Are there signs of change in gendered language use in children’s early reading vocabulary?


  • Franziska Moser Freie Universität Berlin
  • Jackie Masterson University of London



gender, language, social development, gender schema, gender roles


In this study we investigate the relative frequencies of female and male terms in early reading material for children using the Children’s Printed Word Database as a resource. As roles of females and males have changed over time it is of interest to see if there has been a corresponding change in representations of females and males in children’s books. We carried out analyses regarding different words related to gender. Except for nouns referring to relatives, we found in all word groups a preponderance of male terms. The imbalance of male and female pronouns is equivalent to that reported by Carroll, Davies, and Richman (1971) in a frequency count of printed words in children’s book in the USA conducted some 40 years ago. The results are discussed in terms of gender inequality in reading materials and the development of social mores and stereotypical ideas.

Author Biographies

Franziska Moser, Freie Universität Berlin

Franziska Moser studied Psychology at the University of Bern. She was a Marie Curie fellow of the Initial Training Network ‘Language, Cognition, and Gender’ ( and finished her PhD in psychology on gender fairness in educational material and individual language use at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research interests are in gender stereotypes, gender roles, developmental and educational psychology and language development.

Jackie Masterson, University of London

Jackie Masterson is Professor of Psychology of Reading at the Institute of Education, London. Her research interests are in literacy development and difficulties, cross-linguistic investigations of reading and spelling, and object and action naming and representation. She has been involved in developing a number of resources for research and educational practice, including the Children’s Printed Word Database, the Single Word Spelling Test, An Object and Action Naming Battery and the Diagnostic Test of Word Reading Processes. She has also been carrying out research into effective interventions for reading and spelling difficulties with children and adults.


Adams, M., Walker, C. and O’Connell, P. (2011) Invisible or involved fathers? A content analysis of representations of parenting in young children’s picture books in the UK. Sex Roles 65: 259- -270.

American Psychological Association (2009) Publication manual of the American Psychological Association, supplemental material, sixth edition. Retrieved on December 4, 2011 from supplement/index.aspx.

Anderson, D. A. and Hamilton, M. (2005) Gender role stereotyping of parents in children’s picture books: The invisible father. Sex Roles 52: 145- -151.

Baker, P. (2010) Will Ms ever be as frequent as Mr? A corpus-based comparison of gendered terms across four diachronic corpora of British English. Gender and Language 4.1: 125- -149.

Baker, C. D. and Freebody, P. (1987) ‘Constituting the child’ in beginning school reading books. British Journal of Sociology of Education 8:1: 55- -76.

Baker, C. D. and Freebody, P. (1989) Children’s first Schoolbooks. Oxford, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Bem, S. L. and Bem, D. J. (1973) Does sex-biased job advertising „aid and abet” sex discrimination? Journal of Applied Social Psychology 3: 6- -18.

Bem, S. L. (1981) Gender schema theory: A cognitive account of sex typing. Psychological Review 88: 354- -364.

Bem, S. L. (1983) Gender schema theory and its implications for child development: Raising gender-aschematic children in a gender-schematic society. Journal of Women in Culture and Society 8: 598- -616.

Boroditsky, L., Schmidt, L. A. and Philipps W. (2003) Sex, syntax, and semantics. In Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow (eds) Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Cognition 61- -79. Cambridge: MIT.

Carroll, J. B., Davies, P. and Richman, B. (1971) The American Heritage Word Frequency Book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Children’s Printed Word Database (CPWD). Accessed in October, 2011 from

Deutscher, G. (2010) Through the Language Glass. How Words Colour Your World. London: William Heinemann, Random House.

Diekman, A. B. and Murnen, S. K. (2004) Learning to be little women and little men: The inequitable gender equality of nonsexist children’s literature. Sex Roles 50: 373- -385.

Eccles, J. (2011) Gendered educational and occupational choices: Applying the Eccles et al. model of achievement-related choices. International Journal of Behavioral Development 35: 195- -201.

