BOYS are turned off learning foreign languages because they are forced to talk in class about shopping or friends and family, according to the preliminary findings of a research project.
Such subjects may come more naturally to girls because these are conversations they have in English, Cambridge University researchers believe.
But boys would be happier with language lessons if they could use material which reflected their interests, such as French comics, or if they could discuss topics such as sport, the research commissioned by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority found.
Boys become increasingly de-motivated in language lessons as they get older, the researchers discovered.
The study by Peter Downes and Barry Jones of Homerton College found that syllabuses often ask boys to talk in a foreign language about topics that are completely alien to them.
They also often do not understand what they are expected to do in language lessons. They can be confused by the use of the foreign language to give instructions and explanations and are uneasy with the subject, which tends to be talk-based, Mr Downes told the British Educational Research Association conference in Cardiff last week.
His study of seven secondary schools was commissioned as part of an attempt to identify why boys do much worse than girls in modern foreign languages.
Only 74 per cent of boys are entered for a language GCSE compared with 83 per cnt of girls. Of those who sat the French exam this year, only 44.5 per cent of boys got at a C grade or better compared to 60 per cent of girls.
Three schools with a typical gender performance gap were investigated as part of the project, as well as four where boys did much better than expected.
Teachers and pupils in Years 9 and 11 were interviewed in order to identify strategies that had successfully boosted boys' performance.
Boys wanted more control over lesson content, tasks and targets, the study found. Once they became confused, boys found it very difficult to get back on track. They also often could not see the point of learning a foreign language.
The male pupils depended heavily on the teacher and were very influenced by the classroom atmosphere.
Meanwhile, teachers were reluctant to use boy-friendly strategies telling researchers that they were more concerned with meeting the needs of all pupils as individuals.
Yet there was a clear consensus about what must happen in language lessons to raise boys' performance. They needed a variety of tasks, delivered at a quick pace, which required them to move around the classroom.
They also needed to be told the purpose of each task while the most able wanted grammatical explanations of how the language worked.
Research Focus, 28-29 Conversations about shopping and family demotivate boys in modern-language classes, says a Cambridge research team.