How Can I Improve Two Young English Majors’ Confidence In English Learning, by Gong Lixia

I'm a teacher of English in the foreign language department at Guyuan Teachers' College. My AR question is 'How can I improve two young English majors' confidence in English learning?' In my report, I describe the whole process of my research. I used such methods as praise, encouragement, students helping each other and competitions in order to help all the students. I show how I have helped two of the two poorest students to improve their confidence in my class. The results show that these two poorest students have become more confident than before. In my next cycle of AR I would like to research the question, "How can I help to improve the students’ listening and speaking, particularly in regards to the poorest students?" 


My Context

I have been a teacher of English for more than a year and a half in the foreign language department of Guyuan Teachers’ College. While still a college student, I created a dream - to be a good English teacher and try my best to help my students learn English well.


This is the first time that I have taught the five-year English majors. Most students in my class come from junior middle schools of the rural areas, which are near the Guyuan municipality. Due to poor teaching conditions and bad leaning habits, their English is poor. To my surprise, several students in my class couldn’t even read a simple sentence correctly and completely. I remembered clearly that almost every student bowed his head with shame in my first class. I was so frustrated that I asked them why they didn’t lift their heads. Most of them told me their English was poor and they couldn’t catch my meaning, so they were afraid of making eye-contact. In particular two of the poorest students, Zhou Peng and Gao Sheng told me they feared that I would ask them to answer questions. From then on, I realized that one of the most important actions that I should take is to improve the students’ confidence in learning English, in order to help them make progress.


At first, I talked with them, helped them to understand why they were at the college and the importance of learning English well. Soon I found most of them were beginning to study actively. But Zhou Peng, Gao Sheng and several others were still the same as ever. I was so confused about how to help these two boys. By this time, some of my colleagues were carrying out Action Research (AR) to help their students with English learning, which was guided by Dr. Moira Laidlaw in the department. They advise me to begin AR and help myself to solve the problem. I followed their advice. However, I was very muzzy at first and only took measures now and then in my teaching. I didn’t know how to go on it until Moira explained me what real Action Research was and directed me how to do it enthusiastically.


What is my concern? Zhou Peng and Gao Sheng’s situation reminded me to help them create enough confidence first. According to my context, I decided to research,” How can I improve two young English majors’ confidence in English learning?”


Why am I concerned?

As we all know, confidence is half of success. Language learning needs practice, just like people say,” Practice makes perfect.” Any language learner who is not confident will lose the opportunities to practice. Little by little, they will become lazier and lazier for want of confidence. It starts to become a mere daydream for them to reach their full potential and contribute to the development of modern society.


What’s more, English class is dull when students’ have little confidence; at the same time, it is easy for them to lose interest in learning English. That is opposite to the central idea in the New Curriculum, which recommends that teachers stimulate students’ interest to learn English actively instead of passively. In the event of passive learning, English teaching will become more teacher-centered. It runs counter to the requests of the New Curriculum. Nowadays, in more and more people’s opinion, modern education should be designed to cultivate people with more comprehensive qualities. Thus, it is possible for people with little confidence to lag behind in our modern society and that worries me.


How can I improve it?

I think I need to find effective ways to change the two students’ situation as soon as possible so that they can be useful persons in society one day. Most students in my class are 15-17 years old, who love being praised, encouraged, and fussed over. They also like competition and are easy to mould through role-modeling. In the light of these characteristics, I decided to take the following actions:


Choose two poorest students to be the subjects of my research.

1)        I chose Zhou Peng and Gao Sheng to be the objects of my research from several poor students I considered poor. Although their English is poor, they are eager to learn English well. That is to say their attitude is open and their motives are good. At the very beginning, I knew both of them accorded to my standards of the poorest: can’t even understand my teaching words a little; can’t even make a simple sentence without any grammatical mistake; can’t even read a simple sentence correctly and completely; (4) can’t even copy a sentence without any spelling mistakes.

2)        Give them any necessary encouragement. I found most students were afraid to stand up and answer questions in my class, and this was true of the two boys. I didn’t know the reason until I got some ideas from their self-evaluation papers (handed in once a month). In their papers, they told me they were afraid to make mistakes, but actually they knew some answers to my questions. Since then, I realized I should increase their courage by encouragement. One concept in the New Curriculum also advocates teachers to encourage students to develop a series of language skills. Just as Moira told me, encouragement is always a good way to help students learn well.” When I’d like them to answer my questions, I always said,” Believe in yourself, you can fly; grasp the good chance; don’t be shy, just have a try.” After hearing my words, they began to put up their hands occasionally.

