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Review of  Gender Representation in Learning Materials

Reviewer: Adriana Picoral
Book Title: Gender Representation in Learning Materials
Book Author: Abolaji S. Mustapha Sara Mills
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 27.2949

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Gender Representation in Learning Materials, edited by Sara Mills and Abolaji S. Mustapha, aims at inspiring teachers to help students think critically about gender representations. The editors also emphasize that the book explores these representation issues from an international perspective, including studies held in different countries around the world. The book is divided into three parts. Part One explores theoretical aspects of textbook analysis pertaining to gender representation. Part Two contains 4 chapters on textual analysis of textbooks. The third and last part presents essays that explore how teachers and learners interact with gender representations found in textbooks.

Part One, “Theories of Representation in Relation to Textbooks,” includes a chapter by the editors and a chapter by Jane Sunderland, who has written extensively on gender issues in language, literacy and language education (such as Sunderland 2004 and 2012). In the first chapter, Mustapha and Mills provide an overview of the research by discussing findings from the literature spanning from the 1970s to today. Three chronological phases of research in the field are explored: a first phase where scholars brought awareness to the issue of gender imbalance in learning materials, a second phase where follow-up studies assessed changes, and a third and more recent phase that goes beyond the content of textbooks and analyze how teachers and students deal with the materials. All three phases are discussed in an international context, with the authors expanding on what parts of the world each phase has been more successful in. The authors end this chapter with suggestions for further research, arguing for the need for studies that look into teacher training and the involvement of other stakeholders such as parents and government officials. In the second essay, Jane Sunderland discusses different aspects of textbook analysis, from the question of which genre should the analyst focus on to different ways to analyze the text, including approaches to deal with multimodality. She also argues for analyses of both how teachers and students use classroom materials and how representation decisions are made during textbook production.

Part Two, “Textual Analysis,” contains 4 studies that address gender representation issues found in textbook content. In the first chapter, “Gender representation in Hong Kong Primary English-Language Textbooks: A corpus study,” Jackie Lee and Peter Collins analyze two editions of the same textbook published 17 years apart. They confirm the findings of the literature – there have been improvements in gender representation, with more women being represented, but more progress is still needed. This is also Christine Ott’s conclusion in her chapter, titled “Innocent Maths? Gender Representations in German Maths Books.” Her analysis of gender representation in 12 math textbooks in German included not only a three-level linguistic analysis of the content (i.e., lexical, preposition, and textual levels) but also guided interviews with school authorities, authors and editors. Ott explores a variety of issues in gender representation, including jobs and gender, family relationships and heteronormativity.

Also in Part Two, Ebru Bağ and Yasemin Bayyurt adopt both quantitative and qualitative approaches in their chapter, “Gender Representations in EFL Textbooks in Turkey.” The authors’ study focuses on gender equality and equity issues in EFL textbooks used in grades 4 to 8 in Turkish schools. They center their analysis on textbook content, by counting pronouns, proper names, the number of males and females both in illustrations and as main characters in some of the readings. Qualitatively, they looked at what jobs men and women are described to hold, what family relationships were present, who is responsible for household chores, what kind of toys boys and girls play with in both the illustrations and the reading passages, among others. Once again, the authors’ findings suggest that although there has been widening of possible roles female characters assume, there is still a lot of room for improvement in representation. For example, their findings indicate that men are not represented in roles traditionally occupied by women.

The last chapter in Part Two, “Gender Stereotyping and Linguistic Sexism in Qatari Teaching Materials,” expands on recent research on gender representation in school textbooks used in Qatar. In their study, Eslami et al. conducted interviews with teachers and students to collect information on awareness and perception of gender representation issues in classroom materials. Their findings indicate that both teachers and students in Qatar hold very traditional views of male and female roles. The authors also conclude that it is necessary to go beyond textbook content and include issues related to society, religion and culture in gender representation analyses.

