Five important flaws of GCSE oral tests

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Research has highlighted a number of issues with oral testing which examination boards and teachers need to heed, as they can have important implications not just for the way GCSE syllabi are designed, but also for the conduct and the assessment of oral GCSE exams as well as for our teaching. The issues which I will highlight are, I suspect, generalizable to either types of oral tests conducted in other educational systems, especially when it comes to the reliability of the assessment procedures and the authenticity of the tasks adopted. They are important issues, as they bring into question the fairness and objectivity of the tests as well as whether we are truly preparing children for real L2-native-like communication.

Issue n.1 – Instant or delayed assessment?

A study by Hurman (1996), cited in Macaro (2007) investigated to what extent examiners’ assessment of content and accuracy of candidates’ responses to GCSE role-play affected tests. Hurman took 60 experiences examiners and divided them into groups; one spent some time before awarding the mark and one did it instantaneously. Hurman’s findings indicate that waiting a few seconds before awarding the mark seem to result in more objective grading. This, in my view, is caused by the divided attention that listening and focusing on assessment causes – I have experienced this first-hand many times!

This has important implications for teachers working with certain examination boards. Cambridge International Examinations board, for instance, prescribes that, at IGCSE, the teacher/examiner award the mark instantaneously and explicitly forbids the practice of grading the candidates retrospectively or after listening to the recording. If Hurman’s findings were to be true of the vast majority of examiners, examination boards like CIE may have to change their regulations and allow for marking to be done retrospectively when the examiner’s attention is not divided between listening to the candidate’s response to a new question, when still marking the previous one – an ominous task!

Issue n.2 – What does complexity of structures/language mean?

This is another crucial issue, which I found year in year out when moderating oral GCSE/IGCSE candidate’s oral performance during my teaching career. Teachers listening to the same recording usually tend to agree when it comes to complexity of vocabulary but not necessarily when it comes to complexity of grammar/syntactic structures. Chambers and Richards’ (1992) findings indicate that this is not simply my experience; their evidence suggests that there was a high level of disagreement amongst the teachers involved in their study as to what constituted ‘complexity of structures’. They also found that the teachers disagreed also in terms of what was meant by ‘fluency’ and ‘use of idiom’ – another issue that I have experienced myself when moderating.

To further complicate the picture, there is, in my view, another issue which research should probe into, and I invite colleagues who work with teachers of nationalities to investigate; the fact, that is, that L1-target-language-speaker raters tend to be stricter than L2-target-language-speaker ones. This issue is particularly serious in light of Issue n.5 below.

Issue n. 3 – Are the typical GCSE oral tasks ‘authentic’?

I often play a prank on my French colleague Ronan Jezequel , by starting a conversation about the week-end just gone by asking question in a GCSE-like style and sequence until, after a few seconds, he realizes that there is something wrong and looks at me funny… Are we testing our students on (and preparing them for) tasks that do not reflect authentic L2 native speaker speech? This is what another study by Chambers (1995) set out to investigate. They examined 28 tapes of French GCSE candidates and compared them to conversations on the same themes by 25 French native speakers in the same age bracket. They found that not only, as easily predictable, the native speakers used more words (437 vs 118) and more clauses (56.9 vs 23.9), but also that:

  1. The French speakers found the topic house/flat description socially unacceptable;
  2. The native speakers found the topic ‘Daily routine’ them unauthentic and – interestingly – produced very few reflexive verbs
  3. The native speakers used the near future whilst the non-natives used the simple future
  4. The native speakers used the imperfect tense much more than the non-natives
  5. The non-native speakers used relative causes much less than the French

Are these tests, as the researchers concluded, testing students’ ability to converse with native speakers or their acquisition of grammar?

Issue n.4 – The grammar accuracy bias

A number of studies (e.g. Alderson and Banerjee, 2002) have found time and again that assessors’ perception of grammar accuracy seem to bias examiners, regardless of how much weight is given in the assessment specification on effective communication. This issue will be exacerbated or mitigated depending on the examiners’ view of what linguistic proficiency means and by their degree of tolerance of errors; whereas a teacher might find a learner’s communicatively effective use of compensation strategies (e.g. approximation or coinage) a positive thing even though it leads to grammatically flawed utterances, another might find it unacceptable.

Here again, background differences are at play. Mistakes that to a native speaker might appear as stigmatizing or very serious might seem mild or not even be considered as mistakes at all…

Issue n.5 – Inter-rater reliability

This is the biggest problem of all and it is related to Issue n.2, above; how reliable are the assessment procedures? Many years of research have shown that for any multi-trait assessment scale to be effective it needs to be extensively piloted. Moreover, whenever it is used for assessment, two or more co-raters must agree on the scores and, where there is disagreement, they must discuss the discrepancies until agreement is reached. However, when the Internal moderator and the External one, in cases where the recording is sent to the Examination board for the assessment, do not agree…what happen to the discussion that is supposed to take place to reach a common agreement?

Another important issue relates to the multi-traits assessment scales used. First of all they are too vague. This is convenient, because the vaguer they are the easier it is to ‘fiddle’ with the numbers. However, the vagueness of a scale makes it difficult to discriminate between performances when the variation in ability is not that great as it happens in a top set class, for example, with A and A* students. In these cases, in order to discriminate effectively between an 87 and a 90% which could mean getting or not an A*, research shows clearly that the best assessment to be used should contain more than the two or three traits (categories) usually found in GCSE scales (or even A Level, for that matter) and, more importantly, should be more fine-grained (i.e. each category should have more criterion-referenced grades). This would hold examination boards much more accountable, but would require more financial investment and work, I guess, on their part.

Parallel texts – How they can enhance learning and effectively scaffold reading proficiency development

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A few days ago, one of my colleagues approached me in the MFL Department corridor to share a resource he referred to as ‘Parallel texts’ from Steve Smith’s www.frenchteacher.net . ‘This is excellent!’ – he said, showing me a worksheet (here: http://frenchteachernet.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/parallel-reading-texts-for-near.html) . This contained a text in French on daily routine on the left hand-side and its translation on the right; some comprehension activities were included, too. ‘My students find them very useful!’ he added.

I hardly needed any convincing as I had used Parallel Texts (French / Italian) myself in the past when working as a translator for the European Union in order to refine my English, day in day out for a few months – and it paid off; my English vocabulary, syntax and awareness of text-specific discourse features grew exponentially as a result. In this article I will show what the potential benefits of using parallel texts with L2 learners can be in light of L2 acquisition theory and how they can be best exploited, in my view, in the classroom and/or as homework.

How can they impact foreign language learning?

Benefit 1 – They encourage ‘noticing’

‘Noticing’ is a phenomenon first documented, in the L2 acquisition literature by Richard Schmidt. According to Schmidt’s (1990) ‘Noticing hypothesis’ the learning of a foreign language grammar structure cannot occur unless the learner ‘notices’ the gap between the way that structure is used in the target language and his/her own L1. In my classroom experience I have witnessed many a time that Eureka moment when a student said, almost thinking aloud, “Oh, I get it! ‘I went’ in French is actually ‘I am gone’. That would be an occurrence of ‘noticing’. Another common occurrence of this process is when our students process our feedback on error and notice the gap between our version and their erroneous output.

