How can I create a more relaxed atmosphere in my College English class in order to improve learning?

                                                                                                    by Sun Weimin,

            CECEARFLT, Ningxia Teachers University, June, 2006.

I am from a rural and a little remote mountainous area. From 1900 to 1996, I finished my secondary school education in my hometown before I came to Guyuan. At that time, the exam-oriented English teaching and learning styles dominated in the middle school I was attending. Because we never had enough training in oral English and in students' class activities, now I am an English teacher, but my teaching method is quite different from my English teachers who taught me in the middle school. I am adopting communication-oriented teaching styles. I have been teaching English majors and non-English majors for over 7 years since September, 1999 in Guyuan Teachers College. Until I conducted my AR (Educational Action Research in Foreign Language Teaching) with the help of Moira, Dean Tian and my colleagues in the English Department I realized my teaching was so passive. I had little chance to exchange opinions and share experiences with my colleagues to help me deal with some puzzles in my College English teaching. I began my AR in September, 2005. I tried to ask myself some questions after each College English class when I found a majority of students are so inactive when I conduct learner-centred teaching method in class. Over the last few months I have thought and observed carefully.

      Why are the students passive in my class?

      Why do a few students like He Liu Junmei never want to be a volunteer to respond to questions in my class?

      Why are almost all students not willing to be called on in class?

      Why do some students seem to lack self-confidence?

      How can I make them more active?

      Why is my class always out of my control when I do some pair work and group work?

      Why is the teacher-dominated teaching method so apparently acceptable by students in my class?

Finally I realised the greatest relevance of AR question to my College English teaching would be --- How could I create a more relaxed atmosphere in my College English class? I considered this AR question was more applicable and practicable for me at present because both the students and I would benefit a lot in my general practice. Anxiety is a complicated phenomenon. The students' social and educational background, English level, previous learning experience and his or her personality, teacher's teaching method and personality are the factors causing anxiety in class (Li Lisheng, 1998). By doing the informal inquiry, I got students were inactive in my English class mainly because of their Anxiety and my strict teaching method. By 'strict' here I am meaning that I did not laugh and joke with the students. My face was serious and perhaps I did not smile enough. I think my AR question will help students and me be aware of problems with themselves and require me to find out methods of dealing with these problems in my teaching. By practising some strategies in class, students probably correct their negative and unhelpful thoughts. In later teaching, this teaching experience must be useful for me, too. If in the future I am teaching the five-year students, if I don't make progress in my methods I will stay at the same level and the students will make the same mistakes. Last term I spent a lot of time trying to change these methods in order to help the students to learn. Perhaps in future classes the students' anxiety also exists, so my colleagues and I can share my experience and gain something from my research.

With the New Curriculum being carried out (New Curriculum Guidelines, Beijing, 2005), more and more teachers in China have accepted the communicative approach and applied some principles of it to their classroom teaching (Zhou R., 2004). I realise the fact of its importance has been generally accepted: that the aim of language teaching is to foster the learners' ability to express or convey  information and communicate  ideas and feelings. Therefore the listening and speaking abilities of students are much more focused on these days. That means the traditional teacher-centred approach has to gradually be changed into a learner-centred one. Students should be provided with more opportunities to practice talking freely in English, particularly in the College English course I am teaching now, which puts a strong emphasis on developing students speaking and listening abilities and communicative activities. Meanwhile that also means a less teacher-centred and rather more relaxed classroom atmosphere should be created. This is my problem.

As many people may know, in China we have an NC for the teaching of English. This requires our teaching to help students 'move from competence to performance', (Chen, 2003 in Laidlaw, 2005).

College English books are guided by the New Curriculum. This course carries student-centred teaching rules throughout; it requires an all-round development of students in listening, speaking, reading and writing. In the meantime, there are emphases particularly on listening and speaking. (Li Guilan, 2002)

Five-year students are quite different from other college students in Guyuan Teachers' College, now Ningxia Teachers University. All of them were juniors in high school before enrolling, with an average age of under 16 years old. Their mentalities are not mature. By this I mean their thoughts are not highly developed in terms of how they do something. For example, some of them seemed to think college life is simply to spend five years here without any necessary ambition to study hard and aim for a job. They appeared unable to accept their own individual responsibility for their studies. In addition, their English seemed so poor. For example I once asked a student as an introduction, How are you? He could answer me. But when I asked him how old are you? He couldn't answer me at all and looked at me blankly. This happened quite frequently in the class at the beginning. A 'poor' standard was also frequently evident in speaking and listening as the following comment attests to:

Teachers of junior high school hardly train students in these aspects till senior high school since almost all teachers try to gain the requisite admission-rate to senior high school (five English teachers in a Middle School - Wang Jianye, Zhang Xuemei, Yanling, Wangyin, Wang Kecheng - agreed recently.

