moreover, their gender identification has been shown to play an important role in children’s reading and writing choices as well as their growing sense of themselves as learners (Millard, 1994b; 1997; Davies, 1989; 1993; Gilbert, 1989; Walkerdine, 1990). This chapter will examine how research has probed the mechanisms by means of which literacy development and the construction of gendered identity are interwoven and create expectations, not only of what it means to be literate, but also of what it might mean to be a literate boy, or a literate girl. In describing what has been learnt about the process of socialization into gendered literate identities, I shall begin by adopting a definition of gender which has been widely promoted by earlier researchers into gender and education.

Gender as Socially Constructed

The identification of disabling myths about genetic capacities and incapacities influenced a whole generation of feminist theorists to challenge the notion of gender as biologically determined. In order to do this, they first distinguished a definition of male and female arrived at through biological sex from that of gender, which is constructed and reproduced socially, pointing to patriarchy (or the dominance of male thought, culture and power) as the main determinant of gender role (Arnot and Weiner, 1989). Second-wave feminist writers drew widely on the precept of the earlier feminist, Simone de Beauvoir (1972), that one is not born but becomes a woman, in order to draw attention to women’s continuing disadvantage in most social and cultural arenas. This was achieved primarily by the identification of women’s subjection and derogation through the oppressive dominant discourses of difference and disability. Many feminists, who at this period were themselves involved in education as students, researchers or teachers, began to document, within a discourse of equal rights, the considerable divergence of the routes patterned out by contemporary educational systems for boys and girls. Their project was to expose those embedded habits of gender differentiation which worked against the interests of girls and women (Stacey et al., 1974; Spender and Sarah, 1980; Stanworth, 1981). These researchers argued powerfully that girls’ talents, abilities and educational opportunities were severely limited by aspects of both the official and hidden curricula in schools; and moreover, that education was a site where gender difference, imported from experiences outside the school gates, was not only confirmed by the practices of educational institutions, but also more firmly established and even amplified (Delamont, 1980; Marland, 1983; Measor and Sykes, 1992; Acker, 1994).

A new understanding of the place of literacy in education was becoming influential at the same time as the changes to teachers’ perceptions of the role of gender in differentiating educational opportunity. Theorists began to redescribe literacy activities (defined previously as a set of cognitive competencies or skills to be acquired developmentally) as socially constructed practices, saturated with power relations and the hierarchical organization of knowledge (Freire, 1972; Street, 1984; Lankshear and McLaren, 1993; Barton and Hamilton, 1998). Literacy, rather than being taken uncritically as a set of universal, abstract, cognitive processes, became recognized as constituted by those socially derived conventions which inform any given culture. Literacy practices could then be shown, as a direct consequence of their constructed nature, to be infused with the dominant ideologies of the culture within which they were transmitted and reproduced (Heath, 1983; Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines, 1988; Street and Street, 1991). As feminists had already shown that gender was constructed through social practices, the realization that literacy itself is a set of social practices, rather than cognitive processes, became important in explanations of the interrelationship of (gendered) identity and literacy development (Orellana, 1995; 1999). As an example of this, children can be seen to be forming ideas about for whom a specific activity is most appropriate, whilst being initiated into such seemingly neutral practices as sharing a book with an adult or being supported in writing a message on a birthday card. For in their interactions with adults as carers, or teachers, children begin to establish a sense of their own identities and potentialities as literate beings in a process which Kress has described as forming ‘deep-seated dispositions in the person who is literate’ (1997: 150). The next section of this chapter will therefore consider the expectations and identifications set up for children by their earliest literacy experiences. In doing this, it is important to emphasize that, although the literacy events in which children participate take place in many different settings (shops, doctors’ surgeries and churches, for example), those that have been described most often by researchers occur in homes and classrooms. Not only this, but also most studies that focus on gendered literacy practices do so in white, middle-class, Western-nation homes. It is important to keep this in mind when considering the reported outcomes of home-based research, for as Orellana has observed, ‘researchers often call for attention to intersections of gender, class, race and ethnicity, but rarely explore them in practice’ (1999: 65).