3)        Give them necessary praise. When I was young, I liked being praised by my parents, grandparents, teachers and friends. I believe the young students are the same. That is one of the psychological characters of young people. Praise shows that a teacher approves of what students have done. Usually, the students will work harder than ever after they are praised. So when the two boys made progress in English learning, I would say,” Good, very good, terrific, good idea, well done!” to praise them. On March 10, Zhou Peng made the sentence “Can I talk with you?” after learning the modal verb “can”. I praised him, “Good”. After a while, he put up his hand again and made another sentence “I can’t speak English well.” Very good!” I praised him again. He sat down with a smile on his face.

4)        Ask some students with more confidence to help them. Some students in my class such as Ma Jianhong, Wu Zhenshu, and several others are enough confident. They are always active and can follow my every word. Just like Moira said in her feedback after visiting my class,” Ma Jianhong is like a coiled spring”; “Wu Zhengshu and Ma Jianhong really have a great mastery of the language for their age.” To gain the help from the students with more initial confidence, I had a meeting with them to reassure them that they could consolidate knowledge if they helped others. I noticed they began to help some students later including Gao Sheng and Zhou Peng.

5)        Competetion among groups. One of the demands of the New Curriculum is that teachers should design useful activities with clear purposes to teach students. In order to adjust to it and have my class become more student-centered, in my opinion, group work is necessary. I divided my students into 8 groups predominantly to do all kinds of oral work. Reading practice is one of them, which is easier for excellent students, but really a difficult task for the poorer students. I made the following rules for each group:

(1)          Stop at the moment you make the 1st pronunciation mistake; then another one should continue. (Students in other groups and I are the supervisors.)

(2)          Circulate within given time (2 minutes for each group)

(3)          Take turns from the poorest to the most excellent. (Other groups had to have a meeting of minds about who is the poorest and who is the most excellent.)

(4)          Stop at once when time is up. (I am the recorder.)

I also made some standards of evaluation so as to be fair among group competition:

(1) Times of circulation (in 2 minutes): the more the better;

(2) Persons in one circle: the fewer the better;

(3) Mistakes in reading: the fewer the better;

I am the recorder and supervisor; besides, all the students can supervise the whole procedure. The winner will be the group whose circulation times are the most, but persons in one circle and mistakes in reading are the fewest.

In the course of group work, I found the two poorest boys tried their best to read well for the honor of their groups. Both Zhou Peng and Gao Sheng always read more carefully than ever in the reading practice. Their mood is steady, and they are never hurry, worry and nervous but more serious. When their groups win in a competition, they are always so pleased that they celebrate it by making faces to other groups. Accordingly, they will be presented with cute gifts.

Seemly, I also ask students to do pair work, which is easier than group work; including discussing, dialogue, correcting pronunciation each other. The two boys have been brave enough to correct the mistakes of others actively now.


6) Give the poorest different requests from others.

Another concept in New Curriculum is: Teaching should satisfy students in different levels. If the poorest students can’t reach a teacher’s requests, they will be self-abused easily. To avoid it, and obey the request of New Curriculum, I asked the poorest to answer some easy questions in class and finish simple homework on purpose. For instance, on April 17, after learning” infinitives”, I asked them to find the infinitives in a text, and others to find both infinitives and functions of the infinitives. To my surprise, Zhou Peng found almost all the infinitives correctly. As soon as he sat down, other students applauded warmly for him.

7)  Execute moral education with the two boys.

Sometimes, Gao Sheng and Zhou Peng are lazy in class. They drop their heads, and fall asleep on the desk and keep silent as if they were persons of few words. As a matter of fact, I knew from the other students that they were talkative after class. Therefore, I talked with them individually after class. We talked about life and feelings, love and respect, their dreams and family situations; I encouraged them to overcome difficulties, understand others, respect others and also be self-respecting; and I mentioned how hard their families work so as to support them to go on learning. I believe all those could motivate them to work harder. It’s true, my words worked, and they recovered their mood again.


How can I know I have improved this situation?

I have done so much, but how can I know whether I have really improved the two boys’ confidence or not?


Here, I made the following standards to evaluate what I have done:

1)        whether they participate in the class actively. Last semester, Zhou Peng and Gao Sheng kept silent all the time. They never put up their hands to answer my questions or made sentences in class. Gao Sheng always gazed at me as if at a loss. However, they now put up their hands at least twice in each class period on average. They begin to discuss how to make sentences with the partner and correct other students’ mistakes on the blackboard. On may 26, Gao Sheng helped Wang Guojiang correct a pronunciation mistake: life /la:f/ to /laif/. At that time, I was so shocked, because it was the first time that Gao Sheng had corrected another’s pronunciation mistake. When I want someone to answer questions, they will sometimes put up hands and say me, me…” They are more active in class participation.

