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Gender differences and equal opportunities in the ESL classroom Ali Shehadeh

There is good evidence from cross-gender conversations between the various possible combinations of native speakers (NS) and non-native speakers (NNS) to suggest that men and women tend to use conversation for different purposes. It would appear that men take advantage of the conversation in a way that allows them to promote their performance/ production ability, whereas women utilize the conversation to promote their comprehension ability. The main pedagogical conclusion to be drawn from the available evidence is that the ESL/EFL teacher, equipped with a good syllabus and a good methodology, should be able to engineer situations that create equal opportunities for both males and females in all aspects of classroom interaction. However, the article also suggests that more empirical research needs to be done into (a) the origin(s) of gender difference (biological/innate, psychological, or socio-cultural), and (b) its effect on second language learning.


It has generally been assumed in the field of second language1 (L2) learning and teaching that there are various factors, external and internal, which affect language learning. These factors include the role of the first language, setting differences and the role of instruction, age differences, individual learner differences, and gender differences. The importance of examining these factors is that they might enable us, for instance, to specify the nature of the input that best suits L2 learners comprehension, and the nature of the output which they produce at a particular stage of their learning. For example, Larsen-Freeman (1985: 434) writes: In input studies, the more we know about the learner - not only his or her L1, but also his or her age, socioeconomic status, target language proficiency, sex, opportunities for interaction with target language speakers, conditions under which the learning took place, etc. - the more we will know about the nature of the input the learner is likely to receive. Knowing the extent to which these factors, gender included, affect L2 learning and teaching may provide us with insights which help L2 teachers make language learning more effective. Viewed from this perspective, it follows that gender differences may have implications for L2 learning, teaching, and assessment (Swann 1992). As will be shown below, empirical studies and observations have indeed shown that


ELT Journal Volume 53/4 October 1999 Oxford University Press 1999



differences between males and females play different roles in native speaker-native speaker (NS/NS), native speaker - non-native speaker (NS/NNS), and non-native speaker - non-native speaker (NNS/NNS) interaction with regard to the negotiation of meaning, dominance, interpersonal relations, and opportunities for comprehensible input and comprehensible output. Native speaker native speaker
(NS/NS) interaction

First of all, in male NS/female NS interactions, it has been observed that males tend to dominate the conversation, make more interruptions, give frequent complimentary and admiration tokens (such as oh great!, fantastic!, how wonderful!, etc.) to what their female interlocutors are saying than females (Williams 1989). Similarly, many studies which looked at face-to-face cross-sex conversations among NSs have observed that females were subject to interruptions more frequently than males, with males attempting to exercise more dominance over the conversation (e.g. Zimmerman and West 1975, West and Zimmerman 1983). For example, Zimmerman and West (1975: 125) have observed that males assert an asymmetrical right to control topics and do so without evident repercussions. They also observed that men tend to deny equal rights to women as conversational partners with respect to rights to the full utilization of their turns and support for the development of topics

Native speakers

non-native speaker


In the context of NS/NNS interaction, research also found genderrelated differences. For example, Pica, Holliday, Lewis, and Morgenthaler (1989) looked at interlanguage (IL) modifications by NNSs in response to NS requests for clarification on three communication tasks (information-gap, jigsaw, and discussion). Their subjects consisted of ten adult Japanese NNSs of English (five males and five females) interacting in English with one of ten female adult NSs of English. Pica et al. found that men made the strongest morphosyntactic modification to their output when interacting with female NSs on the discussion task. In other words, in male NNS/female NS dyads there was more frequent male morphosyntactic modification than in female NNS/female NS dyads, and proportionately more than in the other two tasks. These results imply that gender differences may also play a role in NS/NNS interactions, in particular on tasks whose successful completion involves the provision of optional information, and where both parties have equal opportunities to participate (such as the discussion task), rather than on those tasks whose successful completion involves the provision of specific information from each interlocutor, thereby creating a more restricted environment for turn allocations (such as the information-gap and jigsaw tasks). In a study specifically designed to investigate the effect of gender in NNS/NNS interaction, Gass and Varonis (1986) collected data from 20 NNS Japanese adults of English interacting on three communication tasks: one was a conversation, the other two were picture-description tasks. The 20 NNSs formed ten dyads: four were male/female pairs,
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Non-native speaker - nonnative speaker (NNS/NNS) interaction