Literacy in the Home

It is in the home that children first encounter the range of literacy practices and resources that enable meanings to be created, transmitted and interpreted and that they are initiated as junior members into what Frank Smith (1988) memorably termed the ‘literacy club.’ Gunther Kress’ (1997) work on multimodality is helpful in explaining how children come to select from the wide range of semiotic resources present in the home. Kress demonstrates that in their early literacy exchanges, children develop an awareness that ‘content has a shape’ and that this is part of the important things to be learned about the process of communication in a social context. By this, he suggests that children constantly draw on aspects of the materials which they find around them in designing new meanings for themselves. He further suggests (although he does not develop the idea in any detail) that the choice of materials (the stuff) creates possibilities for the differentiation of gender (1997: 31, 145). From this perspective, it can therefore be seen that the materials, as well as the processes encountered in reading, are saturated with inflections of gender appropriateness. In white, middle-class, Western-nation homes, it is mothers who most frequently engage children in the daily practices of text sharing and message making (Millard, 1994). Moreover, in many extended multilingual families, where it is siblings who often engage younger members of the family in such activities, older sisters frequently play the most significant role (Gregory, 1998; 2001).

Because of this, acts of literacy may become feminized in the eyes of the young observers, with the added complication that, in Western cultures, boys appear to resist any activity that might be deemed girl-appropriate and constantly seek to define themselves as both ‘not girls’ and ‘not feminine’ (Clark, 1999; Jordan, 1995; Millard, 1997). Moreover, the parents themselves bring expectations of the kind of literacy activities which should be expected from their sons and daughters. In her recent Australian study of parents’ construction of their children as gendered, literate subjects, Sue Nichols (2002) concludes that a notion prevails amongst parents that girls are developmentally more advanced in key literacy-related areas such as speech and that parents also construct girls’ literacy learning as natural and unproblematic. In contrast, parent often believe that their sons’ masculinity and literacy are in opposition. This creates an expectation of developmental delay in their sons, which is further complicated by parents’ attribution of agency to the boys in deciding (or not deciding) when they are ready to learn. Both elements interact to constitute boys’ literacy learning as problematic.

Moreover, literacy development has been shown to be heavily dependent on access to available social and cultural capital (Heath, 1983; Taylor and Dorsey-Gaines, 1988; Wells, 1987) and the home is a domain in which gender difference is shown to matter. Judith Solsken (1992), who followed a group of young children from their socialization in the home to the early stages of education, used her observations to identify the dynamics of individual children’s literacy. By analysing closely the literacy experiences of four key children, with additional evidence from the activities of their classmates, she demonstrates how children construct concepts about literacy and its practices alongside their evolving identities as readers and writers. She argues that in many social groupings, it is to a large extent women who are assigned the work of supporting young children’s literacy and this fact inflects their perceptions of its relevance to children’s own identity. Although Solsken provides some examples of boys who experience literacy practices as a positive element of their identity formation, she also demonstrates clearly how children’s perception of literacy as adult-sponsored work may bring with it tensions around gender identification. She demonstrates how particular boys who are resisting female models of literacy may be cast at cross-purposes with their teachers, finding written work set for them in schools as ‘inactive, difficult and ‘boring’ (1992: 105). Girls, on the other hand, may experience more links between personal experience and their imaginative worlds, finding literacy activities another source of rich and rewarding forms of play confirmed in the stories they meet both at home and in school. Solsken’s findings have clear implications for the understanding of individual gendered positioning, rather than the grand narrative of patriarchal oppression that is assumed to place a limit only on girls’ performance. Her work is supported by research findings that many boys report female members of their families as being the key players in reading and writing activities in the home (Millard, 1994; 1997), a position which leads some of them to reject reading as female-appropriate, passive activity in school (Jordan, 1995; Maynard, 2002). Jordan further suggests that it is because children come to school with already well-defined gendered identities, one of them being the identification of masculinity with ‘warriors and fighting fantasy,’ that it is important during the early school years to explore ‘through discussion of television programmes and the children’s own writing, that a wider range of behaviour than fighting and resistance to teachers is compatible with the broad parameters of the warrior definition’ (1995: 81). It is the construction of such gendered identities as princesses and warriors, good guys and bad girls, in play that I will turn to next, before focusing more closely on the engendering of reading and writing activities in school.

