How can I help students who are comparatively poor at English?

by Ma Hong,

China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching, Guyuan Teachers College, Guyuan, 756000, Ningxia Province. P.R. China



In this paper I explain what I mean by ‘comparatively poor’ and outline the problems that this creates in teaching my students. I explore the three reasons for choosing my question: firstly, for the development of the class, which at the very beginning was at a mess; secondly, because of my teaching methods, which rendered the classroom tedious for all of us; thirdly my own experience as a poor student gave me insights into teaching these students. During the process of research I collaborated with colleagues and discussed imagined solutions with them. By helping the comparatively poor students I also wanted to create a friendly, well-disciplined and united class atmosphere; to help these students become more confident and take more initiative as well as responsibility for their study. A variety of methods were employed and evaluated, and these constitute the remainder of my study. Results show there was an improvement in learning both on the students’ part as well my own. My claims to knowledge for this paper have been validated through meetings, journal entries, questionnaires, interviews, and students’ actions and self-evaluations. Unexpectedly, my research resulted in some de-motivation amongst the more high-achieving students, and thus my new question is: ‘How can I differentiate in ways, which will help each student to reach his or her potential for learning?’


I am a teacher of two years’ experience. For more than ten years I was exposed to a teacher-centered formula. I was brain-washed to believe that a good teacher is one who can make use of every minute of the class to explain to the students every important language-point. I had thought teacher should be a skillful speaker, s/he can make students into good listeners, so they could do what I said, in order to learn what I knew. In order to help students learn well the correct answers are considered very important. I did the very job just like Diane Larsen-Freeman said in her book:


"If students make errors or do not know an answer, the teacher supplies them with the correct answer." (Diane Larsen-Freeman, 2003).


I kept this thought and behavior as my teaching belief till I myself became a teacher, but in putting the belief in teaching I found it doesn't work well. After each class, I was tired out. And my students were, no better than I was. Till that time teaching methods were some vague and distant concepts for me. With Dr. Moira Laidlaw's help I got a little idea about AR, but taking it as some unpractical theories that could not be applied to teaching, I paid little attention to it. Also because the constant change of the classes which I took as AR subjects , I became less and less confident with it. This kind of feeling remained until I learned about Tao Rui and other colleagues' achievements in their teaching. Action Research method. I was inspired by what they had done as well as by Dr. Moira Laidlaw's constant encouragement. From the first semester of 2003 I started with a class that I would teach for two years. All these made me decide to have another try. I began my work one month after the beginning of the semester (October, 2003). The class I chose is made up of 40 English-majored students age from 15 -18, of whom 98% had failed in the entrance examination for senior middle school. I meet them for a two-hour class three times a week.


What am I concerned about?

I want to help those students who are comparatively poor at their English learning to learn well. By ‘comparatively poor’ I mean the students did not achieve the English level they should have got in comparison with my own earlier achievements in learning English. These students had very limited vocabulary, they could not read even simple words correctly, they could understand very little of my teaching language, they could not speak out a complete English sentence without making mistakes, and they were at a loss in the basic grammar they had learned in junior middle school (12 – 14). In helping these students I wanted to make them more confident, show more initiative and become more motivated in their English learning. With this idea in mind, and according to the individual needs of the class, in which more than 80% of the students were comparatively poor, I took the whole class as the AR subject; in other words my research-methods were used with all of the students in the class, but three of the poorest students were chosen as the main concern in terms of the research knowledge I would be creating. They are Ma Jie, Ma Fei and Yu Jinghu. I believe if I could help these three students in their learning, I could also help the others in the class.


Why am I concerned about?

Mainly there were three reasons for me to choose this subject. First, it is for the development of the whole class. The students in my class are of middle school age. Most them come from very poor and backward countryside areas. They failed in the entrance examination for senior middle school. After they came to this college they had no confidence in learning English. They had a lot of spare time but don't seem to know how to use it, except for chatting and laughing, making the class, especially the self-study course, more like a noisy free market-place. Some students who wanted to work hard told me that they lost their confidence in this class. So as the headteacher I think to change this situation students should be self-disciplined and be responsible for their own study. They should learn to study by themselves actively instead of only when monitored by the teacher.


