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.