BOYS OFTEN find themselves with only vague idea of what is going on in lessons, according to preliminary findings from research commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
Pupils who are under-performing struggle when lessons are mostly or solely conducted in the target foreign language. Loss of concentration at a crucial point can mean the whole sense and purpose of the lesson is lost.
The finding has implications for general guidance to modern foreign language teachers, which emphasises working in the target language as much as possible, and minimising the use of English to explain concepts.
Barry Jones, of Homerton College, Cambridge, speaking at a conference organised by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research, said boys were not always weaker at languages than girls. At university level, they often overtake their female peers.
But in school, the vast majority of underperforming pupils were male. He reported findings from questionnaires completed by 1,266 Year 9 girls and boys from four comprehensive schools, and interviews with some of them and their teachers.
Few boys considered French, German and Spanish as important compared to other subjects. Even those who did said they weren't important to them as individuals.
Trips were considered the best thing about learning modern foreign languages, and copying from the board the worst.
Boys also enjoyed quizzing foreign language assistants about their opinions and life in their home country, but rarely in the assistant's mother tongue.
But one of the biggest frustrations for under-performing boys was not understanding the point of a lesson and what the teacher was trying to get them to do. This was particularly so when the lesson was solely or mainly conducted in the foreign language.
"When a lesson is all in the target language, those underperformers hadn't a clue what was going on. They were vociferous about that," said Mr Jones.
"The feeling of being lost in language lessons was so clear. It's sad really. I had never thought of them not quite knowing what is going on. They may vaguely know, but not why they are doing it. "
The next stage of the QCA research project involves a study of Year 11 pupils, to see if attitudes towards languages change over time.