Abstract: Teaching speaking in the class of Integrated Skills put me in an awkward position. I encountered my own "living contradiction" (Whitehead, 1989) which consisted of wanting to build the students' professional ability but not creating chances for them to speak. My students changed their learning from passivity to becoming active users of language. At the beginning their learning consisted merely of reading and trying to remember the sentences or even whole dialogues from the book. It occurred to me that they might not be able to use even one sentence from it although they had been working on it for hours. I felt the urge to do research about it and took appropriate actions. Not being restricted by the dialogue in the textbook, I provided more topics and chances for them to work in pairs, in groups, and to do individual or group presentation, to show likes or complaints, to share joys or cares, to solve problems and take heart. The key point was that they were consciously encouraged to learn the language by using and participating in activities. They were desperately in need of improving their speaking ability. And only the teachers' earnest desire to mend their teaching can stem the heavy anxiety and worry from the students' minds. As a result of more varied methods, the students' ability of speaking along with their active engagement with vocabulary, interest, confidence, thinking ability, etc, were all improved. In doing action research I have varied my teaching-methods and improved the situation.
My Educational Background
I am a teacher in Guyuan Teachers' College, teaching the subject of Integrated Skills of English in Ningxia Autonomous Region, the northwest of China. I graduated from a three-year college in 1991for my first degree and then qualified in a second-Bachelors degree after another 2 years' study in Ningxia University, in English language education. I became a teacher in 1991, teaching junior high from grade one to grade three during 1991—1999 in a country school. Then I moved here in 2001 and began to teach in Guyuan Teachers' College. I have taught English Grammar, Integrated Skills of English and the New Horizon College English to the non-English majors. It was in this college that I encountered Dr. Moira Laidlaw and learned about Action Research with some guidance from Professor Jean McNiff and Dr. Jack Whitehead and as well as from Bath University, Department of Education in England.
I didn't begin my career of teaching with the larger intention of changing the world's education, but what has remained in my memory was my preferences for some teachers who were nice, caring and interesting, and my disgust for those who sought ways to give students physical punishment, leaving marks both on body and heart, and those who subjected students to words of humiliation. What has also remained in my mind is the nightmare about some subjects aroused by some teachers' poor teaching approaches. In my own teaching experiences, the first few years were full of enthusiasm and novelty. However, after using the same text book and teaching the same grade year after year, my work became a routine and I had no idea whether I liked being a teacher or not. Coming to Guyuan Teachers' College and having contact with action research refreshed my mind about teaching.
My Understanding of Action Research and the New Curriculum
"Teaching is guiding and facilitating learning, enabling the learners to learn, setting the conditions for learning." (Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, second edition by H. Douglas Brown). Although I felt happy after a good class and sad after a bad one, I hardly considered seriously about how to change a bad class to make it better. Therefore it was hard to say I was involved in professional development as the years went by. Yet Action Research, with its reflective teaching and student-centred preferences for teaching introduced to us by Dr. Moira Laidlaw and in my readings of Jean McNiff (Action Research: Principles and Practice), and her visit to us last November, as well as guidance from Dr. Jack Whitehead in England, a new mode of classroom teaching was established in my mind and I began to follow its guidance whenever I went into the classroom. After each class or during a certain period in the classroom, words like "Is it student-centred or teacher centred?" "Did the students really learn something?" appeared in my mind and, I believe, in the minds of most teachers in the Department of Foreign Languages Teaching. Action Research has made every teacher here into a researcher.
‘What Action Research stands for is the realisation of human needs towards autonomy, loving relationships and productive work; the urge towards freedom, creativity and self-recreation’. (McNiff, 2002, Action Research: Principles and Practice).
China is currently putting out its "The New English Curriculum". The new rationale is as follows:
Foreign language learning, like other subjects, is part of the overall development of all students. Through learning a foreign language, the students can enrich their experience of life, broaden their world vision, and enhance their thinking skills. Language learning is most effective when students' interest, motivation and attitudes are taken into consideration. Evaluation should be summative and formative and designed and administered to encourage the learners rather to frustrate them. It should be carried out in terms of what students can do rather than what they cannot do.