One of the benefits of parallel texts, when the translation is as faithful as possible to the text, is exactly that the co-occurrence, side by side, of the target language and the first language version on the same page facilitates ‘noticing’. What’s more, such noticing, occurs in an ‘authentic’ linguistic context (not on the board through teacher-led examples), under lighter cognitive load (as the translation facilitates information processing) and in a safe ‘environment’ (as the translation takes away the risk-taking that inference-making involves). It is advisable, obviously, when using parallel texts, to encourage and scaffold ‘noticing’ by asking, for example, metalinguistic questions on the text, which can become the springboard for an inductive or explicit grammar session on a specific grammar / lexical structure.

Bringing the importance of ‘noticing’ into the learners’ awareness as a powerful catalyst of language acquisition can, in my opinion, impact those students who are more motivated and metacognizant. In fact, if we aim at forging autonomous learners, fostering noticing is a must and I cannot think of any other reading or learning activity that lends itself as beautifully as Parallel texts to creating a context for learning to ‘notice’. They certainly worked for me as a learner.

Benefit 2 – They can effectively scaffold reading with less confident readers

This is especially true of less confident learners who are put off by texts with masses of words they do not understand. The fact that one knows that there is a translation one can fall back upon when one ‘doesn’t get it’, may lessen the anxiety levels of such learners and provide a solid affective scaffold. But won’t this, someone may argue, encourage over reliance on translation? It won’t if parallel texts are used sensibly, with the right students and emphasizing the importance of looking at the translation only when they are stuck or when they need to double check that their inferences are correct. The use of parallel texts as scaffolds for reading is recommended at the early stages of instruction; the translation support will be gradually phased out as the students become more confident.

Benefit 3 – Students learn vocabulary in context

Parallel texts are one of the most ‘authentic’ ways of presenting new lexical items, as the learners do not process the target vocabulary through artificial means (e.g. through flashcards) or in a vacuum (e.g. vocabulary lists), but in an authentic linguistic environment (e.g. articles, short stories, poems), without the direct mediation of or need for the teacher. Moreover the process is relatively effortless both for teachers and students, thanks to the translation. But would it not be better, instead of ‘spoon-feeding’ them, to get them to find out the target words meaning inductively? Surely, the cognitive investment would result in deeper processing and consequently ‘better’ learning, right?

The answer is: it depends on what you are trying to achieve. If my aim is to develop/enhance student reading strategy use, I will elect not to use parallel texts. However I will prefer parallel texts when they represent a first step in a sequence of vocabulary activities aimed at recycling ‘to death’ useful words/phrases I have identified in the text and I want my students to learn. Hence, being the ‘presentational’ stage in a planned sequence of tasks I will have my students process those items effortlessly, to start with (i.e. with the support of the translation). After this first stage, one can, for instance:

  1. Gap the L2 or English version and ask the students to fill them in with the missing words (in the context of a multiple choice quiz)
  2. Cut up / Jumble up the English text and ask the learners to rearrange it based on the French text;
  3. Then the English translation may be removed and typical vocabulary building and reading comprehension activities can be carried out (e.g. matching lists of English words with L2 words in the text; matching lists of L2 words with synonyms in the text; true or false, questions and answers; summaries or even translations of specific parts of the text; etc.)
  4. Another activity students enjoy is to be given a modified version of the original texts, where the L2 or the English text contains errors ‘planted’ by the teacher. The learners are told the number of mistakes in the translation and are given ‘X’ number of minutes to spot and fix them.

In order to sensitize the learners to the target words in the text, quizzes and other vocabulary activities can be carried out prior to reading the text, which focus the students on those words. This, in my experience, can significantly enhance retention of target lexis.

Benefit 4 – They facilitate access to more challenging texts

Often, at lower levels of proficiency, learners cannot access texts due not so much to the vocabulary per se, but because of the complexity of the grammar or syntax. Parallel texts make it possible for learners to access higher level texts by providing valuable support in this respect, by means of the bilingual translation.

Benefit 5 – Differentiation

Parallel texts can be very helpful in differentiation from a more practical point of view. Imagine you want to carry out one or more comprehension tasks on a text. You could first either download a parallel text from a source or create your own; then you could eliminate the translation altogether for the more able learners whilst keeping ‘bits’ for the less able. With a little bit of editing you will be able, in a few minutes, to obtain three or four differentiated versions of the original.

In conclusion, parallel texts are a very useful and versatile learning tool that can be used to (a) scaffold reading with less confident learners (by virtue of being ‘safer’); (b) to facilitate conscious or subconscious ‘noticing’ (thanks to the co-occurrence on the same sheet of the L1 and L2 version); (c) to differentiate (with little work on the teacher’s part) and (d) to present new vocabulary in context. The best examples of non-electronic parallel texts for lower levels of proficiency I have located on the web so far are found at http://www.frenchteacher.net . I hope that the author, Steve Smith, will carry on producing them targeting higher levels of proficiency, too. Great interactive online parallel texts can also be found at http://www.textivate.com.

Why reading comprehension tasks can be detrimental to L2-reading skills development

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The enhancement of reading skills proficiency in foreign language learners has never been as crucial to their linguistic and holistic development as in the 21st century classroom, due to the prominent role that digital technology and the Internet play in their lives. The Internet allows foreign language students easier and cheaper access to masses of information without having to purchase or borrow a book, and allows for a vast variety of choice of topics and text-types.

The goals of reading in the 21st century classroom

With this in mind, in this day and age, more than ever, in their daily practice, curriculum planners, L2-instructional material writers and teachers need to have reading proficiency development in their focal rather than subsidiary awareness, striving, as much as possible, to enable learners to become competent autonomous readers. This means ensuring that they :

  1. WANT to read independently – this implies experiencing success and enjoyment in reading tasks in the classroom as well as being conversant with the benefits of reading for the enhancement of one’s overall L2-proficiency;
  2. Have effective approaches to reading independently – this requires learners to have acquired (a) effective reading strategies to compensate for lack of vocabulary knowledge; (b) learning strategies (such as using dictionaries effectively and knowing how to select accurately website resources for reading);
  3. Have a wide enough vocabulary repertoire to be able to read independently;

To this we must add the need for students who may one day pursue a career as translators or interpreters to acquire translation skills.

