How to Teach Chinese Students and What your CELTA Course Doesn’t Teach You

how to teach chinese students

Ah, the lure of the TEFL industry…..see the world, they said, experience a new culture, broaden your horizons! The TEFL job ads literally scream at you “Come and teach in our country!”. So, after a robust interview process, you get accepted on a CELTA course. You absolutely work your butt off for four weeks and you are thrilled to bits when you pass. You think you are ready to take on the world. You get a job as an oral English teacher in China and as you excitedly step off the plane on to Chinese soil for the first time, you dream of having a fabulous time. You think about how wonderful it will be to teach Chinese students and live in a place with such a rich history and culture.

The reality though, is somewhat different. For a start, as an oral English teacher, you will often not be given a textbook. Not only that, but you will also be expected to design your own syllabus and student assessments from scratch. “Huh?”, I hear you say. “The textbook has been my bible, how on earth do I teach without one?”. Read on and you may find the answer.

Understanding the mindset of Chinese students and the role of the foreign English teacher

If you are to be successful in business, you need to know your customers. Teaching is no different. That is why, for my first class in every school that I have ever taught at, I always do an icebreaker. I try to find out my students’ names, backgrounds, aspirations, hobbies and reasons for wanting to learn English. Knowing my students’ interests and aspirations makes it easier to choose the topics for my oral English lessons.

So why do Chinese students want to learn English? Some have genuine reasons e.g. a desire to travel, to be able to speak with foreigners, an ambition to be a teacher etc. Others will absolutely hate learning English and will be in your class only because they have no choice. Students in China rarely get the chance to choose the subject that they study at university unless their results in the Gaokao (final high school exams) are outstanding. If your results are not particularly good, you will have to be content with studying whatever subject the university arbitrarily assigns to you.

Chinese students also have an extremely demanding schedule and since English is not one of China’s “Four Modernizations” (agriculture, industry, defence and science & technology), most students tend to view the study of English as unimportant at best and irrelevant at worst. Is it any wonder then, that engaging Chinese students is such a challenge for the foreign English teacher?

Chinese schools are also nothing more than businesses that rely on student fees to survive. Teaching observations are rarely, if ever, carried out and a teacher’s performance is rated solely on how popular he or she is with his or her students. Your role as a teacher in China is not to teach but is simply to keep the students happy and entertained and the parents paying.

The Best Ways to  Teach Chinese students oral English

Bearing in mind the above, it is hardly surprising that many foreign teachers do not take their jobs seriously. To them, it is adequate just to spend their lesson time chatting away about their latest Chinese girlfriend or how they got drunk and made a fool of themselves the previous weekend, crack a few jokes or show a movie without giving any thought to the learning goals or outcomes that they hope to accomplish. I on the other hand, did not put myself through a CELTA course just for the chance to be able to travel for a year or two. I genuinely hope to make TEFL my life-long career and thus I take my work seriously. If you ever see the references that I get from Chinese schools, you will always see these two adjectives being used to describe me: “hard working” and “professional”.  I am somewhat unique in China in that I am ethnically Chinese and yet I am a foreigner and a native English speaker. It is interesting that although I am recognised as a bona fide foreign expert in the field of English, I enjoy a level of respect from my students that they usually do not show towards my Caucasian counterparts. So what activities do I use in class? For intermediate-level students, these can be broken down into a number of categories as follows:

Role-plays: Chinese students are used to learning by rote so they need a lot of structure in their lessons. When using role-plays, I try to focus on areas that have some practical use e.g. shopping, ordering food in a restaurant, job interviews, airport/hotel check-ins, handling enquiries, enquiring about a job advert and dealing with customer complaints. Role-plays are also useful for learning about foreign cultures as they can be used to act out stories. The students get to plan and write down what they want to say before role-playing the scenario in question.

 Videos: This is an old-time favourite with Chinese students (anything to get out of doing some work, right?). When using videos, I focus on those that can help my students to improve their English in some way e.g. “Mind Your Language”, a TV series from the UK. I also try to teach my students something about British culture by showing classic stories like Robin Hood. For purely entertainment purposes, I would show them comedies like the “Mr Bean” series.

Games: This is a bit of a challenge for Chinese students because they are unable to plan in advance what they say and are forced to think on their feet. This provides more authentic oral English scenarios but may be too advanced for elementary students to be able to cope with. The games that I have used include sentence auctions, story-telling relays, “two truths and a lie”, “eternal mingle” and “rocket ship” – the earth is going to explode, you have a chance to escape with a limited number of people, who would you take with you and why?.