Engelberg, M. (2002) Finnish. The communication of gender in Finnish. In Marlis Hellinger and Hadumod Bussmann (eds) Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men. Volume 2 109- -132. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

European Commission (2008) Gender-Neutral Language in the European Parliament. Retrieved on December, 4, 2011 from

Evans, L. and Davies, K. (2000) No sissy boys here: A content analysis of the representation of masculinity in elementary school reading textbooks. Sex Roles 42: 255- -270.

Finsterwald, M. and Ziegler, A. (2007) Geschlechterrollenerwartungen vermittelt durch Schulbuchabbildungen der Grundschule. In Peter H. Ludwig and Heidrun Ludwig (eds) Erwartungen in Himmelblau und Rosarot. Effekte, Determinanten und Konsequenzen von Geschlechterdifferenzen in der Schule 117- -141. Weinheim, München: Juventa Verlag.

Fisk, W. R. (1985) Responses to “neutral” pronoun presentations and the development of sex-biased responding. Developmental Psychology 21: 481- -485.

Frawley, T. J. (2008) Gender schema and prejudicial recall: How children misremember, fabricate, and distort gendered picture information. Journal of Research in Childhood Education 22: 291- -303.

Gabriel, U., Gygax, P., Sarrasin, O., Garnham, A. and Oakhill, J. (2008) Au pairs are rarely male: Nouns on the gender perception of role names across English, French, and German. Behavior Research Methods 40: 206- -212.

Gastil, J. (1990) Generic pronouns and sexist language: The oxymoronic character of masculine generics. Sex Roles 23: 629- -643.

Gooden, A. M. and Gooden, M. A. (2001) Gender representation in notable children’s picture books: 1995-1999. Sex Roles 45: 89- -101.

Haggarty, L. and Pepin, B. (2002) An investigation of mathematics textbooks and their use in English, French and German classrooms: Who gets an opportunity to learn what? British Educational Research Journal 28: 567- -590.

Hamilton, M. C., Anderson, D., Broaddus, M. and Young, K. (2006) Gender stereotyping and under-representation of female characters in 200 popular children’s picture books: A twenty-first century update. Sex Roles 55: 757- -765.

Hellinger, M. (2001) English – Gender in a global language. In Marlis Hellinger and Hadumod Bussmann (eds) Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men. Volume 1 109- -132. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Hyde, J. S. (1984) Children’s understanding of sexist language. Developmental Psychology 20: 697- -706.

Jackson, S. and Gee, J. (2005) Look Janet, no you look John: Construction of gender in early school reader illustrations across 50 years. Gender & Education 17: 115- -128.

Karniol, R. and Gal-Disegni, M. (2009) The impact of gender-fair versus gender-stereotyped basal readers on 1st-grade children’s stereotypes: A natural experiment. Journal of Research in Childhood Education 23: 411- -420.

Kennison, S. M. and Trofe, J. L. (2003) Comprehending pronouns: A role for word-specific gender stereotype information. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 32: 355- -378.

Kolbe, R. and LaVoie, J. C. (1981) Sex-role stereotyping in preschool children’s picture books. Social Psychology Quarterly 44: 369- -374.

Lee, J. F. K. and Collins, P. (2008) Gender voices in Hong Kong textbooks – some past and current practices. Sex Roles 59: 127- -137.

Lobban, G. (1976) Sex-roles in reading schemes. In Children’s Rights Workshop (ed.) Sexism in Children’s Books: Facts, Figures and Guidelines 38- -44 London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative.

Martin, C. L., and Ruble, D. (2004) Children’s search for gender cues. Cognitive perspectives on gender development. Current Directions in Psychological Science 13: 67- -70.

Author McCabe, J., Fairchild, E., Grauerholz, L., Pescosolido, B. A. and Tope, D. (2011) Gender in twentieth-century children’s books: Patterns of disparity in titles and central characters. Gender & Society 25: 197- -226.