Second, it was because of my teaching methods. As far as I know most of the students had been exposed to the same teacher-centered model as I had. They were trained to be audiences. They were used to learning passively, waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do, what is wrong and what is right; waiting for the answers to questions from the teacher instead of thinking out by themselves. Because both teacher and students set too much store by the correct answers only, they were unwilling to answer questions in class for being afraid of making mistakes. They were reluctant to ask questions and took it as loss of face. These made my teaching very hard. As well as that, the class was boring. Even I felt that it was torturous to have this class. I tried to make myself work very hard but the result of the first test I set them shocked me. All the points of the test were the important ones I had emphasized again and again, but their performance showed they were confused by most of them. Obviously the hard work I had done had had little effect on them. I was very depressed and later realized it was partially my fault by working too much for the students instead of making enabling them to have a chance to practice and think. Like many people I take a successful profession to be a very important part of life. But the job I was doing was making me depressed, and was having a bad influence on my life. So I determined to change my teaching method which was quite teacher-centered according to Diane Larsen—Freeman (2003).

Third, I was concerned about this specific issue because of my own experience as I had once also been a poor student in junior middle school but later became one of the top students. In my day I had been a bad student amongst other poor students. I knew even that being bad students we still wanted to be cared for and not neglected by the teacher. We wanted to learn as well as all the others. With this experience I think I know how the poor students feel in their life and study, and I believe the comparatively poor can become better with the help of the teacher and with their own hard work.


What can I do to help?

To help to create a friendly, well disciplined and a united class atmosphere, in which I believe it is good for students to study

To help the students be more confident with themselves.

To help the students have more initiative and self-responsibility for their study.


Who can help me?

Dr. Moira Laidlaw, Li Peidong, Tao Rui as well as other colleagues helped me greatly in my work. I was much inspired by what they had done. Their teaching methods and experience helped me a lot. In the coming days I also needed all of their help to watch my class and give me suggestions. I realised I needed to sit together with them to share their teaching methods or some other ways they used in helping the students. If it possible I also decided to visit other teacher's class to learn more. Here I would like to show my gratitude for the group leaders, for they helped me a lot by helping and monitoring others' study, and by the journals they kept. The work they do will of great help in the future teaching as well.


What did I do in solving the problem?

(I) Group work.

"... it is a universal phenomenon that the students are filled with anxiety and worry and fell insecure in English learning,... "(Pan Hongyin, 2002:24 ).


According to my own observation the poorer a student is in foreign language study, the less sense of security s/he has. In my teaching I found that one of the main reasons that students didn't want to act voluntarily in the class was because they were afraid of making mistakes and being laughed at by others.


"Research shows that anxiety and sense of insecure will have negative influence on language learning. Group co-operative work helps to relief the sense of anxiety....The co-operation among the group members and inter-dependence help to set up students' self -esteem and confidence, and as a result will inspire the students' motivation."(Li Weihang, 2002:33)


To help to alleviate the students' sense of anxiety, I divided the whole class into 8 groups. And 8 students who are comparatively good were elected to be leaders of each group to help and monitor others' study. Usually students were asked to find out questions on their own, then they would work in groups and discuss these questions and try to solve the problems by themselves. Some of the questions they couldn’t work out could be left for later when they could ask for my help. Time was given for students to work together and make preparations before they stood up and show their opinions and give answers to questions. During the procedure I found students really became more and more confident, especially the poor ones. Many times there were so many students put up their hands vyeing to answer a question, that it became difficult for me to decide which one to choose. And mostly it appeared that when I chose one the others were not so happy, as they frowned. At these moments I had to ask them to understand the reasons why I was using this particular methodology.


During this term some students who had never done any task voluntarily and who used to bend their heads because they were afraid of being called on to answer began to hold up their heads and listen to my questions carefully to see whether they could indeed answer them. Take Mao Yajuan, one of the comparatively poor students as an example. She used to keep silent all the time and never dared answer a question, but on March 19th, 2003 she volunteered for the first time during oral practice. And during that class period altogether she did answered without being told three times.


(II) Make students to have initiative in their learning.

