Breaking down the (language) barriers
I have two boys of my own at home: they’re nine and seven, and I find them fascinating and frustrating in pretty much equal measure. When people ask about my children and hear that I have sons, there’s an eye-roll and wry grin that encompass the whole ‘you’ve-got-your-work-cut-out-hope-you’ve-got-plenty-of-energy-wait-til-they-do-nothing-but-grunt-at-you’ attitude that goes along with the idea that ‘boys will be boys’.
Teaching boys can be a conundrum. I find some of them fascinating and frustrating in pretty much equal measure, too. Mention a boy who’s a bit of a character and you get the eye-roll and wry grin. I’m not naturally an energetic sort of person so the boundless physical energy that bounces around room 4, colliding with the pillar in the middle of the room, still comes as a shock sometimes. I still struggle with understanding how a boy’s brain can hold all of those incredible ideas but he can’t (or doesn’t want to) hold his pen for long enough to write them down – and he often can’t see why he should bother after he’s told us all about them either.
What I have been puzzling over is this: boys expect to be treated and spoken to more negatively than girls. Perhaps it’s all the energy, so often perceived as poor behaviour, or perhaps it’s the mutual frustration around writing, recording learning and often just not doing ‘enough’ work. What my own boys say about school confirms this. A boy’s public front and peer approval is often more important than approval from parents and teachers. This isn’t really true of one of my sons – he’s a people pleaser and praise from his teacher is everything – but it seems to be true of the other, especially at school. This is the opposite then of what we want, and need, in the classroom much of the time.
But reading and research has consistently suggested an idea and it’s this: one thing we can change and use to have a positive impact on boys’ achievement, behaviour and self-esteem is the language we use to talk to boys, both in and out of the classroom.
Nigel Hall (in ‘Communicating Matters’) says, ‘The most effective way of improving children’s language is by changing the way we approach language.’ And changing the ways that we use language will lead to improving the ways that some boys use language, helping in turn to improve their writing which will help to improve their attainment in school. If we can model how we use language to empathise, collaborate, reflect, persuade, express thoughts and ideas, share, tolerate and understand, and if we can do this especially with boys and encourage them to do the same, imagine the impact we could have.
I had smugly thought I was pretty good at this but a day spent noticing and thinking about the ways I interact with boys compared to the ways I interact with girls showed that I was completely wrong. Of course, there’s still a place for a laugh and a joke: we adapt our language to build relationships and to accommodate the person or group we are speaking to all the time and that’s a good thing. What’s not a good thing is the idea that boys expect to be treated and spoken to more negatively than girls, that we are more tolerant of sexist language when we talk to and about boys.
Boys will, of course, be boys – biology and all that – and I wouldn’t have my own boys any other way. I do, though, want them to feel successful. Whatever we (I) may think of our current exam system and measures of success, they are what we have to work with…for the time being anyway. So I’m trying to suppress my own eye-roll and wry grin and trying instead to focus on positive ways of using language in the hope that the research is right. It’s a work in progress.
Jo Sheldon, English