These teachers are currently teaching in different junior high schools in a local region. During my teaching of English majors (five-year students majoring in English, in other words, students who have failed in some aspects of their schooling and come to the college to improve their English in particular), I have found that the application of some communicative activities to our class has been much more difficult than I anticipated: students seemed unwilling to participate in communicative activities or to be questioned by the teacher in the class. Most of the students seem to want to answer questions or discuss with their desk-mates, thus often initiating fewer conversations with me, with few examples of silence-breakers, manifesting a short speaking-time with distortion of sounds or just standing in silence when asked to perform in communicative practice. All of this caused an embarrassing situation and meant I was not in control. For instance, in my English class, when I let students act as speakers and practise the dialogue, some of the bold students conducted dialogues loudly and naturally but some of the less-brave ones just read by themselves muttering, especially the students who came from rural areas like Wang Guoqiang, Ma Donghu, etc.

Over the seven years of my teaching, by talking casually with students after class, I have found that it is often rural students who are unwilling to speak. Because their pronunciation is quite indistinct and confused (owing, it seems, to unqualified teaching in the countryside), they are afraid of  being  mocked in front of others. Ma Donghu told me a very interesting story. When he was a middle school student, his English teacher who majored in Physics in college confused 'six' with  'sex' in pronunciation, and mixed up many, many other commonly-used words. One day Ma Donghu was called on to describe something in a picture. He said: 'There are sex people'.  All the students laughed. He couldn't understand what was wrong until his desk-mate told him the different meanings and pronunciations between 'six' and 'sex'. He felt very ashamed and unwilling to speak any more. 

When I asked all the students a question, either only a few students put up their hands or nobody did. Sometimes this silence lasted for three or four minutes until I had to break it. A majority of the students appeared to want to finish their responses as soon as possible and make them as short as possible when I called upon them to answer some questions. This is also described by other colleagues at the Centre when they are trying to help their students (Liu Binyou, 2006; Ma Hong, 2006; Liu Hui, 2006 etc.) The following is a example of something that happened in my class when I was teaching the text 'Prince of Programmers Bill Gates', in unit six of our College English book. I wrote down 2 lead-in questions on the blackboard:

 (1) Do you know something about computers? (Note: the word computer is not a new word for students here.)  If you know, please point out the important parts of a computer.

(2) Do you know anything about Bill Gates? Say as much as you can.

Sun Weiming: Now everybody please heads up and look at these two questions. Can you understand?

Students: Yes (answered in chorus).

Sun Weiming: Good, please discuss the questions with your desk-mates and five minutes later let's try to give answers. Chinese and English both are ok.

Students: Yes

I asked eleven students to answer these two questions. Two students said : 'No, I don't know'. Seven students just said one word: yes, but nothing else. Only two students said something about computer-parts but still only a few words. To my surprise, when I walked around classroom, I found almost every student had written down the answers to my questions.  I was surprised because I had given them a chance to discuss it and they still seemed unwilling to participate orally. So the problem was not that they weren't unable to understand, but were simply reluctant to speak. This was my problem.

 Wuyi set down following answers on a piece of paper:

'Yes, I know. Line, TV (monitor), Machine (a host machine), yin xiang (sound boxes).'

'Yes, he has a lot of money.'

But she only answered the questions with 'yes' and 'no'. When she stood up.

Liu Junmei wrote down answers on her notebook:

'Yes , mouse , screen (monitor), keyboard, a main machine ( a host machine)'.

 'Yes, he makes first computer, he has a glass, he is rich.'

 But she gave a similar response as well.

When I talked with students Wuyi, Liu Junmei, Ma Donghu and Wang Guoqiang after class, I asked them why they were reluctant to participate in communicative activities and be called on by the teacher in the class. I learnt that they behaved like this because they felt a lack of self-confidence, and were too nervous and worried about their poor pronunciation as well as being afraid of losing face in front of others. Thus, I saw how important it was to create a more relaxed atmosphere in the class I was teaching then.