2)        whether they can finish their assignments independently. Here ‘independently’ refers to no copying from others. I found that the two boys’ assignments handed in were similar to several excellent students’ last semester. It was clear what had happened. This semester, I asked Ma Qingping (sitting behind Gao Sheng) and Wang Guojiang (his partner) to monitor them to see whether he finished his assignments by himself. Both Ma Qingping and Wang Guojiang told me Gao Sheng did finish his assignments by himself. Zhou Peng has no partner (his partner dropped out of school last term). I can also find out that he didn’t copy by his different answers from others’ replies. Besides that, from the information given by students and my observation, and some exercises done directly in class I also can get some insight. Sometimes, I copied some exercises on the blackboard and asked students to choose words to fill in. And I pretended to stand on the platform and read my book. Actually I raised my head to observe Gao Sheng and Zhou Peng now and again. I found either they were thinking then writing down something or discussing how to do it with others, but neither of them were copying others’ work.

3)        whether they are excited in class. The two boys used to look very nervous in my class in the past. These days, the situation has completely changed. They always lift their heads and sit upright with big smiles on their faces when they have learned something from others and followed what I’ve said. After they answer some questions correctly, they always sit down with a proud smile. It seems that they finished the greatest task that anyone could be proud of. They are more talkative than ever while they are discussing with others.

4)        whether they begin to learn actively by themselves. To tell the truth, the two boys often ask me spontaneous questions about difficult words, phrases and sentences in the textbook. As I have stated above, they have started to discuss questions with their partners, do assignments by themselves. At the same time, Zhou Peng has formed the good habit of taking a dictionary with him and looking up some new words from it all the time. All of these actions suggest they have begun to learn actively. When I ask some students to copy their answers onto the blackboard, they volunteer every time.

5)        whether they are more responsible for themselves in English learning. I noticed the two boys are more responsible for themselves now. When I asked them to read texts or dialogues, they corrected their mistakes by themselves again and again. Their reading speed is quicker and they read more fluently, too. They loved correcting others’ mistakes so that they can check their mastery of knowledge. I also find their handwriting has been improved a lot by their exercises. It has become more beautiful, and clearer than ever. They can write sentences or phrases in good order. Now they never lose heart in following my teaching because they always know what I’ m teaching and what I ‘m requesting them to do.

6)        whether my colleagues give them better comments. Ma Hong is the oral English teacher of my class. She told me Zhou Peng and Gao Sheng have made great progress in oral English. Wang Ying, the phonetics teacher of my class, told me the two boys have improved their pronunciation and intonation a lot.

7)        whether their confidence has been improved by self-evaluation. I asked my students to evaluate their confidence by themselves by the following question:nWhich phase does your confidence of English learning exist in?

A. no confidence

B. a little confidence

C. enough confidence

D. more confidence

As a result, 60% students chose C, including Zhou Peng; 30% chose B including Gao Sheng; 3% chose A and 7% chose D. However, in the past, both Zhou Peng and Gao Sheng chose A.

From the evaluation above, I learned that the two boys have been more active, independent, excited and responsible for themselves; moreover, my other colleagues commented on them positively, so they did. The evaluations proved the two boys are more confident; meanwhile my actions are effective for them to make progress.


Who has helped me?

Dr. Moira Laidlaw, Ma Hong, Wang Ying as well as other colleagues did help me. They visited my class and gave me much good advice, which inspired me so much. Also, some students in my class came up with rich information for my work by monitoring the two boys’ study. Of course, I helped myself too by writing journals and taking notes.


What can I learn from AR?

“My teaching is the process of my learning.” Jean McNiff said in her book, Teaching as Learning an Action Research Approach (1993). I learned a lot from AR. AR needs patient, perseverance and confidence; AR is creative and imaginative work; AR is not an easy way to go, but a sensible way to go for any researcher. No doubt, I will say, AR is helpful for me to be a good English teacher. I am growing up to be a better teacher with the help of AR.“


At the present time, Zhou Peng and Gao Sheng have been more confident in English learning, but they still make many mistakes in speaking, reading and writing. Most mistakes are made in speaking and reading; so next, I’d like to research “How can I improve the two young students’ speaking and reading ability?”




Jean McNiff, Teaching as Learning: an Action Research Approach (London, 1993).

Guiyue Song, Ying Jin, Ying Yu Ke Cheng Biao Zhun Jiao Shi Du Ben (Huazhong Teachers’ College Press, 2002).

Jeremy Harmer, How to Teach Ejnglish (Foreign Langue Teaching and Research Press, 2000).