Empowering Language Learning Students in China.

This time last year I was working for a school in southern China which is famous for its integration of the arts and classical Chinese studies into the general curriculum. It is often considered to be a model school for the future of education in China. The school gets a lot right: due to some great teachers and a lovely campus, the students have access to many wonderful opportunities, especially when compared with what the public school nearby has to offer.

However, there are certain key areas where the students are lacking valuable skills that are actively not being taught in the school. Yes, the school knows these gaps exist, the administration has been informed of this often, yet they refuse to see it as their problem. These issues must be addressed if these students are to gain any true value from their lessons.

With the inclusion of so many extra activities during school hours, the lesson times are vastly reduced: just 35 minutes of class per subject, each day. Yes, you read that correctly. The core subjects of Math, Chinese, Phys. Ed, and calligraphy class receive less than an hour per day for both instruction and for students to perform classwork. Science - depending on the student's age - is relegated to merely two or three classes per week!

The children are well-armed with dubiously useful sayings, such as “do you like whiskey?” or “where is the animal doctor?”

Class times are blocked out for 40 minutes. Due to mandated (outdated, and scientifically questionable) eye-exercises taking an additional 2 minutes of time, and factoring in for various distractions, teachers are left with more or less 35 minutes of time in which to teach their classes. With only 35 minutes to teach, the teachers are forced to rely on some bizarre methods of judging of student retention.

Note that I said retention, not comprehension. Rote repetition has its place, but not for every subject and each new thing we learn in class. Yet this is de rigueur. Still stuck on the outdated PPP framework, they even manage to misunderstand this and call drilling "production," which they perform ad nauseam - everyone must be in synch - before being shunted into timed, three-minute bursts of activity.

Often this activity is a rehashing of the exact words or phrases they have memorised. The children are well-armed with dubiously useful sayings, such as "do you like whiskey?" or "where is the animal doctor?" Heavens forbid you should change any of the words they've memorised, because if you did you would be met with panic-stricken stares or being shouted at that you (a native English speaker) have gotten it wrong.

To support their learning in class, they are given copious amounts of busy-work for homework. Specifically, they are given a sentence or dialogue to copy out in cookie-cutter handwriting, and then allowed to express their creativity by colouring or drawing unrelated designs over the rest of the A4 page. From grade 4 up, students are allowed to copy from a selection of poorly written example essays. Talented students who create their own writing are often punished for creating something the teacher doesn't understand - it's not wrong, just simply beyond what their teacher is capable of comprehending.

So, dear reader, you will quickly see there are 4 areas ripe for improvement. Firstly, instruction time is less than 90 minutes. Students are taught only to remember what is being said, instead of creatively engaging with the language. The phrases they're given are not communicative nor targeted for the learners. And finally, homework time is not being used effectively. I'll touch on the issues below briefly, but each one is an essay unto itself.

...repetition of vocabulary out of context serves to create what we know as 哑巴英语 [yǎbā yīngyǔ] - mute English speakers

In an ideal world, we would take lectures out of the classroom altogether, but a proven method of improving engagement that can be easily implemented without completely retraining your staff, is to extend class times to eighty or 90 minutes per subject. Of course, then we break them up into <20-minute blocks of mini-lessons with little recess periods between, but that small injection of chaos is far superior to 35 minutes of rote repetition.

Speaking of, rote repetition is great! I use it often for learning sight-words, spelling, learning new vocabulary, retaining Chinese characters, practising handwriting... none of which have anything to do with spoken language. They are all ways to either introduce or retain the moving parts of writing systems. Its rather frightening hearing well-educated people fail to distinguish between a writing system and a spoken language, but it does happen. Yes there is some bleed through, where one supports the other in important ways, but - just as phonics helps to create false readers - repetition of vocabulary out of context serves to create what we know as 哑巴英语 [yǎbā yīngyǔ] - mute English speakers; someone who can recall scores of English vocabulary, but has no way to put these words together into a comprehensible sentence, and are therefore effectively mute. Students require time to play with the language, to get it wrong, and have a laugh.

