Sex Differences and ELT: Theory, Evidence and Practice



Around the world, teachers adjust lessons based on students’ L1. In Russia, teachers focus on English article systems as there is no equivalent. L1 is not the only aspect that can be adjusted for; areas such as culture and climate are also important.

Biological sex is often a low priority on the list of considerations for a various reasons. Western teachers often conflate legal and social equality with equal outcomes and interests, while non-Western teachers might opt for approaches catering to one sex only, and nearly everyone finds the subject an uncomfortable one. This makes it one of the more poorly explored areas of ELT. Focusing on sex is important as it is both universal and it is relatable for teachers and students.

By understanding the evidence of the differences between the sexes and how this can influence practice, teachers will be more able to develop new ways of approaching lessons to make them more engaging and accessible for students.



Putting it simply: biological sex is an important aspect of ELT and should be accounted for to create lessons that better cater to students. If the sexes operate in different ways in terms of communication and language use, language teachers will need to adjust accordingly. However, it is important to highlight that context matters and the broad generalisations that follow will need more nuanced, context-based approaches in the setting they are used in as opposed to a blunt application.


Before outlining the implications for teaching practice, it is important to outline the evidence supporting the above conclusion to promote a thorough understanding of it. The evidence falls into six broad and occasionally overlapping categories.

1) Biological – Brains, Biochemistry and Bones

Differences in male and female brain structure are thought to influence several sex specific aptitudes. Of particular importance here are female brain connections making them generally more adept at using language skills than boys (consider your classes broadly: who are your more capable students and what is their level of English?). This is compounded by biochemistry, particularly in the production and levels of certain hormones, and in differing energy storage mechanisms. Most people are broadly aware of the effects of testosterone and oestrogen but not that men store energy for easy access in muscle and circulating energy reserves in the bloodstream while women store energy in fat making it harder to access. Lastly, there are differences in skeletal shape and robustness which make being stationary less comfortable for men while allowing for greater physical activity.

2) Cognitive/Psychological – Venus and Mars

The OECD Pisa Report notes a disparity in both male and female educational attainment (favouring girls) and an incongruous lack of confidence amongst female students. Further cognitive and psychological differences were highlighted by Dr Baron Cohen who simplified men as being “systematisers” (due to logical and spatial aptitudes) and women as “empathisers” (due to emotional intelligence and language abilities).

3) Cultural – Double Standards

Despite changes in societal attitudes in some countries, there continue to be differing expectations and treatments of the sexes across the world. These manifest differently depending on the culture, however they do have consequences for students. For example, in cultures where boys are prioritised over girls in sections of the country, this results in tremendous pressure on boys to meet expectations as potential providers and a corresponding lack of pressure on girls due to fewer expectations placed on them by their families with differences in outcomes for both sexes.

4) Behavioural – “Why can’t you be more like Sasha?

Connected to culture, behaviour is any activity displayed by students in the classroom. In Russia, male students appear to be more comfortable physically approaching the teacher/board unsolicited while female students are more reserved. Across borders, negative behaviour reports relate more to male students than female students. This is not to say that males behave worse than females, but more likely it is due to the physical nature of male misbehaviour while females often resort to verbal/social tactics in this regard. In these circumstances it is not uncommon for teachers to ask: “Why can’t you be more like Sasha?” when comparing the usually male and more boisterous students with the less physically disruptive female students.

5) Results – Same test; different outcomes

While the OECD Pisa report does point to a gap in attainment between boys and girls, this appears to be in education broadly and non-specific to ELT. While researching this subject, I studied the recent results of the Cambridge mock exams run by BKC-IH in the winter of 2016. No significant attainment disparity between the sexes in this area was evident (though a deeper statistical analysis may be required and Cambridge exams are typically sat by (upper) middle class students facing fewer educational barriers regardless of sex).

However, there appear to be some differences in outcomes between the sexes in the work they produce. Take this exchange between two adult students in a pre-intermediate class and guess at the sex of each student:

Task: “Do men or women gossip more?”

A: “Who gossips more: men or women and why is it women?”
B: “I think women gossip more because they like speaking about people.”

Student B is a woman and A is a man. Both gave acceptable responses to this question and proceeded to continue their good humoured conversation. You may notice similar differences in terms of the results of activities in levels of interest and results given between men and women. While both produce valid responses and results, they differ broadly in content. Why is this?

