Using Web 2.0 to motivate boys to speak in the target language

When it comes to learning Modern Foreign Languages, boys have traditionally under-performed in comparison to girls, who consistently achieve the highest grades. Boys are frequently described as less interested in languages and are statistically more likely to drop languages altogether at Key Stage 4, when MFL cease to be compulsory

I was recently the subject of a great culture shock: a year ago, I transferred from a girls’ school to an all boys school. Myths materialised and hearsay became reality as I had to completely re-think my approach to teaching Spanish so as to make it more fitting and more relevant to my new all male pupils.

It is a well researched fact that boys and girls prefer different learning styles and that that they have a different approach to their education: girls are generally portrayed as conscientious and hard working, while boys are often portrayed as lazy and indulging in an anti-education culture. There is a wide spread recognition that gender does indeed affect the way we all think, behave and learn (Maynard 2002).

When it comes to learning Modern Foreign Languages, boys have traditionally under-performed in comparison to girls, who consistently achieve the highest grades. Boys are frequently described as less interested in languages and are statistically more likely to drop languages altogether at Key Stage 4, when MFL cease to be compulsory. 

It is obviously not the case that all boys behave in this manner, nor are all girls  conscientious and hard working. The above is a generalisation, a rule of thumb, that all teachers can easily infer from their experience and that illustrates the problems facing them when it comes to motivating and enthusing boys in particular.

My experience has shown me, however, that there is a divide between the way boys perform in a mixed-sex classroom and how they perform in an all boys environment. Although much of it depends on the individual groups or students, anecdotal experiences from fellow MFL teachers who have left their comments on this blog and on the TES online forums have confirmed that boys in a mixed-sex environment tend to dominate the speaking activities, seeking the most attention, perhaps in an attempt to establish their dominant presence, whereas in an all male environment most boys fear speaking in public and therefore do not say much at all.

There are similarities however between single-sex and mixed-sex environments in so far as there will be some boys in both groups who demand most of the teacher’s and fellow pupils’ attention to the detriment of the rest of the cohort. My interest therefore lies with the quieter ones, those in the majority who are happy to take a back seat and let the lesson go by without participating meaningfully.

In short, most boys do not like to talk in the foreign language because:

  • they are subject to peer pressures and fear of negative feedback from teachers;
  • they suffer from lack of self-confidence; and
  • they regard speaking as not being real work, preferring instead to engage in activities which they see as having a concrete and practical outcome, such as writing.

All of the above socio-affective factors conspire to strengthen boys’ reluctance to speak in their own language, never mind a foreign language in which, not only do they have to say something of consequence on the spot in front of their teacher and fellow students, but in addition they have to pronounce all those strange sounds while ensuring that they get the grammar right.

Why use ICT to help with this problem?

ICT has already been used successfully to motivate boys into writing by making the process more engaging, offering them a greater degree of independence, and by appealing to every boy’s interest in high-tech. Computers are certainly cool as far as boys are concerned. It has also been noted by Walker, Davies and Hewer (2008) that ICT motivates by “removing the fear of making errors”.

Speaking in the target language is often defined, both by students and teachers, as the principal objective of learning MFL (Jones 2002; Hill 2002). However this aim is hindered by the socio-affective factors outlined above, resulting in most boys being reticent and unforthcoming when asked to speak in the target language due, mostly, to lack of motivation and self-confidence.

Krashen (1981) affirms that it is the attitude of the learner that is fundamental to the learning of a second language and is a much better predictor of success than aptitude. He suggests that self-confidence is a desirable quality in pupils because it will encourage learning.

Since the use of ICT has been demonstrated to engage the learner and to provide him or her with the autonomy that is required to improve motivation and instil greater self-confidence (Leach 2002), I set out to determine in this paper whether using ICT, in the form of Web 2.0, could help my pupils to improve their ability to speak Spanish more often in class, as well as increasing their willingness to communicate.