The New Curriculum for the teaching of English requires that students should be encouraged to discover by themselves about the language. As a result of teacher-centered teaching, most of the students were very dependent in their learning. As a famous Chinese interpreter, who is also famous for his methods in English learning once said: ”Easy come, easy go.”(Zhong Zhaolong). Students got answers easily from the teacher or from other students, and then they easily left them behind. Everything seemed to be becoming clearer in the class, but everything seemed to be confusing after class. To help the students to take more initiative I tried the question-answering way in their learning. I required them to work out their own questions and then try to solve these questions by themselves before we discussed the so-called ‘best’ answers together as a class.


At first they were not used to it and were reluctant to ask questions, so sometimes I had to force them to do so: in other words, if there were no question raised I would ask them some questions instead. For example, when they are learning the pronunciation of the new words, first I told them that they should read through all the words and mark those, which were difficult for them. Then they could work in groups and ask others (either students or teacher) to help them out with those difficult words. After that they would check their pronunciations one by one. And finally I checked the pronunciation of each group together with other students and made corrections. Students were asked to preview the parts before we learned and I would check how they did through questions and exercises.


(III) Encouragement.

Professor Jean McNiff said: “A good teacher doesn’t mean he/she teaches well, but can make students know they can learn well. To make students interested in their learning, first we should make them aware that they are capable."


In helping students build up their self-confidence I used the following ways:


I paid attention to every little progress each student made, especially towards those who were slow in their learning. I showed my appreciation of their hard work and progress they made either by praising them in front of the whole class or through written comments in their homework. I can’t see anything is wrong with this method, because every time someone was praised there was a big smile on their face and the other students threw them admiring glances. When some poorer-attainment students read a word correctly or answered questions voluntarily I would ask the whole class to applaud them. During one class period when we were dealing with the exercises, a girl named Liang Huirong, who always had kept silence in the class before, answered one question voluntarily for the first time. I praised her and asked the class to applaud her. Then to my surprise as well as showing gladness she stood there half way between sitting and standing, waiting to answer the next question. I also told my students that the times they hold up their hands to do the practice or exercises, it would be recorded as a part of their final mark. As the mark concerned them a lot, they became more active. They began to get used to holding up their hands or standing up to answer questions instead of shouting together.


Another way I used to build students' courage was to make them aware that making mistakes can be a learning experience. I wrote the sentences such as, "Making mistakes doesn't mean we are stupid, but that we are learning," on the blackboard, and then asked them to bear those thoughts in mind when they lacked courage to put up their hands and answer my questions. And when we later had a group competition I showed my gratitude to the students who'd voluntarily done the exercise in front of others. I told my students that it is the courage of those groups of students who are not afraid of losing face that has helped us to find out more problems with our learning. It took a long time for students to believe that I really just wanted to help them to improve through practice and not make them embarrassed or lose face in front of the whole class.


A Variety of ways in helping the poor students according to their own characteristics. Every student comes from a different family, from a different life, family and educational background. This will inevitably lead, to variations in character. (Liang Hanping,2002: 32).


"As each tree of a different height has its own right to grow, students also should be treated according to their individual abilities and their own characteristics ; they should be treated as individuals.” (Jean McNiff)


Each student, whether of poor achievement or not, has his or her own sense of identity. They may be slow in their learning for a variety of reasons. And in my research I found that the reasons for these three students I chose as my subjects are quite different from each other. Ma Jie is very intelligent, but also very lazy. He learns everything very quickly but shows little concern about study. In addition he received a poor knowledge-foundation in his former learning. So it is not so easy to make my ways work on him as he was not so concerned about his study and would be easily depressed by the new content-requirements if he could not get them easily. Ma Fei is also very clever and was not so bad in his basic knowledge but seemed to have lost interest in learning. But it is easy to motivate him because he could be encouraged by the job he had already done. On the other hand Yu Jinghu is a very hard working student, but very slow either in imitation-reciting or understanding. It takes a much longer time for him to read a word correctly and to understand the grammar rules. Therefore the teaching methods used to help these three students should also be varied. For Ma Jie pressure can also help to monitor him to be more active in his learning besides encouragement. For Ma Fei there should be encouragement as well as challenge otherwise he will take everything as being too simple for him and he can assimilate the knowledge very quickly. But for Yu Jinghu only encouragment will do the work, because he has a self-disciplined attitude to learning.


