How can I attract my students' attention educationally? by Ma Li Juan

CECEARFLT, Ningxia Teachers University, Guyuan 756000

Draft, May 2006.

    My context

I was a student in Foreign Language and Literature Department of Ningxia University ten months ago. And now I am an English teacher in Guyuan Teacher's College. I feel very lucky that I could choose my favorite major and engage in teaching it after my graduation. When I was young I dreamed of being a teacher in the future. Teaching is such an admirable cause I thought. Therefore, with great excitement and strong enthusiasm I came to Guyuan Teacher's College, and determined to be a qualified and acceptable teacher in my students' eyes.

 What is a qualified and acceptable teacher? As Moira Laidlaw said in A Handbook of Communicative English Methodology for The New Curriculum in China (2005):

The mark of a good teacher in this methodology is one who learns flexibility in managing the learning of all the students in the classroom. (p.5)

Different students have different needs of learning, and:

a good teacher should constantly adjust their methods and materials on the basis of their identification of the local needs of their students (Tarone and Yule, 2000).

So I sought a teaching style to suit the range of learners in my classroom. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to engage in AR one month after I came to Guyuan Teacher's College. AR helped me to know more about teaching and learning. According to Moira Laidlaw (2005):

'[We need to think about] some rules for the New Curriculum ... as everything you do in teaching, will be determined by what it is the students are expected to be able to do. What they are able to do will depend on your flexibility, initiative, insight, knowledge and interpersonal skills. (p.8)

More than a process of imparting knowledge to students, I realize that teaching is such a challenging endeavour, which, when coupled with enthusiasm, also requires my imagination, creativity and devotion.

What is my concern?

My chosen class for my research is from the PE department. Quite a large number of students in the PE department come from the mountainous areas, and therefore, English hasn't seemed very important in their eyes. Many students gave up English when in middle school. Consequently their knowledge in English is comparatively limited. When I asked them to give a self-introduction in our first class, I found just a small number of them were able to articulate, and express themselves or pronounce anything appropriately. Nearly half of them were not even able to open their mouths and say something in English. At that moment, I felt lost: how could I give any lessons to those students? Through some subsequent individual talks with students and self-evaluation from them, which were often expressed by me as questions like "What do you think about English?" "Do you think it is useful for you?" "What would you like to obtain from English class?" I concluded from their original words as follows (exact transcriptions of which can be found in my data archive (Ma, 2006):

1.      All of my students are not English majors. In some of their eyes, English is not important, or they are not interested in it, so they will not try to involve themselves in class.

2.      They are very tired after daily physical exercises, so it is easy for them to fall asleep in classroom, esp. in an English class when they cannot understand what I am saying.

3.      Some of them have totally given up English, English means nothing to them, and they don't care about it.

After realizing all of these aspects were affecting the learning in my class, I saw a difficult project in front of me: how could I make my class improve? I concluded it would be difficult and challenging, but I wasn't going to avoid the problem. I made up my mind to try to solve the difficulties facing us. As a teacher, I shouldn't give up on my students even if they have given up on themselves. I should make them feel English is worthwhile, and accept it, be interested in it, even be eager to learn it. To fulfill my goals, I realized the very first step was to make my students in my class know there could be something more interesting in English besides dull vocabulary and grammar. Therefore, my AR question became: How can I attract my students' attention educationally?

To attract my students' attention educationally, the ways I have used the phrase here means to make my students pay attention to what I was saying and involve themselves more appropriately in the class. Four students, Zhang Yaping, Ma Zhen, Wang Xuerong and Wang Liang were my main concern in the class. There are reasons why I chose the four students to do my research with: during individual talks Zhang Yaping said he had given English up when in middle school, and did not care about English now. Wang Liang said he was not interested in English. In self-evaluations from Ma Zhen and Wang Xuerong I got to know they were interested in English but it was very difficult and frustrating for them to learn it.

 What have I done to attract students' attention educationally in my class?