three were male/male pairs and three were female/female pairs. The conversation task was open-ended, and informants were encouraged to talk about topics of their own choice with no other constraints placed on them. In the picture-description tasks, one interactant had to describe a picture while his/her speech partner attempted to reproduce it; then - for the sake of the second picture-description task - they switched roles and proceeded with a different picture. The overall results of the study suggest that there are differences between men and women in the amount each participates in the conversation, and in the control each has over the direction of the interaction. Gass and Varonis (1986: 349) summarize the findings of their study as follows: Men took greater advantage of the opportunities to use the conversation in a way that allowed them to produce a greater amount of comprehensible output, whereas women utilized the conversation to obtain a greater amount of comprehensible input. In a more detailed study, Shehadeh (1994) collected data from 35 (16 male, 19 female) adult subjects, ranging in age from 22 to 37 years. There were eight NSs (four males and four females) and 27 NNSs of English (12 males and 15 females). Most of the NNS informants were acquainted with each other as ESL classmates on the same course. The NNSs represented 13 different first language (L1) backgrounds. These included Afrikaans, Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Farsi, French, Greek, Italian, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, and Spanish. Three communication tasks were used to collect data: a picture-dictation task, an opinion-exchange task, and a decision-making task. The first two tasks were performed in pairs (NS/NNS and NNS/NNS) and the third in groups of NNSs. Dyadic interactions were audio-taped and group interactions were both audio- and video-taped. The distribution of informants with regard to gender was as follows: On the dyadic encounters (picture-dictation and opinion-exchange tasks), there were 16 dyads: eight NS/NNS pairs and eight NNS/NNS pairs. The former grouping consisted of four male/male pairs and four female/female pairs. The latter grouping consisted of three male/male pairs and five female/ female pairs. On the decision-making task, there were six males and five females spread between two groups (i.e. three males/three females and three males/two females). The study found that same-gender dyadic interaction provided better contexts for females to (a) self-initiate repair and (b) produce comprehensible output than males; whereas group mixed-gender interaction provided better contexts for males to (a) request clarification, (b) self-initiate repair, and (c) produce comprehensible output than females. The findings of Shehadehs study support those reported by Gass and Varonis (1986) and Pica et al. (1989) in that men appeared to take greater advantage in the group activity (a mixed-sex task) to use the conversation in a way that allowed them to retain the turn, enjoy a greater amount of talk, and thus produce a greater amount of comprehensible output than women. But Shehadehs study also revealed
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that same-sex dyads offered women comparatively greater opportunities to produce comprehensible output than men. It is not yet clear whether these differences in gender are innately/biologically determined, or psychologically and/or socio-culturally bound. In other words, it may be that some gender differences in L2 learning are socio-culturally bound because it is more acceptable in some cultures and subcultures than in others for men and women to communicate freely and casually with each other at work and in social situations. On the other hand, these differences may be biologically/innately determined. For example, Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University (e.g. Tannen 1990) found that the way men talk to men is very different from the way women talk to women. These differences in communication style and communication strategy may result in different strengths and weaknesses in terms of second language learning that might correlate with gender. However, there is another class of researchers, such as Celce-Murcia (1997), who believe that male-female interactional differences have socio-cultural as well as gender-based origins: such stereotyping is cultural as much as it is biological. However, as Celce-Murcia (ibid.) also points out: There are researchers working on the neurobiology of language . . . who believe that male and female brains exhibit certain structural differences related to the biological differences between the sexes (hormones, etc.) and that these differences may indeed correlate with differences in cognition and SLA [second language acquisition]. It is hard to see what is true. There is little empirical evidence.
Conversation, negotiation of meaning, and language learning

One aspect of the findings reported earlier shows that difference of gender enables men and women to play different roles in conversation. Namely, in mixed-gender conversations, males seem to take more opportunities to talk, to dominate the conversation, to make a greater number of self- and other- initiated repairs, and to produce comprehensible output; whereas females seem to utilize the conversation to obtain a greater amount of comprehensible input. These differences are important when we realize that conversation plays an important role in the development and progress of L2. For example, Hatch (1978) had earlier argued that syntax develops out of conversation: One learns how to do conversation, one learns how to interact verbally, and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed (Hatch 1978: 404). Gass and Varonis (1986: 348) also argue that Conversation . . . provided the input that learners used for building syntactic structures, while Long (1996) suggests that conversation creates more opportunities for the negotiation of meaning. This negotiation of meaning, in turn, creates greater opportunities for the provision of comprehensible input (Krashen 1994) and for the production of comprehensible output (Swain 1995). And these - the provision of comprehensible input and the production of comprehensible output - are crucial requirements for progress and development in the second language, since the former assists L2 learners receptive skills (listening and reading), and the latter assists their performance/productive skills (speaking and writing).
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Viewed from this perspective, the results of empirical studies and observations reported earlier imply that males in mixed-gender interaction have greater and better opportunities to communicate, promote their productive skills, and progress in the second language, than females. So, what, then, is to be done? Communicative language
teaching and taskbased pedagogy

