Project Details
Funding Scheme : General Research Fund
Project Number : 18602217
Project Title(English) : Construction of gender in primary literacy resources: A study of readers for Hong Kong early learners 
Project Title(Chinese) : 從香港小學閱讀資源探究兩性的塑造和定位 
Principal Investigator(English) : Prof Lee, Fung-king, Jackie 
Principal Investigator(Chinese) :  
Department : Department of Linguistics and Modern Language Studies
Institution : The Education University of Hong Kong
E-mail Address : jfklee@eduhk.hk 
Tel : 29488402 
Co - Investigator(s) :
Dr Chin, Chi On
Panel : Humanities, Social Sciences
Subject Area : Education
Exercise Year : 2017 / 18
Fund Approved : 518,892
Project Status : Completed
Completion Date : 30-6-2020
Project Objectives :
To investigate gender representation, gender relations and power in children’s readers in terms of salient linguistic features such as lexical items and syntactic construction;
To explore gender representation in English readers from a multimodal perspective by taking into account the inter-relationship between text and associated images and figures; and
To examine gender representation in English readers in terms of the content chosen.
Abstract as per original application
The present study arises from the belief that early school readers play a major role in the socialization of children’s lives and their gender development. Given that schooling is an important medium of reproducing cultures and of perpetuating the existing mechanisms of domination, the present study aims to examine how males and females are represented in early readers. The Education Bureau (EDB) has been implementing two reading schemes to promote a reading culture in Hong Kong schools: (1) the Primary Literacy Programme – Reading and Writing (Key Stage 1), and (2) Reading to Learn across the Curriculum. The Advisory Teaching Team of the Native-speaking English Teacher (NET) Section of EDB developed the books for (1). The second scheme is for schools to establish cross-curricular linkage to other Key Learning Areas (e.g., Science Education, Technology Education). Despite the popularity of the schemes, so far no attempt has yet been made to investigate how the two genders are represented in the recommended readers. The aim of the present study is to examine how female and male characters are constructed in the readers recommended by EDB as well as in those produced by local publishers. A total of 180 readers for Key Stage 1 (Primary 1-3) will be selected for the analysis. The texts will be examined at the macro and micro levels to investigate how the experiential, relational and expressive values associated with the two genders are manifested. At the macro level about story development, the problem-solution pattern will be examined. At the micro level, categories such as the frequency of appearance of the two genders, the activities they are engaged in, their occupational roles and domestic roles will be coded. The analysis also includes manual and computerised examination of lexical choice, word order, word collocation and discourse structure. Tools for critical discourse analysis will be employed to investigate the representation of social actors and social action, and the relationships of moods and speech acts in mixed-sex dialogues. The study will also include multimodal investigations of gender representation in pictures and the image-text relations. The value of the present study is that it will help heighten the public awareness of the power of book authors to position the two genders through various means, and advance our knowledge about language and gender studies in Asian regions, which is a field that has not yet been explored adequately.
為了促進香港學校的閱讀文化,香港教育局一直推行兩項閱讀計劃:(1)小學識字計劃(閱讀及寫作);(2)跨課程閱讀。「小學識字計劃」是教育局之英語教師組開發的英語教學計劃,由以英語為母語的英語教師設計。「跨課程閱讀」計劃是讓英國語文教育與其他主要學習領域(如科學教育,科技教育)建立跨學科的銜接。教育局在兩項計劃中建議一批讀物。 這項研究認為學校讀物在兒童社會化和性別發展中發揮重要作用,尤其是學校教育是傳種文化和延續現有兩性權力關係的重要媒介。儘管上述兩項閱讀計劃一直很受歡迎,但至今仍沒有對計劃內的推薦讀物中兩性的描述進行研究和分析。本研究將選出180本教育局推薦的讀物以及本地出版讀物(小學1-3年級),分析兩性在這些讀物中如何構建及定位。 本研究包括宏觀和微觀兩個層面,探討作者在兒童讀物中如何表現跟兩性相關的經驗,關係和價值觀。在宏觀層面上,我們會探討在故事發展的過程中兩性如何解決問題和衝突。在微觀層面,我們將檢視兩性的出現次數,以及他們從事的活動,職業角色和家庭角色等類別。此外,我們也會分析語言文字特徵,包括詞彙選擇、兩性在句子中出現的次序和他們的話語結構。本研究並會通過批判話語分析(critical discourse analysis)來研究男女混合對話中兩性的角色和行為,以及兩性的情緒和言語行為之間的關係。除了文字之外,本研究也會從多模角度(multi-modal)探討讀物中跟兩性有關的圖像,以及圖像和文字之間的關係。這項研究的結果將有助我們進一步了解讀物作者如何通過各種手法對兩性進行描述和定位,並提升我們對亞洲地區語言和性別研究的認識。
Realisation of objectives: In this study we examined how male and female characters are represented in popular children’s books in terms of experiential, relational and expressive values. The books analysed included the following: (1) Reading to Learn across the Curriculum Book List for Key Stage 1 (RAC) (60 books); (2) Primary Literacy Programme – Reading and Writing (PLP-R/W) (137 books); (3) Popular readers (PR) (63 books) – including stories about famous people, heroes, Hong Kong Anglophone literature, occupations, and selected books from the ‘Tina and Friends’ and ‘Oxford Story Tree’ series. The study incorporated both manual analysis and corpus tools to ensure that the analyses were robust and accurate. The manual approach facilitated data collection related to variables such as the number of male and female character types, storylines, naming practices, the activities and occupations that the characters are engaged