I therefore fixed on five representative students with very obvious features of anxiety in my class as my subjects for this research. They are respectively He Shengmei, Wang Guoqiang , Ma Donghu, Wuyi and Liu Junmei. They behaved anxiously in class, but they were not worse than other students, even He Shengmei and Wuyi performed reasonably in every test. When I asked why they always kept their heads down and seemed afraid of eye contact with me, the most essential things I got from the conversation between us were as follows:

Wuyi: We are too afraid of being called by teacher to answer any question or speak in front of teacher and my classmates individually, so I didn't want to say anything and sometimes even could think of nothing when I stood up.

Liu Junmei: Most of the time, I wanted to say something in class but I gave up at last because I thought my answers were possibly wrong or inaccurate.

He Shengmie: I worried about my poor pronunciations and being laughed at by my classmates because when I was a middle school student, my English teacher's bad accent and non-standard pronunciation with local dialect had affected me too much. I also worried about whether you would blame us for our inaccurate responses or some grammatical mistakes made during answering. Therefore, in class I think silence is golden, it is better for me to talk as little as possible.

Wang Guoqiang: I come from a rural and remote mountainous area. I think pronunciation is the most elementary practice in foreign language learning, but owing to the exam-oriented language teaching and learning in the middle school, we have hardly had enough chance to develop our speaking in front of others in class and out class. So I haven't any self- confidence at all.

Ma Donghu: I felt very very nervous and as if my heart would jump out of my mouth when you walked towards me every time in class, If you stood on the platform or a little bit far from me, I certainly felt better. (2005.10.17)

From the above inquiry and subsequent analysis, we can identify the fact that those students' anxieties in my class were related to a variety of sources and they could also be interrelated. I would also like to draw your attention to my own Middle School experience, when some teachers' English pronunciation was so poor, that I struggled to learn well. I think this has influenced my choice of my AR question, because I can understand my students' feelings and I feel worried for them.

Taking above five students who were interviewed by me as an example, Wuyi had a very serious personal anxiety in class. Liu Junmei was lacking in self-confidence. He Shengmei's belief about English learning wasn't necessarily helpful and suggests a lack of self-confidence. Wang Guoqiang seemed to have low self-esteem. Low self-esteem was a very common source of anxiety in the class as students told me often (Sun, 2006, data archive). It seems to me that most of the students have these problems. Thus, I think  it is very necessary and important to help students learn and me teach better in class by creating a more relaxed classroom atmosphere. In my following teaching: 

1) Getting students to become aware of their anxiety

 I tried to make students aware of their anxiety in class on purpose. For example, at the beginning of a class, I called on a few students to tell me their own fears in class and then I wrote them down on the blackboard . In this way students including Liu Junmei could see they were not alone in their anxieties. This measure has given students like Liu Junmei and Wuyi  great encouragements. In later class, they became active more and more. After class I asked Wu Yi if she felt more confident than before. Here are some words from Liu Junmei.

'Yes I am gradually confident of trying to speak in class and front of my classmates since you encouraged me last time ( 7 weeks ago ) , especially when I saw more and more classmates didn't just keep silence in class any longer like before , they are really a great spur for me .  Why can  they  change themselves  so much?  Why can't I do?  I asked myself.  I know the teacher and my classmates don't always cavil about my mistakes and say nothing of mocking me .I realize if I always escape, I'll drop behind. (October 2005)

2) Helping students develop their self-confidence:    

I tried to help students build up their self-confidence. I am aware from my experience that a skilful error-correction method is quite important for a student lacking self-confidence in class Despite my belief that correcting mistakes made by students can improve their knowledge, I avoided using harsh words or sentences like 'You are completely wrong. You are so poor in English. You really shouldn't make a mistake at all, because it is as easy as abc, etc. On the contrary, I told students that mistakes are made by every language learner; I took myself as an example and told students when I was the same age I also made lot of mistakes while speaking. But I was very confident and never felt I lost my face in front of others. Practice makes perfect, I told them! During my teaching I tried to create a friendly classroom environment too in which students could feel more confident about expressing their ideas and feelings freely. For instance, when I taught Unit Two 'keeping a diary', I started the lesson by saying some words like: 'ladies and gentlemen!'[1] These words were filled with a sense of humour, and when I greeted students using them they laughed. I went on to say,

Good morning, Guoqing![2]

This is also an affectionate a form of address. Students laughed and clapped. 