In this new curriculum, new learning and teaching approaches are required. The new curriculum advocate process-oriented language learning and teaching approaches, such as experiential learning and cooperative learning: students are encouraged to experience the language, learn the language by self-discovery, participate in discussion and negotiation activities. It emphasises the role of positive affective states on the part of the students. It advocates the task-based approach to language learning and teaching: learning by doing and by using the language. It incorporates learning strategy development into the classroom instruction.
The new curriculum brings out a lot of changes accompanied with a new vitality. At the same time, it sets incomparable challenges for teachers. Action Research has prepared our minds and trained our actions to get on the boat of the new curriculum ahead of time. In doing action research in my class, the students are improving their ability to use language. The following is the process of the research I undertook. Throughout this paper, I will point out how, in my research, the New Curriculum is already being implemented in my classroom.
What do I want to improve?
To start with, I will give some information about the text-book structure of Integrated Skills of English. There are three parts in each unit: Listening and Speaking, Comprehension, Extended Activities. The first part is what I have worked on. I started this research from the beginning of the new term in the freshman class in October 2002 and finished it in a year.
My AR question is: How can I help the students to improve their speaking ability in the speaking and listening part in the class of Integrated Skills of English?
Why am I concerned?
I love teaching and I want to be a good teacher. In other words, I want to help the students achieve the goal they hold in their lives; I want to perform what is required of a teacher -controller, assessor, organiser, prompter, participant and resource-provider (Harmer, 1983:201). In the students' three years of studying here, their essential goal is to be able to say what they want to say and the things required of them to be a teacher, so that their fear of the future might be lessened. As a teacher, it is more than an obligation to help them facilitate that ability and prepare them for their future. Yet a "living contradiction" (You and Your Action Research, Whitehead, J. 2002) found its way into my class--- it was hard to say the students were improving their speaking ability because they were hardly speaking. All they did was read or memorise. Would they be able to speak at all fluently or communicate in real situations? Was their confidence for the future being built? Were they learning or was their time being wasted? All those questions are hard to answer if taken seriously and systematically. The more I thought about it, the more frustration and uneasiness I felt. Once, while teaching my class (5), seeing they were so busy reading and trying to remember the dialogue, I had only one sentence in my mind---They may not be able to put one sentence into use later in their natural speech, even though they are spending hours reading it. Thinking of their present hard work, which might result in speech paralysis, I was seized by pain in my heart and inspired with the determination to change the situation (Nov, 11, 2002).
In the book Language Learning Strategies by Rebecca L. Oxford, she writes:
"A more practiced eye, a more receptive ear, a more fluent tongue, a more involved heart, a more responsive mind" are the characteristics we want to stimulate in students to enable them to become more proficient language learners."
Yet my students were only reading and trying to memorise, using their words only with vague applicability. Their minds, most of the time, just seemed to be waiting to be fed. It was hard to say that any other senses were involved, and certainly not that they were learning with interest. They were neither using what they had grasped nor using what they had currently learned from the given dialogue. In a word, they were not improving their speaking ability. Yet speaking ability is so crucial to language learners. It means failure not to have it. There had to be some changes in my way of teaching. Then my question asked itself: How can I help the students improve their speaking ability in the speaking and listening part in the class of Integrated Skills of English?
How did I perform my research?
1. Find the question
According to the outline from Professor Jean McNiff and Dr. Jack Whitehead on making an action plan in action research, (Action Research: Principles and Practice, second edition), I produced my action plan.
l We review our current practice,
l Identify an aspect that we want to investigate,
l Imagine a way forward,
l Try it out, and
l Take stock of what happens.
l We modify what we are doing in the light of what we have found, and continue working in this new way (try another option if the new way of working is not right )
l Monitor what we do
l Review and evaluate the modified actions.
What is the aspect where the "living contradiction" became central in my practice (Jack Whitehead)? It was the aspect which meant I was not really helping the students improve their speaking ability, which was in contradiction to my value of being a good teacher. Although I found co-existing questions, I just needed to focus on the one I was most concerned about and start to work on it. After that insight, I realised I needed to take time thinking about my problem and alter my approaches so that the students would be stimulated, interested, motivated to speak and finally become masters of speaking the language.