The problem

To what extent do published instructional materials, MFL departments’ schemes of work and teachers explicitly, regularly and consistently focus on the above? Let us take a look at some of the typical reading activities in foreign language lessons (in totally random order):

  • Word-recognition tasks;
  • Searching the target text for the L2 equivalent of a list of L1 words;
  • Deciding if statements about a text are true / false (or not mentioned);
  • Closed / open-ended questions on a text;
  • Inferring how target grammar structures in a text work;
  • Partial or full translation of a text;
  • Practice of compensation strategies (inferring meaning from context);
  • Reading for gist (students summarize the main points);
  • Reading for pleasure;
  • Gap-fills;
  • Split sentences to match;
  • Matching questions and answers;
  • Looking for information we need to accomplish a typical real-life task;
  • To model the use of the discourse features and conventions which characterize a specific text-type;
  • Jigsaw reading (piecing a jumbled up text back together);

Research strongly indicates that most foreign language lessons in UK school settings focus mainly on reading comprehension tasks such as true or false, (closed) questions and answers, gap-fills, matching exercises and, to a lesser extent, split-sentences and jigsaw reading. Although there is a place for this kind of activities, they hardly serve the goals of reading instruction listed in points (1), (2) and (3) above.

What these activities do, is test students’ comprehension of the written text whilst implicitly modelling a perception that reading is about skimming and scanning texts for answers to questions. These tasks, do have the potential to enhance the foreign language learner’s reading proficiency, do not get me wrong, in that they require students to apply inference strategies to answers the questions they are asked and semantic analysis; moreover, if the students are allowed and encouraged to use dictionaries, they may learn some new language in the process. However, they do not always per se necessarily widen and consolidate learners’ vocabulary repertoire – unless each texts is recycled through a range of activities and has some pre-reading tasks building up to them and some post-reading ones aimed at consolidation.

Even at the level of strategies acquisition the learning gains of this practice may be overestimated. Research clearly indicates that for reading strategy instruction to be most effective, reading strategies need to be taught explicitly – which, in most cases, in my experience, doesn’t happen.

The most detrimental impact of exposing students mostly to reading comprehension tasks, in my view, refers to the affective domain: how do we motivate learners to enjoy reading for reading’s sake by perpetuating such practice day in day out? How can we model real-life-like reading behavior if students carry out reading tasks that do not really occur in the real world apart from trivia-quiz nights? Real-life reading tasks involve (i) comprehending the main points of  text – not necessarily as directed by the questions formulated by the teacher/textbook; (ii) finding information one needs for the accomplishment of a task, to fill gaps in their knowledge or (iii) simply reading to learn new things for the sake of personal enrichment. Such tasks are more likely to motivate foreign language learners than comprehension for comprehension’s sake. Not to mention the negative consequences for the motivation to read when learners who are less good at making intelligent guesses or inferring details consistently score poorly.

The personal enrichment aspect briefly touched upon above is, in my view, the least tapped into in the typical MFL lesson, possibly because it entails that the learners would have to have a higher degree of involvement in choosing what is read in class – which some teachers may disagree with. But if we want to model independent learning, this has to happen and, thanks to the internet and mobile technology, this is easier to implement in the 21st century classroom.

From a cognitive point of view, another harmful effect refers to the fact that we do not engage our students in extensive reading often enough. Yet, this is crucial to develop their autonomous competence as readers. Extensive reading, must be actively promoted and scaffolded in class as well at home, as often as possible for it to become a habit to carry over to out-of-classroom student practice. Scaffolding is the key word here, as students will need reminders to read and materials, worksheets, google documents, Edmodo, Padlet or other platforms to log in new words they found, to ask the teacher for clarification, to express their response to the content, etc.

Grammar, too, is rarely linked to reading activities. Yet, recent research has found that readers who are able to analyze the language occurring in a text structurally, i.e. through the application of their knowledge of the L2-grammar rule system do have greater chances to understand a text than those who do not. Reading skills enhancing activities should therefore also include tasks which demand learners to analyze texts metalinguistically (e.g.: sorting specific words in the text into nouns, gender, tense; asking questions as to why an adjective has an ending rather than other, etc.) .

Implications for the enhancement of reading skills

Top-down and Bottom-up processing skills – Reading skills instruction should aim at developing Top-down processing and bottom-up processing skills. The former refer to reading strategies involving using previous knowledge about the topic and context of the text-in-hand to infer meaning. Bottom-up processing skills refer to the way the learner reconstructs a text’s meaning through the knowledge of vocabulary, grammar/syntax and sociolinguist features. In order to practice both sets of skills, just giving students reading comprehension ‘quizzes’, marking them and giving scores is not enough to impact reading proficiency. I advocate the following tactics:

  1. Pre-reading tasks which (a) elicit background knowledge of the topic and context of the target text and model useful reading strategies and (b) present and practice the key vocabulary occurring in the target text;
  2. Recycling of the same text through several activities to exploit its full linguistic potential across the lexical, grammatical and cultural dimensions. Such activities will involve word-recognition; finding target language equivalent in the text of L1 word (see www.frenchteacher.net for examples) ; scanning the text in search of synonyms of a list of L2 words; grammatical analysis; comprehension questions, true or false and gap-fills. Text manipulation activities of the like found on www.textivate.com can also be very useful.
  3. Post-reading receptive and productive tasks aiming at consolidating the vocabulary and the grammar ( odd one outs, categories, gap-fills, split sentences – see www.language-gym.com/work-outs for more example)

Real-life reading activities – in order to enhance student motivation and effectively scaffold independent Internet-based out-of-the-classroom reading, reading activities should also include the same activities the learners engage in real life, whether for pleasure (e.g. reading media gossip about a pop-star, synopsis of a movie, reviews of videogames, short stories, poems, magazines articles ) or to accomplish a task (checking the train schedule; researching information for a piece of homework; finding out where one can buy a given product at the cheapest price, booking a holiday online).

Student-driven text selection -teachers ought to give students a degree of choice as to what is read in the class. This can be done fairly easily in settings where students have tablets, personal computers or mobile devices. When this is not possible, the teacher could carry out a survey to find out what students are interested in and select the target texts accordingly. Teachers should not be afraid to be high jacked away from the topic under study a few lessons per term.

Reading longer texts – This should become a habit amongst our students, starting with simplified readers or using parallel texts of the likes found on the excellent www.frenchteacher.net and culminating in the use of longer short-stories. Reading clubs can be set up with the support of school librarians, parents or older students. I personally have found extensive reading to be very useful in enhancing reading and language proficiency overall.

Web-related learning strategies – students should be made aware of what the most effective approaches to developing reading skills on the web are. This will include advising them on where to find resources suitable for their level of proficiency; modelling ways to exploit such resources effectively; how to use online dictionaries or forums where to seek linguistic support (e.g. the wordreference.com one); how to store and organize effectively the new vocabulary they come across and even how to use it for self-teaching (e.g. by using quizlet or memrise).

In conclusion, textbooks and teachers should be more creative, eclectic and systematic in their approach to reading skills practice and enhancement. The development of an effective and motivated Internet-savvy autonomous L2 reader should be at the heart of any pedagogic approach to reading instruction in the 21st century. This entails providing the learners with effective cognitive tools (reading strategies), adequate L2 declarative knowledge (vocabulary and grammar), an enhanced awareness of how the Internet can help them improve their reading skills (web-related learning strategies) and opportunities for reading-related enjoyment and personal enrichment.

