How Can I Cultivate

My Non-English Students’ Interests in English?

Liu Binyou, China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching, Guyuan Teachers College.

June 2004


Abstract: In my case-study I reveal how I changed my methods to enable students to take a more active part in lessons. I found new ways to attract their interest and helped to motivate them. These methods consisted of introducing issues of personal interest to the students, and paying attention to the learning needs of individuals. I also describe in detail the responses of one student to a new method of teaching, in which his own talents as a poet are harnessed to motivate him to study English. I show how changing my methodology has helped my students to become better learners.


My background:

As a small child I dreamt of becoming an excellent teacher when I grew up. After I had graduated from the Foreign Language Department of Ningxia University, I became a teacher in Guyuan Teachers College and I realized my dream. I knew clearly that to be an excellent teacher, needed not only knowledge, good teaching methodology, enthusiasm, and commitment, but also devotion. Among these factors methodology will influence teaching directly. Teaching in a relaxed environment, with humorous methods and high engagement/involvement of students often impresses students deeply and makes the knowledge easier for them to absorb and use. To find good teaching methods, it requires time and patience. But how can a new teacher manage his/her class efficiently without experiencing several years teaching?  I am lucky enough to have met Dr. Laidlaw (a VSO volunteer) and Action Research, which she brought to Ningxia, when I had just graduated from the university and worked for two years in the college under her help and other colleagues’ help. I know a good teacher should be a researcher, so I attended the group (AR group in Guyuan Teachers College) without any hesitation.


In traditional classroom teaching, usually teachers taught and students listened to the teachers passively, and the students just learn passively and they don’t have enough interests in English, (at least my teachers did so when I was a teenager) as if teachers stuff the knowledge into the students. And students just sat there and seldom spoke as they were doing in non-English major classes now. In this kind of situation, in my first cycle I focused my attention on “How can I motivate my new students to speak in non-English major classes?” and began my Action Research­­­­­­­­­­­, which is:


 “a practical way of looking at your own work to check that it is as you would like it to be,” as well as: “a form of self-reflective practice.” (McNiff, 2002)


In my first cycle I focused my attention on the Music class and I made some progress on my question:


“How can I motivate my new students to speak in non-English major classes?”


Ding Shengyong Lu Yuhong and Du Wendi, three students in my class began to raise their hands and answer my questions during the English class, and the times they answered my questions were 4, 4, 6 on average respectively. And they escaped the vicious cycle: can’t speak----don’t speak----don’t practise----no response----can’t speak.


Because I had made some achievement and my class was adjusted by our department on the purpose of changing teachers’ courses, I focused my attention on the Chinese Education Class: a 39 students class with half boys and half girls, half of them came from other regions of Ningxia province such as Pingluo, Zhongwei, Lingwu and one third of them came from other provinces such as Heilongjiang and Qinghai. Most of them are about 20 years old and their English levels are about high school level. They were brave spoke to me a lot, which meant they were open and frank.( because they were influenced by the relatively advanced environment ). But the rest of the students came from Guyuan and they were not as active as other students in their class. Sometimes they were afraid to talk with me although I encouraged them by saying that we were friends, we could discuss any questions after class. A teacher was not in an elevated position above them, just a friend to help them and give them knowledge. By talking and joking with students and they gradually began to ask me some questions like: Do you have a girl friend? That was a great surprise because students usually dare not ask such questions related to a teacher’s personal life. That meant to me that our relationship was warmer than before and the gulf between us less. With the gulf being breached and the experience I got in those two years teaching and researching, I found that personal interest is very important and if a student is interested in a humorous tale or a story, he/she is more likely to remember it easily and be able to retell it to other students, so I set about cultivating students’ interests in English and hoped they would remember their English knowledge and retell what they learned to other students. Action Research, I found, is:


“a practical way of looking at your own work to check that it is as you would like it to be,” and “a form of self-reflective practice.” (McNiff: 2002) 


What would I like to improve?

As a new teacher in a new environment, during my two years of teaching I gradually realized that the students in Guyuan Teachers College were not as knowledgeable as I thought college students should be. I believe them to have been influenced by poor conditions and the low degree of development, and also lack of practice. Facing this I was not disappointed, however, and tried to integrate AR into their class to solve the contradiction: their poor English foundation versus the advanced teaching materials.