in, visual representation, and the inter-relationships between texts and associated images. The computational approach investigated gender differences at the level of individual target words/phrases. In addition to the quantitative analysis, the study also adopted critical discourse analysis (CDA) as a framework to examine the connections between language power and ideology that may be hidden from readers. All three objectives have been fully achieved. In terms of Objective 1, salient linguistic features were examined in addition to content analysis to investigate gender representation, gender relations and power. The analyses include measuring the frequency of occurrence of feminine and masculine pronouns, familial roles, the process types and transactivity associated with gendered characters, the order of appearance, character identification and naming methods, dialogic interactions, as well as the choice of adjectives and emotion descriptions associated with females and males to communicate expressive values. The study revealed a balance of male and female appearances in PLP-R/W. A frequency count of kinship terms using corpus tools also revealed that mothers and fathers were depicted evenly in PLP-R/W. This suggests that the authors have made attempts to achieve a gender balance. On the other hand, the other two series show an under-representation of females, with the ratio of male-to-female character types being 1.22:1 for RAC and 1.70:1 for PR. A corpus examination of masculine and feminine pronouns revealed a marked gender imbalance, indicating that males were more likely to be portrayed as central characters and were anaphorically referred to more often in these books. The study also revealed a number of subtle ways in which the producers of these books perpetuate gender inequalities, either consciously or subconsciously. Examples include asymmetrical character identification and naming methods; it was noted that male characters were more likely to be identified by nomination and occupation and females by their relationships with others, which creates an image that females are more likely to depend on others for their identity. Further, more female characters were addressed by their first name and more males by their title, their full name, last name or profession, suggesting that males were accorded more respect. Another manifestation of females being less powerful than males can be seen in the different stereotypical attributes associated with the two genders: females were more often described as sweet, little and old and males as heroic, brave, adventurous, strong, sporty, big and naughty. Gender disparity was also evident in the language structure; there was a predominance of male firstness. Conversely, however, mum was more often presented before dad in all three of the book series, reinforcing parental stereotypes in the family context. Unequal power relations are also manifest in the processes and activities engaged in by the two genders. Although PLP-R/W showed a fair distribution of material and relational processes, in RAC males were more frequently associated with material processes and females with relational processes, while males dominated in all kinds of processes in PR. Males and females were also treated differently in dialogic interactions; for example, in ‘Tina and Friends’ males were found to have more turns and longer utterances and use more imperatives, while females tended to use more interrogatives. This finding shows that females are more likely to be portrayed as information-seekers and males as instruction-givers. Unbalanced language functions performed by male and female characters can limit the language practice opportunities for girls and boys in the classroom. With regard to Objective 2, we examined the experiential and interpersonal meaning potential that visual images may have for the creation of gender (in)equality based on Halliday and Matthiessen’s (2014) and Kress and Van Leeuwen’s (2006) metafunction and CDA frameworks. Similar to the textual findings, PLP-R/W was more progressive in its visual representation of females than the other two series: it depicted more female character types and had more pictures showing female characters. However, there were still relatively more ‘male-only’ books than ‘female-only’ books, and more ‘male-only’ pictures than ‘female-only’ pictures, which could convey stereotypic messages that males are more likely to play leading roles and females supporting roles, and that males are more independent than females. The improved female representation in PLP-R/W did not extend to social roles; in all three series male characters were engaged in a wider range of occupations than females, and occupational stereotyping was common. This imbalance is evident in relation to not only the central characters but also the minor characters shown in the backgrounds of images. While some illustrations corresponded with the accompanying written texts, some did not. For example, ‘parallel storytelling’ was noted in Super Mum (PR) (p. 8), where both the visual and the written text reinforced the domestic role of the mother (dish washing). There were examples showing ‘interdependent storytelling’, where the two modes have to be considered simultaneously to interpret the meaning; for