Vol. 8. No. 3 R-10 December 2004
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Gender and English Language Learners

Bonny Norton and Aneta Pavlenko (2004)
Alexandria, VA: TESOL, Inc.
Pp. iii + 169
ISBN 1931185131 (paper)

Gender and English Language Learners, by Bonny Norton and Aneta Pavlenko, is a new addition to the Case Studies in TESOL Practice Series. The volumes in this series use the case study research format to present current findings in specialized areas of TESOL teaching. This format is useful because it provides for the discussion of fundamental principles while demonstrating that successful applications of these principles are particular to individual learning environments. The series is designed to suit the practical needs of educators specializing in the field of TESOL by presenting issues relevant to teaching in a manner that encourages educators to understand and solve problems within their own personal framework or classroom environment.

The book opens with an introductory chapter and is subsequently organized around four sections: Teaching for Change, Student Voices, Innovations for All, and Insights from Japan.

It may be important for prospective readers to know that Gender and English Language Learners is not a book that delves into the body of research concerning whether or not females are better language learners than males and to which factors this contestable phenomenon might be attributable. Norton and Pavlenko point out that they wish to avoid any discussion of gender and language learning that focuses on biological gender differences. In contrast, the driving force behind the feminist themes presented seems to be an orientation toward displacing the discussion concerning gender and language learning from a male/female dichotomy of superiority/inferiority altogether. The book aims to reexamine the nature of gender identity and language within the complex nexus of age, race, culture, and social identity in learning environments.

In the opening chapter they postulate that a Western perspective may distort our insight into what constitutes gender identity, as well as group membership in culture, and state that ignoring oppression in terms of class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, religion, or disability obscures any possibility that men and women within a particular group may have more in common with each other than with other groups or individuals. The salient terminology that will be used in the text is defined, the need for the arguments is presented, and the overall organization of the book is explained. This chapter provides a good solid introduction to each of the four sections that follow.

Each of the three case studies in Part 1: Teaching For Change provides evidence in support of two main concepts: the need to address gender in language learning environments as a necessary component of culture learning in the classroom and to illustrate methods for including gender related themes in ESL or EFL contexts. One aspect of this section that sets it apart from many other TESOL teaching resources is that it provides a framework for presenting gay and lesbian themes in language learning environments in a straightforward yet appropriate manner. Nelson makes two essential arguments. Firstly, ESL students from cultures where homosexuality is less accepted are likely to be confronted with situations in which they must demonstrate an understanding of our cultural norms and values towards homosexuality, and secondly, ESL students from cultures in which homosexual themes are dealt with openly, or who may be homosexual themselves, must not be forced to arrive at the conclusion that their norms and values are not respected or discussed. The case study described how one teacher dealt with personal feelings of ambiguity and discomfort, but subsequently approached and integrated gay and lesbian topics into her instruction while maintaining an emphasis on curriculum goals and without "setting up an issues-based debate" (p. 25). The chapter demonstrates how students can benefit from engaging such themes in the classroom as opposed to being subjected to a steadfast avoidance of them.

Each of the two case studies presented in Part 2: Student Voices examines the role of gender in learning environments and classroom interactions from the student's perspective. The case study of a Malaysian ESL classroom is a critical component of the book because it is the first to examine the male voice in an academic institution dominated by females. This context gave researchers an opportunity to investigate the academic achievement, motivation, and class participation of men in a largely female learning environment. Speaking in Silence: A case study of a Canadian Punjabi girl, delivers an in-depth look at the classroom dynamics, which contributed to the silence of a 2nd grade ESL child. The personalized context and vivid attention to social/linguistic detail will provide readers with a thought provoking experience and credible insight into the silent workings of the classroom environment in which the undercurrents of linguistic interaction shape the identities of young ESL students.

Part 3: Innovations For All describes various community language projects, which successfully contributed to raising awareness about sociocultural influences in the negotiation of gender roles and gendered identity. The three case studies included in this section respectively discuss the raising of awareness by: promoting literacy in a rural female population in Uganda, exploring the notion of racialized gender at an antidiscrimination camp in Canada, and examining the relationship between gender and technology at an American university. One interesting result reported in this section was that women living in rural Uganda were able to become effective disseminators of knowledge, thereby improving their social status, despite maintaining traditional female roles within the community.

The final portion of the book, Part 4: Insights From Japan provides a fitting conclusion. The three case studies detailed in these chapters each address a different aspect of the marginalized role of females in Japanese culture and how researchers sought to create learning environments that helped both male and female students acknowledge and overcome obstacles to equitable gender relations.

Final Comments

In effect, reading this book may serve to remind readers that students in ESL or EFL classrooms are not just involved in second language acquisition, but second culture acquisition as well. If this idea is to be considered a valid one, then it becomes critical to examine the manner in which motivation, access to educational experiences, interactional dynamics, and other sociolinguistic factors such as those described in the case studies included in this volume, affect the gendered identities of students endeavoring to learn English as their second language. A major attribute of Gender and English Language Learners, which makes it a valuable resource for TESOL educators, is the inclusion of practical applications that are research based and informed by the experiences of actual educators at the conclusion every chapter. An emphasis on encouraging teachers to consider their own behavior and become critically aware of the gendered aspects of curriculum and personal teaching methodologies is a recurring theme, which is consistently discussed throughout the text.

Each chapter within the four sections builds upon the previous one and the conclusions supported by the case studies are effective in constructing a cohesive and persuasive argument that sheds light on the sociocultural impact of language on gender identification and vice versa. It is also important to acknowledge that the limitations of each study included in the text are described and any mitigating factors relevant to the conclusions are presented for the benefit of the reader. However, some readers may feel that the overall premise is somewhat one sided in that there are only two case studies that address gender/gendering within language learning environments and include the male perspective.

Sarah McKnight
University of Central Florida: MA TESOL Program

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note:

Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation..
Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page