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A Relationship Gone Sour: Sexism and ESL.

A recent report (American Association of University Women [AAUW], 1999) states that the drop-out rate for Latina girls ages 16 to 24 has reached 30 percent. The report also notes that Latina teen pregnancy and birth rates continue to increase, unlike the rates for white and African American teenagers (AAUW, 1999). Unfortunately, few gender-related studies feature at-risk groups such as the English as a second language (ESL) Latina population (AAUW, 1992).

While linguistics research has addressed the sexist nature in language (e.g., Poynton, 1989), very few of these studies actually analyzed the role that gender plays in language learning (Pica, Holliday, Lewis, Berducci, & Newman, 1991). One study showed that ESL students listened more attentively to male speakers than to female speakers (Markham, 1988). Even so, the gender bias was counterbalanced if the female speaker was accorded expert status when being introduced (Markham, 1988). In addition, Oxford (1995) found that gender has an extreme effect on the means by which students approach language learning. Likewise, Sunderland (1994) posits that the ESL communicative methodology most often used in the classroom may be a source of gender bias itself. Sunderland (1994) concluded it is difficult to determine the extent of gender inequity in ESL classes, because so few studies have been done on the ESL population.

Teacher Expectations and School Achievement

Large gaps in students' academic differences may be more obvious because of educators' expectations of students (Gottfredson, Birdseye, & Gottfredson, 1995). According to Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968), teacher expectations of student achievement begin the first day of 1st grade. Teachers often base their expectations on what they perceive at first glance, which is significantly affected by the children's cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and language (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). Most education researchers conclude that positive teacher expectations will improve student performance and that negative expectations will damage a child's potential for school success (e.g., Goldberg, 1992).

It can be difficult, however, to interpret many of the teacher expectancy findings. West and Anderson (1976) and Brophy (1983) concluded that the impressions that students make on teachers, rather than the converse, affect the relationship between expectations and achievement. Brophy (1983) believes that teachers may expect more from those students who are academically motivated, and expect less from those students whom they perceive to be less academically oriented. Unfortunately, a student learning English as a second language may not be perceived as academically oriented. Overall, teachers' perception of students, whether based on a student's appearance or a student's accent, can affect their treatment of the students and lead to long-lasting, negative effects.

Urban schools in the United States have abundant numbers of students from different cultures; many of their families live on a low income. If teachers' expectations of low achievement are based upon culture, socioeconomic background, and language, how does this perception affect children?

There is also a plethora of research that supports the idea that physical attractiveness, socioeconomic status, race, use of standard English, and retention status are determinants in teacher expectations for academic achievement (Cecil, 1988; Crowl, 1971; Dusek & Joseph, 1983; Gaines & Davis, 1990). What implications does this have for the Latina student who, in an urban area, is more likely to have a lower socioeconomic status?

Levine and Levine (1996) state that Latino students' achievement and attainment levels in the U.S. schools are far below white students', and somewhat similar to African American students'. The ESL Latina girl must deal with more than just an English language deficit. She must learn to accept gender inequalities in order to be liked and accepted by both peers and educators. To break this cycle, educators must become agents of change.

Recommendations for Improvement

School administrators must learn about gender equity, and relate it to their own schools. In so doing, they need to examine their own belief systems, and how those beliefs affect their decision-making process. Teachers would accept the idea of gender equity more readily if they understood how it is relevant to their classrooms. Videotaping classes so that each teacher could check for signs of gender-differentiated treatment could be a first step. To dispel stereotypes, educators must learn about their students' cultural backgrounds, perhaps spending more time with the families.


Research has shown that sexism still exists, as evident in the language and materials that are often used in the classroom. As a result, female students' academic potential often is shortchanged. ESL students' language and cultural differences may compound the problem. Both regular education and ESL teachers need to keep abreast of current research on sexism in education and be aware of what is occurring in their own classrooms.


American Association of University Women. (1992). How schools shortchange girls. New York: Marlowe & Company.

American Association of University Women. (1999). Gender gaps: Where schools still fail our children. New York: Marlowe & Company.

Brophy, J. E. (1983). Research on the self-fullfilling prophecy and teacher expectations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 75(5), 631-661.

Cecil, N. L. (1988). Black dialect and academic success: A study of teacher expectations. Reading Improvement, 25(1), 34-38.

Crowl, T. K. (1971). White teachers' expectations to students' evaluations of oral responses given by white and negro ninth grade males. (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1970). Dissertation Abstracts, 31, 4540-A.

Dusek, J. B., & Joseph, B. (1983). The bases of teacher expectancies: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 75(3), 327-346.

Gaines, M. L., & Davis, M. (1990, April). Accuracy of teacher predictions of elementary school achievement (Report No. ED 320 942). Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Boston, MA.

Goldberg, C. (1992). The limits of expectations: A case-for-case knowledge about teacher expectancy effects. American Educational Research Journal, 29(3), 517-544.

Gottfredson, D., Birdseye, A., & Gottfredson, G. (1995). Increasing teacher expectations for student achievement. The Journal of Education Research, 88(3), 155-163.

Levine, D. U., & Levine, R. E (1996). Society and education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Markham, E. (1988). Gender and the perceived expertness of speaker as factors in ESL listening recall. TESOL Quarterly, 20, 397-406.

Oxford, R. L. (1995). Gender differences in language learning styles: What do they mean? In J. M. Reid (Ed.), Learning in the ESL/EFL classroom (pp. 3446). New York: Heinle & Heinle.

Pica, T., Holliday, L., Lewis, N., Berducci, D., & Newman, J. (1991). Language learning through interaction: What role does gender play? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 13(3), 346-376.

Poynton, C. (1989). Language and gender. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Sadker, M., & Sadker, D. (1994). Failing at fairness. New York: Touchstone.

Sunderland, J. (1994). Exploring gender: Questions and implications for English language education. New York: Prentice Hall.

U.S. Census Bureau. (1995). (On-line access).

West, C., & Anderson, T. (1976). The question of preponderant causation in teacher expectancy research. Review of Educational Research, 46, 613-630.

Jan Guidry is Assistant Professor, Professional Studies in Education, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Pennsylvania.
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Author:Guidry, Jan
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 6, 2000
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