To what extent does Bloom’s taxonomy actually apply to foreign language teaching and learning?

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Bloom’s taxonomy of higher order thinking skills has acquired a mythological status, amongst educators. It is one of those reference frameworks that teachers adhere to with some sort of blind allegiance and which, in 25 years of teaching, I have never heard anyone question or criticize. Yet, it is far from perfect and, as I intend to argue in this article, there are serious issues undermining its validity, both with its theoretical premises and its practical implementation in MFL curriculum planning and lesson evaluation in school settings.

Why should we be ‘wary’ of the Bloom taxonomy, as the ‘alarmist’ title of this article implies? Mainly because people forget or fail to consider that the Bloom Taxonomy was not meant as an evaluative tool and does not purport to measure ‘effective teaching’. In fact, the book in which the higher order thinking skills taxonomy was published is entitled: Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. However, in the last twenty-thirty years, the taxonomy has often been used in UK secondary school to evaluate teaching performance and how effectively students are engaged in higher order thinking skills. The main problem lies exactly here, the hierarchy that Bloom and the authors of the revised version (Anderson et al, 2000) devised being not necessarily a valid construct, especially not from a Foreign Language acquisition perspective rooted in sound Cognitive theory.

The first set of issues refers to the top three levels, and to their hierarchical and sequential arrangement. On what basis does one decide, as the revised taxonomy does, that Creating (which in the new version replaces Bloom’ original construct: Synthesis) is a higher order cognitive skill than Evaluating? Let us look at the following definitions of the three higher skills (adapted from: http://thesecondprinciple.com/teaching-essentials/beyond-bloom-cognitive-taxonomy-revised/ )

  • Creating: Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing. Creating requires users to put parts together in a new way or synthesize parts into something new and different a new form or product.
  • Evaluating: Making judgments based on criteria and standards through checking and critiquing. Critiques, recommendations, and reports are some of the products that can be created to demonstrate the processes of evaluation.
  • Analyzing: Breaking material or concepts into parts, determining how the parts relate or interrelate to one another or to an overall structure or purpose. Mental actions included in this function are differentiating, organizing, and attributing, as well as being able to distinguish between the components or parts.

In modern language learning all three levels equally require ‘depth of processing’ and the processes that underlie these three cognitive skills often unfold concurrently and synergistically in our brain. Think about the process of writing an argumentative essay in a foreign language: is generating ideas about a given question/topic a higher skill than evaluating their degree of relevance to that question/topic, as well as their suitability to the task and audience? Aren’t the two levels so closely interwoven for anyone to be able to separate them? And how can one determine which one is more cognitively demanding than the other, especially in a foreign language, where evaluating the accuracy of the grammatical, lexical and sociolinguistic levels of the output is extremely challenging? It is my belief that the two sets of processes and even the third one, Analyzing, are parallel in foreign language processing rather than sequential.

Let us consider, for example, the task of inferring meaning from a text containing a fair number of nouns, verbs, adjectives and discourse markers unfamiliar to the learner. The task demands the learner reader to analyze how each word relates to another syntactically and semantically (in terms of meaning); every time an inference is made about the meaning of each unfamiliar word, he/she will be creating meaning; every inference’s correctness needs to be evaluated. There you go! You have the three higher order thinking levels co-occurring in the execution of the same ’humble’ task – a reading comprehension. Yet, one wonders whether the average curriculum planner or non-linguist observer would perceive that task as ‘hitting’ the highest level of the Bloom taxonomy.

This brings us to the biggest issue with the way the Bloom taxonomy is used in education: the misinterpretation or failure to understand the true nature of language learning and the cognitive mechanisms that regulate it at various developmental levels. Being creative in Modern Foreign Language has to do less with content, tasks and production of artifacts, at lower levels of proficiency, than with creating hypotheses about how the target language works, risk-taking (creatively seeking opportunities to test those hypotheses), coming up with communication strategies (creatively compensating for lack of knowledge of foreign language words), figuring out by oneself better ways to learn (creatively applying metacognitive strategies). The mistake often made by some language teachers is that they equate creativity in language learning to getting students to create a digital artifact or a language learning game; these activities tap into creativity but not the type of creativity that is conducive to greater linguistic proficiency. I will come back to this point later on.

Another important problem relates to the way humans process language in foreign language comprehension or production. The way learning occurs along the acquisition continuum is such that the brain gradually automatises the cognitive skills subsumed in the three categories the Bloom taxonomy places at the bottom of the pyramid. This process of automatisation speeds up the brain’s performance during language production so that cognitive processing can concentrate only on the higher levels of processing (analyzing, evaluating and creating) while executing the lower order levels ‘subconsciously’. Thus, for instance, in speaking, an advanced learner, having automatized the lower order thinking skills, will have to focus all his/her cognitive effort only on the top half of Bloom’s pyramid; on the other hand, beginner-to-intermediate learners will have to  juggle demands from all six levels with potentially ‘disastrous’ consequences for grammar, pronunciation and accuracy in general. The obvious corollary is that engaging less proficient learners at the top three levels of the taxonomy in language learning can indeed happen, but through less cognitively demanding tasks in terms of processing ability.

Furthermore, a very important issue relates to the pressure many teachers feel to be working at the higher levels of the Bloom taxonomy as much and as often as possible, especially when they are being evaluated by course administrators. This is understandable but wrong and unethical on their part, when it comes to foreign language learning, as the nature of L2 acquisition is cumulative; jumping from one level to the next must be justified by the learners’ readiness to cope with the cognitive and linguistic demands that that level places on their procedural ability. Once one level is acquired, one can move to the next, each level providing a scaffolding (in Vigostkyan terms) for the one/ones immediately above. If a teacher feels that the learners are still ‘stuck’ at a level which needs more extensive practice, class work should stay at that level and it would be ethically wrong to move any higher merely to hit the top of the Bloom taxonomy.

Finally, and more worryingly, some educators posit that Puentedura’s SAMR mirrors the Blooms’ taxonomy, and fancy diagrams circulate on Twitter and teachers’ networks making the link explicit, further damaging teachers’ perception of what is expected of them in the 21st century Modern Foreign Language classroom. But does such overlap between the two models, actually exist? Does Bloom’s notion of Creative thinking overlap with Puentedura’s Redefinition? The answer is that the creation of a complex high tech product through ‘App-smashing’ or other digital media can only engage Creative Thinking with and through the target language in highly proficient learners, but categorically not at lower levels of linguistic fluency and cognitive ability (see my article “Of SAMR and SAMRitans” on this blog for a more extensive treatment of this point). Only at advanced levels of linguistic proficiency can Redefinition be seen as overlapping with the highest order thinking skills in Bloom’s taxonomy.

