How can I improve my students' writing ability? MaYangui,

Hui Zhong, Haiyuan. April, 2006


The Hui Zhong is now a senior school with over 100 teachers and more than 2000 students from different nationalities. It lies in the south of Haiyuan town of Haiyuan county next to the city of Guyuan, Ningxia Province in China. But it used to be a small junior school, set up in 1980 by the government for Muslim children to be educated well in Haiyuan county where more than one hundred and ten thousand Muslim people lived. The aim was to increase the development of the Hui nationality's culture in this area, in order to improve the home, social, and moral environments of Hui people. Short as the Hui Zhong's history is, it has educated thousands of graduates, of whom some are outstanding such as Tian Fengjun (director of the English Department of Guyuan Teachers College  - and soon to be Ningxia Teachers University ), Tian Yuming (Shi Shuqing is his pen name, a famous novelist of such works as "Bitter Spring in mind ", and "The Knife Dipped in Pure Water"). Some graduates are at work in various fields in China. I am also a graduate of this school and I have the job of teaching here. I liked the thought of the job when I was in senior grade, so after graduating from the English Department of GTC, I've been working on teaching in our county for nearly 20 years and have tried to keep up with the latest methods of teaching to improve my students' English studying ability. With the current changes – for example, the innovation of a New Curriculum - it is now very important for the students to develop their abilities, so I think I should find a way to help them learn English well. Professor Moira Laidlaw came and introduced us to Action Research.


My students in Senior Grade One come from different Junior schools in our county and their essential English levels differ. When I started with them, half of them could not even write out an entire English sentence. Moreover, it was my duty to be their English teacher for three years, so I wanted to help them improve their English, especially when in three years' time they would need to have a good score in the English examination for college-entry in China. Some time ago Professor Moira Laidlaw visited our school, and over time introduced Action Research to some of the teachers in the English department. I believed this constitute my best chance to improve my students' fundamental English level so I chose the topic, 'How can I improve my students' English writing ability?' as my Action Research?


After several quizzes about students' writing during the first term in Senior Grade One, I found that half of my students' English writing was very poor, and although they had learnt lots of English words and phrases, they were not able to use them to make a correct sentence. The following from their exercise books are typical of their mistakes:


¤        in Class 6 Grade One this year.

¤        I father is a farmer.

¤        I'm usually get up at 6:00 in the morning.

¤        She have gone to Guiling twice.

¤        My classroom has seventy students.


Because of this worrying level of performance, I decided to talk to some of my students so that I could find out about their English studying and learning methods. Their names are Feng Xingang, Zhou Penglong and Li Xiaohui. The following represents our conversation in which I had prepared my questions beforehand (I made notes about their answers):


T: Do you like learning English?

Ss: (mentioned above): Yes

T: Do you think English is very interesting or not?

They (all): very interesting 

T: How do you think of learning English and why?

(Li): very interesting but difficult to learn. Because it is a foreign language for us.

(Feng): I like learning English very much, but I have difficulty in learning it.

Especially in writing ability. Perhaps I need some help.

(Zhou): I enjoy learning English, and know that learning English well will be very

useful to me in the future. 

T: What was wrong?

(Li): I started learning it in Junior school in the countryside, at the beginning I found it very interesting to learn English, but later I couldn't remember the English words and often made mistakes in any quiz. Then I spent less time in learning it .(translated by me)

(Feng): I always like learning English and want to learn it well, but each time we had an exam, I always found many errors in it, this gave me a great shock. I couldn't find the reason out.

(Zhou): I thought I could learn English well, however desire is one thing, doing is another one.  Meanwhile I spent much time and energy learning it but usually was afraid of taking any English activities in class in case of making mistakes and being laughed by the other classmates, little by little I was lack of practicing it and failed English quiz or exam each time, especially in writing ability. Thus I lost my heart and confidence. (Translated in my words)


T: Well, which part of learning English do you think is the most difficult--- listening, speaking, reading or writing?

All: Writing

T: Why?

(Li): First I always cannot remember English words' spelling. Second I don't know how to use English words to make sentences correctly. I only got lower mark in writing in each exam.

(Zhou): I think I have learnt lots of English words and phrases, but I don't know how to use them correctly in a sentence and I failed in each quiz or exam because of failure in writing.

(Feng): I think the most difficult part in learning English is the writing ability. I always fail in organizing an English sentence and never have got high score in English exams.


T: Would you like to improve your English writing ability with your English teacher's help?

All): Yes (excited) Li: I'm so glad to hear that. Zhou: It's lucky to have your help, thanks a lot. Feng: I'll give all my thanks to you if I can make any progress.


According to our talk, I didn't believe my students really lost heart in learning English, they actually wanted to learn English and only needed help and encouragement. So in order to help them improve their English writing ability, I made an action plan first:


*¤        To help them set up their learning confidence and overcome fear of English and their learning-difficulties.

*¤        To encourage them to face all kinds of challenges in learning English.

*¤        To help them distinguish English from mother tongue-Chinese, such as 2005,12, Chinese, and December 30th, 2005 in English; Tom Smith in English and Li Xiaoping in Chinese; I'm in Senior Grade One this year in English and I in Senior Grade One in Chi-English; and so on.

*¤        To encourage them to take an active part in English lessons.

*¤        To help them find out some easy, interesting and funny short-story books to read, repeat and so on;

*¤        The teacher should have great patience during the entire period and carefully observe every student's changes. This is the most important first step for these students. Because we know the proverb that is well begun, half done.


What did I do to improve it?

While giving lessons to the whole class, or correcting my students' exercise-books, I sometimes kept an eye on these students in class or after class to find out their advantages, generally by asking them easy and simple questions in class and over time praising them, which seemed to make them happy and feel satisfied.


Here is an example. Once my students and I came to learn a reading part with a few pictures, I first asked them what they could see and whether they could say anything about the pictures. When he or she was able to give the answer, the others and I would clap for his or her doing, he or she looked very happy and satisfied. Their eyes were shining with delight. Because I didn't know whether Action Research could help my students improve their English or not. I only wanted to have a try. This seemed to lead to them doing better the next time in class as well as in their exercise-books. If they did well, I would often write down phrase like: 'You did well. Go on, please'. 'Congratulations!' 'Well done, please, go on.' 'Next time, better,' etc. For instance:


Ma Yulian's English handwriting was very neat in her exercise-book, I gave my praise "Your handwriting is very neat and tidy. I think you can do better from now on ."


In Tian Shiliang's exercise-book, he wrote the following sentences: I heard some people had been killing the rare animals. We should remember that protecting animals is our duty. Below his writing I wrote : you did very well in your writing , and I'm looking forward to your further progress.


After each class or each work-book marking, I and the students usually had a talk about the class or work-book and discussed how they could do even better. When they came across a problem, I first asked them to talk about their opinions, asking them such questions as:


¤        'What do you think about what you've done? Or

¤        'Why did you do so?'  


Then I let them have a discussion. If they could solve the questions posed, I only gave my opinions about the problem(s). Getting the students to evaluate themselves is very much in accordance with the New Curriculum's principle:


'Teachers should find multiple forms of assessment in order to help their students' development.' (VSO, 2004).


By getting students to take more responsibility for their learning, I wanted to help them learn more effectively. Day after day, they seemed to find our communication easier and they said I was kind. Some of them even dared talk to me in English. At first we just talked, no matter whether their use of language was right or wrong. For example, students would introduce themselves spontaneously.


Feng Xingang: My name's Feng Xingang, I in Senior Grade One. We have seventy students in my class. We study Chinese, Mathematics, English, Politics, Physics, Chemistry and so on.


Zhou Penglong: I'm Zhou Penglong. I'm from a part of Haiyuan. I like very much to learn English. But I know my English is poor, and always make mistakes. I don't know how I to learn it and can make progress.


Gradually, however, I found their mistakes became fewer and fewer, which made me so comfortable and happy. It seemed a good start, so I realized I should go on with this method. Then I started telling them simple and interesting stories, while asking them to repeat them, with the same results as above. For example, I wrote four English words on the blackboard and asked the class to work in groups of four to tell a story, after their discussing and organizing about the story. I asked some groups to tell their stories with their colleagues and they did very well.


For example I wrote "television, blackboard, desk, he" on the blackboard.

Then I asked the students into groups of four and they tried their best to make a story with the words. Here was one of the group's efforts. The four students were Zhou haiyan, Ma Yuexia, Ma Yulian and Tian Jingrong.


Tian Jingrong: in a corner of the classroom stands a TV set .

Ma Yuexia: There is a blackboard on the wall.

Ma Yulian: He is at the desk and watching TV.

Zhou (leader of the group): In a corner of the classroom stands a TV set , and on the right of it there is a blackboard on the wall. He, a newcomer named Tian Jingrong, is sitting at his desk and watching TV.


Then I asked them to write down what they had heard and retell it to the other students in class. Having done this for about two months, I found these students made much progress and liked having English lessons for that they had chances to perform in classes and showed their abilities which were not weaker than the others, Ma Yuexia often took her diary to me to have a correction. The same as the other students such as Liu Yanqing, Caoshan, Ha Yuting, Su Haiying, and so on. They were willing to ask me to give an attention to their written passages and give my comments to theirs. Here was the composition from Feng Xinggang:


What will life be like without animals?

We all know that animals are our friends, especially protecting animals will make the world more beautiful.

These few days, we heard some people killed animals and even ate them, due to some people didn't realize that protecting animals is very important.

Protecting animals is the public's job. We ought to make the people learn about it and protecting our living earth.


 These students gained confidence and interest in learning English. They spent time in reading in the morning self-classes; they became more active in English lessons than before, and wanted to get more chanced to perform than the others; They came to my office more often to have a talk with me about learning English after classes, and some of my students even began to talk with me in English, at the beginning, they felt very nervous. However, they had encouragement to do it, and later they could speak smoothly, for example, the student named Xieqing in Class 6. Her English pronunciation was very standardized and read English very frequently, but her English writing ability was so poor that she couldn't write out a good passage in English. So after four-word story, she found it very useful and helpful to write an English passage, and came to my office with a smile on her face, obviously excited and told me that she had found the way to learn English well, and she made a decision that she would study English harder than before. Every morning she read English for fifteen minutes and in English classes she took an active part in answering the questions the teacher offered and discussing the questions with her group-mates. She also finished her exercise-books and homework by herself. Once she met some difficulties, she came to my office and had a talk with me about her opinion of the problem. She paid more attention to what the teacher said in class and made detail notes, then in her spare time she often would go over her notes in order to grasp every knowledge point. As time went on, she got a high score of 19 in the writing part in an English exam. Here were a paragraph from her writing composition:


You asked my that how to learn English well. I think English is a living language. It is widely used all over the world. More and more people begin to learn English in order to be able to use it freely at work and learn from developed countries.


The following gives us a comparative illustration of this progress about other students:


Before: the following from the students:  

Our classroom have 70 students. (Luo Yupeng)

I have joined the league member for three years. (Luo Yupeng)

I do my homework until 10:00 last night. (Su Haiying)

We class have a meeting in this afternoon.(Li Shuqing)

When he climbing up the hill, he was out of breath. (Su Haiying)


After our work together:

There are seventy students in our classroom. (Luo Yupeng)

I have been a league member for three years. (Luo Yupeng)

I didn't do my homework until 10:00 last night. (Su Haiying)

Our class will (is going to) have a meeting this afternoon.(Xieqing)

When climbing up the hill, he was out of breath. (Li Shuqing)


Here I have to say that more and more students willingly began to practise writing diaries and handed in to correct them. And some even wrote English short articles, and asked me to read them, right them. O.K, let's have a short example from other students.

The one from Ha Yuting:

  I did a survey about our school uniform. I asked some of my classmates what they thought about the uniform. Here is the main report about it.

  50% of them say it is very fashionable and the colour is very nice. They think it neat and tidy, and suits the students. In some student's opinion, when they wear the school uniform they feel equal.

 30% of them don't fond of the school uniform. Some of them feel it uncomfortable and the colour is too dull. Some even consider it old-fashioned. What's more, its style is too simple, lacking personality.

 And the rest has no idea about it. Obey the school rule is the only best choice in their eyes. I think it better to have the school uniform, and we needn't follow the fashion.