Emotional teaching. A prominent foreign language teaching expert said: "Emotion, at least is of the same importance as that of the skills of learning in foreign language teaching. Even is of more importance. The cohesion of the teacher will be of great help for students learning, especially for the poor students to be better students.’ (Wang Hongda, 2002:47). In my class most of the students who were comparatively poor at English learning come from very poor and backward rural areas. When we had a chance to talk with each other, I asked them things about their families, talked about how hard their parents and families worked in order to enable them to come to this college. And how hard it is for them to get the chance. We also talked about self-respect, value of a person and the situation after their graduation. All these had become power for them to study harder. Also I tried to spend more time with my students as in doing some labor work. I worked hard with them, sometimes even do more work than they do. By this I wanted to show my students that I am a member of the class. I am concerned about the honor of the class and value it very much. And I think my students understood me because they worked harder and did the job excellently. There were smiles and laughter instead of the usual complaints during the work time. These ways also took a lot of time and energy, but I think it was a very effective way in helping me to develop a good relationship with the students and to be trusted by them. This is of great importance according to the NC (New Curriculum). It (see note at the end for details) states that teachers should be learning assistants, organizers, counsellors and participators. In order to make students do what you want them to do, there must be trust and willingness for an active learning atmosphere. And as many teaching experts believe that a harmornious and friendly relationship is of great importance to motivate students especially those who are comparatively poor and help them to learn in a relaxed atmosphere not a one full of intense.

Varying of teaching methods to make the teaching become more interesting. Grammar is the most difficult part in my teaching. Students were easily bored by the rules and my repetition as I frequently tried to emphasize the points. In order to make these tiresome rules and practice more interesting, I tried to make up short stories with the rules we learned. Students were asked to listen to the stories carefully and find out what was wrong with the grammar. I also tried to make students this method for grammar: The time before we had grammar class, I asked students to preview the part we would learn. Then, when we had the class, I gave them 7-10 minutes to make a review. During that time I wrote some exercises corresponding with the grammar rules we would learn but in a random order. Then students were asked to finish the exercises using the rules, bearing them in mind throughout the preview and review. After that they checked the answers according to the rules in the textbook and wrote down the rules as well as example sentences used in the textbook. Finally they were encouraged to work in groups and discuss the exercises and check their mastery of the grammar. They were able to ask others about the points they couldn’t understand. Throughout the two-hour class period, every one worked very hard and none of them fell asleep which had been a very common phenomenon in grammar teaching classes before. After trying this method I also asked them to give me a feedback about the method. Only three students showed it was too difficult for them to understand some of the points even after the explanation of others. (And later I made this up by work with the students either in groups or individually.) This way, as I later found out, is in accordance with the New Curriculum, which requires that learning should be task-based, knowledge should be learnt by doing not just thinking about it. In the checking procedure I was amazed at how well the students understood the rules. Ma Jie, Ma Fei and, Liu Zhibang who was another student who had difficulty in telling the tense of sentence like "She works in a factory," was easily able to explain the reasons for the answers.


In my teaching I reorganized some of the teaching context according to the students' learning needs. For instance, in the textbook we were using then more concern was being paid to grammar learning, only a little to practising oral skills but very little about listening comprehension. I think students should follow a comprehensive development-programme in their language learning, which consists not only of grammar, words and expressions but also their speaking and listening abilities. Therefore I utilized the dialogue part as listening practice material. Students were asked to listen to this part without any preview and do the exercises including statement-judging and question answering. Different types of exercises were designed for students of different levels. For example statement judgement or easy questions for the poor ones and slightly more difficult exercises for the better ones.


Show thankfulness and appreciation to students. Every time when we had a class meeting or an important occasion, I never forgot to show my thankfulness and appreciation to my students. I thanked the group-leaders for their commitment in helping others. I thanked the students who were on the duty that day for the work they were doing in making our classroom a more lively and comfortable place to study in. I thanked the members of the class committee in helping me make the class work more orderly. I told them each commendation other teachers had given to the class because of their unity, their spirit of hard work and their unselfishness in helping others. I went on to thank everyone for the contribution they were making for our communal achievement. I began to feel that students were becoming aware of their individual influence on the whole class as well as the class as a whole becoming a more and more ordered one with little noise during the self-study courses. Many times when I checked the self study courses at random, the group members were sitting beside the leaders learning to read new words or discuss problems. There were fewer complaints by the poorer students about the better ones for being reluctant to help others which had once been a big problem for me. And I always heard some leaders say, "We will check text reciting tonight." "Please remember to bring your exercise book tonight, we will have a dictation." " Did you catch the teacher’s meaning? If not I will explain it to you." In this way they have a conducive and positive learning atmosphere in which to study. And the atmosphere in the class became more and more friendly and united .