Literacy Developed in Gendered Play

Play provides one of the earliest domains both at home and in school where narratives are shaped and take on personal meanings for identity formation. Illuminating perspectives on the interconnectedness of gender and literacy in play have been provided, by teacher/researchers who have closely observed, and then recorded, differences in choice of activity and behaviour in nursery and primary school settings. They show clearly how these feed into children’s language and storying behaviour (Clarricoates, 1978; Paley, 1984; Pidgeon, 1993; Francis, 1998; Pahl, 1999). Tales told from the nursery consistently find that children are sensitive to the hidden messages embedded in adult literacy practices taking place all around them. An early account of difference can be found in Alice in Genderland, where Julia Hodgeon (1983) describes how four-and five-year-old children, in a nursery located in the north-east of England, appeared to be already established and confirmed in sex-differentiated, gendered roles. She noted, for example, that it was usual for boys to be actively moving around and dominating the space available, jumping, shouting and engaging in boisterous play, whilst girls confined themselves to the edge of play areas, often quietly sharing a book with an adult or participating with peers in domestic roles in a play corner. Children were reinforced in the different orientations of their play by adult expressions of approval or disapproval. This finding is echoed in Nichols’ (2002) later study of the role of parents in constructing their children as holding different dispositions towards literacy.

Contemporaneously, Vivian Gussin Paley (1984) was describing similar differences in the children she was closely observing and recording in her classes in a Chicago nursery. Paley gives thick descriptions of her children’s retellings of exploits in the creative play area, showing how young children’s stories reflect differentiated active and passive engagement with the imagined worlds they create in play. Boys’ stories abound in dynamic superheroes and bad guys, girls tell of good little families and passive contentment. She comments that the children make use of story-plays to inform one another of preferred images for boys and girls. She found that when boys were allowed the space to act out their more energetic fantasies, they were more willing to engage later in constructive play. She uses her observations to argue for a greater acceptance of what children bring to their story construction, despite her own wish to counteract their drift towards gender stereotyping. Her work, however, shows clearly how peer group acceptance works to intensify and police the differences of gendered exchanges in the nursery—themes that have been developed by other researchers. These cannot be explored in depth in a chapter whose focus is research on literacy, but nevertheless they are relevant to its contextualization.

Evidence from Children’s Writing

Those gendered narrative preferences that have been shown to dominate play in the early years are also at work as children move more securely into the scene of writing and the development of their writing preferences. Orellana (1999) has argued that American classroom free-writing workshops are one of the few legitimate arenas in which school-aged children can play with (gendered) identities. These ‘workshops,’ which have developed largely influenced by the work of Graves (1983) and Calkins (1986), are mirrored in the independent or elective writing encouraged in both British and Australian schools.

Several researchers have described how learned gender ideologies begin to take concrete form in children’s own narrative texts. Minns (1991) provides written pieces from children which bear striking resemblances to Paley’s pupils’ oral recounts of their narrative play. Minns includes a seven-year-old boy’s narrative, based on his drawing of a scene from Jaws 3 in which a shark bites off a boy’s arm and swims through an underground tunnel to attack a whole group of people doing writing. Minns comments on the boy’s use of the shark’s power and domination to act out a preferred masculine role. In direct contrast, she describes a girl’s composition as a ‘comfortable story of friendship and support.’ There are strong echoes of the thematic dispositions of the young Chicago storytellers in both tone and content. Moreover, researchers continue to find such differences repeated in the content and style of early compositions. For example, in their article ‘Princesses who commit suicide,’ MacGillivray and Martinez (1998) describe how across age, ethnicity and gender, young children’s stories frame boys and men as heroes, girls and women as victims of violence. Maynard, researching children’s writing in one UK primary school, also found that, ‘boys often positioned themselves as powerful and independent: girls positioned themselves as vulnerable and dependent’ (2002: 89). Orellana (2000), analysing stories of Latina and Latino children, comments on the radical difference between the construction of ‘good girl’ identities in girls’ stories and the more heroically conceived ‘good guys’ of the boys.

Millard and Marsh (2001b) have described similar patterns of active and passive constructions in the drawings which many children create to motivate or illustrate their written narratives. Boys and girls were shown to bring different cultural interests to their work, which were often imported directly from the popular cultural texts targeted separately at them. Clear gender differences were found in the way they related their drawings to their written narratives. Girls tended to draw stylized images of children, houses and flowers, providing decoration rather than illuminating key aspects of the story. Boys embedded scenarios containing cartoon figures and violent action within their narratives (Millard and Marsh, 2001b). Moreover, they argue that that boys’ active engagement with visual meaning making often goes unremarked in research, whereas differences in the boys’ and girls’ choice of appropriate subject matter for writing has been well noted (Poynton, 1985; Tuck et al., 1985; White, 1986; Millard, 1994; 1997).