McConnell, A. R. and Fazio R. H. (1996) Women as men and people: Effects of gender-marked language. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 22: 1004- -1013.

Oakhill, J., Garnham, A. and Reynolds, D. (2005) Immediate activation of stereotypical gender information. Memory and Cognition 33: 972- -983.

Peterson, S. B. and Lach, M. A. (1990). Gender stereotypes in children’s books: Their prevalence and influence on cognitive and affective development. Gender and Education 2: 185- -197.

Prewitt-Freilino, J. L., Caswell, T. A. and Laakso, E. K. (2011) The gendering of language: A comparison of gender equality in countries with gendered, natural gender, and genderless languages. Sex Roles 66: 268- -281.

Pyykkoenen, P., Hyoenae, J. and van Gompel, R. P. G. (2010) Activation gender stereotypes during online spoken language processing. Evidence from visual world eye tracking. Experimental Psychology 57: 126- -133.

Romaine, S. (2001) A corpus-based view of gender in British and American English. In Marlis Hellinger and Hadumod Bussmann (eds) Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men. Volume 1 109- -132. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Schau, C. G. and Scott, K. P. (1984) Impact of gender characteristics of instructional materials: An integration of the research literature. Journal of Educational Psychology 76: 183- -193.

Scott, K. P. and Feldman-Summers. S. (1979) Children’s reactions to textbook stories in which females are portrayed in traditionally male roles. Journal of Educational Psychology 71: 396- -402.

Semin, G. R. (2004) Language and social cognition. In Marilynn B. Brewer and Miles Hewstone (eds) Social Cognition 222- -243. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Sigley, R. and Holmes. J. (2002) Looking at girls in corpora of English. Journal of English Linguistics 30: 138- -157.

Skelton, C. (1997) Revisiting gender issues in reading schemes. Education 3-13: 37- -43.

Stahlberg, D., Braun, F., Irmen, L. and Sczesny S. (2007) Representation of the sexes in language. In Klaus Fiedler (ed) Social Communication. A Volume in the Series Frontiers of Social Psychology 163- -187. New York: Psychology Press.

Stout, J. G. and Dasgupta, N. (2011) When he doesn’t mean you: Gender-exclusive language as ostracism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36: 757- -769.

Stuart, M., Dixon, M., Masterson, J. and Gray B. (2003) Children’s early reading vocabulary: Description and word frequency lists. British Journal of Educational Psychology 73: 585- -598.

Sunderland, J. (2011) Language, Gender and Children’s Fiction. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Switzer, J. Y. (1990) The impact of generic word choices: an empirical investigation of age- and sex-related differences. Sex Roles 22: 69- -82.

Tinklin, T., Croxford, L., Ducklin, A. and Frame, B. (2005) Gender and attitudes to work and family roles: The views of young people at the millennium. Gender and Education 17: 129- -142.

Trepanier-Street, M. L. and Romatowski J. A. (1999) The influence of children’s literature on gender role perceptions: A reexamination. Early Childhood Education Journal 26: 155- -159.

Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K. and Gentile, B. (2012) Male and female pronoun use in U.S. books reflects women’s status, 1900- -2008. Sex Roles 67: 488- -493.

UNESCO (1999) Guidelines for gender-neutral language. Retrieved on December, 4, 2011 from 0011/001149/114950mo.pdf.

Weitzman, L. J., Eifler, D., Hokada, E. and Ross, C. (1972) Sex role socialization in picture books for preschool children. The American Journal of Sociology 77: 1125- -1150.

Witt, S. D. (1997) Boys will be boys, and girls will be…hard to find: Gender representation in third grade basal readers. Education and Society 15: 47- -57.



How to Cite

Moser, F., & Masterson, J. (2014). Are there signs of change in gendered language use in children’s early reading vocabulary?. Gender and Language, 8(1), 71–90.