In conclusion, Benjamin Bloom’s model, especially in Anderson et al’s (2000) adaptation, should be used for what it was meant to be: as a holistic classification of the different objectives that educators should set for students across the cognitive, affective and motor domains of learning. Bloom’s wheel (see picture below) was meant to help curriculum designers and teachers keep in sight the scope and main goals of effective learning. But Bloom was not an L2-acquisition expert and created this model before Cognitive psychologists of the likes of Eysenck, MacLaughlin, Baddeley and others unveiled the mechanisms involved in foreign language acquisition and processing and how Working Memory operates.

Foreign language teachers must be wary of any approach that straightjackets their efforts to enhance their students’ ‘healthy’ linguistic development by prescribing vertical progression at all costs. There are developmental stages in language learning which must be consolidated ‘horizontally’, so to speak, before we climb any cognitive ladder in the name of intuitively appealing pedagogic constructs. Horizontal progression is about developing Working-Memory processing efficiency (i.e. procedural knowledge), that is, the learner’s cognitive ability to cope with the huge demands that L2 comprehension and production put on his/her brain and motor-sensorial functions as he/she decodes, generates, retrieves or transforms knowledge into discourse under real operating conditions.

How does personality affect foreign language learning?

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Much research has been conducted in an attempt to establish which cognitive, cognitive-oriented and affective factors (including the effect of personality types) can be predictors of success in foreign language learning. Before delving into what research says about how personality traits inhibit or favour language learning, it will be useful to gain a more complete overall picture to have at least a basic understanding of the other factors at play in determining language aptitude.

Factors affecting our aptitude to learn foreign languages

Research in Language aptitude (the capability of learning a foreign language) goes back to the late 50s when the US ministry of defense wanted to find out if a test could be devised in order to identify individuals who had more potential than others to learn languages more effectively and rapidly. Such test was created by Carroll and Sapon (1959) and it is called MLAT (Modern Language Aptitude Test). This test is based on a construct, made up of four components:

  • Phonemic coding ability (the ability to analyze incoming foreign sounds in a way that can be recalled later)
  • Grammatical sensitivity (the ability to recognize the grammatical functions of words in sentences)
  • Inductive language learning (the ability to identify patterns of correspondence and relationships involving form and meaning)
  • Rote learning ability (the ability to store verbal information in memory and recall it later)

Although this construct is still widely used, later research findings have added three more factors which predict success in L2 language learning: Motivation, Language learning strategies and Working Memory (different from ‘rote memory’ as defined earlier).

The effect of motivation on learning is self-evident. The effective deployment of Learning Strategies (defined as the steps or actions taken by the learners to improve the development of their language skills), too, seems to correlate with success in L2 language learning especially in instructed settings. Working Memory is the latest addition to Language Aptitude models and a mounting body of research seems to indicate that it plays an essential role in foreign language acquisition. Working Memory underlies human ability to process any linguistic input and to store it in our brain (i.e. in Long-term memory) for later retrieval when it is needed. It is hypothesized that the more effective an individual’s Working Memory, the greater his/her ability to acquire advanced language skills.

It is obvious that the language learning context in which one acquires a language, whether natural or instructed settings, input-poor or input-rich, with a teacher we like or not, will also highly impact on how successful we will be at learning a foreign language.

How personality traits affect Language Aptitude

All of the above factors interact with one another and, of course, with the personality traits of the learner. The reader should note that the evidence on how different personality types affect learning is not totally conclusive. Firstly, because the personality types classifications used in research vary across the board. Secondly, because not enough studies have been carried out to-date. There are interesting findings, however, that are worth being aware of, some of which are counter-intuitive and may have important implications for our teaching

The personality types I will refer to in my discussion are borrowed from Costa and McCrae’s (1992) Five factor model which include:

  • Agreeableness – This personality trait refers to modesty, compassion, altruism, tender-mindedness and honesty. Agreeable individuals are friendly and helpful and usually tend to see the best in people. They appreciate good relationships with others.
  • Conscientiousness – This trait denotes thoroughness, punctuality, thoughtfulness and reliability at work. People with this trait prefer planned and structured behavior to spontaneity and creativity.
  • Extraversion – Highly extraverted people enjoy engaging with the external world, are friendly and warm-hearted, full of energy, enjoy playing and seek stimulation
  • Neuroticism – Neurotic people are instable and impulsive individuals who are prone to negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, hostility, resentment and depression. They do not cope very well with stress and when under stress, they react with fear and irrational behavior. They are often in a bad mood.
  • Opennes to experience – People with high levels of it are intellectually curious, independent in their judgment, appreciate beauty and the arts, are in touch with their feelings, love adventure and unusual ideas. Those with low levels of this trait are traditional, conservative and have traditional interests. Openness is believed to have a strong genetic component, stronger than the other four traits (Nosal,1999).

An empathetic and observant teacher will not need a PhD in psychology to be able to ascribe most of their students to the above categories and I suspect, that after reading the above, an experienced practitioner may be able to predict which of the above factors correlates more strongly with success in language learning.

The answer is: Openness to Experience. Why is it the main determinant of Language Aptitude? Firstly, because it is the factor most strongly linked to intellectual curiosity and flexibility. It correlates with creativity and divergent thinking, which are typical of gifted learners in general. Also someone who is highly ‘open to experience’ is more likely to be less critical of a foreign culture, and, appreciative as they are of art and beauty, more prone to embrace the language of a country with a strong artistic heritage or concerned with aesthetic beauty (e.g. Italy, Spain or France). The fact that Opennes to Experience has a strong genetic component would lead to presume that Language aptitude may be hereditary.

Another factor that may correlate positively with success in foreign language learning is Conscientiousness, especially in the areas of memory and grammar and in developing cognitive academic learning ability. This is possibly due to the fact that conscientious people tend to be more dutiful and hard-working and intrinsically driven to do well in whatever they do. But the evidence in support of this positive correlation is not conclusive.

Agreeableness seems to be a predictor of success in terms of phonological coding and pronunciation, possibly because highly ‘agreeable’ individual tend to ‘listen’ more attentively and may subconsciously try to use their voice to harmonize with other fellow humans more effectively.

As for Extraversion, its correlation with language aptitude appears controversial. On the one hand, extraverts display lower levels of anxiety and engage in more frequent communication and greater risk-taking, thereby developing more effective interpersonal skills and better oral fluency. On the other hand, research seems to indicate that, on the whole, extraversion correlates negatively with language aptitude. A very good extravert linguist may find this baffling. However, one must bear in mind (as mentioned above) that there are other factors at play which may offset the ‘advantage’ or ‘disadvantage’ that a given personality trait ‘naturally’ gives you (for instance, in my case, strong learner strategy use and integrative motivation); moreover, often more personality traits often co-exist in the same individual (for instance, in my case, a degree of ‘Opennes to Experience’).