With the above aim in mind, I began to search for feasible ways to attract my students' attention educationally in class. I asked for advice from colleagues who were more experienced about their methods than me. I visited their classes and asked their students' opinions about what they were doing.  All the methods are put together as follows:

1.       Encouragement 

What the encouragement here means to encourage students to be self-confident, and make them believe in what they can do but not despair about what they cannot yet do.

In other words, a student's performance will be described in terms of what s\he can do, rather than what s/he can't. Under the old curriculum, students (and teachers) were often measured by what they couldn't do, rather than what they could do. The New Curriculum hopes to encourage teachers and learners through celebrating what it is people are capable of, rather than pointing out what they can't manage. It is a much more optimistic and practical way. (Laidlaw, 2005, 11.)

On 20th October 2005, I visited Dr. Moira Laidlaw's class, from which I learnt that encouragement was so vital in urging silent students to stand up and speak out their opinions. Quickly I put it into practice in my class. I was strongly impressed by the class when I first tried to encourage my students. When I asked: Who would like to read the paragraph? as usual, they simply kept silent. For the first time, I tried to encourage them with friendly eye- contact, smiles and facial expressions, while saying words of encouragement like, "who would be brave enough to be the first volunteer? I am waiting for you. It is a good chance for you to practice and show yourself," and then gave students time to develop their own courage. What I did next was wait carefully and patiently for their reaction. A wonderful thing happened. One student stood up, so I applauded him. Then every time after my encouragement there would be a student standing up. By the third time there were three students standing up at the same time. To my surprise, Tian Youcai stood up twice to read a paragraph, and he had always kept silent in my class before. At that time, I felt very sorry that before this class I had assumed the boy would inevitably refuse to open his mouth in my class, but I was wrong.

In another class, the text we were learning was a dialogue between a daughter and her mother. For this part, I said I needed two students to read the paragraph, one to be the daughter and the other to be the mother. Four students stood up at the same time, including two boys. After the two boys had read the conversation, I said:

'You two made it difficult for us to imagine it is a conversation between a daughter and mother, but a son and dad.'

Everybody was laughing at that moment and I felt the air in the classroom was very comfortable for I know my sense of humor reinforced their relaxation and careful confidence especially for the two boys. After that class, I asked my students to write something impressed to me. Wang Liang wrote this:

老师,当我回答完你的问题,不管是好是坏,你都会笑着说 Good! Wonderful! 知道吗?这对我是非常大的鼓励,所以我就更有勇气起来回答问题了.

(My dear teacher, every time when I answered your question, whether it was good or not, you always smiled: Good! Wonderful! You know this is a powerful encouragement to me. I will be braver to stand up and answer your question.)

I was so surprised that such a few encouraging words could mean so much to my students and that this alone might build up their self-confidence and gradually help them to open their mouths. Furthermore, I affirmed the importance of encouragement and the necessity of humor for improving the atmosphere in my class.

2.    Humor, friendliness and forcefulness

19th October, 2005, Moira Laidlaw observed my class, and in her notes she wrote:

I like your manner with the students. It is humorous, friendly and interesting.

In every class, I placed stress on creating a comfortable atmosphere for my students. I took music to class very often, especially on sleepy days when it was dark and gloomy. Pop and rock music are very effective in cheering students up I find. When there was music with a strong rhythm I asked them to beat time or dance. On one occasion, I was deeply impressed that many students were dancing in class following Xie Tao.

 It is very common for some students not to work very well in the class. Sometimes if they were sleepy, distracted, chatting with desk mates, reading novels, or something like this, when I noticed such behaviour, I wouldn't be angry with them, but try to use a communicative way to recall their attention. Once Zhang Yaping was reading a novel during my class, so I stepped up to his desk to hint to him several times, but it seemed that he was not aware of the chance I was giving him to put the book away without my commenting on it. At last, at the time when all the other students were discussing something with their desk-mates I took the book out from his drawer without the others noticing, looked through it and returned it without saying anything. It worked! He concentrated his attention on the class again and I made eye-contact with him to suggest that I was not angry with him but content with his later action. To my pleasure, Zhang tried his best to cooperate with me, when I asked someone to read the paragraph, in fact he put his hand up, instead.