During my everyday life I found they liked playing basketball and, as a result they often played it in the playground, and they liked singing and they began to sing as often as they could. A question arose in my mind: if they liked learning English they might speak English and use it frequently. But the question is, they never opened their mouths to speak English and it seemed as if they would never like learning English. So I thought if I could cultivate the students’ interests in English, cultivate them to like English, they might begin to learn it with greater interest.


Why am I concerned about it?

The students’ meagre participation and keeping silent and their non-responses to my questions made it very difficult to teach and also inefficient for students to learn. If they couldn’t read the words or sentences, they wouldn’t open their mouths to practise speaking, and they made no progress without speaking, as a result, they wouldn’t understand what I said and they wouldn’t even be able to speak a whole sentence. Less participation and more teaching tasks made the class “teacher centered” with students just sitting and listening to the teacher passively. It made the class dull and also made teaching and learning a vicious cycle: can’t speak----don’t speak----don’t practise----no response----can’t speak. The old story.


“Interest is the best teacher.”(Chinese saying) Cultivating students’ interest is a basic way for non-English major students to learn English better. After finishing my first AR circle “How can I motivate my fresh students to speak English in non-English major class at Guyuan Teachers College?” I achieved so much just as I mentioned in previous context with Ding Shengyong Lu Yuhong and Du Wendi, three students in my class began to raise their hands and answer my questions during the English class. The times they answered my questions were 4, 4, 6 on average respectively. And they escaped the vicious cycle: can’t speak----don’t speak----don’t practise----no response----can’t speak.


In the process of my research, I found interest could trigger students to open their mouths to speak and to learn as well. With the small achievement and experience I made in former question, I focused my attention on interest----“the best teacher” from the very beginning of this semester, and I began my “problematic practice”(McNiff, 2002) again.


During my teaching, I found students were enthusiastic about their interests, such as singing songs, playing ball games and listening to pop music etc. and they could easily grasp the skills of doing those things. For example, if they like singing, it is very for them to sing a song after several times listening. If a story is interesting they can retell it after listening to it. At least in my class most of the students can do so: once I asked a student to teach the other students to beat rhythms and dance Tap dance, most students grasped the skill quickly, before I believe they don’t know how to dance. And I convinced my idea by asking the students after class. I thought if I could cultivate my students’ interest in learning English, they might grasp some English language skills and change their attitude towards English and they might also learn English well.


How can I improve it?

To solve the problem, I tried to find solutions to this question by studying my students, by asking my guide Moira Laidlaw and other colleagues in the Foreign Languages Department of Guyuan Teachers College. I also invited Moira. Laidlaw and other colleagues to visit my AR class and from their suggestions and my research I imagined some detailed ways of solving the problem. So I set about cultivating students’ interest in English in my AR class, a group of Chinese-major students, whenever possible.


I adopted the following methods according to my students’ hobbies and things they were interested in their daily life.


Let them listen to English songs and music and teach them to sing English songs.

There is an item in the New Curriculum (NC) that says that students should have a cultural context and the New Curriculum requires language to be in a context, not in a vacuum. My students like Chinese songs, I thought they might like English songs, so I gave them several English songs and after listening to the music and an English song, I asked my students to give the general idea of the song, and try to understand the meaning of the song while they were singing. Once I gave them: “ Big Big Girl ”----a pop English song. After listening to it, I asked my students:


“Who caught the first two sentences and their meaning?”


Most of the students answered “I’m a big big girl live in a big big world.” That is correct. Then I changed the song in another way: “You’re clever clever students don’t read or read novels in class.” Then I asked them to sing in the same way. They sang and a few students, who were reading novels, put their reading-material away and participated in our work. It is English songs that triggered their enthusiasm for English on this occasion.


People are eager to know what they don’t know around them.

The New Curriculum says that students should grasp such skills as speaking, listening, reading and writing and group work. As students in the Chinese Department, they are eager to learn words relevant to their major-subject. Most students asked me how to say 中文系 (the Chinese Department) and 汉语教育 (Chinese Education) in English. I gave them the answer and changed their question according to circumstances: how to say 外语系 the Foreign Language Departmentin English and so on. This inspired them to ask many questions. It is a simple but practical method to cultivate the students’ interests in English. Just as I wrote in my journal (May 16): a student named Li Wen, who never opened his mouth in our English class, after I gave汉语教育(Chinese Education) and asked how to say 英语教育(English education)in English, he answered correctly although with a little bit dialect without any hesitation. And Wang Enyu, Zhang Linlin and many other students answered voluntarily. But still several students such as Shi Zhixian and Ji Zhenfang kept silent and didn’t gave any sign of understanding. So I asked them to work in pairs and one student ask the other how to say 体育系(the PE Departmentin Englishand then take the turn. By this way I found that Shi Zhixian and Ji Zhenfang began to speak in English. That’s great, they began to open their mouth and show a little interest in English because they were laughing after they had had their turn.