Part Three, “Beyond the Text,” contains 5 chapters, each presenting a different research perspective that focuses on how teachers and students construct and deal with gender representations. In the first chapter in this part, “Textual Representation and Transformations in Teacher Masculinity,” Roslyn Appleby discusses her findings from interviews with 7 male native speakers of English who were teaching or had taught EFL in conversation schools in Japan. Following a discourse analysis approach, she examined how these teachers built their masculine pedagogical self. Appleby explores each teacher’s perceptions of being a western man in Japan and being a teacher, and how these two parts of their identity interact with each other. The author concludes that gender and sexuality do impact language teaching, and thus should be the focus of future research.

In the second chapter, “Finnish teachers Exploring Gender Bias in School Textbooks,” Liisa Tainio and Ulla Karvonen discuss their two-part study in detail. First, using a critical discourse analysis approach, they explored gender representation in 59 textbooks used in basic education in Finland (grades 3, 6 and 9). The authors analyzed every textbook used in three subject matters: mother tongue, mathematics and vocational education. In the second part of their study, using a conversation analysis approach, Tainio and Karvonen analyzed the conversations of two pairs of teachers discussing how gender is represented in the same materials investigated by the authors in the first part of their study. As in other studies, the analysis of the textbooks shows that some representation problems still persist, especially heteronormativity. As for the conversation analysis, the authors conclude that the teachers showed a tendency to discuss boys and girls in terms of binary opposition.

Using an adapted version of CDA, Abolaji S. Mustapha goes beyond the written words and focuses on visual representations in his chapter, “Gender Positioning through Visual Images in English-Language Textbooks in Nigeria.” The author analyzed how women and men are positioned in the pictures found in nine English-language textbooks used in Nigeria. Mustapha confirms the findings of other studies by concluding that the materials he analyzed show men as having more status and being more active than women.

Ekaterina Moore, in “Gender Socialisation through Literary Texts: A Study of Two Folk Tales Used in a Russian Preschool,” examined gender representation in two folk tales commonly taught to Russian preschoolers. She also analyzed how a teacher presented these two tales to her 4-year-old students, who were to reenact each story guided by their teacher. For the textual analysis, the author counted the number of characters, the amount of talk done by each character, the roles assigned to them, and what order they appear in the story. For the analysis of the teacher’s speech, the author compared the teacher’s version of the story with the original version regarding both role assignment and amount of talk each student performed. Moore also analyzed the teacher’s use of diminutives and her pitch when reading off each character’s voice. The author concludes that although the male characters talk more in the text in the original versions, the teacher’s modified version of the stories allowed all students equal speaking opportunities. Moore also argues that the representation of the characters in the books and the way the teacher alters her pitch for each character in the stories provides the students with a wide range of gendered behaviors.

Following a feminist Critical Discourse Analysis approach, Joanna Pawelczyk and Łukasz Pakuła’s chapter, “Constructing Gender and Sexuality in the EFL Classroom in Poland: Textbook Construction and Classroom Negotiation?” provides an analysis of gender representation in EFL textbooks commonly used in primary schools in Poland. Since the authors looked at both the text and the images in conjunction, they call their approach multimodal. Pawelczyk and Pakuła also focused on the instructions in the teacher’s book, and how these compared with what the teachers actually did in the classroom. Although the authors do not specify how many lessons were recorded and observed, they included in their chapter some analysis of how the observed teachers dealt with gender in class. In the textbook content analysis, their findings reiterate what others have found – some representations are progressive, others are more traditional, but heteronormative is still strongly present. From their classroom observations, Pawelczyk and Pakuła conclude that the teachers presented the materials as gendered even when the textbook did not do so, with some activities being assigned to boys and others to girls. For example, when practicing conditionals, the teacher determined that only girls should complete the “If I were a flower, I’d…” sentence, while only boys were to complete the “If I were a car, I’d…” sentence.


“Gender Representation in Learning Materials” presents a broad perspective on the field, and it is a useful resource to anyone interested in the topic. The book as a whole offers a good overview of how to approach this type of analysis, from quantitative to qualitative methods. It also offers a good variety of contexts, from countries like Qatar, Finland, Turkey and Russia.

The introductory chapter by Jane Sunderland is especially useful for analysts. She raises important issues regarding different types of analysis, from linguistic to multimodal. She also offers a number of germane suggestions on how to conduct analyses and what to analyze . I would recommend this chapter to any scholar who does textbook analysis.