Now we come to homework. Homework should be used students recall what was learned in the course of their day. I use journals to great effect in this regard, and I see results of this daily. Spaced repetition is a proven method of effectively recalling and retaining information by being reminded of it just as you are about to forget it. The most crucial time to recall a piece of information is before 24 hours have passed. To retain more than 80% of information learned, students should actively review the subject 5-6 hours after they first learned it. Can you see now why homework is so crucial? As teachers, we must ensure to provide efficacious homework.


In my English as a Foreign Language [EFL] class, I too had only 35 minutes - one session, once per week with each class - when I was teaching grades three and four. Yes, you read that correctly, too.  Over the course of a year, I had less than 24 hours of contact time with my EFL students. Not nearly enough time to teach a language, let alone learn one from a native speaker, plus the students lack some very critical learning strategies that would see classes become far more efficient and productive. So I had to set out to attempt to rectify this issue.

Therefore I sought to identify the areas the students are most in need of help, so that the time I had with them would be time well spent. I believe I have found 5 key strategies that I teach my students, in order to equip them for language classes (and any other, for that matter).

Teacher: “How is your grandmother?”
Student: “I’m fine thank you, and you?”
  1.      Asking for clarification skillfully. There is a great fear of answering incorrectly in the majority of my students. This is a byproduct of the rote learning and authoritarian teaching style favoured here in China. This means my students often refused to take risks or think creatively about my questions -- or when answering, for that matter. I feel that empowering them to ask me to revise my question, or re-frame it after having identified what they could not understand, will circumvent this. I have also implemented rewards for risk-taking when answering, even if the answer proves incorrect. By asking for more information or for the teacher to use clear language, or an additional example, they will hopefully feel more confident.
  2.      Note-taking strategies. The students do not take notes. Most don't even own notebooks, and even if they did, they lack any note-taking skills. They are simply expected to memorise what was covered, like a dry sponge soaking up liquid knowledge, to be wrung dry again once the exams begin. Once again, there is a time and place for rote memorization, but when I want them to generate ideas and answers from the context of the story and given information, they usually have forgotten how to even unpack the question. So even before I had begun the actual lesson, I ended up spending half of my 35-minute class reteaching something they could have simply glanced over their notes to recall. Which brings me to my next key strategy:
  3.      Review and Revision of notes. Hand in hand with note taking, comes the responsibility of reviewing them periodically, and revising them when our comprehension improves. Therefore in class, they should be sharing their notes - surely it is no longer new that students teaching students their understanding of the material is highly motivating and effective. We must learn to rewrite and revise our notes to keep them alive in our memory.
  4.      Dictionary skills. So few of the students own dictionaries. About half of those that do are unclear how to even use an English dictionary. This is partly because they are still unfamiliar with the order of the English alphabet (they teach the song incorrectly and remove the rhyme -- don't get me started on that one) but mainly due to an over-reliance on teachers and online machine translations. By grade 3, and certainly grade 4, students should be able to search for words in a dictionary. Along with this skill comes being able to identify parts of speech, and familiarity with the International Phonetic Alphabet (they use "phonics" at many schools, much to my chagrin). The skilled use of a dictionary would therefore also allow them to pronounce new words, and 'edit' their current pronunciation themselves.
  5.     Answering questions accurately and skillfully. When given a worksheet by their domestic English teachers, it generally consisted of either single-word gap-fills or multiple choice questions where they merely circle an answer. They never rewrite sentences to correct them, and never have to generate communicative answers (I have yet to see a student use capital letters or punctuation accurately). The students are unskilled in listening to a question and providing sufficient and meaningful answers. They are nearly always single-word utterances, devoid of subjects, or simply wrong. The exception to this is when they have been "taught" a standardised response i.e;
    Teacher: "How is your grandmother?"
    Student: "I'm fine thank you, and you?"
    Teacher: "...".
    Therefore during class, we must listen intensively to questions and re-frame them as answers. The standard, rote memorization of (terribly boring) stock answers must end, in order to allow students to begin unpacking, understanding, and restating the questions in their answers.

I would love to hear from any other teachers who have struggled in East Asia, to see if there are any other commonalities we can address together. Please drop me a line on social media or in the comments below! I feel that we have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to empower our students with skills that will hopefully eliminate us from the equation. I must often remind my students that I don't fit in their pockets, and they will have to start teaching themselves one day. How about you?