2. The search for solutions:
After I had pinned down my question: ‘How can I help the students to improve their speaking ability through the speaking and listening part in the class?’ I needed to find solutions. My colleagues and friends became my helpers. Moira, as the supervisor of our AR work, conducted meetings once a week to help us gain more knowledge about action research and teaching. At the meetings we discussed our problems, gave advice, helped and criticized our ideas. During this time, my knowledge about teaching was expanded and more methods were shared in the process of finding and solving problems. Options like pair work, group work, individual or group presentation, as well as general discussions have become quite familiar and often-used ways. Terms like ‘teacher-centred’, ‘student-centred’, students' participation, confidence, motivation, interest, relaxed atmospheres, encouragement, creativity, etc, were often heard at the discussion meetings. We learned that the focus of the research is ourselves, in company with others (Jean McNiff, 2001, second edition). Here professional development is enhanced through the individual taking initiative and the community cooperating. The challenges from the new curriculum imposed on the teachers are not to be feared but to be explored, especially through the work of cooperation. The professional isolation in action research (Michael J. Wallace, 1998) is ultimately a barrier to professional development. The way that action research is conducted may be helpful for teachers in exploring the new curriculum.
To solve the problem, it became necessary to try out as many ways as possible. As to the new curriculum, I realised that as a teacher, I was most likely to feel frustrated by the desire to find the perfect answer that would settle the matter once and for all. But that's not the case. In terms of how to become a good language teacher Wang Qiang (2000) has said:
"The most important and most difficult part of the making of a good language teacher is the development of professional competence, which is the state or quality of being adequately qualified for the profession, and armed with a specific range of skills, strategies, knowledge, and ability."
As it seems that no one can be full qualified all at once through his/her professional life in this rapidly developing world, development is required in every profession. For a more specific question like mine, I needed to show the process of my development, not just the results of it. In order to help me see the improvements I intended to make, I devised a detailed analysis of my question. To improve from the state of passively taking-in, I wanted my students to become active producers of language. That is to say, to speak out their own minds by using words or phrases they have already mastered. It's not just repeating the given text or reciting the dialogue. They need to have more of a desire to talk, showing more interest, to use more new words and expressions, to carry out more extended conversations, to make fewer grammatical mistakes and to have more confidence in speaking English. My thoughts in these matters were confirmed and affirmed in their significance after seeing the new curriculum. It states:
"Evaluation should be summative and formative and designed and administered to encourage the learners rather to frustrate them. It should be carried out in terms of what students can do rather than what they cannot do."
In my opinion, all the activities teachers arrange in the classroom should also be to encourage what students can do instead of frustrating them by what they can’t do!
3. What did I do?
With the above goal in mind, I began to search for feasible ways from all directions to try to solve the problem. I asked the colleagues who teach the same subject about their ways, visited their classes and even asked the students' opinion about it. The choices were put together as follows.
(1). Read the dialogue and pick out some, instead of all, phrases or expressions to remember.
(2). Retell the dialogue and try to use as many new words and phrases or structures as possible so in order to become familiar with them.
(3). Ask each other what phrases, expressions or sentences they have learned from the dialogue. Create a new situation to use them, even though it may be very short.
(4). Pick any topic related to the given dialogue so that the students feel interested in it, and will have words to say.
(5). Give their opinion about the content of the dialogue, or give the story in the dialogue a different ending.
(6). Use pre-class speech (Duty-report), etc. During one year (March, 2002---July, 2003) of implementing and observing, I have the following outcome.
4. The outcome
Class (5), is what I chose to take notice and four students, Jack D, Bob, Zhang, and Ma were in my main concern because of their poor level and meagre participation. After putting the different methods into practice, I saw the first change in the classroom atmosphere. The students were all engaged in talking with each other or in a group under different instructions according to the content of the given dialogue. It gave me great joy and relief to see them talking instead of reading or memorising. Sometimes I heard laughter among them (December, 2002). It often happened that when the assigned time was over they were still in the mood for talking. I looked at them and thought, "teaching can be very relaxing and enjoyable"(Dec 28, 2002). Then in the next semester when we continued with Book Two, I watched for more outcomes. In an afternoon class on March 24th, 2003, we came to Unit 4 with the conversation about "Childhood". After going through the conversation, I asked them to use some of the phrases and sentences from it to talk about their own childhood. Was it carefree and happy or was it a sad memory? As a result, every one of them was involved in it, either listening or speaking. Ma, a student who used to be a listener only, was then talking in a group with some girls. Bai, a boy who seemed too shy to talk even to his deskmate due to his quite poor English, was talking, although falteringly. I was pleased with their participation: at least they were trying to use English actively.