At first then, the advantage in writing appeared to researchers to be all on the side of girls. Janet White, for example, opines that, by the end of their primary years, most girls possess not only ‘a soundly based competence in writing’ but also a ‘sense of themselves as writers which is similarly robust’ (1986: 565). In confirmation of White’s earlier findings, Carolyn Millard’s (1995) research has shown that in the early years, girls generally write longer, more complex texts, using a wider range of both verbs and adjectives, and develop their texts with more focus on description and elaboration. Kanaris (1999: 261–2) echoes the findings that girls use adjectives more often and use a wider range of verbs. However, as White (1986: 562) went on to remark, this superior performance does not bear fruit outside of school in terms of improved employment. This is because, as Kanaris (1999) found, from an early age girls are rewarded for producing gendered writing in terms of both content and form, and are offered limited opportunities to write in different modes for different audiences. Girls are more likely to remove themselves from the action and tell their stories as the observer, whereas she found that boys placed themselves at the centre of the action. Boys are ‘doers in a world of action,’ girls are ‘recipients or observers’ (1999: 265).

In contrast with their obedient sisters, much of young boys’ elective writing—filled, as often it is, with violent action—may seem to their teachers both disrespectful and trangressive of acceptable norms. See, for example, the Australian nine-year-old boys’ story ‘Bloodbath EFA Bunnies,’ which aroused strong feelings of antipathy in both the teacher and the researcher involved in its production (Gilbert and Taylor, 1991: 110–13). Paley (1984), describing her encounters with a plethora of action stories constructed in dramatic play, many of them containing an element of violence, suggests that the first teacherly instinct is to try to counteract aggressive themes by setting limits as to what would be permitted in acting out. However, she came to see that role plays were important to the children’s working out of their preoccupations with areas of identity work and that her boys progressed to more table work (that is, work more closely fitted to school literacy activities) when they were allowed more, not less, free play. In a later account of her four-year-old grandson’s preoccupations with superhero play, Sue Pidgeon (1998: 33) records her adult, personal distaste for boys’ narrative choices, particularly for the incorporation of so many ways to express physical force and dominance of others. In contrast to Pidgeon’s lament for the promotion of more responsible role models, Pahl in her insightful book Transformations (1999) argues for an acceptance of nursery children’s interests in the (gendered) narratives of popular culture. She has provided clear examples of how ‘much successful practice in the nursery consists of following and developing ideas from modelling and play, building on the children’s trains of thought and allowing their narratives to flower’ (1999: 94).

Making Good Use of Children’s Cultural Preferences

Children’s familiarity with popular cultural discourses which frequently come to teachers’ attention through their children’s drawing and writing are often suspect in their eyes because of the sexist and racist elements that are embedded in their characterizations and narrative resolutions. Anne Haas Dyson’s work (1995; 1996; 1997; 1999; 2001) and in particular Writing Superheroes (1997) examines the role that a discourse which spotlights the children’s underlying assumptions and prejudices might play in developing greater insight into sensitive issues. The example she gives, arising from ‘author theatre workshops’ in which children have incorporated elements of popular culture associated with superheroes, includes a discussion of whether ‘a superhero’s foxy babe’ had to be white (1997: 55, 146), a question raised by the severely limited female roles contained in boys’ authored Ninja plays. Dyson writes of the teacher’s mediation in the process so that, with guidance, ideological gaps and differences ‘could become moments for collective consideration of text fairness and goodness and, also, for individual play with newly salient features’ (1997: 162).

It is a course of action that has been shown to be assisted by thoughtful planning, as when Jackie Marsh (1999; 2000) observed a sociodramatic role-play area set up as a Batcave in which literacy elements, particularly opportunities for independent writing, were incorporated. Marsh acknowledges that children’s engagement with powerfully desired discourses creates possibilities for both acquiescent and resistant take-up of gendered positionings. She reports that ‘many girls demonstrated both assertive, independent characterisation in role-play as Batwoman, as well as acquiescence to hegemonic masculine discourse’ (2000: 217). It is worth noting that Marsh used Batwoman, not the comic’s preferred Batgirl—a role which, by virtue of its juvenile status, is subordinated to Batman. The whole context of play writing was thought through to encourage equal participation and the exchanging of roles. Marsh’s study provides a good example of Dyson’s ‘pedagogy of responsibility that acknowledges students’ pleasures whilst assisting them in the exploration of these pleasures’ (1997: 179). There is a balance to be struck between motivating interest and creating an awareness of how particular genres of writing position both reader and writer.

It is positive adult engagements with children’s own desires and interpretations which offer the best response to dominant messages of gendered difference and disadvantage. This is an area to which I will return in the closing section on gender and postmodern responses, when I will discuss researchers’ advocacy for the use of critical literacy for unsettling simplistic, binary gender categorization.

