How can I help my students enlarge their vocabulary?

 Hao Cailing, China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching (CECEARFLT), Guyuan Teachers College, Guyuan, 756000,

Ningxia Province, P.R. China.


1.  What would I like to improve?

My Action Research question is “How can I help my students enlarge their vocabulary?” According to my methods and some useful advice from Dr. Laidlaw and Mr. Liu Binyou, I changed my topic into, “How can I help my students enlarge their vocabulary by speaking?”


2.  Why am I concerned about it?

I chose the class in grade one of the Music Department. There are 20 students in this class. There are several reasons for choosing this particular group:

Š             Their English is poor. During the first lesson, when I asked them to introduce themselves according to three questions I gave: “What is your name?”; “Where do you come from?” and “What is your hobby?”, no one was able to speak freely and some of them could not even say a complete sentence. Then I asked four students to write 26 letters, no one did it correctly within three minutes. They would says things like: “I is….”; “He am…”, and “I from…” From these examples, I knew their grammar and structure were poorer than their oral English. But I still loved them and wanted to help them because of their hard work and pleasant characters. Most of them told me they wanted to study English successfully, but they had no self-confidence in studying, and I believed I could help them abandon their misgivings and become good English learners.

Š             In modern society, English has become very important, so I hoped every student in this class could master it well and fulfil their potential. In fact, English would be very easy for them as long as they were willing to study.

Š             As an English teacher, my duty was to help them study English properly. And in English, according to my understanding, words are very important for studying, as bricks are important for building. So I wanted to help them improve their English by enlarging their vocabulary.

Š             I hoped they would be able to pass the English examination that year. Maybe my strategies would help them build self-confidence.


3.  How can I help to improve it?

At very beginning, I found it was very difficult for me in terms of action planning because they always kept silent in my class. I was always angry and agonized about it. When I found they didn’t like the atmosphere of my class, I asked help from Dr. Laidlaw and other colleagues. They told me that as an action researcher, I must be patient. In order to do it better, I changed myself a great deal. When I came to this class, their silence made me so angry. To be honest, I was very disappointed with them. I didn’t feel like smiling, because I thought the teacher should remain serious all time. And every time they could not answer my questions, I would raise my voice on purpose and I wanted them to know I was angry again. Then when I read some sentences, like “When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like the hole”, “If you hurt a person with words, the wound is as bad as a physical one” (Reading B, Unit 2, English for Vocational School Book 1), I realized I had hurt my students with my words and my sharp voice. Later, I paid much attention to these aspects, and I tried my best to smile and use soft voice to them. And I found it was very important both for me and my students. Although they still could not answer some difficult questions, they showed they wanted to communicate with me after class - gradually.

Then I designed three steps for my plan: First was to help them like English step by step; Second was to encourage them to speak; and the last step was to help them improve their English.


According to these steps, I started my plan gradually. First, I chose Zhang Hongliang and Han Rong who have completely different temperaments as my research-subjects. Of course, they are just the representatives for their class, because I have to help everyone. Before class, I always communicated with them, such as about their lives, families, hobbies, studies and friendships, etc. In addition, sometimes I would introduce some songs and music for them, and as a result they seemed so happy. It seemed a good way and a chance for me to make friends with them. I needed them to regard me as their dear friend not merely as a serious and fearful teacher.


After becoming good friends, I was able to tell them more easily about some advantages of learning English and some interesting stories about my own school life. I found they liked this method very much, because they left middle school after just several months, and they didn’t know how to spend their college lives. About two months later, 60% were raising their hands in class. It was a challenge for them, I think. And Zhang Hongliang also did so. She is very shy and self-critical. In every class, I called on her to answer simple questions. Whether she could answer or not, I would encourage and praise her, “You did a good job!” “You are a clever girl” “I like your sweet smile.” “Your pronunciation is very good.” She has now improved so much, she could raise her hand every time. (I admit that most of her improvement is not in English, but she comes to like English and build self-confidence, I think it is the greatest effort for her and I believe she can study any subject well)


In my class, I didn’t just teach them so many new words or just ask them read words after me. Every time, I made them pronounce new words and expressions by themselves and I just helped to correct them and gave them some good suggestions. In my opinion, it is valuable to teach students how to do than ask them to do. And sometimes I encouraged them to be a teacher or act some dramas if they wanted or they liked. If all of them did good jobs, I gave them some small gifts. I just want them to know I love them and I pay much attention to them. In their exercise-books, I wrote many encouraged words, such as “You did a good job!” “Come on, boy/girl!” and so on. At the same time, I encouraged their monitor so much, because I find he is a good and self-confident boy. He can influence his classmates and he clearly wanted to encourage everyone. He often told me: “Please believe in us, we can all do better!” I believe him and his classmates.


I think the most important aspect of this research was that I changed myself a lot. I didn’t sound sharp, I smiled more and more during my teaching, I used different methods to draw students’ attention, and I regarded them as my little brothers and little sisters. I think love can change anything. In order to do this research well, I also read some relevant articles, such as Where Principles Come First (Section A, Unit 3, Book Three, New Horizon College English), and. I like the sentence:


“…if you teach students to merit such values as truth, courage, integrity, leadership, curiosity and concern, then academic achievement naturally follows.” (The New Horizon College English).