One of the main underlying principles of negotiated interaction studies (such as the ones reported earlier) is that they emphasize task-based instruction and learner/learner interaction in the L2 classroom, teaching techniques which are also emphasized by the communicative language teaching. Indeed, in the communicative language teaching approach, interactions which involve problem-solving, decision-making, opinionexchange, picture-dictation, and jigsaw tasks are considered standard communicative exercises for developing fluency in the target language (e.g. Widdowson 1990). In terms of classroom interaction, this means that teachers and educators must find/devise ways that take into consideration these gender differences (whether they are biologically/ innately, psychologically, or socio-culturally determined) by engineering situations that give equal opportunities for men and women in pair work, group work, role play, and selection of tasks, including other activities and aspects of classroom interaction. One way of doing this, for instance, is by giving the female interactant more control over the task at hand (as in the case of picture-dictation, information-gap, and jigsaw tasks). Another way is by selecting tasks and activities that appeal to both males and females. For example, in Shehadehs (1994) study, females were more inclined to be engaged in activities of a social, legal, or cultural nature; whereas men were more inclined to be engaged in tasks of a political or historical nature.2

Summary and conclusion

There is fairly consistent evidence from NS/NS, NS/NNS, and NNS/NNS cross-gender conversations to suggest that men and women seem to play different roles in conversation with regard to the negotiation of meaning, dominance, interpersonal relations, amount of talk, leading the conversation, interlanguage modifications, and opportunities for comprehensible input and comprehensible output. It is not yet clear whether these apparent differences are innate/biological or sociocultural. Nor is it clear at this stage how much these differences affect classroom situations, progress, and final achievement in the L2. However, the available evidence shows that in mixed-sex tasks men appear to take greater advantage than females of opportunities to communicate, promote their productive skills, and progress in the L2. These conclusions must remain preliminary, to be confirmed, altered, or discarded in the light of further empirical investigation, because only a limited amount of serious research has been done to trace the origin(s) of gender difference (biological/innate, psychological, or socio-cultural) and its effect on L2 learning. Nevertheless, the main pedagogical conclusion to be drawn from the available evidence is that the ESL/EFL


Ali Shehadeh



teacher, equipped with a good syllabus and a good methodology, should be able to engineer situations that create and provide equal opportunities for both males and females in all aspects of classroom interaction. Received


1999 Swain, M. 1995. Three functions of output in second language learning in G. Cook and B. Seidlhofer (eds.). Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics: Studies in Honour of H. G. Widdowson (pp. 12544). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Swann, J. 1992. Girls, Boys and Language. Oxford: Blackwell. Tannen, D. 1990. You Just Dont Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. West, C. and D. Zimmerman. 1983. Small-insults: A study of interruptions in cross-sex conversations between unacquainted persons in B. Thorne, C. Kramarae, and N. Henley (eds.). Language, Gender and Society (pp. 102-17). Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House. Widdowson, H. G. 1990. Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Williams, R. 1989. Department of Sociology, University of Durham. Personal Communication (interview), 25 October 1989. Zimmerman, D. and C. West. 1975. Sex roles, interruptions and silences in conversation in B. Thome and N. Henley (eds.). Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance (pp. 105-29). Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.

1 Second language (L2) is used here and throughout to refer to both second language and foreign language. 2 This may partly account for the finding in Shehadehs (1994) study of why men used the task in the mixed-group activity (task of political nature) to their advantage, while women used the task in the same-sex activity (task of social nature) to produce more instances of comprehensible output than men. Celce-Murcia, M. 1997. Department of TESL/ Applied Linguistics, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Personal communication, 22 April 1997. Gass, S. and E. Varonis. 1986. Sex differences in non-native speaker - non-native speaker interactions in R. Day (ed.). Talking to Learn (pp. 327-52). Rowley, Mass: Newbury House. Hatch, E. 1978. Discourse analysis and second language acquisition in E. Hatch (ed.). Second Language Acquisition: A Book of Readings (pp. 401-35). Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House. Krashen, S. 1994. The input hypothesis and its rivals in N. Ellis (ed.). Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages (pp. 45-77). London: Academic Press. Larsen-Freeman, D. 1985. State of the art on input in second language acquisition in S. Gass and C. Madden (eds.). Input in Second Language Acquisition (pp. 433-44). Rowley, Mass: Newbury House. Long, M. 1996. The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition in W. Ritchie and T. J. Bhatia (eds.). Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (pp. 413-68). Orlando: Academic Press. Pica, T., L. Holliday, N. Lewis, and L. Morgenthaler. 1989. Comprehensible output as an outcome of linguistic demands on the learner. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 11/1: 63-90. Shehadeh, A. 1994. Gender differences and second language acquisition. Research Journal of Aleppo University (Arts and Humanities Series) 26: 73-98.

Ali Shehadeh is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, University of Aleppo, Syria (and currently at the College of Languages and Translation, King Saud University, Saudi Arabia). He got his MA (1988) and PhD (1991) in applied linguistics with special reference to second language acquisition (SLA) and TESL/ TEFL from the University of Durham, England. He has taught several under- and postgraduate courses in linguistics, applied linguistics, research methodology, and writing and composition, in Syria and Saudi Arabia. His areas of interest are SLA, teaching methodology, and the comprehension-performance relationship of L2 learners. E-mail:

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Gender differences and equal opportunities in the ESL classroom