Atmosphere for language

Elizabeth Buie

How do you motivate boys to want to learn modern languages? It's a question which has bedevilled schools for decades - but two academics from Strathclyde University believe the solution may lie in A Curriculum for Excellence.

John De Cecco and Margaret Shaw claim that the teacher and the atmosphere in class are crucial to motivating boys to learn languages.

Their research, presented at the recent British Educational Research Association annual conference in Edinburgh, points out that large numbers of pupils, particularly boys, have tended to opt out of language-learning as soon as it was no longer compulsory. But, they argue: "The draft language experiences and outcomes of A Curriculum for Excellence have the potential to have a positive impact on teaching and learning. In particular, they have the potential to revitalise the key principles of communicative methodologies which align so well with features of classroom interaction known to have a positive influence on attitudes and motivation."

If languages teachers succeed in providing real-life contexts which motivate children and young people, a marked improvement in enjoyment and performance is likely, the duo suggest. But, they warn, if teachers assume that all children are the same or learn in the same way, the curriculum will fail many of them.

Mr De Cecco and Ms Shaw outline a number if ways to tailor teaching to motivate boys:

- ensure that lessons are less teacher-centred and allow boys to be involved in more active learning;

- provide additional support for boys not naturally good at listening;

- issue short-term targets and set challenges;

- give clear justification for activities in order to help boys see a purpose to their language learning.

Meanwhile, boys forged ahead of girls in three prestigious university admissions tests, despite lagging behind for many years in school exams. Findings from a Pounds 1.6 million, five-year trial in England of a US-style university aptitude test taken by 8,000 pupils in English and maths showed that boys performed better. The same result emerged from the test used by five leading universities to select medical school applicants, and in figures from Oxford University's history entrance exam.

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Elizabeth Buie

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