How can I help my students’ motivation in speaking? by He Lina.



My Context

AR is so important to me because it helped me begin my teaching as a learner.

AR has brought about improvements to both my students and myself.


What is my concern?

My students are English majors but they lack motivation in speaking. So I want to improve their motivation in speaking. Jin Guoliang and Li Fang are my subjects in this research.


Why am I concerned about it?

1. I personally believe that speaking is crucially important for the whole learning process;

2. My students regarded it as their biggest problem too.


How can I improve it?

1. Offering equal and sufficient chances for them to speak.

(1) Making speaking rule i.e. asking for volunteers, which turned out to be a failure in the end;

(2) Ask each student to do a morning report;

(3) Ask different members to be the “speaker” while having group discussions.

2. Varying speaking activities

(1) Individual presentations;

Example, morning speech: changing from “recitation” to “interviewing speech” and to “impromptu speech”.

(2) Group work.

(3) Encouraging student to “show off”.


Who can help me and how?

1.         Dr. Moira Laidlaw and Dean Tian;

2.         My students;

3.         My colleagues;

4.         Relevant books and online information.


What have I learned?

1.         It helped me to be more confident in teaching;

2.It helped my professional development;

3.It improved my personal life.









How Can I Improve My Student’s Motivation in Speaking?


My Context

I believe I’m one of the luckiest to “choose what I love and love what I choose.” I’m proud to have chosen English as my major and become an English teacher in September 2003. Therefore, I determined to be a good English teacher and help my students with their English. I even wished people around me would like English and make great progress in it.


Despite my strong belief and enthusiasm, things turned out to be very difficult since many students complained to me that English was nothing but a headache to them. Being a new teacher, I was at a loss about what to do. Then AR came as a great enlightenment, which gave me encouragement and detailed instructions. Just As Dr. Moira Laidlaw put it:


“AR is a programme of self-directed learning about one’s own teaching. It is a way of improving actions and reactions in the classroom and outside, for the benefit of the learners.”


So still with my strong belief and AR’s instruction, I began learning to teach. Having done the research for nearly one year, I felt more confident in teaching and I saw improvements from both my students and myself.


What is my concern?

I’m in charge of 28 students of class (5), Grade 1, which is my first class and is of great value to me. As English majors, they are meant to be good language learners and users. But I found them only able to read and memorize a lot instead of speaking much. Most of them didn’t want to volunteer to speak in class. So my question arose as to how to improve their motivation in speaking. I aimed to improve the whole class but I collected most data on Jin Guoliang and Li Fang who are among the most inactive students.


Why am I concerned about it?

(1) My Self-belief

It is said that:


“Speaking makes you a more fluent language user; speaking is a chance to notice the gaps between what you want to say and what you can say; it is a chance to test hypotheses about language.” (Marilyn Lerris[1], 1999)


So I believed that speaking was crucially important for the whole learning process. And my students’ experience and that of my own proved to me that we didn’t have much chance to speak while in high school and we gradually got into a habit of learning “mute English”, which was obviously harmful to a language learner.


(2) Students’ feedback

From my questionnaire[2] given at the very beginning of the first term I knew that my students had the same concern –95% said their biggest problem were speaking and listening.

So I realised it was important to begin my research based on the two reasons above.


How can I improve it?

I tried many ways to stimulate my students and they mainly fell into three types:

(1)    Offering equal and enough chance for them to speak;

(2)    Varying speaking activities;

(3)    Encouraging them to “show off”.


(1) Offering equal and enough chance for speaking

My first attempt was making a rule of speaking for the class. I told my students,


“Speaking is the only way you can express yourself. You have an equal chance to speak, but I won’t call your names. So it depends on yourselves whether to catch the chance.”


I wished my students would challenge themselves to speak and build up a sense of making the most of opportunities.