In Unit 3 with the function of expressing feelings of distress or annoyance, I told them it was a good time to speak about they were unhappy about. After a few seconds, one girl named Ryan stood up and said: "I'm really annoyed by having to get up every morning at six thirty to do morning exercise". Before the laughter ceased, another student followed, "I am tired of looking up hundreds of new words every day". A little varied method has aroused this novel effect. In it I saw more active participation, more interest and more smiles on the learners' faces. I was quite satisfied with what was going on in the classroom. I was sure that their vocabulary was developmental now, while their minds started to search for more words to use. I also found that their ability would improve once they were given chances to speak, especially if the topic was within their life experience. After that, pair work or group work became a natural phenomenon in the classroom. Practice makes perfect was our motto. The best way to speak good English is to speak. For teachers, it is never good enough just to tell students the rules of speaking, or just keep emphasizing how important speaking is, or just encourage them in dozens of ways. I was learning that the most efficient and pratical way was to give them as much time as possible in class to practise speaking itself.
Here I also began to see how working together stimulates thinking and enhances efficiency in studying. The new curriculum is encouraging the students to enrich their experiences of life, broaden their world vision and enhance their thinking skills through learning a foreign language. This is quite to my liking. To make learning merely an object in the learning process may be the cause of the negative results in English study.
"Language learning is most effective when students' interest, motivation and attitudes are taken into consideration." New Curriculum document, Beijing.
Motivation and attitudes may not be obvious in a class. But interest, coming mainly from how the teacher conducts the class, focuses the students' attention or can mean that they put their heads on the desk and become passive. The time for the students to speak in class is more precious than any other time. Through speaking to their partner, they were able to communicate feelings, problems, sharing methods, solving difficulties and exploring life. My research about speaking must emphasise students’ interest, and take cooperation, confidence, ability-building into consideration.
Bob in Class 5 seldom talked, whether in English or Chinese, in class or after class. But in the Unit talking about "My Father", he spoke, coming up with something about his mother. I believe it was his courage and desire to speak that had given rise to this change in him. In Unit 7, Book Two about how pencil sharpeners were invented, he, as well as several others who volunteered, expressed his idea about a person going out picking grass for medicine but having his hand hurt by some kind of sharp-blade grass, which struck him with the idea of inventing the pencil-sharpener. He was the one who volunteered twice when asked to read. His participation in front of the whole class was exciting and encouraging to some others. Just from his voluntary speaking in class I can deduce he is gaining confidence.
Topics related to their own experiences made the class lively, which therefore served to improveme their speaking ability. Sky, whose grammar basis was poor, missed three weeks of class, and was therefore not confident enough to speak in class. She said in a class meeting on March 21 that she and her deskmate had determined to make dialogues without reading from the exercise books. She didn't want to change partners although I thought it would be better for them. I did see that they were talking happily almost every time when assigned to talk about something, despite her grammatical mistakes.
Jack D, a boy whose two deskmates' English level is better than his, is sometimes left reading his book alone, when the other person does not feel it necessary to talk to him. I felt sorry for him but encouraged him to take the initiative by asking questions first. In my notes from March 26, April 16, 20, he was seen sitting side ways, talking in gestures. In the duty-report time (time for free speech), he came up and encouraged his classmates to use different ways to do the duty report. He even gave a little lesson of the different usage of words as an example (Nov 27, 2002). Then he let others ask him whatever questions they wanted to ask (Dec 26, 2002).
Individual evidence in a sense does not account for all the new features of my class. Those chosen students never knew they were in a way special. They were just a small part among the mass who was busy participating. After one teaching demonstration with the other teachers' presence, the students in this less active class presented their speech or anything they had prepared in English one by one, as they often did. What I said after each one was just "More?" The teachers were obviously impressed by it as I heard later. Chances were equally given to all those who wanted to try. And they also had to learn to be responsible for their own study.