example, again in Super Mum (p. 9) the written text was a dialogue about the kindness of the mother, who was shown cooking, cleaning and washing on previous pages. Meanwhile, the father was excluded from the verbal text, but in the accompanying illustration he was shown sitting on a sofa doing nothing while the apron-wearing mother was working in the kitchen. This illustration negatively reinforces the stereotype of uninvolved fatherhood and housekeeping motherhood. Regarding Objective 3, we attempted to expose any social injustice that may be present in the books examined by exploring how discriminatory gender roles were presented through content. It was noted that there was a strong tendency for book writers to associate male and female characters with sex-typed topics, interests and activities. ‘Female-only’ books included topics such as tea sets, craft making and dancing, while the ‘male-only’ books were stereotypically about males’ achievements, firefighting, risk-taking, sports and monsters. An examination of the books about famous people and heroes reveals severe gender disparities, with a predominance of males as the actors and sayers and as the central characters who offered help, solved problems or made important contributions to the world. An examination of the keywords ‘father’ and ‘mother’ revealed a gender demarcation in the books about famous people: ‘father’ was mentioned more often than ‘mother’, and fathers were more likely to play a vital role in the famous people’s success (e.g. ‘Sima Qian started learning from his father’). On the other hand, mothers were frequently associated with negative connotations (e.g. ‘Marie's mother caught a lung disease’; 'Mum died'). Hidden biases of this type in terms of sex-typed topic choice and gender role portrayal certainly seem to merit further attention.
Summary of objectives addressed:
Objectives Addressed Percentage achieved
1.To investigate gender representation, gender relations and power in children’s readers in terms of salient linguistic features such as lexical items and syntactic construction;Yes100%
2.To explore gender representation in English readers from a multimodal perspective by taking into account the inter-relationship between text and associated images and figures; and Yes100%
3.To examine gender representation in English readers in terms of the content chosen.Yes100%
Research Outcome
Major findings and research outcome: The study set out to examine how female and male characters were represented in early readers from experiential, relational and expressive perspectives. In terms of the experiential value, while underrepresentation of female characters was prevalent in the books about achievements, heroes, sports and animals, there was a predominance of females in the books associated with traditional feminine topics such as crafts, dancing and family-related activities. Further, female characters were depicted in a more limited range of social roles than males. Pleasingly, improved gender representation was noted in some books: the PLP-R/W series achieved a numerical gender balance, and challenges to stereotypical descriptions were found in ‘Oxford Story Tree’ (OST) and ‘Tina and Friends’ (TF) (adventures involving male and female actors and sayers were featured in the former, and the father was engaged in the material process of nurturing and cooking in the latter). In terms of relational value, the book producers tended to construe male characters as protagonists. One manifestation of this was in the book covers, which displayed more male-only than female-only pictures, and more single-male pictures than single-female pictures. Unequal social relations were also revealed through spatial positioning. One example was the stronger mother-child relationships indicated by character placement. Although OST and TF showed more father involvement in family settings, hidden gender biases (e.g. father as the rescuer) were noted. Regarding the expressive perspective, females tended to be described as weaker, more passive, more emotional, less important and more relationship-oriented, and males as more successful, quicker to act, more independent, agentic, active and sporty. These gender stereotypes were further reinforced by colour-gender associations (e.g. pink for girls, blue for boys). The major research outcomes are: 1. Three journal article publications; 2. Five international conference presentations; 3. A seminar for the Native-speaking English Teacher Section of EDB; 4. A seminar for teachers; 5. Two guest lectures for the course ‘Language and Gender’; 6. Organisation of the International Conference on Gender, Language and Education in 2020 (https://www.eduhk.hk/lml/icgle/); 7. Launch of the website ‘Gender and Children’s Literature’ (https://lml.eduhk.hk/gender/); 8. Development of Guidelines for Book Producers, Teachers and Parents to Promote Gender Equality, which has been sent to publishers and is accessible at https://lml.eduhk.hk/gender/; 9. Production of three e-books and accompanying teaching materials that challenge gender stereotypes; and 10. Implementation of the knowledge transfer project ‘Development of Children’s E-books to Enhance Young Learners’ Gender and Cultural Awareness’, and training of undergraduates, one of whom published a journal article on gender.