It made me know that a teacher’s focus on his or her teaching process should encourage students and teach them good merits. In The New Curriculum of English, one of the targets is that teachers should pay attention to students’ motivation, interest, confidence, co-operation, patriotism and world-vision. From psychology, I know how to understand students and how to deal with the ‘generation gap’ between us. These two books guide me how to go on my research and how to solve the problems in my research.


4. Who can help me and how?

Students in my research class were able to give me more help. They were able to believe me, and they wanted to tell me their “secrets”. A girl told me that she was not good at music but painting, and she wanted to give up studying. I gave her many examples to encourage her to go on with her work. They subsequently attended each English class on time and paid a lot of attention to me. I was very glad that no one was late to my class and no one slept or chatted in my class. Every time I asked them to do exercises, they did their utmost. They were able to finish their homework very well. Although their grammar and structures were poor, they did their homework on handwriting and spelling carefully. They wanted to communicate with me, and they were willing to tell me anything they wanted. They could help me do my action research. When I asked for their advice to invite other colleagues to attend my class, they agreed with me happily and cooperated with me very well.


Dr. Laidlaw attended my class twice and took a lot of notes (on 23rd November, 2004 and on 7th December, 2004). She gave me useful and precious advice, such as:


Your strident, sharp voice seems inappropriate. It sounds as if you are angry a lot of the time…Smile more… Offer more opportunities for group work and pair work to the students… Watch your living contradictions… and so on. When I read her notes, she could explain some details patiently. And we often discussed my teaching methods and my action plan in spare time. According to her advice, I changed and corrected some improper methods in my teaching process and action research. Now I think I improved myself a lot. And she also invited me to attend her class (on 13th December 2004), and gave me a chance to express my thoughts on her student’s teaching. Here I should thank her very much. And I think she is a very kind and polite teacher. In this class, she said “Thank you!” and “Thank you for your question!” a lot. She was very patient. In our (Chinese) eyes, even if it was a very simple or even a stupid question, she still praised her students. How to be a really good teacher is a difficult question. She planned so many appropriate games to play in the classroom. For example, when the teacher asked a question, many students liked shouting out whether they were right or not. She solved it very easily and with flair. I admire her very much, and I learned so much from her teaching.


Because of the same topic, Mr. Liu Binyou gave me many valuable suggestions. At every AR meeting, he discussed our topic, process and methods with me. According to his understanding and experience, he told me which was suitable method for teaching and how to solve problems in class. When I told him my methods in research, he told me that I need change my title into, “How can I help my students enlarge their vocabulary by speaking?” I asked him how to do if students didn’t like speak English, he told me I should change my method to get students’ attention to English and I should encourage them to speak a lot. Didn’t care about whether they were right or not anytime. I took his advice, and I found it was suitable for me and my students.


Other colleagues who wanted, attended my class or invited me to attend their classes and this also helped me a lot. They suggested good methods for teaching and advice for doing action research and they also encouraged me to go on with my research. Miss Sun Xiaochong and Miss Liang Yanyan told me:


“Miss Hao, you are a good teacher, we like your methods on teaching. You are an active person”.


Miss Liu Yan told me, “Miss Hao, you did a good job but you must pay attention to your voice, sometimes it sounds not very well.” And she also invited me to attend her class and showed an active class to me. They are all good colleagues.


5. How do I know it has improved?

According to the students’ actions and their participation in English classes, I know they have improved. Because at the very start, there was no one wanting to answer questions, but now, in each class they have become more active. At the very beginning, on one was raising their hand to answer questions, although I felt they knew the answers. From November on, they became active, they wanted to answer voluntarily, and they were able to correct my mistakes. In unit 4, when I explained some new words to them, I said: “We can use ‘encourage’ as a phrase, it should be ‘encourage somebody to do something’.” At that time, Guo Xixi, a lovely girl, told me firmly: “Miss Hao, from the text, I find it should be ‘encourage somebody to do something’.” , and she pointed to the sentence “Both parents and schools should encourage children to have hobbies.” to me. I admired her very much, and I found they had prepared the lessons very carefully. I always told them: “If you want to challenge others, you must challenge yourself.” I think they did this very well.


All of them wrote letters to me. From these letters, I know they have different improvement. Someone said he felt he has grown. For example, Yang Ruizhi said:


“Although I only made little progress in English, I find I have grown. I know how to be a student in the college from your class.”


Someone said she became harder than before, like Qiao Hongrui. She is good at English, but she did not learn after class; she said:


“Miss Hao, I like English very much, but to be honest, I am lazy. But you encourage me so much, now, I would like to learn English by myself and I find my oral English is better than before.”


I think these are all improvements, and they can help me go on in my research. And I am grateful to them for their feedback and encouragement to me. I hope all of them can pass the final exam, and they can help me go on my action research during next term.


Thank you for reading my report.