The boys are back in town

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Experiment was the key to getting bored boys fully involved in English lessons, discovered new teacher Sahail Ashraf

I woke up to the problem during my teaching practice. One day I planned an interesting lesson on Romeo and Juliet - the class and I were going to indulge in a role-playing exercise. The result would be a fuller understanding of the motivation behind the actions of the two main protagonists of Shakespeare's love story.

With an almost equal ratio of girls to boys, it seemed an ideal opportunity for mixed-pair work.

After much squirming on both sides, the initial task of writing an "extra" scene between the two characters got under way. It quickly became apparent that the girls were more interested in the work - and other lessons and year groups showed the same tendency.

At first I thought it was my teaching that was causing apathy among the boys. But when I asked why they didn't enjoy participating, they said the topic and attached work were boring and pointless. When I asked why it was boring, the reply was simple: "It just is."

After my training I was soon offered my first teaching post. When you walk into your first class, you can set the tone and pace for the whole year. This includes creating space for new ideas. In the summer before I took up my post, my mind had been afloat on a sea of possibilities. I was ready to enlighten, to entertain, to educate. My memories of the previous year, and the issue of getting boys "into" English, heightened my enthusiasm.

A lot of concern has been expressed over the years about boys' poor performance in English. Just as it is important to be numerate, it is essential children learn to express themselves through confident speech, reading and writing.

Understanding and enjoying the written word is at the core of what English is all about. Reading enables children to increase their vocabulary and knowledge of how language works and, as a result, self-expression can improve. The "class reader" aspect of my lessons at that time (whereby the whole class read and worked with the same novel) was not something the boys enjoyed. They relished the chance to read aloud, but passively listening to a story being told by the teacher was agonising for them. The girls, however, could sit and listen to me read for long stretches at a time.

The boys' enjoyment of the physical act of reading aloud suggests that they need to feel "busy" in their English class work. This does not mean the busyness of following the words on the page, but the kind of activity, such as reading aloud, which makes them responsible for the class's progress with the novel.

In science, pupils can physically transform materials, and all the boys I teach adore the subject. It seems the answer to getting boys interested in English is to get them involved physically.

As a new teacher I am still surprised by what I discover in the classroom. I find boys tend to like physical role-play. For instance, ask boys to recreate a fight scene or an argument from a novel and their willingness to "go first" is remarkable. Ask them to write an essay and there is hardly any activity. This may seem obvious; of course boys like to play-fight. What is surprising and rewarding is the ardour with which they apply themselves to a subsequent written task after the physical "doing" of the main task. They have manipulated the "work", controlled it and lived it. It has produced tangible results.

I have learned that experiment is a good idea when you are a new teacher. This may seem silly - surely you are trying to do things the traditional way, to establish yourself and not step on any toes? My goal of finding ways of getting boys interested in English can't be realised if I don't try new things. The whole point of teaching is to adapt, to match the teaching strategy to individual learning needs. That means teaching English to both boys and girls.

Sahail Ashraf in an NQT at Ashburton High School, Croydon, Surrey

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