Moral teaching. If a teacher can only teach students knowledge, I think it is a great loss. ‘One of the ultimate goal of teaching is to create better citizens for the society,’ (Dr. Moira Laidlaw, 2004). In my teaching I have found that to make the students aware of the value of hard work, to help each other, and to create a good and a harmonious learning atomophere, is to help the students become aware of something to do with the morality of being human. Being unselfish can make them more active in helping others and do more work for others. Being honest can make them be more realistic about the work they've done. During the teaching, I gave them topics such as "What will you do if you were done wrong? ", "What is real friendship?", "What is real beauty?" to talk about as oral practice but more importantly as a chance to teach them the value of being in the world, the relationship with others and so on. The New Curriculum (2004) also requires that teaching should also take students' emotional development into consideration when devising learning programmes.

How can I evaluate what I did?

I am claiming that the situation was improved in the following ways:


Class performance.

The students became more and more active in class. Sometimes there were too many students putting up their hands wanting to answer questions, and it became extremely difficult for me to choose one, as all them were very eager. In order to get my attention they waved their hands constantly. Or they just stood up immediately without my asking as the previous question was being answered by someone else. In addition, some of them became more and more confident within themselves, it seemed to me. For example, Ma Jie began to read out the new words we learned loudly. But before this term he was even reluctant to learn to read new words, because, as he said, "Be afriad of making mistakes." He also began to stand up voluntarily to do the oral practice, which he once said would be impossible for him to do. This also happened with Ma Fei and Yu Jinghu. And when we practiced some new knowledge the students were willing to be the first triers, which shows they were no longer afraid of making mistakes but wanted to learn from the mistakes they may make.


On April 25th ,2004 Yu Jinghu really surprised all the students as well as me. When I asked students to read words, he put up his hand. But there were more than ten other students who also wanted to do the job. I chose others instead of him, wondering if he would give up next time. When we were doing the translation part, I asked students to give their translation for the passive voice sentence: "Putting a basin of water outside in winter, soon it will be covered with ice.".


The following are the translations of two of the best students’ attempts and one by a middle-level student:

1) 冬天在房子外面放一盆水,很快就会被冰覆盖。

2) 在冬天的屋外放一盆水,它很快就会被冰覆盖。



All of the three students had problems in using the translation skill we had learned previously to change passive voice into active voice. After the three students had given their translation I offered my


"冬天在屋外放一盆 水,水面很快就会结冰".


Then I asked a ritual question: "Anyone else who thinks he have a better one than this." The usual answer has always been "No". But Yu Jinghu stood up and gave us his answer“冬天在室外放一盆水,水面很快就会结冰.” I think his translation is really superior to mine because "室外"is more formal than "屋外" and is more suitable in translating something from science fiction.


For Yu Jinghu, the boy who used to be very passive and shy this was really a rich surprise for us.


The group leaders' journal.

Every group leader keeps a weekly journal about what they did during the week. The journal includes how the group members performed in their dictation, text-reciting, and in asking questions and solving problems. In each journal you can read sentences like this: " ..made great progress in dictation this time", "Our group members become more and more active in asking questions", "Everyone in my group works very hard, and sometimes there were even too many questions for me, so they went to ask other leaders."...


Conversation with some students.

More than one time some students came to talk with me in their spare time. They told me that they felt a lot of pressure because everyone in the class was working so hard and making such rapid progress that they were afraid to be left behind. They were so worried that it became very hard for them to fall asleep! When I asked them about the situation during self-study time, they told me the whole classroom was not noisy and messy anymore. They felt there was a lot of things to do, a lot questions to think about and ask. (I corroborated their words later by checking the class at random times.) They were no longer at a loss about what to do during this time period without teacher to monitor them.



One of the important dimensions of concern in the NC is evaluation. I also take students' self--evaluation as one of the most important ways to reflect on my teaching. I asked my students to make a self-evaluation about any changes in their interest in learning, learning dependency and motivation.


