Improving reading and challenging gender stereotypes in Scotland

Research on initial reading instruction, reading motivation and engagement, and sex differences in motivation, has had a positive impact on the educator sector, through supporting teachers’ professional learning, influencing national programmes and contributing to parliamentary debate.


Research hub

Children and Young People

Research expert

Dr Sarah McGeown

Research centre/group

Developmental Psychology in Education

What was the problem?

Raising literacy attainment and closing the poverty-related attainment gap are key priorities of the Scottish Government, as seen in its 2019 National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan. Good literacy skills support language development and academic achievement, and are associated with positive post-school economic, health and psychological outcomes. Motivation to read and engagement in book reading activities are essential for children and adolescents to develop their literacy skills. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure children and adolescents experience optimal reading instruction and teaching practices to enhance their motivation and engagement in reading.  

Furthermore, while there is considerable interest in understanding differences between boys and girls in motivation, classroom behaviour, and other educational outcomes, the study of sex differences arguably creates an unhelpful dichotomy, and does not encourage teachers to develop a nuanced understanding of gender. 

What did we do?

Dr Sarah McGeown’s research takes a psychological approach to study reading development during childhood and adolescence, exploring multiple factors that influence motivation, engagement and attainment across primary and secondary school contexts. Sarah McGeown led this programme of research, collaborating with Medford and Johnston (previously University of Hull), Duncan (University of Dundee) and Warhurst (University of Winchester).

Sarah’s research on raising literacy attainment demonstrates that systematic synthetic phonics (an approach which teaches children to blend letter-sounds to read unfamiliar words) can specifically help to close the poverty-related attainment gap as it optimally supports the early reading skills of children with weak vocabularies. Furthermore, her research has demonstrated how hyperactive and inattentive behaviours hinder children’s early literacy learning.

Sarah’s research also examines the relationship between primary and secondary school students’ reading motivation, reading choices and reading skills. It was the first to show that children’s reading motivation drives their reading choices and also demonstrated other important predictors of reading choices, including reading skill and child characteristics (such as age, sex, and socioeconomic status).

Her innovative approach to study sex differences in education stresses that students’ gender identity (i.e., their identification with traditional masculine and feminine traits) is a more useful construct than sex to understand individual differences in motivation and classroom behaviour.

What happened next?

Dr Sarah McGeown has shared her research widely across the Scottish education sector through professional learning sessions (reaching over 400 teachers, head teachers, and other school staff), online webinars and publication of her research in teacher magazines.

Online magazine articles


Watch the GTCS webinar: The Science of Reading (on YouTube)

Watch the GTCS webinar:  Challenging Gender Stereotypes (on YouTube)

Watch the Education Scotland webinar: Leading on Reading for Pleasure

Partnership work

Sarah also works closely with different UK organisations and charities, to share her research, and develop and collaborate on research projects, to strengthen the connection between research and practice.

Scottish Book Trust

Sarah’s research is directly relevant to aims and programmes of the Scottish Book Trust, specifically the First Minister’s Reading Challenge, and she has worked closely with them since 2017.

Sarah collaborates with the Scottish Book Trust on different research projects, with most recent projects including: Growing Up A Reader and Tackling the drop-off: Understanding the Teenage Reading Experience.

In 2021, she will publish a minibook for teachers, drawing upon this work, co-authored with the Head of Research and Evaluation at Scottish Book Trust, entitled: Inspiring and sustaining reading for pleasure among children and young people: A guide for teachers and school leaders.

This will follow on from her popular minibook for teachers, published in 2013, entitled: Reading motivation and engagement in the primary school classroom. 

Education Scotland: Improving Gender Balance and Equalities

Sarah’s research on sex differences in education, more specifically understanding gender identity has informed the work of Education Scotland’s Improving Gender Balance & Equalities (IGBE) programme, which has a remit to work across all primary and secondary schools in Scotland. You can learn more about this work below.

Renaissance Learning

Sarah has also worked with Renaissance Learning, developers of Accelerated Reader, a programme designed to manage, monitor and promote independent reading among children and adolescents. Her research on understanding and promoting motivation and engagement in reading is directly relevant to the aims of Accelerated Reader. You can learn more about this work via the following resources.  

National Literacy Trust and Education Scotland

In 2021, with organisations National Literacy Trust, Education Scotland, and Scottish Book Trust, Sarah will begin a new project funded by the Nuffield Foundation entitled ‘Love to Read: A co-designed intervention to motivate and engage child readers’. This project will bring together children, teachers, leading education and literacy organisation experts, and researchers, to co-design and evaluate an intervention to inspire and sustain reading for pleasure among primary school pupils.  

Parliamentary debate:  Research-informed reading instruction

Sarah’s research, specifically on the effectiveness of different types of initial reading instruction, has contributed to parliamentary debate on approaches to raise literacy attainment in schools across Scotland through research-informed reading instruction.

LALco: Language and Literacy: Communication, collaboration, co-production

LALco logo

In 2019, Sarah co-founded LALco with Dr Lynne Duncan (University of Dundee), a multidisciplinary network to bring together individuals with shared interests in language and literacy, but different areas of knowledge, experience and expertise. Through LALco they have run workshops and webinars (collaborating with GTCS) to achieve this.

All of Sarah’s current research projects involve working with non-academic partners, to conduct and embed research in different educational and learning contexts. You can learn more these projects here:

Related study programmes

Education (MSc): Child and Adolescent Psychology