Could you do a class report today?

Then I divided all the students into groups to let them discuss something about 'What do people usually write in their diary?' The five students mentioned above were arranged in different groups by me deliberately. I was observing two of the groups carefully with the students He Shengmei and Wuyi respectively when they were talking. They were quite active in their own group and encouraged other students in the same group to discuss and speak more though some words were said in Chinese.

He Shengmei: 'I often write diary in middle school, I write everything, like what I like and dislike. my father, my mother, my private things'. (She asked me how to express '心事'in English and, I told her 'private things'.)  And then she asked another student Ma Lan in the group:

'What do you usually write in your diary?'

'I never write diary at all', Malan said.

'Do you think what do else people often write in their diary?'

 'Love , ideas,  their feelings', Malan said.

After discussion, He Shengmei put up her hand and stood up voluntarily to say her ideas on behalf of her group.

3) Help students raise their self-esteem 

People with low self-esteem worry about what their peers think, they are concerned with pleasing others, and that I think has to do to a great degree with anxiety. (Horwitz et al. 1991:15)

I tried to help students raise their self-esteem. Self-esteem may be closely related to how classmates and the teacher look at them and how they treat them. So low self-esteem is very common phenomena among students like the student Wang Guoqiang. For example, in class, I found that Wang Guoqiang often seemed afraid. He even trembled in front of me. So, after class I would call him to the office and carefully talk with him about his feelings. He said his pronunciation was so poor and his vocabulary so limited. He believed he couldn't even speak a whole sentence in English correctly. He went on to say that he knew his classmates would laugh at him if he tried.

So, I find the teacher plays an important role in influencing the students' self-esteem. Therefore I tried to give the students with low self-esteem positive encouragement and high praise when they stood up to answer questions voluntarily in class. These students then were more able to build self-confidence and they became more active to continue to try and work hard. I think I have this responsibility as a teacher to help the students like Wang Guoqiang to build up their self-esteem because otherwise the students, in not having help from the teacher in time, will not develop their potential in the future and this is a waste of time and learning possibilities. This is not educational.

In class I encouraged Wang Guoqiang and tried to answer his questions. When I encouraged him, using the phrase, don't be shy, just try. Don't worry. There are still some classmates who are like you, with poor pronunciation and limited vocabulary, but they are still trying, so how about you?

His progress is not very obvious, but I still feel that he is much better than before. I am saying this because when I question the class, sometimes he puts up his hand and would say: 'Teacher, can I try?' And I said, 'Certainly you can!' This didn't happen frequently, but it happened a little. And in my opinion, that means my encouragement and methodology were having an educational influence with this student.

I continued this process for about seven weeks, excepting the examination time for all the students. During this time the students, especially those with the high anxiety already mentioned, gradually became more active in class. At the end of term, He Shengmei and Wuyi felt motivated to answer my questions and do performances in class with the help of my positive encouragement, although as I have said, Wang Gupqiang's progress was rather small. The other students quite frequently put up their hands now in my class. Wuyi didn't have distortion of sound any longer:

'I am always a timid girl in class and out class, but now I am sure I have been changed. I am not shy in front of my classmate and the teacher at all. I am ready to do anything in class to improve myself now,'  she said to me when I asked her whether she felt nervous or not. (2005. 12.17) 


All of the above-related experiences touch on experiences I and my students have in all our classes together. Students' anxiety in class is a complex and wide-ranging phenomenon. The students' previous learning experiences, social backgrounds, English proficiency, teachers' attitude to students and methodology, even classroom circumstances seem to have a great influence on students' abilities to perform. The New Curriculum advocates performance rather than competence (NC Guidelines, 2005), but anxiety is a stumbling block to this. This anxiety is quite unnecessary and unprofitable for students, therefore English teachers should try to create a more relaxed atmosphere for students by taking a number of measures, such as helping students develop their self-confidence, self-esteem, and using a suitable mistake-correction approach. A more relaxed atmosphere can help the students study actively and enthusiastically and will help them to improve their communicative ability. Through my AR research, I realize a more relaxed class atmosphere is very important in all teaching procedures. A sense of humor is essential for a teacher to create a harmonious and comfortable teaching condition. After my one-term's hard work, the students' communicative ability had obviously improved, not only in terms of the five students but also the others. The following photographs may imply something about their improvement:



Number One: Before conducting my AR research when I asked the question of the students, only a very few put up their hands and volunteered any answers. This photograph was taken towards the end of term. Wu Yi is sitting near the back at the window and her hand is covering her face. She is still a little shy, but she is trying. Ma Donghu, who is sitting at the back of the classroom furthest from the window in a blue and white jacket. He is smiling at the moment. Liu Junwei is sitting in from of Ma Donghu, two rows in front, with a pink jacket. From her facial expression I believe I can see more confident than before.