5. The ways I used to collect data
1. Teachers' comments:
Tao Rui teaching Integrated Skills of English and English Phonetics, said the following words after visiting my class (May, 23, 2003):
" You have put the theory of student-centeredness into practice. In your class, you give the students almost all the time to speak. Your students were all involved in talking rigorously. They seemed to enjoy talking quite a lot. I'm sure they'll make big progress if they continue talking like that."
Tasha, the foreign teacher here from 2001---2002 teaching Speaking, said: " Very good! You gave them a lot of chances to speak. You are a good teacher" (Nov, 18, 2002)
Lena, teaching the freshman Integrated Skills of English wrote:
"I was deeply impressed by your teaching and benefited a lot from it. First, your pronunciation and intonation provided a perfect model for the students to imitate. Second, your way of teaching varied all the time. Students did pair work or group work more thoroughly and flexibly than any classes I've visited. You gave more chances for them to practice. In your class the students can also have fun in learning. It was somewhat like what we did in the foreign teachers' class, quite helpful. The thing that touched me most was your discipline for speaking. Just like what you said, ' Study is your own thing.You won't have any changes unless you want to change it yourself. Instead of calling names, your students felt urgent to take the chance to show themselves and learn. Though it was hard at the beginning because of their former learning experience, it was critically important and beneficial to help them form such a habit, and, therefore, they could become independent learners later. I think I should apply these good ideas into my later teaching and try to learn more from you. I really appreciate your responsibility of teaching and I'm sure your students will be grateful to you."
Jana Thompson, a foreign teacher who taught Speaking, Culture and Literature, said after visiting my class (April 7, 2003):
"You provided a relaxing environment so the students could be self-motivated to come up and speak before the whole class openly from their hearts. So there was real communication between teacher-students, students-students. They had individual and personal interests. Motivated by that, they used vocabulary from the previous lessons, in which they confessed wrongs, shared dreams, hopes and then received encouragement in return. In this environment, I saw the students communicate as openly from their hearts as any class I've ever seen"
Ms. Zhao, vice-professor in our department who has taught Integrated Skills of English for years, said in one conclusive sentence to another teacher after my teaching demonstration (May 21, 2003), "Very successful!"
Theresa Ma, said after visiting my class on October 3, 2003 that the atmosphere in the classroom was very lively. The students were active. It was surprising for her see all the students were involved in the activity. Later she told me she used my method in her class.
2. Students 's spontaneously-offered comments:
Z JW: Miss Wang's class provides us with many opportunities to speak, more than other teachers I heard of. It is very good to practice our oral English.
G YY: My classmates like what I prepared each time, but I don't have many chances to present because the teacher doesn't call my name. (I assume that the students do have a desire to show their creativity and talent.)
The questions I asked were as the following:
1. Is Miss Wang's teaching of speaking different from other teachers who teach the same part, in what way? (This questionnaire was conducted among my students who were re-divided into different classes.)
2. How did/does she organise the students to talk? Are they helpful? Why?
3. Which one of the following choices is true to you? Put "Y" for yes and "N" for no in the bracket before the sentences.
( ) 1). I was/am given equal chances to speak like everybody else.
( ) 2.) The atmosphere in the classroom was/is relaxing and I didn't/don't feel nervous.
( ) 3. )The topics she chose were mostly interesting and close to my life so I know what to talk about.
( ) 4. )With the many chances provided to speak, I can use some of the new words or phrases I have learned recently.
( ) 5.) I can speak longer sentences and I can talk for a longer time than before.
( ) 6.) I am making fewer mistakes in both pronunciation and grammar than before.
( ) 7.) I have more confidence to speak English than before.
( ) 8 ) Choose from the ( ) and fill in the blank: I have made _______progress in speaking. (a little, some, much)
4. What are some other ways she used that are helpful in improving your speaking ability?
5. In what way do you think she can improve her teaching in speaking?
DXJ: (one of the chosen four) put "Yes" in all the brackets under the 3rd question. He put "much" in the last bracket to say he has made much progress in speaking.
ZXH: (another chosen one) put five "yes" to the brackets and "some" to the last bracket which asks how much progress she has made in speaking. The two "No"s she put was under the statements----The atmosphere in the classroom was relaxing and I didn't feel nervous. ----The topics were mostly interesting so I have words to say. (Under this statement, she put "No" in the bracket but put "sometimes" after the sentence). To a student whose grammar was terribly poor, it was quite honest for her to put two "No’s there, because she has not yet reached the level she desired. I understand that she still felt nervous when I asked the students to volunteer, or to present their dialogue. But at other times she was not, because she and her partner formed the most co-operative group in the whole class.
