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Why are boys such reluctant linguists?

There's been a lot of controversy recently over the relative academic achievements of boys and girls. Apparently, the old assumption that girls have the edge at primary school but will be overtaken later by their male peers no longer holds true. Last summer's results show that girls are now outstripping boys across the board at GCSE; even at A-level they are creeping ahead.

My own school is no exception, a fact that was drawn to our attention by the OFSTED team which inspected us last term. As a modern languages teacher, I have been aware of the discrepancy for years. My present A-level group contains 12 girls and two boys, and my top set GCSE class last year reflected a similar imbalance. But it's one thing identifying the problem, quite another analysing causes and finding solutions.

Last term, a television documentary on a "female future" showed American researchers measuring the responses of babies' brains to language. It suggested that, compared with boys, girls were more sensitive from birth. However sceptical you may be of the reliability of such research, it's undeniable that from an early age girls are more articulate.

If we accept that boys start off at a disadvantage, it follows that they won't appreciate being shown up by their female classmates. This supposition is borne out by research which has shown that girls' superiority in languages is accentuated in co-educational schools. But as most teachers are reluctant to sacrifice the social advantages of mixed classes, few schools are likely to opt for segregated teaching groups.

An analysis of GCSE results in my own local education authority, Avon, reflects the national imbalance between the sexes. Yet significantly, in a few schools the difference is negligible. What might be the secret of their success?

Teaching and learning styles are obviously crucial, as are assessment procedures. It would be interesting to see a breakdown for boys' and girls' achievements in each skill - reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Timetabling may also play a part. Lengthy, infrequent language lessons favour pupils who can sustain concentration and are willing to compensate for lack of contact time by learning vocabulary at home. Such qualities are not in keeping with the macho image many boys like to cultivate.

The policy of schools to set by ability may be relevant too. And could it be that because of the dearth of male languages teachers, boys suffer from not having positive role models?

Avon's analysis of GCSE results reveals another interesting statistic. Compared with the number of A and B grades awarded, the percentage of Cs is small. This would suggest that while our best linguists are fulfilling their potential, our middle-ability pupils are not. I wonder how many of them are boys, whose laid-back attitude drives their teachers to despair?

In Year 7, where lessons revolve around lively games, songs and role plays, we have plenty of enthusiastic boys. Do they lose interest when the work becomes more complex, a greater emphasis is placed on written accuracy and they are expected to do regular vocabulary revision?

Departments which have introduced modular courses have found that replacing the long haul of a two-year syllabus by a series of short-term targets can have a dramatic effect on the motivation of reluctant linguists. But unfortunately, due to Government policy which favours exams rather than coursework, the future of these courses is uncertain.

This is a vitally important issue. In the business world, more and more companies are recognising that our reluctance to master foreign languages can be costly. To allow any of our pupils - boys or girls - to under-achieve is clearly folly.

Alison Thomas lives and works in Bristol

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