Boys seem to do best at foreign languages when they are taught in all-male classes. Janie Mireylees (below) and Alison Thomas (right) look at the evidence of two research projects into boys' and girls' different educational needs at primary and secondary levels.
Many language teachers find boys hard work, according to a survey of La Jolie Ronde teachers, the organisation that runs after-school French classes for children aged three to 11 throughout the country.
Responding to the concerns of some of its teachers that more could be done at primary-school level to encourage boys to enjoy language learning, La Jolie Ronde carried out a survey among its licensees, who run the clubs. In all, they teach about 2,000 boys in mixed classes in urban and rural communities. They were asked about their perceptions of boys' educational needs in the language classroom and which activities were most successful in meeting those needs.
The findings were not altogether surprising. Teachers were positive about boys' intelligence, their enthusiasm, their curiosity, courage and willingness to experiment. But there were rather more negative points, which included a general lack of interest in learning French, a short attention span, poor concentration and motivation, a tendency to be easily distracted, lack of organisation, low reading and writing skills, an inclination to dominate the class, to be competitive, noisy, active and over-exuberant if not kept busy. Girls, said the teachers, are much easier to teach - they're more patient and less disruptive. These observations were by no means confined to La Jolie Ronde teachers; they reflect surveys of boys at secondary school.
The surveyed teachers felt that their most successful classes were those in which the number of boys and girls was balanced and where the needs and interests of both sexes were addressed. Few teachers have all-male groups, but where such classes do exist, teachers found them both a challenge and generally a pleasure to teach. Opinion was equally divided as to how such groups achieved compared with mixed groups.
The most successful all-male groups seem to be those in which the boys get on well together socially, are supportive of each other and feel the class belongs to them and not the teacher.
I was able to observe an all-boy group, the core of which had been together for four years, during a lesson and a presentation to parents. It wasn't difficult to spot the negative points. The boys were easily distracted, constantly moving, and needed to be pulled back to focus on the activity in hand every few minutes. They needed clear instructions, advice on how to organise themselves and their props, and reminders prior to their presentation.
But despite their faults, the boys' enthusiasm was infectious. They enjoyed the humour of their World Cup sketch and press ganged members of their families into doing a lively "Boogie Woogie". There was obviously mutual respect between the boys and the teacher. It was also impressive to see the support the families gave to the boys and the teacher.
Surprisingly, given the general profile they presented of boys, two-thirds of the teachers said they hadn't encountered underachievement by boys, while one third felt they had. This could be because some teachers instinctively meet the needs of individuals without categorising those needs on a gender basis. Another possible factor is that the Jolie Ronde course is already well-disposed to meet the perceived educational needs of boys by presenting children with short-term targets that can be recorded visually as they are achieved. This is satisfying for all children, but boys particularly like to see that a goal has been achieved and they can move on to their next target. Lessons are planned and conducted at a quick pace with lots of variety, limiting opportunities for boys to lose concentration and to be distracted.
The teachers were asked to indicate the most successful language-learning activities for boys, within three age bands. For five to seven-year-olds, the most effective activities by far are physical games that allow them to run, jump, handle objects, flash cards, dice and counters, to draw and to colour. Action rhymes and action songs with a good rhythm are also popular.
The enjoyment of physical games continues in the seven to 11-year-old groups but does not dominate as with younger boys. The emphasis is still on games but includes more competitive team and board games. Language needed to play the game is learned but the enjoyment of being involved and trying to win is the reward.
Watching an all-boy group enjoying a Coupe du Monde board game, it was easy to note the enthusiasm, the interest in getting the answer and the willingness to have a go, even if it was wrong, in order to move one square nearer le but (objective). Teachers noted that boys often need more help in organising themselves to find and carry out short tasks in their activity books.
Teachers found that by relating language to topics of particular interest - football, the Coupe du Monde (a godsend to all teachers of French), the Tour de France, reptiles, map work and computers) - they could capture boys' attention.
In trying to meet the perceived needs of boys, most teachers expressed concern that girls could miss out in some way or feel alienated.
While there are some general conclusions to be drawn from this survey, it's important not to lose sight of the fact that children are individuals, that the character of classes varies and that the style and preferences of individual teachers will affect the way children respond to different activities. Even so, teachers need to be aware that boys and girls learn in different ways. Once they understand the nature of these differences, teachers will be better equipped to give all children a more enjoyable and successful learning experience.
Janie Mireylees is head of professional development at La Jolie Ronde, which runs after-school clubs for children aged three to 11. The organisation has also published a structured French language course for this age range, which can be used in schools or in after-school classes run by La Jolie Ronde licensees. In addition, it runs INSET and professional support for French teachers. La Jolie Ronde, 33 Long Acre, Bingham, Nottingham NG13 8AF. Tel: 01949 839715
BOYS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN
Today's "communicative" approach to language learning emphasises children speaking to each other, asking and answering questions, often through role-play.
Boys don't naturally instigate this sort of conversation. Five to seven-year-olds are happy to join in the repetitive dialogue of a story or rhyme and enjoy acting the roles of the characters. Seven to nine-year-olds are introduced to short conversations using question and answer, which they are happy to practise if encouraged to pretend they are speaking as a character they admire - often a footballer. Lads from nine to 11 years old learn short sketches using the language they have learned, in different contexts. The most successful sketches are those which boys see as realistic or funny situations.
Above all else, boys enjoy humour and appreciate jokes. 'The Beano' was quoted as a good source of inspiration.