Discussions and debates: There are a wide range of topics that can be used for this but I try to use news items from China since these would be more relevant to my students. I have asked them to debate whether they agree with China’s censorship of the internet, whether they think it is possible to find love on the internet and what they think of the custom of a man having to buy a property in order to marry a Chinese woman. It is also a good idea to have a look at the textbook that your students are using with their Chinese English teacher and supplementing a few of the topics in there.

Elementary-level students will obviously need much simpler activities. Those that I have used include describing pictures, simple questions and answers, greetings, introductions, talking about ambitions, routines and habits, making suggestions, invitations and excuses.

How to teach non-English subjects in China

Chinese schools seem to think that their foreign teachers should be able to teach any subject under the sun with nothing more than a degree and possibly a TEFL certificate. During my time in China, I have previously been asked to teach “Western Management” and “English-speaking Countries”. Since I have had no training in how to teach these subjects, it was quite a challenge but at least when teaching academic subjects, you do get a textbook to guide you. Chinese students are used to being lectured yet have a tendency to fall asleep in class when taught in that manner. There also seems to be some kind of double standards in China because Chinese teachers always seem to teach lecture-style but foreign teachers are usually not encouraged to do the same. The problem is that discussions do not work because the students have never been taught to think or to question what they learn. So, what do you do?

One thing that I have discovered though, is that Chinese students love stories. If you are going to lecture them, do try to include as many interesting stories and pictures in your lesson as possible. For example, when I taught my students about the English Reformation and the conflict between the King and the Pope, I told them that if they wanted to know what a monk in the time of Henry VIII looked like, they should look up the character Friar Tuck in the story of Robin Hood. My students found that lesson very interesting!

One of my colleagues told me that his approach was to use whatever subject that he had been given as a means of teaching oral English. So if he was given the subject of American history for example, he would use it as the topic for his roleplays, debates and discussions. This is an interesting idea because if I were given say, history as a subject, I would consider myself to be a history teacher and not an oral English teacher. My lesson aim would be to increase my students’ knowledge of whatever subject that I was teaching and not merely to use that subject as a means of giving them practice in speaking English.

Chinese students are also very competitive so I have had some success with quizzes. Using a quiz also has the advantage of forcing the students to open the textbook and try to find the answers for themselves instead of relying on their teacher to give them all the facts on a plate. However, it was not long before they got bored of doing quizzes.

Chinese students seem to be kinaesthetic learners so they will love anything that gets them up and moving about. If you are teaching international trade for example, you could set up a game where each student represents a country. You could give them an unequal number of cards representing the resources that they have and get them to barter their surplus resources with other countries in exchange for what they are in short supply of.

One method which was very enthusiastically received was student-led teaching i.e. presentations. This is certainly one method which my CELTA training never touched upon and I got this idea from the students themselves when I carried out a class survey. I found that Chinese students absolutely love doing presentations and the class also enjoys a lesson more when taught by their peers. From the teacher’s perspective, assigning students to do presentations is a very good way of working smarter, not harder. The students take the burden of lesson planning off you and all you have to do is to make sure that their presentations are accurate and factually correct.

Exams in China

The Chinese education system is very exam-focussed and even foreign teachers cannot escape from having to set formal exams for their students. To fail an exam is extremely embarrassing for a Chinese student so foreign teachers are under immense pressure to pass everyone. Your challenge will be how to design an exam in such a way that all your students will DEFINITELY pass. Open book exams are quite popular with some teachers while others choose simply to set a homework essay e.g. What were the most interesting aspects of this course and what did I learn from it that I didn’t know before?”. You could also get your students to do a roleplay or a presentation for their exam. Try to avoid any sort of closed book exam or essay-writing exams, Chinese students find this challenging and may resort to cheating in order to pass which will create all sorts of administrative hassles for you if you do catch a student cheating. You may have to attend disciplinary hearings, arrange re-sits, do more marking and carry out student punishments. At university level, this may involve making a student write a “self-critique” and reading this out loud to their class, a form of public humiliation which considering China’s face-saving culture, seems quite harsh. The student who cheats may also be required to take the entire course again the following year.

So, which method should you use to teach Chinese students? This depends on many factors e.g. your students’ preferred learning style, your personality, the subject that you are teaching and your students’ ability level, among others. Each method has their respective pros and cons and your students will get bored if you only use just one teaching method. A good teacher will usually use a combination of some or all of the ideas mentioned above. I have also learnt that it is a good idea to survey your students on a regular basis, this will give you valuable feedback on your performance and may even throw up some lesson ideas that you have not thought of before. Ask your fellow teachers what methods they use in their classes and keep your eyes on the TEFL resources on the internet. Good luck!