Children’s Reading Choices

The differences that have been described in the main themes and language of children’s own storying find an echo in the content and style of the books and magazines that children choose for themselves. The most popular publications found currently on the lowest shelves of a British newsagents, for example, ostentatiously announce their gendered readership, not only in their titles, with Bob the Builder and Thunderbirds in the one camp and Princess World (‘for girls who love princesses’) and Pretty Pony Club in the other, but also in the colours selected for their illustrated covers: racing green, black, red and silver for one set, purple pink and turquoise for the other. Moreover, researchers have shown that in Western cultures, reading is increasingly perceived by the children themselves as an activity more appropriate for girls (Kelly, 1986; Shapiro, 1990; Davies and Brember, 1993; Millard, 1997).

Where the uses and gratifications that pupils take from their reading have been researched, boys have been found to be more interested in searching out factual material and information, girls in their own intrinsic pleasures in story and relationships (Clark, 1976; Greaney and Neumann, 1983; Wheeler, 1984). In Margaret Clark’s classic study of British young fluent readers, for example, boys’ reading records included daily papers, comics and annuals as well as stories, whereas girls’ records featured mainly narratives such as fairytales, Enid Blyton’s books and ballet stories. Moreover, it has been shown that girls more readily identify with the male heroes found in their books and take positive pleasure in identification with such constructed heroic selves through a process of double identification than boys do, even with the most ‘heroic’ women to be found in stories (Golden, 1994).

Counteracting Textual Gender Stereotypes

In the first wave of analysis of gendered textual difference in the 1970s and 1980s, however, it was girls’ disadvantage in the reading curriculum that was most frequently the object of the researcher’s attention. One major focus for discussion was the narrative content of the texts used for promoting and practising reading in school, particularly the prevalence of sexist and racist stereotypes in reading books. Representations of girls and women in early (basal) readers and storybooks were seen as prime examples of the passivity and lack of self-assertion which characterized girls’ socialization. This passivity, it was argued at the time, worked to disenfranchise girls and young women from the higher levels of attainment in academic performance and future job prospects. It was only when the ‘fact’ of boys’ relative lack of success in the literacy curriculum was brought into prominence almost simultaneously in Australia and the United Kingdom that the significance of girls’ orientation to schooled literacy might be seen as offering some advantage, and that their perceived ‘passivity’ and lack of risk-taking behaviour be identified as also enabling them to focus more clearly on the reading and writing demands of school. In contrast, boys’ written work, although sometimes abundant in energy, creativity and self-expression, was often seen in Australia to be antagonistic to gender equity programmes (MacNaughton, 2000) and in the United Kingdom to be out of keeping with the major genres and attainment targets of the English National Curriculum (Millard, 1994; 1997; Millard and Marsh, 2001a; 2001b).

Having acknowledged the extent of gendered preferences, researchers argued further that it is the children themselves who ‘police’ what are considered male-and female-appropriate activities, so that while dressing in boys’ clothes, playing with boys’ toys and taking on masculine roles is part of most girls’ early experience, boys engaging in feminine activities is not usually tolerated (Lloyd and Duveen, 1992; Millard, 1994; Paley, 1984). Reading too can easily become a marker of feminization, as noted in what Philip Yearwood (1998) describes as a favourite ‘diss’ of the older schoolboys he teaches, ‘I bet Sir gets books for Christmas.’ The next section, then, will consider the role played by books in more detail.

Reading between the Lines

A clear objective of early gender and literacy offensives saw feminist researchers fixing their sights firmly on the texts that were used to both teach and develop reading. Their targets were first to describe and then counter the ‘sexist’ uses of language and stereotypical representations in schoolbooks and basal readers which often worked to emphasize the differences rather than the similarities in girls’ and boys’ home circumstances, lived experiences and interests (Millard, 1994). Feminists in America (Czaplinski, 1976; Nilsen, 1971; Weitzeman, 1972), in the United Kingdom (Lobban, 1974; Burgess, 1981; Stones, 1983) and in Australia (Bradley and Mortimer, 1972; Gilbert, 1989) used literary critical skills to analyse early books, asking critical questions of both the themes and the language of the children’s literature they surveyed which revealed the predominance of male heroes, activities and definitions (see, for example, Stones, 1983).

