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"Unpicking Engagement: Strategies for Reaching Middle-Attaining, Disengaged Boys in the Language Classroom"

In the domain of language teaching, teachers often find themselves faced with the challenge of engaging students who seem disinterested or unmotivated. In this post I would like to focus my attention particularly on middle-attaining, disengaged boys. While every student is unique, certain strategies can help us unlock their potential and foster a more positive learning experience. Here, I will attempt to explore some effective methods for reaching these students and igniting their passion for language learning, whilst drawing on responses to my post (Jan13, 2024) on X from my fellow colleagues.


Before delving into strategies, it's crucial to understand why some middle-attaining boys may become disengaged in the language classroom. Factors such as perceived lack of relevance, difficulty grasping abstract concepts, negative self- image as a language learner, or simply feeling disconnected from the subject matter can all contribute to disengagement. Additionally, societal stereotypes and expectations surrounding masculinity may discourage some boys from fully embracing language learning.


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Some strategies to consider:


1. Building Rapport and Trust


Establishing a strong rapport with students is fundamental to creating a positive learning environment. For middle-attaining boys, in particular, forming personal connections can help break down barriers and foster trust. Take the time to get to know each student individually, showing genuine interest in their interests, hobbies, and experiences. Demonstrating empathy and understanding can go a long way in building rapport and making students feel valued and respected.


2. Incorporating Hands-On Learning


Many middle-attaining boys thrive in hands-on, experiential learning environments. Incorporating interactive activities and projects into language lessons can help capture their interest and make learning more tangible. For example, organising role-playing scenarios, language games, or multimedia projects can provide opportunities for active engagement and practical application of language skills.


3. Leveraging Technology and Multimedia


In today's digital age, technology can be a powerful tool for engaging students in the language classroom. Middle-attaining boys, in particular, often respond positively to multimedia content and interactive learning platforms. Incorporate a variety of multimedia resources, such as videos, podcasts, and interactive language apps, to make lessons more dynamic and engaging. Encourage students to explore online resources and participate in virtual language exchanges to enhance their language skills outside of the classroom.


4. Connecting Language Learning to Real-World Contexts


Middle-attaining boys may struggle to see the relevance of language learning to their everyday lives. To address this challenge, emphasise the practical applications of language skills and connect lessons to real-world contexts. Incorporate authentic materials, such as newspaper articles, song lyrics, or excerpts from literature, that relate to students' interests and experiences. Encourage students to discuss and analyse these materials, helping them see the value of language learning beyond the classroom. These boys are often interested in STEM subjects, therefore showing them how having the ability to communicate and apply another language can be a valuable skill in areas, such as engineering, business, sciences, pharmaceutical, automotive industry etc., is an opportunity that shouldn't be missed. In their highly pragmatic thinking relevance is crucial.


5. Providing Choice and Autonomy


Empowering students with choice and autonomy can increase their sense of ownership and investment in their learning. Offering opportunities for students to select topics of interest for class discussions, projects, or creative assignments. Allowing them to choose from a variety of learning activities and assignments (games and a competitive element seems to be highly engaging and motivating) that cater to their individual strengths and preferences. By giving students, a voice in their learning journey, they are more likely to feel motivated and engaged in the language classroom.


6. Differentiating Instruction


Recognising that every student learns differently, it's essential to differentiate instruction to meet the diverse needs of middle-attaining boys. Providing multiple entry points and scaffolding support for complex language concepts, allowing students to progress at their own pace. Offering additional challenges or enrichment activities for students who demonstrate advanced proficiency, while providing extra support and interventions for those who may be struggling.


7. Fostering a Growth Mindset


Encouraging a growth mindset can help instil resilience and a positive attitude towards learning in middle-attaining boys. Emphasising the importance of effort, perseverance, and learning from mistakes, rather than focusing solely on outcomes or grades. Praising students for their hard work and progress, celebrating their achievements, and encouraging them to set realistic goals for improvement. By fostering a growth mindset culture in the classroom, we can help students develop the confidence and resilience needed to overcome challenges and succeed in language learning.


8. Examples of strategies shared by colleagues on X:


  • @hannahpinkham: "Ensure early success, build relationships, praise lots (private/public depending on personality type), narrate their progress & success constantly, phone calls home, if relevant, work hard on changing their negative self-image as a language learner."

  • @VEverettmfl: "Clear focus on what is being learned, accuracy, confident vision of progression. Lots of testing and feedback. Understanding that asking them to use the language needs teaching, developing, structuring. Cultural relevance especially videos. Concentrate on seriousness, maturity, growing independence and learning. "

  • @BethanMchugh: "I started my teaching career in a boys' school in London - a competitive element to every lesson was a deal breaker and using sport/music/current affairs to theme resources was always popular. Best lesson I remember - a perfect tense murder mystery: I just made up a scenario and it was a sort of extended role play with police/murderer(s)/victims - but acted out for full drama. Perfect tense verbs in as many variations as possible for maximum marks."

  • @MrsEmefelle: " I find that an element of competition also helps. Hidden scores activities and One pen one dice work well as does the magic box of 9 (always gets students wanting to demonstrate what they know): Teacher draws 3x3 squares (so 9 boxes), when student answers a question correctly, they get to put their name in a box. Once boxes are full, students take out a name to put theirs in. (But that person can answer question again to get back in). It can be used throughout the lesson."

  • @frau98: "Our annual German Declamation competition is a massive hit amongst the boys who do German - more so than girls. They get really competitive. We practise the reading of poems, have set competitions and a final."

  • @shellyironside: " I have a new class reader about Kobe Bryant which is piquing their interest."

  • @marriedtothehead: "Linking MFL to other disciplines, e.g. MFL+ Sport; MFL+ engineering; MFL + Art; MFL + Film studies. Using humour, e.g. jokes, cartoons, factual texts. External competitions, e.g. Stephen Spender, Anthea Bell. Praise, praise and praise."

  • @Pj20212022: "Writing a graphic novel about their future — something they want to be or do."


In conclusion


Engaging middle-attaining, disengaged boys in the language classroom as evidenced in in the responses above, requires a multifaceted approach that addresses their unique needs, interests, and learning preferences. By building rapport, incorporating hands-on learning, leveraging technology, connecting language learning to real-world contexts, providing choice and autonomy, differentiating instruction, and fostering a growth mindset, we - teachers can create a supportive and empowering learning environment where all students can thrive. There is no "silver bullet", one solution, different contexts, backgrounds. and cohorts may require different approaches, which we need to explore in our own settings, however, I believe that through these strategies, we can unlock the potential of every student, in particular our 'disengaged middle-attaining boys' and ignite their passion for language learning.

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