6) Preferences – Cumbersome Content

Males and females usually show differences in content preference for lessons. In VYL classes this can be demonstrated by girls preferring a flashcard with a princess for role-plays while boys prefer to have the prince (or monster). Moving further up into children, boys prefer stories with action, graphics and facts, while girls tend to focus more on fictional and emotional content. Both enjoy drama but for differing reasons and with differing presentations. Adults also show sex differences in content preferences in terms of the media they consume. Therefore a lesson on gossip and social conflict (such as the above) is unlikely to appeal to males as it is to females without adaptation.

Practice – Accounting for Sex Differences in the ELT Classroom

The differences between male and female students are real and relevant to ELT. Teachers should be prepared to accommodate these differences to create lessons that effectively cater to their students.

1) Biological Bonuses

If males are biologically geared to greater physical activity, a lesson should at least have physical components such as TPR or realistic role-plays involving movement. By contrast, females are likely to want more passive, conversational style classes with learners and their teacher in a circle for a more sedentary discussion. This is not to say that the reverse cannot be true, but being prepared to take this direction will help teachers cater to their students. Considering the wider environment is also useful as the sexes have differing sensitivity and responses to varying temperatures.

2) Creative Cognition

If the general findings of the Pisa Report are to be believed, female students need more self-confidence and strategies aimed at this would be beneficial. Achieving this in a mixed sex class could involve more confident male students serving as (good) models for less confident female students to follow with encouragement. Developing a balance of collaboration and competition using group/team work will keep both sexes engaged.

Systematising and empathising components of the lesson would also be beneficial. Treating grammar as a set of relevant, logical equations aids systematising male understanding, while exploiting the context of a grammatical term, asking questions about it will help the empathising females more.

3) Cultural Intelligence

Deepening knowledge about existing cultural sex norms in a country aids anticipation of issues arising from these. Knowing that girls have fewer expectations placed on them may prompt a teacher to find ways to encourage them further while knowing boys have a lot of expectations placed on them would provoke a fun, relaxing lesson that caters to parental needs and a child’s desire to escape a heavy workload.

4) Behavioural Balance

Differing behavioural standards and enforcement can adversely affect student performance; punishing Dima for lashing out after Masha makes a snide, unpunished comment clashes with students’ senses of fairness. Having a single standard of behaviour that everyone follows allows for ease of understanding and flexibility. “Be nice” is more positive and flexible than “No fighting”. A fairly enforced standard will improve rapport, and make the teacher aware that potentially more is going on than boisterous male behaviour.

5) Respect the Results

Closing attainment gaps should be a priority where it exists and will depend on the circumstances in which it is found. Of more universal importance is anticipating and assigning equal value to the results of activities provided students have used the target language to produce equality valid (and correct) results. If the task is to use the past simple to write a story and a girl writes about her recent birthday party while a boy writes about a bloody battle between pirates, both results should be praised and assessed equally.

6) Preferences – Conducive Content

Building on this anticipation and appreciation of differing outcomes, the content of lessons should be adjusted to account for potential sex differences. This is not to say that teachers should eschew the lesson on gossip because “men don’t care about it”. Rather they should change the focus or at least be prepared to do so to make it relevant. Gossip and rumours are similar topics and therefore introducing content based on rumours of sports team transfers is a way to make this appeal to male students. Alternatively, asking “What would you do…?” over “How would you feel…?” to target more concrete solution-orientated sensibilities can boost the potential for discussion.


To conclude, the available evidence indicates that differences between the sexes are real and have implications for ELT as a whole, which teachers should be prepared to account for in their lessons. However, it is important to note that, while differences are important, they are not without some overlap. It’s not uncommon for a male student to identify more with a princess or a female student to identify with a space pirate. Nevertheless, by analysing general trends and norms it may be possible to increase teacher efficacy and awareness in these areas. The debate is far from over. Please contribute your thoughts below.

Sources by Section

1) Biological – skeletal structure differences – skeletal structure differences – brain connectivity differences – connectivity differences – differences in fat metabolism

2) Cognitive/Psychological – Dr Cohen’s research

OECD (2015), The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence, PISA, OECD Publishing. – OECD Report on Education

3) Cultural – a list of varying treatments of the sexes and potential outcomes.

4) Behavioural – UK Education department report highlighting the poor behaviour of boys but that bullying in girls is also an issue.

5) Results – article highlighting attainment and behavioural gap.

6) Preferences

CH Sommers’ “The War on Boys” – highlighting differing content preferences, behavioural standards and outcomes and consequences for boys.

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