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24 July 2014
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Classroom talk
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The art of conversation
Multilingualism


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Page 1 of 4
Girls vs boys
Why are the Dutch better at learning languages?
What the Dutch do differently
Multilingual classroom

Classroom talk
by Philippa Law

"It's not fair! Boys get all the attention!"
Girls and boys play different roles in conversation, just as men and women do. They learn what is expected of the two sexes early on, from observing - unconsciously - how the grown-ups around them behave.

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In a study of children aged 2-5, parents interrupted their daughters more than their sons, and fathers were more likely to talk simultaneously with their children than mothers were. Jennifer Coates says: "It seems that fathers try to control conversation more than mothers... and both parents try to control conversation more with daughters than with sons. The implicit message to girls is that they are more interruptible and that their right to speak is less than that of boys."

"Just as men dominate the floor in business meetings, so little boys dominate in the classroom."

Girls and boys' differing understanding of when to talk, when to be quiet, what is polite and so on, has a visible impact on the dynamics of the classroom. Just as men dominate the floor in business meetings, academic conferences and so on, so little boys dominate in the classroom - and little girls let them.

Research confirms what most kids would already be able to tell you. Boys are noisy, they call out answers, argue and are rude to girls. Girls, on the other hand, are more inclined on average to sit quietly, avoid joining in discussions, and ignore the boys.

A study of children working on science experiments in the Netherlands showed that same-sex pairs of either sex worked co-operatively together, but in mixed pairs, the boys did most of the doing, and the girls tidied up afterwards!

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Even when the teacher is chairing the conversation, boys are still in charge. Various studies have come up with the same conclusion: boys get more attention from teachers than girls do.

In one example, boys made twice as many contributions as girls, and talked for longer. This may have been in part because they were getting more encouragement from the teacher. The teacher was videotaped and her eyegaze monitored - she looked towards the boys for almost two thirds of the time, and in particular, she looked at the boys when she wanted an answer to a question.

The researcher also noticed that girls often put their hand up just after the teacher had picked someone to answer. Hands up who was guilty of that at school...

Dale Spender observed in 1982 that teachers find it very hard to ensure a balance between boys' and girls' contributions, but when specifically trying to achieve equal participation, female teachers were better at it than male ones. One male teacher who did manage to get girls to talk as much as boys said afterwards that he'd felt like he was giving almost all his attention to the girls. Since boys, girls and teachers are all complicit in boys' dominance, it makes sense that one of these parties would find it tough to change the group dynamics all on their own.

Although Jennifer Coates believes that the differences in conversation strategies between girls and boys "limits girls' opportunities to learn," the effects of imbalance in the classroom aren't reflected in exam results - girls regularly do better than boys.

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Your Comments
Are girls better at languages?

Charlotte Smith Middlesbrough
That is a poor comment. All members of the classroom get equal attention. I would say this has a lot to do with confidence, if you make contributions in class then you will get the attention from the teacher for a while. Everyone has the ability to speak so get talking and the attention will be there, whether you are male or female.

Ed - Dorset
Mmm, i'm not convinced. In my school the language scores were about equal for GCSE, it may even be that the boys did better. Certain subcultures have been created that appearing intelligent is not the norm and so a lot of people don't try. I can relate to this but enthusiasm to put you hands up in the classroom is not a guideline of intelligence. Also this is all very nice but statistics can be made to prove anything if the creator tries. - especially if they have a motif like playing on the age old conflict between girls and boys intelligence to create a contoversiol story for example? ; )

Paula Hill
I have taught French to children aged 3-11 in classroom and one-to-one settings. In my experience boys have just as much ability to learn as girls, but after the age of 11 I think their abhorrence of doing anything that might make them look silly makes them very reluctant to produce the alien sounds of a foreign language. They need a good incentive!

stephane dover
i dunno. my teacher concentrates on the boys more but its usually negative. i also think there is some sexism here as boys daydream as much as girls do. sometimes girls just don't want to answer as the a more easily embarresd then boys and if they get it wrong some could be ridiculed. i think it depends on wether your confident or not.

Liam from Inverness
I agree with Nick P, there's a large laziness factor. People will go on holiday to the spanish costas, or the south of france, or wherever, and not even learn "hello," yet when foreigners come here, we expect them to use english. I'm currently a student of languages at university, and the number of looks I get and comments like, "why bother? Everyone speaks english these days anyway" really boils my blood. And it's sad that at work (I work in a coffee house) customers are genuinely shocked when I converse with them in their mother tongue. I don't expect everyone to have A level french before going to France, but to be able to say "good morning," "how are you?" and to count to ten or twenty would be a decent start.

Find more of your thoughts here.





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