What learners think and feel

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Barry Jones looks at an addition to a popular series on motivation.

The question of what can be done about boys' performance in modern languages is regularly asked in the press and books.

Amanda Barton's book not only gives a detailed description of the problem but also provides a range of practical suggestions for classroom activities. They are designed to motivate boys in particular but many should appeal to all learners.

The most convincing suggestions are underpinned by findings from her own doctoral and other research, her work with teachers on in-service courses and her role as PGCE tutor. Throughout, the voices of real children are clearly heard.

An exploration of boys' attitudes to language learning is emphasised as key to understanding what makes it more demanding than other subjects for both boys and girls.

In the first chapter, the author shows ways to discover more about what learners think and feel about languages when they begin and offers suggestions for making languages real and relevant. Rather disappointingly - and this is a tendency throughout the book - claims are made with wording such as "some researchers have observed...", "most rigorous studies have found...", "there is considerable evidence to suggest that...". This lack of referencing makes follow-up almost impossible.

The four chapters on speaking, listening, reading and writing contain a wide range of useful suggestions for classroom practice. Examples are particularly convincing when these are related to closely observed descriptions of what boys do in language lessons or what they actually say.

Ways to boost pupils' confidence especially in pair work, sensitive error correction, choosing "boy friendly" topics, and the use of drama and games make the chapter on speaking practical and persuasive.

The chapters on listening and reading also contain numerous suggestions but, more significantly because they are often based on problems identified by pupils, sections on training listening and reading skills, although short, are really helpful.

"Writing" and the use of ICT are discussed and illustrated in detail, a section with another strong focus on appealing to boys but without neglecting the girls. The acknowledgement to Julie Adams's Pathfinder publication Just Write! (CILT, the National Centre for Languages) is welcome. Identification of sources for some of the other suggestions for classroom practice would have been appreciated.

The chapter on teaching and learning styles gives well argued prominence to "pupils seeing that the teacher is prioritizing their interests". Although some readers may wish to include in the specimen questionnaire "what helps you learn better?" to complement "what do you enjoy?" this very comprehensive example would give teachers significant information into pupil attitudes and feelings without extra work.

The final chapter on the teaching and learning environment with its "evaluation of the effectiveness of teaching foreign languages in single-sex classes" makes detailed reference to the author's own research.

Its analysis of the complex and interrelated issues makes fascinating reading, putting the practical suggestions offered throughout the book into the proper and appropriate setting of the many variables which influence boys' and girls' performance in languages.

This is a very readable, informative book, with a nice balance between practical ideas and a research base; just a shame about the title, which does not do justice to the author's concern for the well-being and learning of pupils.

Barry Jones is lecturer in modern foreign languages, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Getting the Buggers into Languages. by Amanda Barton. Continuum, pound;12.99

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