In her notes Moira also pointed out:

Stop standing at the blackboard all the time, and walk around. This is the most efficient way of getting to know students.

This made me think more about my actions. From that day on, many times during class, I stood at the back of the class to show I did care about the students on the back rows. Yu Feilong sat at the back every class, and quite often I stood beside him, so I was able to hear he was trying to say something more to show his efforts to me.

Another means I adopted was that when I found someone was distracted, I would call their name to force them to answer my question in order to recall their attention, which was repeatedly useful in my class.

3.    Making myself easily understood

From the notes some students wrote to me, I learnt that a large number of them believed that because of their poor basis in English, it would be difficult for them to catch my meaning in class. Therefore, they would fall asleep sometimes. When talking together, colleagues who were teaching college English reflected this problem, too. They said their students frequently complained to them that they could not understand the teacher's words. This is a critical and common problem for students who are not majoring in English.

Consciously, I slowed down my speaking speed, and repeated as often as possible in class. From my perspective, some Chinese is necessary in an English class. When listening to English, students have to concentrate their minds in order to catch the words and seek for the meaning in their minds. For a long time, it really can make them tired and even frustrated. From my observations, I found when I suddenly spoke in Chinese after a long period of English, all eyes would look up and focus on me, especially when I said something that had occurred outside class. I could see more relaxed experssions on their faces. From this I have concluded when managing classroom activities, Chinese is sometimes needed to make students clear about the rules and purposes. Referring to language points, such as grammar, Chinese is efficient to facilitate students' understanding.

4.  Saying something more outside class

I got to know that my students were eager to acquire knowledge of English countries, so I tried to spice my class with cultural information. For instance, when teaching a new word culture, I related stories to show cultural differences in different countries. On this point, Zhang Yaping who had asserted he does not care anything about English, raised a question: is there any difference in showing love between China and America? Others were laughing at the question, but it was obvious that they were quite interested in it, so I related stories of a couple that were my teachers when I was at university. I was quite sure, at that time, everybody was listening to me and no one was sleeping!

Sometimes I also talked about my experiences in learning and daily life, and my students seemed very willing to share theirs. Something else arose about a new word, 'embarrass'. When teaching it I told them about my embarrassing experience and my friends' too. Some of the students were trying to have the floor before the others in a rush to share their embarrassing stories! When they had difficulties in relating in English, I encouraged them to use a combination of English and Chinese. Wang Xuerong and Gao Xia achieved it very well. Wang Xuerong described the story like this::

'When we have a PE class, a boy 扯了他trousers ( a boy's trousers were torn in an PE class.)

Gao Xia said:

'Yesterday when I go shopping, I shouted to a man, when he looked at me I found我认错人了. (I went shopping yesterday. I shouted to a man but when he turned back and looked at me, I realized I mistook him for one of my old friends.)

5.       Games, Competitions among groups

(1)   Writing words on blackboard by turns

To do this activity, I would divide the whole class into 3 or 4 groups by their seats, and divide the blackboard into parts for every group. The rules were that every group came to the blackboard at the same time and wrote any words they knew, one by one. Then we checked the group had written the most and the most correct after a set time would be the winner.

(2)   Passing words from ear to ear

Similarly, to do this activity, I did not need to arrange the furniture. Seats from each row could become a group. First I would show a word on paper to the first student, and then the word was passed on from ear to ear. The winner should be the group that had finished it in the shortest time and the word the last member received should be exactly the same as the one shown on the slip of paper.

These kinds of classroom activities were apparently easily accepted by students. Everyone was able to do it whether or not they were good at pronunciation or expression. In order to win the competition, I saw everyone became very active and tried his or her best to run to the blackboard and write the words in as short a time as possible. To my satisfaction, Zhang Yaping and Wang Liang were so excited, they ran to the blackboard very quickly and wrote several words. Zhang wrote the words I you my, Wang wrote the words one he. The words they write were simple but I saw excited smiles on their faces.

6.       Pair work or Group work

After Moira's observation of my class, she pointed it out to me:

You are a very gifted teacher using teacher-centered methodologies. ­However now, the NC requires teachers to enable students to move from competence to performance. In a students-centered classroom, it is the students' learning that is at the centre. Why not ask the students to work in pairs or groups and ask you questions about the text?

Realizing this was a serious problem, I tried to divide my students into groups and asked them to discuss something on a particular topic. To my frustration, it seemed that my students were not willing to have free-talks in groups. I walked around and urged them group by group, one by one, but they just sat and stared at each other. Actually, some groups were discussing something, and when I listened to it, to my disappointment, they were talking about something else. After some encouragement and urging, the result still wasn't very encouraging. I racked my brains for a solution to this problem. One day an idea struck me. On an exercises-class, I assigned different exercises to various groups, and asked them to check the answer in groups, and then give a set answer after a specific period of time. To my satisfaction, the correct answer achieved a higher level; I even managed to get some excellent answers. For example, once students were discussing translation of a sentence in groups:

A wise man thinks all that he says, a fool says all that he thinks.

After discussion, Ran Longbo's group gave a wonderful translation, which was much better than mine: 智者说话深思熟虑,愚者说话脱口而出。

My translation: 智者说话思其所言,愚者说话言其所思。

What's more important, I found everyone was involved in checking answers with others. Some students who had finished the exercise were able to help the students who hadn't. I got to know later in an AR meeting that this is called peer-evaluation. In the New Curriculum document (Beijing, 2005), the fifth of the five basic concepts says: using different evaluative methods in order to develop learning.

7. To the text-book         

When giving examples of sentences with a new word, to render it an easy sentence, I read it and asked my students to try their best to interpret the meaning and translate it. To make sure everyone concentrated their minds on it, I heightened my speaking tone and said: 'my boys and girls please pay attention to my next sentence, let's see who can give us a good translation.' Repetition here was necessary. For difficult sentences, I wrote them on the blackboard and gave indications and translated with them together. Sometimes we would guess a word's meaning, which was very funny. For instance:

At a snail's pace

I told them a snail is a kind of animal. What is it? Please guess. I found my students used their imaginations freely and they seemed fond of guessing. The names of many kinds of animals came out of their mouths. When I came to the next new word, first I would ask them to read the word by themselves. Not only did it attract their attention to the next word, but also it gave them a chance to practice and evaluate their pronunciation-skills. When teaching the context, I would like to ask them to read by themselves at first and then say something about the paragraph. After the reading, Ma Zhen and Gao Xia very often were able to say detailed information from the paragraph, which was helpful for others in understanding. To a paragraph beginning with these two sentences:

Soon they departed, in a borrowed car. With money loaned by the groom's brother, they could afford a honeymoon,

Ma Zhen translated the sentences very exactly, and then I asked what other information you got from the paragraph?

Wang Liang said: They are too poor.

I was very satisfied with the answer, because from it I saw he was really thinking about the meaning appropriately.

l       Results so far

1.     Here is some students' feedback

Wang Liang:

老师每节课的耐心和宽容的笑脸让我深受感染,老师放心,以后上课我一定认真听讲。(I am deeply infected by your patience and smile. Believe me, I can involve myself in your class in future.)

Luo Xiaodong: 老师的课非常有意思跟别的课完全不一样就是听不懂。(Your interesting class is so different from others but it is difficult for me to understand.)

Yu Feilong:

自从学习英语我就很少在英语课上不睡觉的,但是现在在你的课上我不睡觉了,老师的课很受欢迎希望继续努力(Rarely, I did not sleep in English class before, but now the situation has changed. We are contented with your class, keep on working hard.)


Zhang Yaping:

我对老师每节课刚开始那一部分的对课外知识的介绍非常喜欢,我开始慢慢喜欢英语了。(I like the introduction of English countries at the beginning of every class. It is gradually making me interested in English.)

2.     Some students who had affirmed they were not interested in English now began to speak and concentrate on the blackboard.

3.     Some students no longer avoid eye contact with me: they seem to see me with eagerness.

4.     No body falls asleep in my class. I am quite self-confident in claiming this.

l       Conclusion

After an action research on the subject I found following ways are useful in attracting students' attention.

1.       Encouragement

From my research I found if a student's action in class was praised and applauded s\he would try her\his best to be better afterwards. Besides encouragement, to make a student speak out depends on teacher's sensitive observation. Some students would not be brave enough to put up their hands or stand up themselves, but you can see they were really had own ideas in their minds. At such moment, they seemed having sense of attempting or looking at you, you can call their names.

2.       Teaching in a communicative way 

I found Moira's advice in her handbook useful when teaching my class. She wrote:

We believe that the teacher's own enthusiasm about his\her subject is what motivates students the most. ­ Your enthusiasm should not only be communicated about the subject, but also about your students, about your pleasure in spending time with them because they are worthwhile people. If you show this in the way you act with the class, they will learn to trust you and to expect fairness from you. (op.cit.)

To some extent, the teacher's mood does affect the students' interaction in class. So I try to make the air in classroom comfortable, such as playing music. A friendly air in class is also important to gain students' trust. When there were some students naughty, I have never appeared angry, even actually sometimes I restrained my anger. Because I know they are adults now, there have a strong self-respect and self-consciousness in their heart, so I mustn't compel them to take part in my class but encourage them. Just as I did in recalling Zhang Yaping's attention to my class from reading a novel, I must find ways to help all the students feel useful and valuable members of the class and be friendly with them. 'Friendly' here also means being considerate towards every person in the classroom. It seems that the students sitting at the back were the ones who were not very willing to become involved in class or had worries about learning. Usually they were simply being ignored, so I believe as teachers we should consider more about them, such as stepping away from the platform and standing amongst them. In the notes Dr. Moira gave me about my class on 19th October, 2005, she asked me questions:

The girl sitting right at the back to your left on the aisle way in white, she has got a cold. She's listening well and smiling at you. Are you smiling back? Do you see all the students in your classroom? Sometimes, teaching is about looking and thinking and feeling about your students. Try to get inside their heads and hearts in order to understand what the lesson feels like to them. Do you know how they feel? If you don't, why not?

 These questions recall me to a sense of consideration. Every student in a classroom is a unique person: they have different moods, they are at different levels of learning, so it is impossible to treat everyone the same. There is an anonymously-authored poem in English, which ends:

Before I teach you, I must first reach you.

This expresses brilliantly, in my opinion, the role of a teacher. The NC guidelines are very precise about this as well. The NC documentation, in the spring of 2005, states that teachers need to get to know their students as individuals, in order to promote independence in learning, and pay attention to the students' individual emotions and feelings as a springboard to development. It is necessary to observe students when giving class, and ask questions in your heart:

-         Is s\he bored?

-         Dose s\he find the work too difficult? (Do I need to think about the language I am using in my explanations? Should I use a little more Chinese, or a little more English? Should I be writing more\less on the board? Should I be using more pictures to help some students follow the learning better?)

-         Should I make opportunities to find out how much is this student understanding?

-         Are my teaching methods suitable for this student?

-         Could I present the material in a different way for different students, to help support individuals' particular learning styles?

-         Is student X unhappy?

-         Should I be strict or understanding with this student?

(Laidlaw, 2005)

These questions are so subtle because there is no generalisable answer. However, if I bear the above questions in my mind, this might help me work more efficiently with my students. I believe it would give my students a feeling of been considerate and discourage disruptive behaviors from starting.

What's more, sometimes being forceful is necessary to attract students' attention. When finding someone was distracted, calling them by name, and asking them questions, was really helpful in reminding them to concentrate.

3.       Color the content of class

I have heard one extremely experienced and very competent teacher of English said:

Even if I were using a text I had written myself only last year, I wouldn't use it without modification.

This means that English teachers should be observed busily developing change or creating additional material for their students. From the notes students wrote for me I learnt that they were curious about western countries. So I usually began every one of my classes with an English saying, a story from world literature or something about western culture. There is an old saying in China, that a good beginning is half the battle. So beginning the class with such things seemed a useful way to create a conducive atmosphere for learning. For example, when I showed an English saying to them, firstly, I would let them discuss it and give a good translation, which was really helpful in warming students up and assuring appropriate actions later on.

'The aims of learning a foreign language are not to be limited to mastery of the knowledge and skills in the foreign language.­ Through learning a foreign language, 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.' (VSO, 2005).

I take this now, after my research process, to mean that to be a professional teacher is it very important for me to make my class enjoyable by my students and never a burden. Therefore, bringing something from outside classroom into my class can be helpful in attracting my students' attention and building their interest in English.

4.       Classroom activities

Careful management of classroom activities was important in making the whole-class-feel involved in the lesson. Whatever I was doing with them the activities should be varied. I believe if one always does the same thing in the same way, the students will get bored. What I always do in my class is conducted through pair or group work, games and competitions. Especially, playing games and having competitions among groups seem effective ways to relax students and cheer them up.

5.       Critical thinking

The last way of attracting students' attention I wanted to mention is I have found how important it is to keep students thinking all the time and cultivate their critical thinking capacity. Critical thinking has become an important criterion in the New Curriculum guidelines and teachers are expected to promote critical thinking in every aspect of their teaching. When teaching new words, let your students guess the meaning of some new words in your example. As to the text, ask them to read by themselves, then say what information they are able to get from the passage and raise questions by themselves. These two ways I have found to be necessary in helping me achieve a student-centered class. What's more important, if they are thinking all the time they will always concentrate on the class.

l       My claim

It is time to end my first action research. From the process of doing the research, I gained many valuable things. I am aware that, to be a teacher one should be responsible for her/his students and oneself.

AR is worthwhile in my experience. The process of thinking out a new way of teaching and trying it out is a process to make my teaching wiser, more systematic and enjoyable. AR is a process of teacher's self-evaluation and helpful to improve teacher's professional skills. Just as Professor Jean McNiff (2005) said:

It is important to help teachers to make self-improvement in order to make students learn better.

It is a truth that no two English classes are ever the same. The process of educating requires teachers to use their own intuitive awareness that there is not one fixed methodology, which will work with all students, and that there is not one set of materials which will guarantee successful learning for all. As teachers we should never stop learning as we teach. We should be creative and imaginative. We should seek various way of teaching in order to make the class more interesting and effective.

During the process of doing the research, I have established a good relationship with my students. What a teacher also should be is considerate. The basis of the progress I have made can be summed up by the phrase 'an educative relationship between teachers and students'. This happens when you know more about your students. I have some findings about it, and this really interests me because I believe it's crucial to the development of my living educational theory, so my next AR will begin with the question: How can I establish a more educational relationship with my students?

l       Bibliography

1.       Elaine Tarone & George Yule (200), Focus on the Language Leaner, Shanghai: Foreign Education Press

2.       Colleagues from China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research (2004), A Handbook of Communicative English Methodology for The New Curriculum in China, Ningxia: Guyuan Teachers College

3.       Moira Laidlaw etc. (2005), Handbook One 'From Competence to Performance: English-Teaching Methodology for The New Curriculum in China, Ningxia: Guyuan Teachers College

4.       Moira Laidlaw (2005), Notes from the Observation of Ma Lijuan's Class on 19th, October, 2005

5.       Michael P. Breen & Andrew Littlejohn (200), Classroom Decision-Making, Shanghai: Foreign Language Education Press

6.         Jean McNiff, Pamela Lomax & Jack Whitehead, (2002), You and you action research project, London and New York: Hyde Publications.

7.         VSO, Beijing (2004), 'What's new in the New Curriculum?' VSO Newsletter, March.

l       Acknowledgement

Firstly, I would like to express my deep appreciation to Dr. Moira Laidlaw, who has helped me a lot with my research. Under her guidance, I fixed my research direction and set about carrying it out. Her devotion to the cause of education in this area and warm-hearted enthusiasm urged me to go on when I was frustrated in the process of my research. Secondly, I want to refer to my lovely students whom I did the research on. Thanks for their cooperation and useful suggestions. What's more, my colleagues and members in the Beginners Group have helped me a lot through their follow-up to observations of classes and weekly communications in our AR meetings.