Some of the students told me afterwards that this rule sounded fresh and challenging to them because they would seldom speak unless asked to. I noted down that Ma Fang, Yang Fan, Jiang Ni, Lu Yanru, Qian Qian and Zhang Huwei actively followed my rule, volunteered each time to present in front of the whole class and could do their pair work enthusiastically. Jiang Ni once talked to me that she wanted to change her seat because her desk mate, He Yinjuan, never wanted to come to the blackboard however much she urged him (Oct.28th, 2003). Her frustration clearly showed her great enthusiasm to speak.


The students mentioned above always took the chance to speak. But I found that there were also some students (Like He Huiyan, Wang Fang,Yuan Guoping, Li Huiju) who wanted to but hesitated. So I encouraged them every time and waited for them to make up their minds to stand up. Those students gradually got to their feet. Li Huiju once bravely stood up to answer my question, although her face flushed crimson and her voice shook. When Xie Xiaojie for the first time, volunteered to present his conversation with his desk mate in front of the whole class, he seemed out of breath when speaking. But they were great enough to speak up and I praised them at once.


This rule had brought about improvements to those who never volunteered and this also resulted in an active speaking atmosphere in which most students participated actively. But I was worried because there were 8 students who dared not speak. So I talked to them personally. They gave me their two main reasons. First, they never volunteered, as it was not their nature to stand up. Secondly, they were shy and hesitant which slowed the pace while those brave ones took the chance. Then I told them the importance of speaking and encouraged them. However, they were not still brave enough. I realized it was just their personality that hindered them from being assertive. My first attempt appeared to be a failure because some students actually didn’t get an equal chance and contradicted my initial purpose. This was, I suppose, my living contradiction (Whitehead, 1989). I wanted something to happen in my class, but it seemed I couldn’t make it happen. So I began to doubt my rule. I wondered whether I should change the rule and call the students’ names. But I feared that would break my promise, therefore I turned to Dr. Moira Laidlaw for help. She suggested, “Just feel free to change. No method is unchangeable and everlasting. You can change to another one if it helps.” So I broke this initial rule and called on those who never volunteered while still giving a chance for volunteers.


On the other hand, I asked each student to do a morning report, which ensured each student would share an equal opportunity to express himself or herself in front of the whole class. What’s more, I asked for different members of the class to be the “speaker” while they did group discussions so that everyone got the chance to practice.


Just as Professor Jean McNiff said during her visit in December 2003:


“Let every single flower grow because each flower is unique and has infinite potential.”


I tried to make it come true in my class.


(2) Varying speaking activities.

By doing this, I aimed to:

1). Individual presentation

To be specific, I wanted to take our morning report as an example, through which I’d varied the way of creating conversations. I transformed it from “recitation” to “interview speech” and now to “impromptu speech”.


For the first round, I just let each student recite a passage that he or she regarded as instructive or interesting, and meantime, asked other students to conclude the main idea after listening to the speech. Later on, I asked them to recite passage written by themselves and be ready to answer other students’ questions. I called this an “interview speech”.


When I talked to them after class, the students told me they loved this way . He Huiyan said that she found it interesting and helpful although it would upset her and made her nervous sometimes. On Nov.12th, 2003, Jin Guoliang stood up and asked the speaker a question, which was the first time he had volunteered. He said to me,


“I was afraid to speak in public, but after I tried once, I felt it was not so difficult, I feel more comfortable to speak now.”


So far, he has asked 4 questions. I also noticed that Li Fang, She Zhichen and Li Yanxia who never volunteered came up with some excellent questions, which constituted great progress for them. I realise that in Action Research, and in improving methodology, applying an ipsative criterion[3] is a very useful way of discerning improvement in individuals.


After we had two rounds of “interview speech”, I tried another way of doing it. Actually, it came into being spontaneously. On June 16th, 2004. I began the class with the normal question, “Whose turn to give the morning report? Let’s welcome them!” My students told me the last round had finished. Thinking there were just a few days left and it was neither possible nor reasonable to let them go another round, I paused and thought,


“What are we going to do today? Stop now or try something new? Well, boys and girls, since we’ve done much prepared work, today let’s try something new. Let’s make impromptu speeches.”


They looked surprised and curious. I continued,


“I knew this would sound difficult, but I believe you can do it, challenge yourself and have a go!”