The factor that seems to correlate most negatively with language aptitude is Neuroticism, due to the high levels of anxiety a neurotic person would experience which have, evidently, a strong detrimental impact on cognitive processing, on-task focus and memory, as well as motivation.

The above discussion may have some important implications for learning especially vis-à-vis students that may not be identified by course administrators as potentially gifted learners in terms of General Intelligence but may score highly in terms of ‘Opennes to Experience’. Moreover, it may be useful, once spotted a child with neurotic behavior, to adopt specific tactics in order to minimize the risk of causing them stressful experiences. Using the Costa and McCrae’s ‘Five model factor’ as a reference framework in the MFL classroom may be advisable as, even if personality traits may not directly influence the outcomes of learning a foreign language, “they certainly shape the way people respond to the learning environment” (Dörnyei, 2005). After all, the relationship between the learner’s and the teacher’s personality can have a  huge effect on the process of learning.

In conclusion, personality traits can have a direct and indirect impact on learning and their role as predictors of our students’ learning should not be discounted. However, their impact cannot be considered in isolation, as divorced from motivation and the cognitive and cognitive-oriented factors identified at the outset of my discussion. Teachers are often prompted by course administrators or educational consultants to take into account our students’ learning styles and multiple intelligences; but maybe more effort should go into equipping teachers and school staff in general (a) with a better grasp of how students’ personality type may impact their learning and (b) with effective strategies to best adapt our teaching to learner psychological needs.

Does too much noun-orientated foreign language teaching hinder our students’ learning?

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When one observes language lessons, browses through textbook vocab lists, schemes of work, published worksheets / Powerpoints and specialised websites, with very few exceptions, one cannot help but notice that nouns make up the overwhelming majority of the target vocabulary. Look at the vocabulary website most widely subscribed to by British schools in the UK and around the world, www.linguascope.com, for instance; it teaches hardly any verb (as in: their meaning), adjectives, adverbs or function words. When it does, it is as part of formulaic units, set phrases such as ‘regarder la télé’, ‘je me couche’ or ‘je joue au foot’.

The emphasis on nouns is acceptable at the early stages of foreign language instruction, when the students are not familiar with verb conjugations, tenses and aspect, may not master modal verbs like ‘vouloir’,’pouvoir’ and ‘devoir’ and have poor control over word-order and syntax in general. However, as language learners progress along the proficiency continuum and acquire more knowledge and control over the mechanics of the language, learning verbs becomes imperative. The reader should note that I am not arguing in favour of teaching masses of verb conjugations (although I personally think it is important) ; what I mean here, is learning the meaning of verbs, i.e. that ‘manger’ means ‘to eat’, ‘courir’ to run, ‘nettoyer’ to clean, etc.

The benefits for language learners of possessing a wide repertoire of verbs (even when one does not master conjugations perfectly) are self-evident in terms of enhanced receptive and expressive power and, consequently, more effective autonomous competence. There are also other benefits for learning which may explain how the practice of not emphasizing the learning of verbs may be correlated with lower levels of proficiency.

One benefit relates to adverbs, one word-class which is, in my experience, underrepresented in the oral and written output of foreign language learners. The learning of many adverbs goes hand in hand with exposure to / use of verbs, as adverbs are mostly used with verbs. Hence, the more frequent the exposure to / use of verbs, the greater will be the chances of learner uptake.

Another benefit relates, at least with German, French, Spanish and Italian learning, to the acquisition of another word-class: prepositions. Very often A-level students find it hard to select the correct preposition to use before infinitives. Prepositions not being semantically salient features, they require, in order to be effectively learnt, much more emphasis than teachers usually give them. I believe that, if verbs were given more emphasis the prepositions they usually collocate with, will be acquired more effectively and effortlessly (sparing the students the hassle of having to look them up incessantly in dictionaries).

A greater benefit of emphasizing a more verb-based instructional input refers to the greater power to access more complex texts. Currently, most GCSE level reading and listening materials tend to be relatively poor in terms of variety of verbs – certainly poorer than authentic target language materials. Thus, course-book /materials writers are sometimes forced to ‘doctor’ authentic texts to simplify them or to create noun-ridden texts with very few unfamiliar verbs (often translated on margin) in order to facilitate comprehension. A wider repertoire of verbs may allow foreign language students not only to produce more complex output, but also to access genuinely authentic material in the target language with positive wash-back effect on learning.

The greatest benefit of learning more verbs, however, relates to another aspect of verb acquisition: the mastery of conjugations and tenses. Giving more emphasis to the learning of the meaning of verbs may also result in the learners electing to use them more often in their output, thereby increasing the chances of receiving positive/negative feedback on their correct use (i.e. verb ending is wrong); the greater exposure to such feedback may increase their focus on verb endings and their declarative knowledge of verb inflections. Moreover – to go back to the point made in the previous paragraph – being able to access more complex texts will also mean greater exposure to more complex use of verbs, tenses and moods; this may bring about improvements in their own mastery of verbs, tenses and moods, especially if teachers exploit the texts effectively in the pre-reading/-listening phases.

The Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) board seems to have acknowledged the need for more verb-based instruction in their new IGCSE syllabus. In order to obtain full score in one of the essay-writing assessment traits, the candidate now needs to produce 18 different verb forms correctly (out of 140 words). This means that only the first instance of a given verb is counted each time; e.g. if the learner writes ‘je fais’ three times, will only score one tick , whereas until last year, it would have scored three. A sign that CIE acknowledges the importance of verbs as determinant of higher proficiency? I think so.

And what about adjectives? I think adjectives get more emphasis than verbs, although not as much as they deserve. Mainly because physical and character description is a topic which receives a lot of emphasis since the very beginning of level of language instruction, in England. Moreover, the National Curriculum made it compulsory to deploy adjectives in order to attain the old Level 4. However, in the realm of adjectives, too, one cannot help notice the narrowness of scope of the adjective pool taught in British course-books. The most highly downloaded of the worksheets I have uploaded on the TES connect website (https://www.tes.co.uk/member/gianfrancoconti1966 ) and the most visited pages on my website (www.language-gym.com , the ‘work-outs’ section) are the ones dealing with adjectives, a sign that teachers do feel straight-jacketed by the textbook in use.

What is the way forward? The implications for teaching and learning are obvious:

  • Course-books and teacher should place much more emphasis than they currently do on verbs in terms of the comprehensible input they provide and of the output they intend to elicit from students.
  • Verbs (as in: their meaning) should be explicitly taught and practised extensively across all topics, as often as possible, not necessarily in their full conjugations (although it would desirable). The remark made by some colleagues that it is difficult to find visual stimuli to associate to all verbs when presenting them is not necessarily true. The verb trainer section of language-gym.com demonstrates that this is not the case.
  • Listening and reading comprehension activities should be based on texts containing as wide a range of verbs as possible. The use of parallel texts of the likes found on http://www.frenchteacher.net can be very helpful in this, respect, too. Many of the activities on www.textivate.com provide great practice, too.
  • Verbs should not be taught as discrete units only; their use should be modelled through as wide as possible a range of contexts. This does not mean simply teaching them as part of unanalyzed lexical chunks; learners need to learn how to use the verbs flexibly across contexts.
  • When the students are developmentally ready, students should receive practice in conjugating verbs through a mix of activities involving online self-marking online conjugators (e.g. language-gym.com/verb-trainer or www.conjuguemos.com ) ; gap-activities / translations (scores of these can be found on www.tes.co.uk or on the excellent www.frenchteacher.net )
  • Adjectives and function words (e.g. prepositions and adverbs) should receive more emphasis and be extensively recycled, too.