Potential for further development of the research
and the proposed course of action:
More research findings will be disseminated through journal publications and conference presentations. Those that are/will be in preparation are theme-based, including the depiction of parental roles, famous people and heroic acts. A manuscript on a comparative study of earlier and contemporary books is being drafted. An outcome of the GRF project is the development of a knowledge transfer project entitled ‘Development of Children’s E-books to Enhance Young Learners’ Gender and Cultural Awareness’. This ongoing project aims to produce a series of children’s e-books that stress gender equality and multicultural education, particularly for Hong Kong primary school children. In addition to three children’s books that challenge traditional gender roles developed by a student helper for the GRF project, another four books on gender roles have also been written by student teachers under the knowledge transfer project. The books can be found under ‘Students’ Work’ at https://lml.eduhk.hk/gender/. Three of these books will be tried out in a local primary school in June 2021, in order to raise teachers’ and learners’ gender awareness. Feedback will be collected from school children and student teachers, and the results will be disseminated via international conferences and journal publications.
Layman's Summary of
Completion Report:
Early children’s books can have very important impacts on the transmission of gender roles. Any stereotypes or exclusion of male/female characters in particular settings may adversely affect impressionable children’s personality development, study choices and career pursuits in the future. One major aim of this study was to reveal any inequality that may be perpetuated through early readers. Another aim was to heighten gender awareness among readers, educators and book producers in an attempt to build a more gender-fair society. We examined how gender roles are represented through content, language use and visual choices. The findings show that although some contemporary books are more progressive in that they have achieved numerical gender balance, especially in family settings, both overt and covert gender biases were noted. Examples include sex-typed topic choices, prevalence of male-firstness, a limited range of social roles performed by females, different stereotypical attributes and activities associated with the two sexes, and different portrayals of gendered characters when problems occur. To address issues of gender inequality, it is important for teachers to engage learners in visual and critical literacy by providing them with opportunities to identify hidden messages, engage in critical discussions and make personal and real-world connections.
Research Output
Peer-reviewed journal publication(s)
arising directly from this research project :
(* denotes the corresponding author)
Year of
Author(s) Title and Journal/Book Accessible from Institution Repository
2019 *Lee, Jackie F. K. & Chin, Andy C. O.  Are females and males equitably represented? – A study of early readers. Linguistics and Education, 49, 52–61.  Yes 
2020 Lee, Jackie F. K.  Gender portrayal in a popular Hong Kong reading programme for children: Are there equalities? Journal of Research in Childhood Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/02568543.2020.1784323  Yes 
2021 *Lee, Jackie F. K. & Chin, Andy C. O.  Constructing gender using visual imagery – A study of early readers. Language and Communication, 78, 1-18.  Yes 
Recognized international conference(s)
in which paper(s) related to this research
project was/were delivered :
Month/Year/City Title Conference Name
Melaka Construction of gender in primary literacy resources – A Hong Kong case  The 10th Malaysia International Conference on Languages, Literatures and Cultures 
Singapore Gender representation in early readers – Are women and men equal?  The 53rd RELC International Conference 
Bangkok The Primary Literacy Programme – Are females and males created equally?  The 17th Asia TEFL International Conference and The 6th FLLT International Conference 
London Gender positioning in children’s books – A visual analysis  The European Conference on Language Learning 
Hong Kong A comparative study of earlier and contemporary children’s books – Are female and male characters represented equally?  International Conference on Gender, Language and Education 
Other impact
(e.g. award of patents or prizes,
collaboration with other research institutions,
technology transfer, etc.):