Asking them to perform some humorous English short plays and tell short humor or stories in English.

One of the aims of the New Curriculum is interests and motivation. “Humor causes people to laugh and think.” (Mark Twain) By asking students to perform short plays and humorous stories, students began to realize the differences between the Chinese and English languages. They could understand the English language by comparing it with Chinese. Witticisms are difficult to transliterate as they require a deeper understanding of the language. By trying to explain English humor, they realized that the English language is as profound as the Chinese language, and as language learners they were willing to find what those differences amounted to. Because of our cultural and historical differences, it is difficult for Chinese students to understand English humor and for English students to understand Chinese comedy as well.


Once I asked my students to perform the story named “face to face with guns”. Each group did a very good job - right pronunciation and intonation, clear enough and easy to understand for all the class. Zhang Lingling, was one such case, a girl with very clear pronunciation. But one group’s presentation impressed me most: a boy named Yao Zijia robbed a robber! He used his right hand as a gun and performed vividly and loudly and his clear voice made all the students applaud.


And a girl named Zhang Liling was very brave and asked if she could borrow my bag as a prop to perform in English. That surprised me because it was a bold move on her part. Their performances were nearly perfect with proper expressions in English. Just as Dr. Laidlaw said later,


Zhang Liling was very brave and dared to ask you to borrow your bag. The boy (Yao Zijia) also gave a spirited performance, as well as a pop song.


She also mentioned, however, that: they should face their classmates when they are performing. (Yao faced the blackboard when he gave his play.)


In that class many other students groups were eager to present their plays but time was so limited and they seemed so disappointed when the bell rang. But they all looked excited after class. In that course the textbook is only one kind of teaching material, because just as it says in the New Curriculum we are using the textbooks not teaching them.


Translate some of their own published Chinese poems into English and encourage them to write English poems and articles.

Confident willing and trans-culture communication are the aims of the New Curriculum. Writing poems and articles are their favorites and publishing them is their favor too. The students in my AR class often write and publish poems and articles on campus newspaper and other famous poetry anthologies. Translating their own poems and articles into English is one of the most efficient ways to trigger their interests in English. A student named Li Wen, was a shy but clever boy who never opened his mouth or showed any interest in our English class. But I knew he was intelligent because he had published several Chinese poems in the campus newspaper and in other poetry anthologies. He didn’t open his mouth not just because he was not interested in English, but because he was shy. His Chinese teacher told me that he performed quite well in the Chinese class as he loves Chinese. I supposed if I could cultivate his interest in English, he might perform well in our English class. I designed several methods to realize my idea: Encouragement, personal guidance and explanations. But my efforts were initially in vain. When I asked for help in our AR meeting, one of my colleagues, Fang Fang, showed me the way. She said: Why not translate one of his poems into English and give it to him?


That was a great idea. When I read my translation before the class and asked who was the author of the poem, they don’t know. Even Li Wen himself didn’t know. I told them that it was Li Wen’s poem, and that I was merely a translator. They couldn’t believe their ears. When I gave them the original one, they believed and clapped and Li Wen was so excited and blushed. I praised him immediately and encouraged him to read the English edition of his poem and to write some English poems or articles. The next class, he was a little bit confident and came to the platform, gave us his speech, although with many grammar and pronunciation mistakes. However, that’s a great beginning, he at last was opening his mouth, and was becoming more confident than before, he dares to give us a morning report and ask other students to teach him. His deskmate----Feng Jiafang once was so shy when Li Wen asked her to correct his pronounce before. And in my later class, he occasionally answered my question loudly. In my class in the afternoon on June 6,2004, it was so hot in that afternoon and most students seemed so sleepy. So I asked the whole class: who can give us a witticism or a song or a poem to drive our sleepiness away. Li Wen - the shy boy – who had begun to open his mouth after I had given his poem to the whole class - asked me if he could sing just several sentences of a song. I, of course was happy and permitted him. He sang a sentence of a song and it was not so tuneful, and all the students began to laugh because of his tuneless song. The shy boy seemed no longer to be as shy as before, and also began to answer my questions suddenly and often caused the whole class to laugh. (His dialect is the reason for the laughter, but he never seemed to mind and continued causing laughter occasionally.) My method was beginning to work and I am still trying.