Although these students were making progress, I still found they needed my help, because I found they were still unable to organize an English sentence in the right structure, especially in terms of placing the words in the right place. So I encouraged them to make a diary in English. At the beginning, I asked them to write down a sentence about any news or interesting information they had found on any particular day. After a few entries I asked them to exchange their books and correct the others' mistakes. This had the result of showing that most of the poor-writing students did catch up with the well-writing students.


Here is one of their efforts written by Feng Xinggang:


Saturdays are Cool

Our students had a good afternoon today, so did I. Because we were taking our weekend's rest without having any classes. Some students played on the playground, such as basketball, football, PingPang, tennis, volleyball. Some played games, some did washing, I liked playing basketball, so I was active in a basketball match with my schoolmates. I ran, blocked my duty-opponent from shooting a ball into the basket of ours in the match, or I would be punished out of the match, we played attentively and relaxingly.


After supper, I paid a look at the TV news and finished doing my homework, then I went back to the dormitory and fell asleep happily.


After reading it, I was so excited that he had made great progress. Although he made several mistakes in the diary, at once I wrote down the following below his diary-entry:


'Very well-done, you are stepping to success, congratulations!'


In addition, there was another student who was very naughty and poor in writing in English but very clever. His name was Li Xiaohui. He usually fell asleep in my class and I often paid attention to him to find out how I could help him, but he had no idea. However, once in a class in which my students did corrective work, only he did it correctly. It was a good chance for me to encourage him with praising words, such as:


'You see, you did very well. If you work harder from now on, you will succeed. Don't you want to have a try?'


He replied he would try. From then on, he never fell asleep and was attentive to what I taught in class and noted down the main points, such as : the use of the word "famous" in his note book like this: be famous for, be famous as, be famous to, and he even made a sentence: China is famous for the Great Wall. He's famous as a great singer. Gradually he made a little progress from his actions in class, his workbook after class and his scores from tests, and showed thanks to me, for example, in one class, I wrote a sentence on the blackboard "I visited the room which I had lived yesterday." Then I asked the students to decide whether it was right or not. It was the first time for Li Xiaohui to stand up and explain the sentence. He explained:


"I think after the word 'lived', there should be the preposition 'in'. He did it correctly. At the same time, I praised him:


"Well, you are very clever and you did very well, and I am so happy to listen to your explanation. I'm sure you will do better next time, O.K.?"


He said he would. And after class I called him into my office, and I had a good talk with him, pointing out some of his errors, and encouraging him to make much more progress in learning English in the future. He followed my advice and succeeded, for instance, his English handwriting becoming better than before; his attention in class and his work with more care and so on .his score in English exams was a little higher than before. For example, he had never got the score over 35 points, but after our talk, he exceeded his scores and gained 43 points.


After that I was so encouraged that I should keep on my Action Research and I realized that Action Research could help me improve some of my students' interest in learning English. This had been proved from the examples above and I persevered so that my students would get more profit from my doing Action Research.


Well, up to now, I think Action Research has helped my students and me a lot. It is Action Research that makes my students become interested and gain confidence in learning English and does improve their writing abilities. And to me as a teacher, it makes me realize that the Action Research is not only for the top students, but for all of a teacher's students in the class, especially to those who have some difficulty in learning.


Secondly I think it is very helpful to a teacher to accomplish his or her teaching task to increase the learning level of the whole class.


Thirdly it is also adjusted usefully to other subjects of teaching, and probably can improve the teaching quantity of a school, a county, even to the whole of the province of Ningxia.


Meanwhile I think I will keep on to do the Action Research in future, and my next AR is "How can I help to develop my students' English reading ability?" I am choosing this question because if the students read more English articles, they would learn more from them and reading would be helpful to their writing abilities.



Here I would like to show my respect to Professor Moira Laidlaw, as it is she who brought us Action Research and introduced it to us English teachers in detail. So I think her contribution is more than I can describe. All I can say to her is "Thanks very much".



VSO, (2003), 'What's new in the New Curriculum?' in March Issue, VSO Newsletter.


Appendix: Here is my Action Research plan:






one week

manage to know about my students' studying


one week

try to show the importance of learning English


one week

introduce some ways for learning English


two months

manage to develop the habit of learning English


one month

right my students' pronunciation


one  year

right my students' writing