Embodying Sunderland’s suggestions, Mustapha’s chapter presents a good starting point on how to analyze images in textbooks. He also offers strong arguments for this kind of visual analysis. Also illustrating some of Sunderland’s suggestions, Christine Ott presents a broader analysis of learning materials, going beyond language content and including perceptions of experts involved in textbook review and approval in different states in Germany. Although Ott claims that her discourse analysis model is composed of three levels, her essay explores only two of these three: the actor-oriented (i.e., interviews with people involved in textbook production, review and approval) and intratextual levels (i.e., analysis of the linguistic context of the textbook), leaving the transtextual (i.e., sociohistorical contexts that link discursively the textbooks being analyzed with other previously analyzed textbooks) mostly unexplored. However, her contextualization of the education system in Germany is comprehensive and pertinent to the topic. The author also approaches issues that are not explored in other studies, such as the use of dichotomous gender language, which makes a clear distinction between male and female roles or characters, versus the use of hybrid language forms, which makes it harder for the textbook user to assign a binary gender to characters or people in the text.

In general, each chapter is coherent and cohesive within itself, also fitting well with the book as a whole. Moore’s and Appleby’s chapters are good examples of how well-organized chapters should look, with clearly titled subsections that present each part of their studies, from methods to findings. Appleby connects concepts with excerpts from her interviews in a clear and concise manner. Moore’s research approach is also comprehensive. Her pitch analysis technique is innovative, differing from the other research methods used in the book.

Tainio and Karvonen’s chapter is also well organized, and each part of their study and findings are clearly explained. The chapter raises interesting issues regarding teachers’ perceptions of social gender and biological sex. It also touches on immigration issues in schools in Finland. Their findings show that even in an educational system that is praised worldwide, teachers could benefit from gender awareness training.

Eslami et al. also offer a different perspective from the other essays in the book, especially because the studies discussed in their chapter were conducted in a country whose official religion is Islam. The authors successfully discuss the complexities involved in seeking equal representation in school materials when the very concepts of gender equality and equity conflict with what children learn at home.

On the other hand, Lee and Collins’s study replicates corpus analyses used in other studies, following a previously explored and quantitative approach. In addition, they do not address issues of sexuality, skipping altogether any discussion on heteronormativity. Both textbook editions the authors analyzed are relatively old (one published in 1988 and the other in 2005), which does serve the authors’ purpose since they were interested in how gender representation evolved in these materials after political and educational changes in Hong Kong. It is important to keep in mind that not all students and teachers have access to modern books. Some textbooks still in use today around the world, including ESL classrooms in the US, have been published a long time ago. That is certainly another reason why it is extremely important for teachers to be aware of these representation issues.

However, not all chapters are clear and well-organized. Bağ and Bayyurt present a lot of relevant data, but in a confusing way. The pie charts that present the quantitative data are very difficult to read, rendering them useless. In addition, the authors did not make use of tables to organize their findings on gender and jobs. Bağ and Bayyurt do bring up a number of pertinent issues such as teacher training, but the chapter is a little repetitive and confusing. On the other hand, they offer a comprehensive contextualization of how the issue of gender representation in textbooks has been dealt with throughout the years by scholars and the government in Turkey.

All in all, this book fills a gap in the literature and achieves the goal of bringing together a broad set of approaches to a topic that has intrigued scholars for decades. I am not sure every chapter would appeal to and inspire classroom teachers as the editors intended, since many of the studies are highly technical. However, whether the reader is interested in just one of the approaches used in discourse analysis regarding gender representation in learning materials or whether she is looking for an expansive perspective of the field, this volume offers it all.


Sunderland, J. (2012). Teaching gender and language. In Teaching Gender (pp. 102-121). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Sunderland, J. (2004). Gendered discourses. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Adriana Picoral is a PhD student in the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching program at University of Arizona. She holds a BSc in Computer Science, and an MA degree in TESOL from The New School. Her research interests include the study of human cognitive, language, literacy and learning processes in both formal and informal instructional contexts. She also has an interest in human language processing, discourse analysis and teacher education. Her ultimate goal is to design instructional procedures that enhance additional language learning.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781138790629
Pages: 250
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