Avoiding Sexist Language by Using Gender-Fair Pronouns
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This lesson plan engages students in a brief writing assignment that concretely illustrates how language and gender stereotyping interact causally. Students write a response to a short prompt which includes no information about the participants' gender. Once the writing is complete, students and teacher analyze the narratives for the use of pronouns and what the pronoun choices reveal about language use.
In-Class Narrative Writing Assignment: This writing prompt asks students to write a story using specific characters (doctor, judge, nurse), using clear pronouns.
Student Ascriptions of Gender Table: Use this table to analyze the genders students assigned to various characters in their narrative writing assignment.
Purdue OWL: Using Appropriate Language: This resource offers guidelines and tips for avoiding bias and stereotype in language.
From Theory to Practice
As we use language to communicate with one another, we also reveal much about the ways that we think and view; for what we know is revealed in the ways that we talk about the world around us. In his article on epistemic teaching methods, Kenneth Dowst explains: "(1)[W]e do not know the world immediately; rather we compose our knowledge by composing language; (2) how we can act depends on what we know, hence on the language with which we make sense of the world; (3) serious experimenting in composing with words is experimenting in knowing new ways, perhaps better ways. (70)"
By writing and examining a short narrative in this activity, students demonstrate their own assumptions and ways of thinking and how their language use reveals those assumptions. After a discussion of this writing assignment, more students understand why gender-fair pronoun use is encouraged.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- Grammar handbook resources on pronoun-antecedent agreement and use of gender-fair language OR information from the Websites and Printouts.
- Overhead or handouts of Narrative Writing (or a similar resource on narrative writing)
- Identify the resources that you want to use with your class, either in your textbooks or choosing among the available Websites and Printouts. Make handouts or overheads of materials that are not in students' textbooks.
- Make copies or an overhead of the In-Class Narrative Writing Assignment.
- explore the ways that language and gender stereotyping interact.
- experiment with ways of using language to create gender-fair texts.
- reflect on their own language practices and what those practices reveal about their understanding of gender roles and language.
- Introduce the writing assignment by discussing the basic characteristics of narrative writing. This Narrative Writing resource provides a list of prewriting decisions that you can use to introduce the activity, or you can rely on information in your class textbook.
- Give students the In-Class Narrative Writing Assignment. Depending upon your students, you may allow them to complete the writing at home; however, having them complete the task in class is more likely to result in students' initial, uncensored responses to the scenario described in the prompt.
- Allow students the remainder of the class period to write. Serve as the timekeeper, letting students know as the end of class is approaching.
- Collect all of the papers at the end of the session.
- BEFORE beginning the next class session, read through the students' papers. Your purpose is not so much to "correct" them for pronoun-antecedent agreement errors as to see how students' choices of pronouns (or names) identify the gender of each character in the narrative.
- Choose passages from a couple of papers to share with the class.
- Optionally, you can prepare a table compiling the gender distribution represented in the narratives. Either make copies of the table to distribute to students or make an overhead of the table to share with them.
- Start the class by reading one or two passages from students' narratives that employ pronouns that reflect gendered roles. Ask students to visualize the characters from the story as you read.
- Once you've finished reading, note details from students visualizations on the board or on chart paper, grouped by the character (e.g., judge, police officer).
- Share the Student Ascriptions of Gender Table for groups of students who completed the assignment in 1987 and 1997. Ask students to identify biased job roles represented on the chart.
- Compare the information on the chart with the assumptions revealed on the lists on the board. Invite student discussion of the gender assumptions that the numbers on the chart and on the board reveal.
- Turn to the way that language has shaped these assumptions, what the choice of "he" rather than "she" communicates about our ways of thinking about the world around us. Distribute information on the use of gender-fair language such as the handout from Purdue OWL: Using Appropriate Language, or point students' attention to similar information in their texts.
- Return students' in-class writings. For homework, ask them to read their narrative and write a reflective piece that explores how their use of pronouns reveals their assumptions about others. The general question for their reflection is this: What do you notice now about the language that you used in your narrative that you didn't notice when you originally wrote it, and how does your use of pronouns play a role in what you notice? The piece should be informal. Students' self-reflection is the primary goal.
Student Assessment / Reflections
This assignment offers an opportunity for students to voice their perspectives on sexist usage and gender equality. Feedback on the activity should focus on students' self-reflection rather than "right" or "wrong" choices that they may make with their pronouns.
After the second class session, collect students' original in-class narratives and accompanying self-reflections. Read the pieces and comment on the self-reflections, noting important self-observations that students make and asking provoking questions where they need to think more deeply.