Gender in the language classroom

Alex Case
Classroom issues connected to gender and interesting ways of using that topic in classes of various ages

Very young learners

Although it is still controversial, researchers seem to be coming round to the idea that some interests and behaviours are naturally more prevalent in one sex than the other. Even by the age of two, some culturally determined roles will also be obvious in the kids. It may therefore be able to judge something about your class just from the number of boys and girls on the register. What we can say for sure is that every class you have will have differences in interests and behaviour, some of which will echo what are generally considered to be gender differences. If your assumptions about gender and the class turn out to be wrong, you should still find that you have planned a good mix of activities that appeal to everyone, e.g. some cute animal flashcards and some fierce and scary ones, and some running around games and some sitting down crafts. If you make sure you keep an open mind, you can then adjust your classes depending on how well they go down, all the while still making sure that students with minority interests are catered for.

It is also possible to use gender as content of the class, even at this young age (and usually low language level). One nice one is to ask students to pretend to “put on a hat”, “put on some socks” and “put on a skirt”, with the boys hopefully listening and thinking carefully enough to refuse to do the last one. Stories for young children often have clear gender differences in them, especially when it comes to Mum and Dad. You can use these to get students predicting what the characters will do, but you might want to try and find some materials where the gender roles are less stereotypical.

Young learners

As students reach the age of about four or five they learn to work in teams and are motivated by competition between them. You can also start to do pairwork and group work around the same time, starting with arts and crafts and moving on to more “adult” activities like information gaps and board games from around seven years old. The choice then is often whether to sit boys together or mix them up with girls. Boys and girls competing against each other is often very motivating, and the quiet girls might be annoyed by having to work with boisterous boys if you mix the groups up. The problems with dividing into male and female groups include:

  • Quieter boys being irritated by more badly behaved ones, and perhaps not learning as much as they could if put together with some “good girls”
  • Tomboys who are rejected by their fellow girls and/or would prefer to work together with boys who they are likely to have more in common and have more fun with
  • Games and other activities which you know even before you start that one team (meaning one gender) is very likely to win even, e.g. drawing races where hastily scrawled sketches always win
  • Especially if they are split up into single-sex groups elsewhere, they might learn the embarrassment mentioned with teens below earlier than they otherwise would have
  • Many teachers find that sitting boys and girls together improves discipline in the classroom

Solutions include alternating this kind of division of the class with others (e.g. pairing up strong and weak students, choosing groups randomly, or putting all the strong students together), games which mix up different skills (e.g. listening clearly and then running), or scoring in different ways in the same game (e.g. one point for the quickest piece of work and one point for the tidiest).

Gender can be used as a topic at these ages with activities such as guessing whether someone is a boy or a girl, e.g. from descriptions of their daily routines. Fairytales tend to be popular with this age of students, and unusual gender roles (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood being the one who rescues the woodcutter from the wolf, as in Roald Dahl’s version) can provide them with the surprise and humour that they love.

Teens and pre-teens

Although there are usually some gender-based differences in interests and attitudes to study at this age too, mixing with the other sex tends to be by far the biggest issue. I once did a mingling in a class of thirty Japanese nineteen to twenty-three year olds in which the boys somehow managed to only mingle with boys, while the girls also got on with the activity in their corner of the room.

These kinds of problems are common with teenagers, and are likely to be worse in countries where different sexes of the same age rarely mix outside your class, e.g. where single sex schools are common and/or opposite sex friends are rare or even taboo. It is difficult to know what to do, as no classroom activities can make their hormones go away! It might be worth the effort to do something about it, however, if:

  • A limited number of one or the other gender in your class means that they always work with the same people
  • Always working with someone of the same gender means that their partners don’t match them very well in other ways, e.g. work rate, attitude to being in class, different levels, or personality clashes
  • Never becoming comfortable working together severely limiting the range of activities that you can do in class (e.g. no mingles, whole class speaking or rotating roleplays)
  • They are planning on studying or travelling in a country where they will be expected to mix naturally with the other sex
  • A reluctance to speak out in class means they really never share their ideas with people they aren’t sitting with

Possible solutions include:

  • Let them sit with whoever they like at the beginning of the class, but always have an activity where they have to move to a completely different part of the classroom and work with someone else
  • Make some of the seating changes random, e.g. picking a number out of a bag
  • Make some of the mixes between sexes a natural part of the activity, e.g. the boys arguing that women already have equal rights and women arguing that they don’t in pairs (after preparing their arguments with someone of their own gender), or a roleplay with a mother and father and a kid and/or the kid’s teacher
  • Ask them to discuss the topic of mixing with other sexes and varying attitudes in other countries, starting in same sex groups and then comparing ideas with the other sex
  • Start by putting them in bigger groups with at least two people of each gender before expecting them to work in mixed-gender pairs
  • When mixing genders, avoid all possibly uncomfortable topics and asking very personal questions. This can be done by asking them to take on particular roles (e.g. a shopkeeper and customer) rather than giving their own opinions

Although you have to be careful about embarrassing people or giving them ammunition to tease each other with, there are topics connected to gender that can be popular at this age. One is to ask the girls to list the most important positive attributes of men in order of importance (perhaps avoiding physical attributes if they are likely to go too far) and then to predict what the boys will write in the top ten list about girls. The boys also get together separately to make their own list about girls and to make predictions of what the girls will decide. The two groups then compare their predictions with what the other group wrote, perhaps challenging them if they think they aren’t being honest (e.g. claiming not to be interested in money or looks).

Another topic that works well with teens and adults is to give them a list of behaviours, appearance etc (e.g. “Smoking in public”, “Holding hands with someone of the same sex”, or “Using moisturiser on their face every night”) and ask them to decide on how acceptable or desirable those things are for each gender. They can then compare their ideas with other groups. At this age you will need to design your worksheet and the activities carefully so that it is not likely to lead to teasing of or embarrassment by someone who one of the sentences is true about.

Debates on the roles of men and women can also work very well with teenagers, often making a student who feels strongly about it contribute even in a class that they are usually too shy to speak out in.

Another good topic is how unacceptable certain sexist things are, with people who think they are for completely equal rights surprising themselves that they actually don’t think it is okay for a woman to ask a man out and a person who thinks of themselves as a total male chauvinist admitting that women at work is better than men having to work in underwear shops.

There are also other lessons that work well, but only if you ask them to take on roles, e.g. doing a version of the television show Blind Date.


In some cultures there are also issues with adult females mixing with male non-family members, but these people tend to take single sex classes. In mixed-culture classes, even if women are happy to work with men, there might be issues with misunderstanding eye contact, bodily contact (e.g. touching someone on the forearm when talking to them) and compliments. There is also the chance, of course, that these things do represent over the top flirting that someone might not be comfortable with, or which might make the other classmates feel like gooseberries if they are comfortable with it! It might be worth having a discussion on cultural differences about these kinds of things.

Other possible issues:

  • In some cultures men, especially older men, expect to dominate the conversation or even to be agreed with.
  • Gender-specific language problems. For example, older Turkish and Japanese men tend to have problems with English intonation because they feel that too much range makes them sound effeminate, leading to boring and bored-sounding speech that can be a real problem in business
  • Sexist language, jokes and attitudes by the students
  • Sexist materials (including perhaps materials you make yourself, if you aren’t careful)
  • Gender-specific language

Gender-specific language also makes for a good lesson, e.g. teaching that a man’s wallet and a women’s purse might look exactly the same, and then wondering why it is so bad to talk to a man about “his purse”. This can lead onto words which are not necessarily gender-specific but in practice tend to be, e.g. “nurse” and “nagging”. This topic then has obvious further links onto sexist language and behaviour. PC attempts to tackle this, e.g. “(s)he” and “humankind”, can also make for a good lesson in higher level groups, because they are both learning vocabulary and discussing an interesting topic.

Most of the lesson ideas mentioned for teenagers above will also work with adults, but one difference I have found is that some women will neither forgive nor forget really sexist comments from a male classmate, unlike with teenagers where it seems to be understood that boys will play up their macho side to impress the other boys. This danger can be lessened by giving them roleplay cards (e.g. “You are an 80 year old ex-headmaster of a boys’ school. Try to make all the views that you express belong to this person”) or by making the topics obviously not serious (e.g. drawing the male and female brain).

Things to look out for in materials include:

  • Outdated politically incorrect language like “fireman” and “air stewardess”
  • Those kinds of jobs always being linked to one of the two genders
  • Numbers of male and female characters
  • Status of those characters, e.g. the boss always being male and the secretary being female or the doctor being male and the nurse being female
  • Stereotypical speech and actions, e.g. nagging by women
Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.