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How to get boys to study foreign languages

Où sont les garçons? Amanda Barton delves into why boys are typically put off languages, and how we can turn that around...

  • How to get boys to study foreign languages

Way back in 2003 I wrote a book titled Getting the Buggers into Languages, based on my PhD research into boys’ underachievement in MFL. A second edition was published in 2006.

Fourteen years on, you might think the gender gap in MFL had shrunk, or even disappeared altogether. Mais, non.

Earlier this year, the Education and Policy Institute published a report which found that girls are more than twice as likely than boys to achieve a pass in GCSE languages, and that gender is a more reliable predictor of success than a student’s socioeconomic background.

Add the Brexit effect to the equation, and we might soon see boys acquiring a similar status to the dodo in MFL classes. So how can we bring boys back into the MFL fold?

Make MFL relevant to boys

Our first job is to make boys see that languages are relevant to them.

Boys are ‘instrumentally’ motivated by recognising the practical applications of subjects. As one Y8 boy put it in my research, “Knowing you’ll use your French in the future is important. I ain’t never going to use it, so there’s no point in learning.”

It’s worth having an open discussion early on about why students are learning languages. They might be right in saying they’ll never use it on holiday – the main reason students give for learning a language – but they’ll gain a whole range of transferable skills, especially in communication.

These skills are highly valued in today’s employment market, and likely to become even more so in the post-Brexit economy.

The website whystudylanguages.ac.uk is great for demonstrating some of the benefits, with links to films, quizzes, advice on exams and revision, and a list of 700 reasons to study languages.

Finding willing parents or colleagues who are happy to talk about how they use languages in their work and social lives can help break down boys’ belief that it’s only Miss who speaks French.

Learning for a purpose

Having a clear purpose or information gap is a big motivator. I once observed an all boys’ class learning how to describe themselves in French. Initially, there was little enthusiasm when they were simply asked to describe themselves.

The task became much more engaging when the teacher asked a student to describe someone else, and tasked the rest of the class with working out who was being described.

Hands up those of you who’ve been asked at the start of a lesson, ‘Are we doing any work today, Miss/Sir?’ MFL is often seen as a non-serious subject in which students do more speaking, and have more fun, than in any other subject.

Outlining what they’ll achieve in the lesson and reviewing this at the end – ‘What can you do now that you couldn’t do before the lesson?’ – is a good way of demonstrating learning gains, even if they’re not tangible.

Challenge is key to motivating boys. This could involve a timed activity, along the lines of ‘beat the teacher’ or ‘prof vs. plebs’.

Or it could simply be an activity that you present as challenge: ‘Now, I know this is a difficult listening task, and I’m not sure if you’ll manage it. Think you will?’ In my experience, this line produces very different responses in boys and girls, with boys desperate to prove you wrong.

Challenge students to write as long a sentence as possible, by taking it in turns to add one word or phrase at a time to a short core sentence. This stimulates boys to write extended sentences, rather than their staple absolute minimum. An example in French would be:

  • Je sors
  • Je sors maintenant
  • Je sors maintenant parce que
  • Je sors maintentant parce qu’il y a…

They can do this in pairs or groups, competing against each other to make the longest sentence (competition being another big motivator), or else individually, demonstrating each stage of sentence construction.

Encourage creativity

Packaging an activity as a game, albeit a simple one, has a huge impact. I once observed a Y10 boys’ class asked by their teacher to conjugate the verb ‘pouvoir’ around the class, with each boy standing up to say the correct part of the verb.

They were challenged to declare how quickly they could do this accurately, and were desperate to prove they could achieve their rather optimistic estimate. Overestimation of ability is a trait commonly observed in boys!

Older pupils in my research often bemoaned the disappearance of games. One boy underlined their importance when asked to rank languages on a scale, where his favourite subject was at the top: ‘It’s nearly at the bottom for me … just that far from the bottom. That little bit at the bottom is just for the games.”

Boys are less likely to say or write much if they’re describing their own lives, rather than someone’s life who they see as more interesting, such as a celebrity. So encourage creativity rather than honesty, reminding them that no-one gets credit for telling the truth in the speaking exam.

Rather than describing their own room, have students describe a celebrity’s, then challenge the rest of the class to guess whose room it is when they read it aloud. Or have them assume an alter ego when asked to describe themselves.

One of my students once described himself as waking up at midnight, dressing in black, feeling thirsty and leaving the house. Count Dracula himself.

Tuning in

A good way of finding out about boys’ interests, and where they feel their strengths and weaknesses lie, is through a basic learning styles questionnaire. All students respond very positively if you make it clear you’ve planned your lessons to accommodate their responses.

It can be worth engaging boys’ interest in sport, but we’re not all football pundits, and not all boys are football fans.

The Tour de France is a good alternative focus, with lots of potential for exploring angles such as the towns that cyclists pass through and cyclists’ profiles. Helen Myers’ website at mflresources.org.uk offers an excellent range of Tour de France-themed resources and is full of good ideas.

Culture is an area of interest to many boys, but we often neglect it in lessons. Present students with a ‘Fascinating Facts’ sheet about those countries where the target language is spoken, and challenge them to produce a more fascinating fact. The class then votes for the most interesting fact.

Finally, we should also remember that it’s not just boys who opt out of, or underachieve in MFL. There are plenty of girls who do, too. The key to raising achievement for all lies in high quality teaching that offers personalised learning.

Reviewing the way in which we teach all individuals in our classes should benefit girls’ learning, too.

What puts boys off languages?

  • Is it because boys are girls’ biological inferiors when it comes to language-based subjects?
    Drawing on my vast lack of scientific expertise in the field – nah. There are schools that buck the trend, where boys outperform girls in MFL. Boys in single-sex schools perform better, and boys continuing at A-level, albeit a very small cohort, achieve results on a par with girls’.
  • Do parents influence option choices?
    Definitely. Parents, and society in general, still have different expectations of boys and girls. From infancy, girls are encouraged to be more communicative and passive, and boys to be noisier and more active. Some studies have suggested that parents are more likely to encourage their daughters, rather than their sons, to continue with a language.
  • Does the GCSE curriculum suit girls better than boys?
    Yes. In the GCSE exam, pupils describe their relationships, going shopping, holidays and talk about whether they’ll get married in the future. Younger boys may be happy doing this, but adolescent boys are less inclined to talk about subjects they don’t readily discuss in their first language, let alone a second. And it’s not all that appealing for girls, either. Let’s hope the DfE’s subject content review launched at the end of last year comes up with something more engaging for all…

Dr Amanda Barton is a writer, former MFL teacher and author of Getting the Buggers into Languages (Bloomsbury).

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