Reading schemes such as Ladybird (Peter and Jane) and Wide Range Readers (Janet and John) were heavily criticized for their persistent portrayal of patriarchal divisions of activity. For example, Lobban (1974) found that in all the reading schemes she analysed, the feminine behaviours portrayed were domestic, passive and largely located indoors (note the expression ‘her indoors’ which is used to denote a wife in British white, male, working-class parlance). The male characters were ascribed a much greater range of activities, as well as more toys and pets. For example, in one early British Ladybird reader, the boy Peter confidently leads his sister Jane safely over the water with all the panache of a full-blown patriarch in the making:

‘We have to jump this,’ says Peter. ‘Come after me. I know how to do it. Come after me, but come out of the water.’

Jane says, ‘Mummy said we must keep out of the water.’

‘I know she said so,’ says Peter, ‘but we are not going in the water. I know how to do this.’

Peter jumps again. ‘You can do it, Jane,’ he says.

Then Jane jumps.

Of this text, Carol Baker and Bronwyn Davies commented:

These Peter and Jane sequences, in effect, present married-couple talk in the guise of ‘children’s play.’ The gender dualism here deftly crosses generational boundaries. It is unlikely, however, that any of the millions of children who have been taught to read with such materials have had this pointed out to them Such reading against the grain is essential to the deconstruction of the male-female dualism and inevitably disruptive to reading lessons and texts as they are currently structured. (1993: 61)

Finding Positive Role Models in Children’s Stories

In response to this imbalance, one early strategy of feminist teachers was energetically to weed out the ‘sexist,’ derogatory, limiting and oppressive representations to be found in such children’s texts. They labelled such books as sexist and replaced them with narratives with more positive female role models. It is a strategy which relies on the choice of ‘quality’ texts to convey a set of values, chosen to educate the reader in subtle discriminations of character and ethics. The pro-feminist texts in gender equity programmes were carefully selected for their counter-messages: of female agency and self-sufficiency on the one hand, of male gentleness and/or dependency on the other. Such texts, particularly those which sought to overturn female passivity, however, could come into conflict with children’s own desires and were often interpreted idiosyncratically by children if left to their own devices. In her influential study Frogs and Snails and Feminist Tales: Preschool Children and Gender (1989), Davies showed how four-and five-year-olds read alternative fairytales within a normalizing framework of gender role conformity that reintroduced concepts of male supremacy and of female dependency. The children interpreted the stories read to them not as narratives of liberation which offer alternative lifestyles, but as traditional stories in which the counter-traditional heroine/princess had simply got things wrong. This mindset was very persistent and remained intact four years later when the children were interviewed again at age eight and gave similar interpretations of mistaken female behaviour or male supremacy in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Davies (1993) argues that children are already interpellated as subjects of discourses that create the male/female dualism, which many children have a personal investment in maintaining. Simple exposure to a different point of view has little effect in unsettling their already well-established patterns of thought. Davies and her colleagues, therefore, recommended that young children should be introduced to a more critical analysis of the texts they encounter so that they may be made aware of how they are positioned within them. It is a strategy which is well illustrated by Wing’s (1997) use of Anne Fine’s story Bill’s New Frock with older children to explore the construction of male and femaleness within school settings. The point of both Davies’ and Wing’s work is not to promote an alternative theory of gender through the simple role reversals as portrayed in the counter-narratives, but to introduce the idea of difference within gendered experience through learning to ‘read differently.’ Part of any such programme would also involve the selection of texts which offer a wide range of experience of cultural and social difference. However, the main emphasis would be on changing how children read, rather than what they read. This is part of a postmodern emphasis on difference and complexity which has replaced older certainties about sex role and textual representation. It forms part of the strategy for developing critical literacy, to which I shall return at the end of this chapter. Before I do so, however, it is important to re-examine in more detail the issue of boys’ literacy, which has come to dominate much of the recent discourse on gendered achievement.

Turning the Focus on Boys’ ‘Under Achievement’

In the 1990s, much of the focus of gender research switched from an attention to the analysis of girls’ educational disadvantage within a masculinist biased school system, to anxieties about the performance of boys, particularly in literacy oriented subject areas. One reason for this switch can be attributed to the growing attention paid to the role of literacy in the developed capitalist economies, which had begun to rely far less on muscle power and far more on the literacy skills of their respective workforces. The earlier interest in girls’ perceived underperformance had come at a time of technological change from an analysis of female under-representation and lack of confidence in maths, science and technological subjects, then seen as the key drivers for economic success. The emphasis placed on the development of literacy skills in the economy arrived at a time when traditional heavy industries were in decline and the new employment could be seen to demand more language skills. The focus fell on reading, and the evidence from both classroom-based research and large scale national surveys showed boys to be at a disadvantage to girls. This was attributed to their relative lack of interest in this area of the curriculum and preferences for different genres for personal reading (Davies and Bember, 1993; Barrs and Pidgeon, 1993; White, 1986; Hall and Coles, 1999). In earlier writing about older children’s reading choices, I have commented that, when left to their own devices, boys and girls will travel very different roads to literacy (Millard, 1997: 106–7).