'I think I am better than before, I have quite stronger desire to speak more, participate in discussion and answer questions in class now' (Liu Junmei). (Sun, 2006, data archive)  

From this photograph I believe you might be able to see that the students are interested in the class.


Photograph Two: This is a close-up of Ma Donghu, wearing a black jacket sitting behind the young women. He is holding a pen in his hand in order to point out some ideas to his classmate and for discussion. His facial expression is concentrated and serious. He is clearly paying attention to the task. He is acting as an organiser for his small group, which shows initiative. In addition there is He Shenmei, sitting in profile, some of her face obscured. However, from this I can see her attempts to discuss some ideas with her classmates. She acted as an organiser for the other two. She wrote down their ideas and encouraged them to speak more. In He Shenmei's group, I can also see a desire to learn and to concentrate on the task in hand.

I am claiming from these photographs, that before my AR work, these students would not so readily participate in their own learning processes and take responsibility for them.

My new AR question is: How can I help my students learn more effectively through treating each one of them as unique individuals?

Why is this my new question? In my years of teaching, I have noticed students' personalities, motivation and ways of study influence students a great deal and also challenge teachers' abilities. If we treat all students alike it's probably less difficult to teach them, because we wouldn't have to think up different ways. But this isn't educational. When I look back my teaching in past seven years, these differences of individuals directly or indirectly influenced their efficiency of English leaning. For instance in a class some students were eager to answer the teacher's questions, some were afraid of examinations, some liked to sit at the back of the classroom quietly, hoping neither to bother anyone else nor be bothered themselves. Some disliked any noise including the teacher's walking around in classroom when they were reading etc.  Some extroverted students were always more active than introverted students in class and therefore they were noticeable in class and were helped more. On the other hand, introverted students were often thought of as dull and backward students. I know now that the stronger motivation the students have, the harder they will work.  All these elements impact on my practice, so in my AR research, I will try to research what kinds of students' personality-traits influence their progress in learning English and how I can help them to influence themselves to improve my teaching and their learning.

From my experience and the use of photographs I hope to be able to encourage my colleagues' educational development, by showing my ways of doing something, that they might be able to use these methods themselves in order to help their students learn more efficiently. I think it is important for us to share our experiences as teacher-researchers (Stenhouse, 1983). I believe the phenomena I have encountered are affected by the students' rural backgrounds, and that this is very common here in this part of China. I also feel that my AR is therefore practical and relatable (Bassey, 1998) on a wider footing because of the values underlying my research. I want my research to be valuable not just for me and for my colleagues but for other universities in China and in the world.


Bassey, M., (1998) Enhancing teaching through research, Professional Development Today, 1, 2, 39-46 (A shortened version was published in Research Intelligence, July 1997)

Horwitz, E.K. & Yong, D.J. 1991, Language Anxiety: From Theory and Research to Classroom Implications,  Englewood Cliffs,  NJ: Prentice Hall

Laidlaw, M., (2005), 'From Competence to Performance: A Handbook of Communicative Methodology', Guyuan Teachers College Press, Guyuan.

Li Guilan, (2002), 'College English', Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.('five-year student's book used at present)

McCarthy, M., (2002), 'Discourse analysis for language teachers' Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press.

McNiff, J., and Whitehead, J., (2005), (Second Edition) Action Research: Principles and Practice,  London and New York.

Stenhouse, L., (1983), 'Research as a basis for teaching', in Stenhouse, L., Authority, Education and Emancipation, Heinemann, London.

Sun, W., (2006), 'Data Archive', NTU.

Zhou, R., (2004), 'Teachers' Feedback and Students' Communicative Competence, In Teaching English in China, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press. Shanghai .

张民选, "行动研究"的研究.华东师范大学学报(教科版),19921


[1] In China,the phrase Ladies and Gentleman is used to address people who are adults or married.

[2] When you only call someone else's first name in China, it means you regard that person as your friend.