Who can help me and how?

Action research is a great undertaking. It will become more significant in Guyuan Teachers College, in Ningxia as well as in China, and, I believe, even in the whole world. At present, Dr. Moira Laidlaw, Dean Tian and other colleagues in the Foreign Language Department at Guyuan Teachers College, and also Jack Whitehead and Jean McNiff and other AR members at Bath University, Britain, are helping us by discussions, e-mail correspondence and personal visits to China. And the regular two meetings each week are also very helpful, as we can discuss any problems and any questions appearing in our AR enquiries. This is a very practical way to collaborate and to improve together.


How did I know I had improved?

During my teaching I always took journals and wrote down each change that I thought it’s a progress, by observing and studying for about 5 mouths, through the following items I found I improved:

1)        Li Wen, a shy student is no longer as shy as before and often causes the whole class to laugh. He has also begun to answer my questions, even in his dialect. And he has begun to raise his head when I am teaching, which didn’t happen before. He is more confident and interested in English: opens his mouth and gives his morning report voluntarily two times a week without hesitation.

2)        By inviting foreign teachers such as Dr. Moira Laidlaw to attend my class, most students showed their eagerness to communicate with her and were eager to ask questions about western culture. “When I first sat in the classroom, my deskmate, a boy was eager to speak to me and at least there is one student in your class interested in English.” (Comment from Dr. Laidlaw, March 1st, 2004)

3)        With my encouragement, some students such as Li Jianping, Liu Jianhong and many others participated in many activities in the English-culture Festival and Li Jianping got the second prize in “challenging the host” program and Liu Jianhong also got the fifth prize in “Competition of English Backgrounds ”.

4)        They are eager to translate their own poems into English and ask me how to express them in English. Once a student named Zhang Lingling asked me how to express his own poem-line “夜风在月光下梳整着垂柳” in English. It is a very powerful sentence in Chinese, and I tried to find the answer: At night, the breeze combs the branches of the willows in the moonlight. When I gave her my translation she was so excited and I encouraged her by saying that her poem would be published in an English edition if she would just work harder.


My understanding of AR and my career

Action research is a great undertaking. Every week we meet and share what we achieved in our classes. Dr. Moira Laidlaw, “is teaching her colleagues to investigate and evaluate their own practice, using an action research methodology. This means that teachers begin to problematise and evaluate their work by asking, ‘Am I entirely satisfied with what I am doing? In what ways could I work differently? How do I improve what I am doing?’ Moira is encouraging teachers not only to investigate their practice; she is also encouraging them to make their stories public, so that other people can learn from those stories.” (Open letter from Jean McNiff about why she is coming to China in December, 2003 – )


To be an excellent English teacher in the new century, I have a long way to go as “the process of my teaching is also the process of my learning.” (McNiff, 2002). AR can help me to understand more how to use my own methods and my self-reflection to improve my teaching quality and to integrate the methods for the New Curriculum in English teaching. I am sure my career as an English teacher will be glorious in the future under the guide of AR, and I also know that AR is a life-long work. It needs not only patience, enthusiasm, and commitment, but also devotion. So long as all of us---- the staff in this center work hard in collaboration, our young tree will be fruitful in the near future.


All that I’ve done and achieved is just a beginning, and I’m still observing what is happening in my class, and renewing my methods as time goes on. And, of course I will still focus my attention on “How Can I Cultivate My Non-English Students’ Interests in English?” whilst continuing with my practical job.



Hu Zhuanglin,(1995) “A Course Book of Linguistics”, Beijing: Beijing University Press.

Laidlaw, M. (2002) “A Handbook of Communicative Methodology”, Guyuan Teachers College.

McNiff, J., with Whitehead, J.,(2002), “Action Research: Principles and Practice”, Routledge, London and New York.

McNiff, J., Lomax P., Whitehead, J.,(2002), “You and Your Action Research Project”, Routledge, London and New York.

McNiff, J., (2003), “Why I am Going to China ”, A E-mail to Dr. Laidlaw.

Laidlaw, M. (2004) “comment to Liu Binyou’s class”, Guyuan Teachers College.

The New Curriculum: