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The ESL Boards Guide to Teaching In China

The flow of noise from any English language classroom is a bit like the flow of ketchup from a ketchup bottle. There is either too little or too much. But China’s unique cultural fabric makes finding the right level of student engagement particularly difficult for a foreign English language teacher.

Eliciting responses from some students sometimes feels like pulling teeth because of an ingrained cultural inhibition to making mistakes in front of others (‘losing face’). While others, excited or emboldened by a foreign teacher’s generally more relaxed approach to study, let loose and run riot in the classroom. These difficulties are often compounded by English language textbooks orientated for students living in typical Western societies and which take no account of China’s unique social characteristics (for example setting exercises with brothers and sisters in a country where the majority of children have none because of the one-child policy).

But don’t panic! With a little understanding of Chinese student mentality and access to the right resources, a foreign English language teacher’s job in China need not be so challenging.

Insider’s Guide to Teaching English in China

Resources and Teaching Materials

Most of the larger chain English schools in China now provide their own brand textbooks which generally make a teacher’s life much easier. If you are teaching at a smaller school however, or providing one-to-one classes, it is easy to become disheartened by the legion of boring, uninspiring English language text books commonly in use.

Don’t give up all hope however, there are a couple of series which compare better than most and seem to have more success in the classroom. New English Parade published by Pearson Longman is good for younger age groups because of the high quantity of colourful pictures contained in its pages complementing the lesson content. The textbooks also contain sticker sets, which are very popular with all ages under 10, and come with a homework book with exercises that review textbook content.

For slightly older school students and adult learners the widely available New Interchange series published by Cambridge University Press is a comprehensive text book series, which comes with a teacher’s book providing activities and advice on how to deliver lesson content. The grammar explanations are also very clear.

If your school’s curriculum is fixed and you are stuck with a less than thrilling textbook, then try and complement your class with activities and exercises from elsewhere. A good place to look for these is online. There are numerous websites catering for the struggling English language teacher. run by the BBC is an excellent resource with quizzes, word games and of course lots of current affairs material suitable for class discussions and activities. hosted by the British Council also has a wide range of resources for many different subjects. edited by ‘Dave’ is a well known popular online hub for English teachers and a good place to swap ideas and ask for advice or help if needed. It also has a teaching jobs listing section.

Best Topics

If you’re teaching in a private chain school, class content normally follows a prescribed curriculum. Somewhat unusually (you might think) it is often in Chinese state schools or universities that a foreign teacher has more flexibility to individualise the curriculum. If you do have this opportunity, certain topics for certain age groups always seem to go down well.

High School Students
Most Chinese high school students’ lives follow a rigid routine of schoolwork, schoolwork and more schoolwork. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that ‘Fantasy’ is always a popular topic for this age group and acts as a good springboard for lots of class activities. You might like to ask your students to imagine what superpower they would most like to have and why. A good homework task is to ask your students to illustrate and write the dialogue for a short fantasy comic book strip, building on this media’s huge popularity in China. Fantasy film imports from the West such as ‘Twilight’ and of course ‘Harry Potter’ are also hugely popular in China and make good subjects to talk about or base exercises on.

University Students
In common with university students all over the world, Chinese university students are making plans and thinking about the future. So what better subject to choose to base a lesson on? You might like to discuss how China will change in the next 10 years or ask your students to make predictions when certain events will happen (when will a Chinese astronaut walk on the moon?). On a lighter note, personalising the future and asking students to guess their classmates’ future jobs and appearances always provokes hysterics and lively discussion.

Many Chinese adults are learning English because of work trips abroad or because they have holiday or emigration plans. Travel and cultural difference are therefore two topics which generally go down well with this demographic. Making picture puzzles of famous landmarks from around the world is an activity that works well, and asking your class to think of ways in which Chinese and Western customs differ markedly is also approached enthusiastically.

How to get them to talk

Overcoming a barrier of silence is often a foreign English language teacher’s most difficult and frustrating task! There are a couple of different approaches you might like to try in order to get your class talking.

Make it interactive
As any TEFL course will tell you, make your class as interactive as possible. This is particularly important for younger age groups. For example, if teaching fruit names to younger children, spend 10 RMB buying the actual fruit from the market. Make a game out of it by hiding the fruit under different buckets, swapping them round and asking the children to guess which fruit is where. You’ll soon have a class of enthusiastic children screaming out the fruit names in English.

Play the clown
As Mr Bean’s popularity in China shows, comedy can cross many cultures and break down many barriers in communication. Playing the clown and slapstick humour can help you seem less intimidating to a class of children who have never seen a foreigner in the flesh before. ‘Losing’ your pen by forgetting you have tucked it above your ear will always get young children giggling as will trying to read your textbook upside down.

Picture power
Illustrating verbs on the board with funny picture examples or giving nouns exaggerated characteristics in a picture (a big nose on a face, a very fat elephant) are simple ways to prompt your class to laugh and talk. They are also a good way of introducing new adjective vocabulary into the lesson. Picture power works surprisingly well with self-conscious teenage students too!

Group work
If your students don’t have the language confidence to try and speak on their own, try setting small group work. A shy student will often have the confidence to attempt an answer in front of a smaller group of students.

Reward system
Many schools have a reward system in place but if yours doesn’t then pop into a street-side stationery store and buy a pack of colourful stickers, which are cheap and commonly available. These can be used to reward students who answer correctly or even shy students who attempt an answer. It’s amazing what impact these small stickers can have on participation levels!

Hopefully some of the above advice gleaned from long experience teaching in the Middle Kingdom will prove useful to the uninitiated. If you’re already a veteran of the English language classroom in China, then any of your own suggestions for making a foreign English teacher’s life easier would be very welcome in the comments section below!

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