I gave them a word “dream”, and asked them to think for a minute. Then I asked for volunteers. I saw some hesitating and others thinking hard. To get it moving, I called Guo Xiaomei, who was looking at me now and then and seemed to be wanting to say something. However, I was doubtful because she was a very quiet student and if I had misunderstood the message from her, it would probably hurt her to stand before such a large audience. She began speaking. It was extremely fluent and well-organized. She opened her speech with a quotation and then illustrated it using her own experience and ended in a beautiful conclusion encouraging everyone to hold on to their dreams. She hadn’t paused or stopped to think for even a minute. All of us seemed fascinated and moved , so much so that we gave her a big and long applause quite spontaneously. Then Lu Yanru volunteered to be second. She, too, did an excellent job. When I asked them whether they’d like to continue doing it. They affirmed me with a loud and joyful “Yes”.


The students said in their feedback that the variety arouse their interest and stimulated them to speak more and improve their thinking and speaking step by step.


I supposed this method to be systematic and encouraging, which would fit in with the concept of the New Curriculum in the sense that students are encouraged to use the language rather than think about it[4]. So I still keep it and try to explore more ways.

2).  Group work

The New Curriculum advocates that students should learn from the “process”, for example, learn from experience and group work. It also encourages students to experience and learn language in the process of self-reflecting and participating in discussion. Here Dr. Laidlaw’s words at the conference in Nov. 2003 would strengthen this point, “Together we are stronger than we are apart”.


So I applied collaboration to much of our group work. I divided my class into 6 groups, each group elected a leader with a similar level of English. I asked them to discuss certain topics, held competitions between groups and asked them to give lessons by themselves.


On 17th, June, 2004, I asked the class to discuss the text in groups and then teach one part of the text to the class. When one group was presenting, the rest of the class listened carefully and put forward different questions. For a moment, the class would become quite noisy because they were so engaged in heated discussions. I merely sat by the side giving necessary instructions and help when necessary. All the students were involved and I saw Jin Guoliang and Li Feng discussing actively with their partners. When Yan Fang made a mistake in distinguishing “rise” and “raise”, Jin Guoliang spoke loudly to show the difference. This activity again showed me that the students would speak more often and more actively when an active and encouraging atmosphere was created to motivate them.


3. Encourage students to “show off”

Personally I believe encouragement and compliments are always effective and important ways at any stage of teaching[5]. So I sought every chance to encourage my students and praise them for every little bit of progress they made, either for a clear pronunciation or a volunteered answer. I wrote on the blackboard a large word “confidence” in the first class and told them, “Nothing is impossible to a strong and positive mind.” 15 students in my class took part in the English Speaking Contest last term, the most in grade one. I remembered several of them, Like Ling Jingxia and Jing Guoliang, told me before the final competition that they were too afraid and nervous to go on. I told them the importance of making an attempt, approved their efforts and helped them with their speeches. Finally, all of them stepped onto the stage. Three of them even got prizes. This term, 20 students took part in the English Hosting Contest, The Speaking Contest and other activities held for all college students and they got very good results: Three Number Ones, One Number Two and Five Third places. I cannot say these things all happened just because of me but I could say they happened with me.


Based on the three methods mentioned above, I think I’m justified in claiming that I have achieved my goal of motivating speaking in some of my students and in the class, because:



Who can help me and how?

Here, I believe Dr. Moira Laidlaw and Dean Tian come first. They helped me a lot and will help me more. They gave me insights about what AR is and how to begin AR. I couldn’t have ventured out of my shell and carried it on throughout the whole year without their encouragement and suggestions. Dr. Moira Laidlaw’s advice on changing my speaking rule helped me out of my initial confusion. Her visit to my class together with her instructive comments provoked my thinking to a larger extent. For example, she said I should sit with the groups to inspect and help them more.


Secondly, my students. They are the center of the class and no doubt are my concern all the time. My research is meaningless and unrealistically idealistic without their existence and co-operation .So my students’ feedback, either through a smile or a sigh, approval or disapproval helped me to do a better job for them. Any sign of improvement or frustration from any individual would help me improve my methods and provoke a further step.