BPJ: Put "yes" to all the yes-no questions. He underlined the words "atmosphere", "relaxing", and "nervous" in the 2nd statement, and "confidence" in the 7th statement. In the 8th, he chose "much" to fill up the blank, to mean he has made much progress in speaking (although his speaking may still be quite dissatisfactory).
Among the 46 handed-in papers, my way to evaluate it was to find out how frequently certain key words appeared as well as the answers to the yes-no questions. Here are the results.
1. Key words appeared in answering the written questions:
share opinions 9
improve/make progress 9
vocabulary/new words 4
talk about recent life 4
equal chances to challenge ourselves 4
more chances 4
things we want to talk about 3
have more to say 2
opportunity to present 1
express opinion without prepar. too much 1
train ourselves 1
The next is the answers to the yes-no questions: (the 1st number is the number of people who chose "yes" for the answer. The 2nd is the ratio.)
1). I was/am given equal chances to speak like anyone else. (40, 100%)
2.) The atmosphere in the classroom was/is relaxing and I didn't/don't feel nervous. (34, 74%)
3.) The topics were mostly interesting so I have words to say. (33, 72%)
4.) With the many chances provided to speak, I can use some of the new words or phrases I have learned recently. (41, 89%)
5.) I can speak longer sentences and talk for a longer time than before.
6.) I am making fewer mistakes in both pronunciation and grammar than before. (39, 85%)
7.) I have more confidence to speak English than before. (40, 87%)
8 ) Choose from the ( ) and fill in the blank: I have made _______progress in speaking. (a little, some, much)
a little (8, 17%), some (25, 54%), much(13, 28%)
Analysis of the answers:
The answer for the 2nd question (relaxing atmosphere and not nervous)and 3rd statement (I have words to say) is not as ideal as I had hoped. However, I don't regard it as a failure in my research because I believe I actually put too much content in one statement. In the 2nd, I should have just put "The atmosphere in the classroom was/is relaxing", and "I don't feel nervous" as another question. And the 3rd one should be "The topics were/are mostly interesting", and "I have words to say" in a different one.
So, I believe the answers to those two questions were mainly affected by the latter part because they don't feel completely free from being nervous because of their not- ideal- yet level. There's no doubt in my mind that they don't feel as nervous when talking to their own partner or in their own groups. In addition, being limited by their interest or knowledge, they don't have much to say every time. Another reason for the low ratio is that this questionnaire was done among all the students I have taught or I'm now teaching. Eighteen of them have only become familiar with my method over two months. So their answers may not be the result of my methods.
6. My Claim
I didn't use interview as my data because I don't think their answers in front of the teacher hold much water. Maybe my data or evidence is not sufficient enough to make a claim but the above is all I have done. According to the evidence given above, I believe can claim that my situation has changed---the students have improved their speaking ability with my teaching and others' help.
Teaching is learning (Jean, McNiff, 1993). I have learned that I can actually make some changes for the benefit of others.
7. My review over what I have done in action research
Doing action research requires a consistent collection of data, as well as watching for every change in the learners. But during my research, I often forgot to take down notes when I should have. My evidence needs to be strengthened for this paper but the results here are all I can be certain about.
My great thanks to Dr. Moira Laidlaw who has spent her three years here leading us by hand with her pieces after pieces of paper, onto the road of action research for the development of education in China.
9.My new research question
‘How can I encourage the students' creativity in my teaching?’
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Wallace, J., (1998), "Action Research for Language Teacher", Cambridge, England.
McNiff, J., Lomax, P., Whitehead, J., (1996), "You and Your Action Research Project", Hyde Publications, Dorset, U.K..
Wang Qiang, (2000), "A Course in English Language Teaching", Beijing.
Laidlaw, M., (2002), "A Handbook of Communicative Methodology", Guyuan Teachers College.
Whitehead, J., (1989), "How can I improve my practice?"
Zou Weicheng, (1999), "Integrated Skills of English", Beijing.