In conclusion, nouns seem to dominate a lot of foreign language learning. Mainly I suspect, because they play a crucial role in the comprehension of input and in communication. But verbs are equally important; exactly as it happens in first language acquisition, a rich and accurate deployment of verbs is a marker of higher proficiency and allows learners to engage with more complex texts and to produce higher level language. The recommendations I put forward above are based on common sense and on my experience as a teacher and do benefit learners, especially in the long –term. After all, much of the post-GCSE gaps that teachers have to bridge at A-level does relate to a great extent to the curriculum deficits highlighted in this article.

13 common misconceptions about foreign language learning

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  1. If language learners are exposed to a foreign language before puberty they will learn it with a native accent – There is strong evidence that this is true below the age of 7 provided that the learners receive masses of second language input (e.g. in a full immersion learning environment like an international school). Whether this can happen between this age and the onset of puberty is highly controversial; there is mounting evidence which suggests that sensor motor processing loses plasticity much earlier on than other cognitive processing (such as those responsible for grammar and vocabulary learning) and native pronunciation becomes fossilized well before puberty.
  2. Children learn foreign languages better than adults – This is true of pronunciation, but not of vocabulary or grammar. Given the same amount of instruction, there are no significant differences in uptake between children and adults. Also, there is evidence that some adults can indeed acquire native proficiency.
  3. Women’s brain is biologically better equipped for foreign language learning than men’s. That is why our female students are better than boys – This is also quite controversial. Brain imaging shows that whereas males tend to lateralize language processing (i.e. they only use one brain hemisphere) women use both hemispheres, which may, at least in theory, constitute an advantage. But whether this actually causes women to perform better than men is controversial. Other sociological and affective factors seem to play a more crucial role in determining female language learners ‘superiority’ at language learning ( see my blogpost: here)
  4. When we think, we think in our dominant language – Unless we engage in inner talk and subvocalize, the brain does not think in any particular language. When we think, we create ‘entities of information’ called propositions, which are not made up of words (scientists are still trying to figure out what they are made of ); we transform them into words as we speak (which has enormous implication for L2 processing. See my article: here ). During oral production or in writing our brain activates all of the languages we master, simultaneously; the language being used will receive stronger activation whilst the others will be less activated. This phenomenon explains why language learners, in unmonitored speech, often use words from their L1 whilst speaking the L2 even though they know the L2 word. (For more on this, read: here)
  5. Students should be taught in sync with their dominant learning style(s) as this will enhance their learning – Most psychologist/neuroscientists refute the learning-style and multiple intelligences constructs maintaining that they are not valid representation of how the brain works. No credible evidence has ever been put forward in support of the hypothesis that teaching learners in their ‘learning-style’ actually enhances language proficiency development
  6. Foreign language words similar to first language words (cognates) are easier to learn – This is true to a certain extent. It is true that cognates are easier to learn receptively; however, in terms of recall, when the spelling and/or pronunciation of an L1 and L2 word are very similar, they can cause ‘cross-association’ issues whereby the learner is confused as to which one is the correct spelling or pronunciation (due to the fact that the two items are very closely associated in Long-term memory).
  7. If we do not correct our students’ errors we ‘fail’ them – Although we may ‘fail’ them in terms of not fulfilling their expectations (as most of them do ask for corrective feedback), there is absolutely no conclusive evidence that error correction works. Most of the evidence put forward in support of the efficacy of error correction as it is traditionally carried out is not strong enough to justify the time spent by teachers correcting (see my article: herehere )
  8. Asking students to self-correct their errors is more effective than simply providing the correction – This is another belief that many teachers hold about error correction. Research suggests not only that it does not usually ‘work’ but that it can be, in some cases, detrimental to learning (see my article: here  )
  9. Mistakes in student written output that the students can self-correct are due to ‘carelessness’ – This is the case for a minor percentage of the mistakes found in our students’ written (and even oral) output. What we term ‘careless mistakes’ are in most cases due to processing inefficiency caused by cognitive overload on Working Memory, the inability, that is, for the brain to juggle all the cognitive demands posed by a task simultaneously (see my blog post: here )
  10. Learning-to-learn (training foreign language students in learning skills) enhances proficiency – Many books and articles have been written promoting the benefits of Strategy Based Instruction for language learning. We are told by many scholars and educators that we should instruct our students in learning strategies and life-long learning skills. Although there is some (fragmented) evidence that certain strategies or combinations of strategies may help learners at some level, the results of the studies carried out to date are mixed and controversial. This is due to a number of issues, one of them being that we do not really know what strategies work and which ones do not and how they interact with individual characteristics and different contexts.
  11. Some foreign language learning strategies are better than other – Some educational consultants make a living out of suggesting what learning strategies are effective in performing certain tasks. However, the issue is not which strategies are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The issue is which strategy works best with specific students or tasks and whether they are applied at the right time, in the right context. This complicates the implementation of Strategy Based Instruction and makes one question whether the time invested into trying to figure out all these variables, deciding which strategies to teach and how and then implementing the training is actually justified by the gains one may obtain in the end.
  12. Children learn languages through an innate module of the human mind called LAD (Language Acquisition Device) that makes the acquisition of subsequent languages possible, too – The LAD is a system of principles that children would be born with that helps them learn language, and accounts for the order in which children learn structures, and the mistakes they make as they learn. According to the LAD proponents this device exists separately from any other cognitive mechanism of the brain. Just like our faith in a supernatural being, the belief that such a ‘magical’ device actually exists has never been proven scientifically. Nor has any reasonably detailed account of how it may work even been provided by his proponent, Stephen Krashen, or his supporters. Yet, many language educators swear by it and several teaching methodologies (e.g TPRS and CLIL) are based on the belief that LAD exists.
  13. First language and second language acquisition involve the same processes – This cannot be the case as L2 learners, are not ‘tabula rasa’ (clean slates); they have already acquired a language and, as masses of research show, they use that language to formulate hypotheses and make inferences about how any new (target) language works. The existence of Language Transfer evidences the importance of pre-existing languages in the acquisition of a subsequent one.

You can find more on these topics in my book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ , co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase on http://www.amazon.com

Gender and social class – how do they affect foreign language learning?