Current researchers who have shown that boys perform less well in the literacy curriculum as presented in schools have also commented that this is not a particularly new phenomenon (Millard, 1997; Cohen, 1998). What is new is a globalized pressure for workforces with increasingly advanced literacy skills as the gate to economic opportunity, which have made it each government’s driven imperative for boys to ‘catch up.’ Some commentators have indeed stressed the way that the curriculum or, indeed, teachers’ curriculum choices may limit boys’ participation or interest in reading and writing (Alloway and Gilbert, 1997; Pahl, 1999; Millard and Marsh, 2001b). However, the intention in such an analysis should be not to separate out the experience of boys from girls, but to stress the importance of a broader interpretation of the literacy curriculum that might encompass a wider range of difference in personal preference and the cultural capital brought to the classroom (Orellana, 1999; Pahl, 1999; Millard and Marsh, 2001b; Dyson, 2001; Marsh, in press).

Yet, much populist work on gender and education in Australia and the United Kingdom has put the emphasis on working with boys alone as a priority for school improvements in literacy (Biddulph, 1997). Recommendations have included the use of male role models as readers and mentors, the production of boy-friendly materials, and even the use of girls as peer role models and guides. This is a core idea of Geoff Hannon (1998), whose work has been widely disseminated amongst teachers in the United Kingdom through in-service courses rather than through research and has had a particular effect on the separation of classes by sex.

The difficulty for many feminist commentators with strategies that direct attention to boys’ needs in this way is that boys’ education is once more framed as the dominant consideration and girls’ real achievements are ignored (Francis, 1998: 166). The result can be an outbreak of what has been described as ‘competing victims syndrome’ (1995, cited in Alloway and Gilbert, 1997: 57) where different groups compete for attention and, more importantly, funding. Programmes directed solely at boys’ underachievement have therefore been interpreted by some as a backlash against feminism (Epstein et al., 1998). It is important, therefore, to turn now to work that moves beyond the reification of binary differences in gender, reinforcing either ‘girl-friendly’ or ‘boy-friendly’ approaches, to research which builds towards understandings of both identity formation and the conditions under which social justice and equity programmes can be implemented. For such approaches, we need to make the postmodern turn away from an emphasis on gender role or textual sex role stereotyping towards the more subtle and nuanced approaches arising from poststructuralist analysis and the development of critical literacy.

Postmodern Analysis and Critical Literacy

In earlier research, the identification of gender difference was central to raising awareness of discrimination and exclusion in order to confront coercive and limiting metanarratives about male and femaleness, success and failure, agency and passivity. The limitation of this view stems from what now seems an over-simplistic understanding of gender as a series of categories that map onto simple binaries (Walkerdine, 1985; 1988; Walkerdine and Lucey, 1989; Luke and Luke, 1992) coupled to an ‘othering’ of one sex in opposition to another, so that all the virtue (or for that matter, all the disadvantage) is perceived to be located on one side (Paechter, 1998). I have already shown, in discussing developments in the teaching of writing, how more recently, in relation to the narratives of popular culture, researchers such as Anne Haas Dyson in the USA and Jackie Marsh in the UK have been able to shift children’s discourse away from a one-dimensional divide into gender positive and gender negative stereotyping of experience. Researchers acknowledge that the popular discourses that are introduced into the classroom to build on children’s interests and private pleasures may carry messages that disturb adults through their perpetuation of oppressive norms (Marsh and Millard, 2000). Marsh (1999; 2000) and Dyson (1995; 1996; 1997; 1999) both show how children can be enabled to transform their understanding through sensitive interaction with each other within the guidance of a responsive teacher. Their positioning of the teacher’s function as one of helping children to deconstruct gender role in context ties in with current postmodern understanding of the way in which the deconstruction of gender discourse can promote the development of wider possibilities for both boys and girls. Most important to this work is the understanding that an overemphasis on confronting gendered practices in school through anti-sexist programmes which emphasize the differences in boys’ and girls’ culture may actually work to reify rather than unsettle prevailing norms.

