Amanda Barton explains how a group of indifferent, low achievers can be transformed into well-motivated, enthusiastic linguists
When a boy speaks out of turn in class, he gets a yellow card. If he does it again, he gets a red card for a detention. And at the end of a lesson, a "man of the match" is picked. This is the strategy that Stoke Park School in Coventry has adopted to teach boys how to communicate with language rather than their fists.
Last summer the school's modern languages department concluded that radical measures were needed to combat the growing apathy of boys and girls towards languages. Teachers decided that setting by ability and segregating by gender in Year 9 would tackle the universal problem of boys' underachievement and promote girls' GCSE results, which were also below the national average in modern languages.
The project would raise the subject's profile and revive pupil interest. A questionnaire was also sent to all Year 9 pupils to identify which learning tasks they enjoyed.
From last September, boys' groups learned how to conduct themselves in a language lesson. "How we work in this lesson might be a bit different from other lessons. Laughing at each other's mistakes is out of order; we work as a team," they were told. Meanwhile, the girls' group listened attentively to the teacher explaining, in French, adjectival endings.
The project has already shown that success depends on the teachers' ability and willingness to "tune into" the groups' needs and interests. While the teachers of the all-girls' groups set about incorporating more pair and group activities to boost their confidence in speaking, the head of department, Jane Talbot, devised strategies to meet the challenge of taking on a group of disaffected boys.
It seemed a good idea to combine football and business terminology. Each half-term a class elects equipment and behaviour managers. The equipment manager must ensure that all the boys have a pen, pencil and ruler with them - a big responsibility when merits are at stake. When a boy speaks out of turn, without raising his hand, he gets a yellow card from the behaviour manager, and a red card for detention, if he does it again.
At the end of each lesson, the behaviour manager nominates the "man of the match" and qualifies his decision, an exercise that needed practice. "At first they'd always nominate their friends, adding the obvious explanation, 'Because he's my mate'. It took a while to explain the criteria to them. Now they're beginning to sound like teachers themselves: 'X because he remained on task all lesson'," says Ms Talbot.
Knowing the rules is important to these boys in a subject that shifts the boundaries of conventional classroom behaviour. At the beginning of each lesson, targets are set and aims explained. At the end, the boys can review what they have achieved.
The ground rules are constantly referred to in the target language and are on display in class. Merits play an important role in providing boys with evidence of success. They are awarded not only for academic achievement but for behaviour, which in the past would have been subject to ridicule in a mixed group. Boys aged 14 and 15 compete to uphold the "cool" norm. Offering help, neat presentation of work, trying to pronounce a difficult word and using the target language are considered acceptable, even desirable behaviour. The ultimate accolade is public praise in assembly and a trip to the head's office to sign the "excellence book".
The boys' competitiveness is accommodated in activities in lessons but is tempered by the principles of teamwork. There is a strong sense of team identity which is reinforced by praising those who support each other and by competitions with the girls' group. The girls also provide a surrogate foreign audience for correspondence. For example, dating agency forms completed in the target language have been exchanged and letters of introduction sent to the most suitable partners.
Awareness-raising projects highlighting the benefits of learning a language aim to dispel the doubts experienced by many boys not satisfied merely with enjoyment of the subject. The 21 boys in this group produced a short video, Deutsch ist toll!, in which they expound the arguments for learning German dressed as scientists, engineers, pilots and salesmen. The video has been shown at the school.
Lessons are geared towards pupils' interests to maximise enjoyment and increase relevance. Football lends itself as a teaching tool to a variety of topics: league tables to teach numbers; shirts to teach colours; matches to teach dates; venues to teach geographical locations. Boys' preferred learning styles are also taken into account. Where possible, work is marked in class, as the boys appreciate instant feedback. Activities are supported by visuals. Games and tasks involving moving around the classroom feature regularly.
It remains to be seen whether the initiative is successful in terms of academic grades. Parents seem to approve of the project and the school plans to segregate two year groups for languages next year.
Jane Talbot's boys claim to be working better and their impressive use of the target language would seem to support that. If success can be measured in terms of the transformation of a group of indifferent low achievers into a well-motivated, mutually supportive class of enthusiastic linguists, then these boys and their teacher have scored.
Amanda Barton is researching boys' underachievement at the Language Centre, University of Warwick and is working with five schools in which modern languages are being taught to single-sex groups