The following scores phases were the criteria I given them: 1---3 ( very bad); 3----5 (bad/ not so good); 5---7 (good); 7---10 (very good). According to the marks they gave themselves of the above three aspects in the past and at present respectively, 35 students thought they made some progress. In another questionnaire I asked students to write to tell me whether they had developed more interest in learning and independence within the process. First they were asked to do it anonymously, and after I collected them all I asked Yu Jinghu and Ma Fie to pick out their notes. The following is Ma Fei's note:


About learning initiative: Changed from no before to a lot now.

Interest: Now I am very interested in English learning.


Yu Jinghu's note:

‘I feel I am much better than last time. I am making progress though I am still not good at English. Thanks for the teacher and classmates' help.’


Altogether 35 students think they are taking more initiative in their learning. And they felt they became more interested in English learning.


Other colleagues' comments on my class.

I invited Dr. Moira Laidlaw and Li Peidong, one of the advanced teachers whose research field is Teaching Methodology, to observe my teaching. In the lesson notes Dr. Moira Laidlaw said:


"My first impression is that her class is willing to learn and that there is a very warm atmosphere.... Throughout the two lessons the students were very committed to learning, and seemed to gain something from the lesson educationally. They seemed to take responsibility for their learning in the way which they asked questions and you were subordinating your own ideas to their learning needs. This is very student centered."

And the note of Mr. Li Peidong: Humorous. All the students are concentrating on their learning except one who paid a little attention to the teachers observing the class.


What I have learned from AR.

Teaching is a procedure that intimately involves both the students and teacher together. In doing AR, I became aware that when there are problems in teaching and learning it is not just because of the students’ learning abilities, but also the responsibility of the teacher and the methods s/he employs. AR is a procedure using teacher's self-reflection. Just as professor Jean McNiff said:


"It is important to help teachers to make self-improvement so to make students learn better."


AR is helpful. AR is not easy, and it takes a lot of time and devotion. AR needs creativity and imagination, it needs you to take your teaching to heart, to care about each problem. AR needs sincerity. In the procedure of doing Action Research teaching became clearer and clearer for me because I became concerned about the educational purpose of each teaching period.


Just like life itself, we will encounter troubles and difficulties but also times of happiness and surprises. Just as life is worth living, AR is worth doing. When I tried the new ways, and kept on trying, I found that my teaching became wiser, more systematic and more enjoyable. If I compared my role in my former teaching to a speaker, or a dancer who dominated the stage myself with my students as the audience who appreciates or dislikes my performance but have little chance to express themselves, now I have changed to become an organizer, a director who help the ‘audience’ to be actors and actresses themselves. They do most of the work themselves, and I have more time to reflect on, and record, what happens in the class and make an instant evaluation of my teaching. Though I work less during the class period in speaking, in explaining, during the work after class I now have a more focused role in making preparations for my class. What do I want my students to learn this time? Which way would be better for them to learn? How can I help them to learn?... And after class I believe there should be an evaluation of the methods used and the learning need in the class as a whole.


Another thing I have learned in doing AR is that as teachers we should be creative and imaginative. We should think out various ways and try them out in teaching, as it will help to make the class more interesting and create more chances for us to improve the teaching.

In my teaching in helping the comparatively poor students, new problems arose: the better students were less motivated because of the attention given to the lower achieving students perhaps. So my next problem is how to teach students differently according to their different learning needs.


References and Additional Resources

1. Diane Larsen-Freeman, 2003. Techniques and principles in language Teaching. Oxford university.

2. Liang Hanping, 3rd, 2002.中学英语教学中在大班条件下如何兼顾个体差异 Foreign Language Teaching and Research in Basic Education.

3. Li Weihang, 9th, 2002. 外语学习焦虑与以学生为中心的教学 Foreign Language Teaching and Research in Basic Education.

4. Pan Hongying , 6th , 2002 . 论英语教学中怎样建立和维护学生的安全感。Foreign Language Teaching and Research in Basic Education.

5. Wang Hongda, 9th, 2002. 谈谈教师的亲和力—— 由带学生逛街所 想到的。Foreign Language Teaching and Research in Basic Education.

6) The New Curriculum for the Teaching of English, (2004), Beijing Normal University.