This was the conclusion of Thorne who, in analysing the socializing aspects of play, emphasized the importance of escaping from binary polarities to an understanding that ‘gender takes shape in a complex interaction with other social divisions, such as age, class, race, ethnicity and religion’ (1993: 109). When gender difference is emphasized by teachers, she suggests that children begin to engage in complex border work which exaggerates rather than ameliorates conflict and difference. It is a process which Francis (1998: 164) has described as gender category maintenance, something that works against an understanding of ‘innate equality.’

In contrast to enumerating simple polarities, postmodern theorists, while recognizing the interconnectedness of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity, point to an increasing fluidity and multiplicity in gender identification, which provide increasing possibilities for more diverse understanding of both identity construction and its maintenance. In order to encourage children’s understanding, Bronwyn Davies (1989), for example, recommended that children should be shown how to deconstruct the binary oppositions which serve to position them within particular contexts and discourses and be helped to imagine alternatives to the pervasive sense of a simple division in gender. She suggests that educationalists:

need to work hard to have access to imaginary worlds in which new metaphors, new social relations, new patterns of power and desire are explored. They need the freedom to position themselves in multiple ways, some of which will be recognisably ‘feminine,’ some as we currently understand these terms ‘masculine.’ (1989: 141)

The literacy teacher needs to make language itself the object of enquiry in order to deconstruct the storylines through which cultural difference is structured and maintained. In a similar vein, both Davies (1993; 1997) and Alloway and Gilbert (1997) focus on the importance of deconstructing masculinities, suggesting that a key task for schools is to help boys to understand the social construction of masculinity, literacy and schooling, and the practices that inscribe them as ‘masculine, literate and institutionalised’ subjects (1997: 57). Davies further points out how difficult it is for those in the ascendant half of a binary pair to see a need for change because they take their category membership to be ‘normal’ (1997: 13). Nevertheless, she argues for a more critical, social literacy whereby ‘oneself becomes a shifting, multiple text to be read.’ This means that the ‘construction of that self through discourse, through positioning within particular contexts and moments and through relations of power, is both recognised and made revisable’ (1997: 29).

It is also important for teachers and researchers to understand the way in which other binary positionings of class and race intercalate with gender in creating power relations. Glenda MacNaughton (2000) discusses the need to confront both the binary oppositions and the dualistic thinking which privilege race or gender or class. She writes:

We could see gender identity and racial/ethnic identity as dynamic and mutually constitutive. Each identity is constantly in the process of forming: each identity informs and forms the other. In other words a girl is always in the process of learning what it means to be a girl, because each of us is always in the process of forming and re-forming our gender identity. (2000: 225)

Further, she suggests that children ‘could be encouraged to think critically about their own and others’ culture and how each forms and informs identity. They could be encouraged to learn about the complexities of who we are rather than about superficial emblems of culture, such as particular foods and dances’ (2000: 226). Her emphasis is on helping children develop the emotional skills to help them to confront racism and sexism in their everyday lives. Orellana adds further to this in her proposition that ‘no-one is locked into a single position on either end of a system of binary opposites. We can all be both good and bad, both strong and weak, both students and lovers’ (1999: 80).

There is as yet, however, little research to show how, in the early years, such a focus might inform teaching and learning; and indeed, for our youngest learners perhaps, such deconstruction will be an area to treat with a sensitive awareness of children’s emergent interests and pleasures. It is all too easy for adults to colonize young children’s pleasures in order to remedy perceived ‘oppressions’ and in the process to steal away their delight or force the activity to go underground. As Misson (1998) advises, it is essential that teachers respect children’s pleasures and their own cultural choices. However, it is always possible in a complex teaching situation, such as that set up in the shared reading or enactment of a story or in the creation of improvised dramatic play, to enquire with a class about the multiplicity of narrative possibilities available and to consider together, for example, whether alternatives to zapping the aliens, monsters and warriors that dominate many boys’ written and dramatic compositions may exist, or whether there can be options other than rejection and suicide for those princesses who face social rejection. Teachers can help their classes, little by little, to unpick the multiplicity of ways in which the texts pupils prefer provide them with different ways of understanding the world by thinking through issues of discourse, knowledge and power. In reading texts together, classes can also be encouraged to understand the changing nature of gender differences and how these are constructed across cultures and time. Teachers may then begin to create further possibilities for learning which encompass new ways of imagining the world and encourage new meanings to be made and new stories to be told, no matter whether the teller of the tale in question is a boy or girl.