Thirdly, other colleagues.

Having more colleagues to visit my class and visiting theirs offered me precious opportunities to examine myself and learn from them. And I learned from many colleagues, for example Ma Jianfu, who adopted better ways of stimulating students by listening to their lessons. And my dorm mate, Wang Xiaoping, who suggested I should speak more Chinese so that my students would feel more relaxed and comfortable. Also discussing with colleagues and students, attending AR meetings and validating their AR reports help me think more and reflect more on my own work. The key process I learnt from this is the significance of finding evidence for claims.


Lastly, reading relevant books and finding out information online or on TV helped me be more concrete and cautious while undertaking the research. I got a clearer idea of writing my AR report with the help of two books, ‘You and Your Action Research Project’,[6] and ‘Action Research: Principles and Practice’ (second edition)[7]. I adopted the way of doing impromptu speech from the English programme “Outlook” on TV.


Actually, every chance, every person around me has been of great help and value to me and they helped me in a variety of ways. I show my great thankfulness to them all.


What have I learned?

After doing AR for nearly a year, I realized it has become a part of my life. It has such great impact on me that I just don’t know how to express myself in these few words. I believe I’m more confident in teaching and I’ve achieved both professional and personal progress.


1) AR has made me more confident in teaching in the sense that it helped me know better about my students, myself, and the relationship between us. I came to realize it how important it was to let the students be the center of the class and to be always aware of their reactions in class so as to find suitable solutions to help each of them. At the same time, I believe I knew more clearly my role as a teacher - instructor, organizer, adviser, participant or sometimes just a listener rather than a ‘preacher’, a ‘ruler’ or a speaker. Just as McNiff (2002)[8] has said:


“An educative manager is to create such spaces so that people can work out their answers for themselves, free from constraint but encouraged while they will be listened to respectfully and encouraged while they develop their emergent thinking.” (p.35)


So I managed to give students more chance to work out the problems by themselves like doing group discussion when I stood nearby merely as an audience. My students’ problem will always be my concern. My research begins where their problem occurs.


(2) AR has brought about improvements to me in terms of my professional development.

Bearing a specific question in mind, I was supposed to work out various solutions and reflected on my teaching more often. Also, if I failed in one method (like making the speaking rule), I would have to try another one until it finally took effect. All the reflections and attempts undoubtedly enrich my teaching experience.


What’s more, in order to justify my claims and prove my assumptions, I had to collect data and search for evidence, which required me to be more careful and concise for every little action I took, and therefore, made me a more responsible teacher and learner.


(3) AR has changed my way of living while I was working collaboratively with others.

I was fascinated and touched a lot every time when we were having AR meeting because I not only got information about teaching and researching here but also took in food by which I might live a rich and full life. I strongly felt the strength of this great collaboration, which drove me to improve myself, and also to make some contribution to the unity, however tiny it would be. I would feel ashamed being the lazy and confused one. I very much like the scholarly and open-minded atmosphere in which I was with others. I was no longer alone. I began to talk with more people, which was not my nature before and I enjoyed this place more than ever just because of this new research way.


Consequently, I tried to create this same atmosphere in my class. I believed that the warmth and strength of collaboration would not only be beneficial to my students’ study but to their lives as well. I believe this is turning out to be the case.



[1] Marilyn Lerris, (2003), Teaching English as a Foreign Language, Routledge, London.

[2] Questionnaires and other notes are available in my data-archive.

[3] This criterion refers to a comparison between past and present accomplishment by an individual.

[4] What’s New about the New Curriculum? VSO newsletter, March, 2004, VSO Beijing.

[5] See Liu Xia’s (2004) AR report: How can I help my students to learn through respect and encouragement?

[6] ‘McNiff, J., Lomax, P., & Whitehead, J., (2002), ‘You and Your Action Research Project’, Routledge, London.

[7] McNiff, J., (2002), ‘Action Research: Principles and Practice’, Routledge/Falmer, London.

[8] Op.cit.