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Much has been written about the underperformance of boys in Modern Foreign Language Learning in England and much attention has been given to how gender and social class act as a variable in male adolescents’ attitudes and motivation. A lot of assumptions have been made about the causes of this phenomenon. In this article I intend to discuss to what extent such assumptions are true, in the light of the most reliable studies carried out in this area. In view of my discussion of the limitations of educational research in a previous post (see below ‘Ten reasons why you should not trust research’) the reader should not take the findings I will be reporting as conclusive and irrefutable evidence. Research in this area is still quite fragmented and not always generalizable and fully transparent as to the data elicitation procedures adopted.

Is the common assumption that girls are significantly better than boys at foreign languages actually true?

Research indicates that girls in Britain do on average outperform boys when it comes to language learning (they do in all subjects in general, anyway, but the differences are more acute in this subject). However, a study by Clarke and Trafford (1996) noted that in some schools some students did equally well as girls. The researchers found that social class seemed to correlate positively with lower disparity between the sexes, boys from middle class background doing as well or not significantly less well than girls. The interviews they carried out found that these boys had a clearer idea of how a foreign language could be useful to them in business and international affairs. Moreover, several pupils spent their holidays abroad and had contact with foreigners on a regular basis. In other words, they had higher level of extrinsic motivation and empathy with and interest for the target language country.

Clarke ad Trafford’s finding coincides with my own personal and professional experience and explain why, in international school settings where parents are not only quite affluent but also more used to travelling and more frequently in contact with foreigners, boys’ motivation to learn a foreign language is substantially higher than it was in the inner city schools I taught in in Britain.

Are girls’ brains better equipped for foreign language acquisition and production than boys’?

Several studies attempted to answer this question. Although there is a strong body of evidence indicating that females do have an advantage over males in first language acquisition, (Burman, Bitman, & Booth, 2008; Roulstong & Northstone, 2002), not much is known about gender differences in foreign language learning. As Callaghan (1998) and other researchers have noted, there is some evidence of brain lateralization in boys (the belief boys tend to use one hemisphere when processing language processing whereas girls tend to use both). There also seem to be differences in the high cortical functions of the female brain which would facilitate language processing. However, there is no conclusive evidence for either claim.

Do boys’ and girls’ attitudes towards MFL differ substantially?

Gender appears to be, according to researchers a critical individual a social variable in second language learning (Brantmeier, Schulle and Wilde, 2007). So what do we know about the gender-specific affective factors which affect L2 learning?

Research findings diverge slightly in some areas, but most of the studies carried out in England found that:

  • Boys have a less positive attitude to foreign languages than girls; A British study conducted by Williams, Burden and Lanvers (2002) supports this notion. They found that girls had a significantly higher degree of desire to learn French than did the boys, and they also put forth more effort to learn the language;
  • Girls are more likely to find languages important than boys (e.g. Jones and Jones, 2001);
  • Boys perceive the subject as more difficult than girls do. Their expectancy of success in the subject  is lower than girls’ (Callaghan, 1998; Jones and Jones, 2001; Macaro, 2007). In schools were students are set, this phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that in England most top-set classes are made up mostly by females, which reinforces boys’ perception of languages as out-of-boundaries for them;
  • Females are more likely than boys to attribute success to hard work rather than ability;
  • Boys appear to be more instrumentally motivated than girls. This is interesting as research in gender differences in language use in general indicate that in general women are more likely to use verbal interaction for social purposes with verbal communication serving as an end in itself. Whether teachers are male or female is not identified as a factor influencing attitudes;
  • Finally, English boys (and the same has been found for other cultures) seem to perceive certain languages as having negative associations for males in their society.

The findings above point to important affective factors which can be powerful inhibitors of motivation. I do not discount physiological differences in the language-processing of females, as brain imaging has indeed identified greater activity in both cerebral hemispheres in females whilst processing language . This is a very important finding in that implies that females can recruit more support from areas of the brain that boys cannot access during L2 performance.

However, in England, the affective issues related to cultural schemata, mentioned above (i.e.  the societal views of what is ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, which makes ‘French’ for instance, or other languages, more of a female concern) play, in view of the research I reviewed, a greater role in inhibiting boys’ learning than biological differences. The following excerpt from Kissau’s (2012) study of gender differences in L2 learning with students of French, is very enlightening in this regard (http://www.aclacaal.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/6-vol-9-no1-art-kissau.pdf, page 85):

As the study progressed, it became apparent that traditional, societal views of what is appropriate for a male and what is appropriate for a female were weighing significantly on the results. Boys were reporting that they felt less capable than girls in French because society has told them in no uncertain terms that they are not supposed to be as capable. Boys reported being less interested in learning about French culture because society has made it clear that that is more of a female concern.

As we know from many sociological investigations, stereotypes – all stereotypes, not just those about masculinity – are stronger further down one goes the social ladder. This explains why upper middle class children are likely to be, as Clarke and Trafford (1996) found, less constrained by masculinity and/or xenophobic stereotypes. This is compounded by the fact that middle class boys are more likely to have a stronger first language base, which, according to recent research constitutes a real advantage for foreign language learners.

The fact that the vast majority of teachers are female does not make the situation any better, as it reinforces the stereotype that language learning is a female-dominated subject.

In a study whose author I could not locate (source: www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/groups/crile/docs/crile57court.pdf), another very important point is made, which relates to the notion of masculinity, the fact that is, that in speaking in front of the class public error-making may cause more embarrassment for a boy than for a girl and therefore more anxiety. As the authors puts it:

Finally, because speaking is a skill that has to be practiced, there are plenty of opportunities to make pronunciation errors, which can lead to embarrassment and a loss of social status. When all these factors are combined with perceptions of foreign languages as unimportant and irrelevant to future lives and careers, the puzzle that is boys’ under-representation becomes a little bit closer to being pieced together.

The perception of foreign language as difficult, identified by research, stems from a vicious circle generated by lack of motivation, as without strong positive ‘arousal’, learning cannot occur: students will leave MFL lessons with a sense of failure, will go into the next lesson with low expectancy of success, will leave with a greater sense of failure and so on…

The finding that boys need an instrumental goal for their foreign language learning experience is crucial, too. Language teachers do not often make explicit to learners, both male and female, the connection between what they teach and how it can be useful in the real world. The connections, one may argue, are not always obvious and they are easier to make in some contexts than others (e.g. international schools like the one I work at) than in others (e.g. inner city area schools with children from less privileged background).

Boys being more goal-orientated, they tend to want lessons to work towards a clear objective and find the ‘so-what?’ effect of a learning activity off-putting. Often the activities MFL teachers stage in lessons do not give the learners a sense of achieving a clearly specified goal by the end of the lesson. Boys, more than girls need to see that goal clearly and need to have evidence, every step of the way that the work they are engaging in is leading steadily towards that goal. That is why, boys prefer to know, before starting an activity, the rationale behind it (how it is going to beneficial to the achievement of that goal).

What are the implications for teaching? I will discuss them in another post…