Using Web 2.0 to encourage speaking

Web 2.0 is not a new version of the World Wide Web but rather a collection of online applications and websites that encourage participation by offering popular services, often at no cost to the user, such as social networking or photograph and bookmark sharing sites. Indeed sharing and collaboration can be described as the main characteristic of the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon. Walker, Davies and Hewer (2008) describe Web 2.0 as “an attempt to redefine what the web is all about and how it is used”.

For me the key advantage of using Web 2.0 tools is their online aspect. These applications generally do not require the downloading of software in order to make them work or specialist ICT knowledge in order to install the programmes, they simply run through a web-browser in any computer connected to the internet: just point and click. It is important to highlight that these Web 2.0 tools are generally designed to be intuitive and easy to use without previous experience.

Providing there is a computer with an internet connection, these tools are then both easily accessible and intuitive. Combine that with the fact that pupils generally find them attractive and fun to use and one gets the ideal medium through which to attempt to increase pupils’ willingness to speak in the target language.

Voki is a Web 2.0 tool that enables users to express themselves on the web in their own voice using an avatar, a talking character (Voki 2008) which they can customise to their liking. I decided that Voki would be the ideal tool on which to base the three lessons that I chose to describe and evaluate in this paper because:

  • it can be accessed both at home and at school;
  • it necessitates computer-pupil interaction, which, as described above, is a motivating factor;
  • it facilitates the transition from teacher-centred, class-based learning  to one in which the pupil begins to acquire individual responsibility;
  • it makes it possible for the quieter pupils to make their presence felt and be heard; and
  • it allows the pupils to role-play and hide behind a mask (an avatar).

Therefore, by exploiting the potential that Web 2.0 applications offer students to access language learning opportunities from home and without any peer pressure (Dearing and King 2007) and by catalysing pupils’ interest and activity (Delamont 1994), the teacher ensures that a conducive atmosphere is created to foster the increase of self-assurance when it comes to speaking in a foreign language. This coveted self-assurance is obtained by allowing the pupils to role-play and become someone else: a more confident self.

What do you think about the points I have made above? Are there any other obvious reasons why Web 2.0 motivates and encourages pupils?

Here is a sample of my pupils’ work with Voki.

Click here for a bibliography.

José Picardo

José is Assistant Principal at Surbiton High School and a Fellow at Naace. He is interested in improving education and the way technology can be used to enhance and transform teaching and learning. José has been curating Box of Tricks since 2007 and holds a MA in ICT and Education.

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  • http://mrks3.blogspot.com/ James Padvis

    I demonstrated some of your class work using Voki at our departmental meeting this evening to a very impressed audience. We are looking forward to creating an assessment using Voki as the presentation medium and I’ll keep you posted on how motivating it has been.

  • http://mrks3.blogspot.com/ James Padvis

    I demonstrated some of your class work using Voki at our departmental meeting this evening to a very impressed audience. We are looking forward to creating an assessment using Voki as the presentation medium and I’ll keep you posted on how motivating it has been.

  • Guest

    That’ll be fantastic James, thank you. I’ll also keep you posted regarding my own use of Voki as a assessment tool for speaking.

  • http://www.boxoftricks.net José Picardo

    That’ll be fantastic James, thank you. I’ll also keep you posted regarding my own use of Voki as a assessment tool for speaking.

  • http://boxoftricks.net/ S. Crowe

    Did you pay for an upgrade for your Vokis? The free ones we used only took 30 seconds of recording. So far my students love using them!

  • http://boxoftricks.net S. Crowe

    Did you pay for an upgrade for your Vokis? The free ones we used only took 30 seconds of recording. So far my students love using them!

  • Guest

    @S. Crowe As far as I know Voki does have a 60 second limit (not 30). I am not aware, however, of any upgrade available for Vokis. The Voki website states clearly that Vokis will always remain free http://www.voki.com/about_voki.php

  • http://www.boxoftricks.net José Picardo

    @S. Crowe As far as I know Voki does have a 60 second limit (not 30). I am not aware, however, of any upgrade available for Vokis. The Voki website states clearly that Vokis will always remain free http://www.voki.com/about_voki.php

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