As a teacher, it is your job to facilitate all students to make excellent progress. Of course, there are so often factors that inhibit this progress: special educational needs, social skills or having English as a second language to name but a few. However, one group that so often underperforms in English are boys. In fact, year on year, boys are outperformed by girls on average by 10%. In 2015 57.7% of boys across the UK achieved an A*-C grade in English Language while they were overshadowed by 72.8% of girls.
In my experience, many boys find reading and writing boring and difficult. They are often more unlikely to sit still and to exhibit inappropriate behaviour in my lessons. The reasons for this are numerous and widely debated and that is not the purpose of this blog post. Instead, I’d like to explore the techniques that can be used to engage boys in an English classroom.
My year 9 class had been studying London by William Blake and I wanted to devise a creative writing workshop that was based around this poem. The premise was that there would be 3 tasks based on: 1) the five senses, 2) figurative language 3) show don’t tell. Each of these tasks were then subdivided into ‘easy’, ‘medium’ and ‘hard’. It was explained to the children at the beginning of the lesson that they had to complete all of the ‘easy’ tasks; completion of all of the medium tasks would earn them a Passmores Point (merit); completion of all of the hard tasks would earn them a postcard home. This was the breakthrough moment with this class. Though there are many girls in this group that often go above and beyond expectations, the mention of positive contact with home was the ‘carrot’ required to engage the boys in challenging themselves.
The students were given 10 minutes per task. Initially, I had wanted the students to move around the room, completing these writing stations as they went. Previously, I have found that movement around the room gives students a physical break needed when they have been sitting down for long periods of time. However, due to issues with photocopying, the students remained in their seats and the tasks were displayed on the board. Despite the fact that the students couldn’t move around the room, the timed element of the tasks created a sense of urgency and, with the promise of the postcard home, the boys seemed particularly desperate to complete the ‘hard’ tasks in the allotted time. They were engaged in every task for the duration of the task.
The differentiated tasks were set up so that the easy task asked students to be able to identify a particular technique. The ‘medium’ task asked them to apply the technique. Finally, the hard task asked them to apply the technique, using sophisticated vocabulary. The rationale behind differentiating it in this way was to ensure that those students who were lacking in understanding of a particular topic were able to gain the knowledge required before moving on to a more difficult task. You may think that students, eager for their postcard home, would have jumped into the ‘hard’ task and tried to complete it without fully understanding. However, because the more difficult tasks asked them to apply knowledge, it was impossible for them to complete it properly without ensuring they understood what they needed to do first.
These tasks asked the students – many of whom lack a lot of confidence in the subject, have very low literacy skills and are working at around a National Curriculum Level 3 or 4 – to use vocabulary such as ‘caliginous’ ‘amorphous’ and ‘cacophony’. For these boys, many of whom don’t read regularly, they were excited and engaged by creative writing techniques and words that they had not experienced before that lesson.
This was a very successful lesson and it’s been a starting point for me to engage the boys in the English curriculum. The excitement of the lesson has made it a memorable one and they are still eager to use those challenging techniques and vocabulary because it has stayed with them. Furthermore, the impact of the positive contact with home has been immeasurable. I have seen these boys happier to come into their English lessons and with lots more confidence than ever before.
My top set are an absolute delight. They are able, enthusiastic and engaged. I could pretty much ask them to do exercises from a text book every lesson and they would, willingly and with a smile on their face. Compliance doesn’t give you that thrill of really stretching a top set, however.
They’d recently grown so bored of the reading and analysis of Jekyll and Hyde (which they do, as it happens, exceptionally well) that I decided that I not only wanted them to approach the text in a different way but I also wanted to really stretch them.
I decided to develop a creative writing workshop, aimed at engaging them with the chapter The Carew Murder Case. Below, you’ll find an outline of the activities with which they engaged, the rationale of including these activities and the results from the lesson.
This class already have a pretty excellent vocabulary. They are able to vary their vocabulary for effect and make adventurous vocabulary choices. I needed them to use vocabulary that they hadn’t come across before and that was exceptionally sophisticated. I provided them with the vocabulary bank:
Metamorphosis – transformation e.g. The metamorphosis saw him change into a monster. Bloodlust – a desire to see bloodshed e.g. Only then did her senses register the three men before her, the alley, and the familiar bloodlust in their glowing eyes. Barbarous – cruel and vicious e.g. His barbarous behaviour shocked and appalled me. Baleful – threatening or menacing e.g. She shot be a baleful look Glowering – scowling e.g. They glowered at me as I stood alone in the corner.Gimlet-eyed – a sharp or piercing glance e.g. His face was set in a grimace and he was gimlet eyed. Decrepit – crumbling or decaying e.g. The decrepit buildings towered over me Dilapidated – run down e.g. The dilapidated building had smashed windows and no door. Squalid – dirty and filthy e.g. The conditions were squalid.
Not only did the students use all of these words, their desire to improve their vocabulary was really increased after seeing the complexity of the words in the vocabulary bank. One student described Hyde as “a behemoth like monster”.
I explained that good creative writing had to use the 5 senses. I provided them with an image of Victorian London and got them to write for 3 minutes using only their senses. The rationale behind getting them to write for such a short time was to get them to write and write straight away. So many students find it difficult to start or put up mental blocks to prevent themselves from having a go, so fearful that they won’t produce something beautifully written.
The timed task gave students the push they needed to get writing and many of them, who had previously shown a reluctance to write, were able to produce a short, effective description which could be re-worked into a much longer piece of descriptive writing.
Before they began to write, I also talked to them about the use of figurative language. Again, these students could identify and use these language techniques with ease. The challenge was to get them to create sophisticated and unusual imagery that avoided cliché. I modelled a clichéd metaphor – “His teeth were like daggers.” Then, I modelled a much more sophisticated and unusual simile “The deep fog spread like a pool of quicksilver”.
Again, I used an image as a stimulus for students to work from. They had three minutes to produce a simile, a metaphor or personification based on the image.
The last task they were given was simply changing two sentences from ‘tell’ to ‘show’, with the aim of building up more engaging descriptive detail.
They were shown :
I was nervous – My nails had been bitten until my fingers were sore and my legs were trembling.
And asked to re-write:
I was scared –
Lastly, the students were asked to write in pairs to produce two descriptive paragraphs of the murder. Each student was responsible for one of the paragraphs and, thus, they had to make sure they fitted together. Not only did this ensure students worked well together and helped to consolidate and concrete their ideas, it also ensured that students were able to discuss interesting ways to make links between their paragraphs.
They were provided with a success criteria:
There was such a ‘buzz’ in this lesson. This was a result of working with others, the pressure of timed tasks, the challenge of the task, and the clear success criteria made this a really successful lesson.
If it’s at all useful to you, click below to download the lesson’s PowerPoint