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By Yannick Ferreira de Sousa, ESL Teacher of Huamei Secondary School


“Amediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superiorteacher demonstrates, the great teacher inspires”- WilliamArthur Ward


ESL courses are anessential part of Chinese education, however, it is often inappropriatelytaught. ESL stands for “English as Second Language”, and though it does focuseson the four core skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) which areneeded for acquiring a language. It does also include important cultural,historical, political, religious, social and daily life aspects related to thelanguage, which are equally as important as they create context and meaning.However, these important aspects of the language are often overlooked in China, andschools often favor of a more academic approach, such as teaching grammar,spelling, vocabulary learning and essay writing. Though these academic skillsare indeed important, and are included in the ESL course, they should never bethe main focus. Yet, due to the very particular teaching environment in China, wherestudents have very little exposure of English outside the school, insufficientclass time to learn it, and inappropriate testing systems that focuses too muchin grammar and vocabulary acquisition. Teachers, especially Chinese Englishteachers, feel that they have no choice in this matter and must focus on theseacademic elements rather than other aspects of the language. Hence, theyusually end up having little or no time to cover anything else. In turn, thisaffects the effectiveness of the ESL course, and often resulting in havingstudents being unable to communicate properly in English. Therefore, there is areal need for reform in Chinese schools.


I remember when Ifirst started working in China,an expat teacher told me that “In China, people tend to focus more on the job,than its purpose”. At that time, I didn’t pay much thought on what he had said,but looking back now, I know what he was trying to tell me. Due to its size, China has avery rigid bureaucratic system and it is common for the employer to checkemployees regularly and assess their performance basing on very specificcriterions. Therefore, people must make sure to fulfill these criterions orthey will score poorly in their performance review and/or will be criticized bytheir employer. As a result, they tend to focus on the job more than thepurpose. Taking this theory further, I believe that this phenomenon alsoaffects ESL teaching in China,as teachers must worry more about their performance review than teachingstudents something interesting. And therefore, they have to focus a lot oftheir attention towards students’ performance and scorings, as it is often themain criterion of their assessment. Reforming the education system will not besufficient though. Reforming the way employees are assessed is equallynecessary, if schools wish to see their teachers cover more than the academicaspects when teaching ESL classes.


Another issue thataffects ESL teaching efficiency is the cross cultural shocks or differencesbetween Western and Chinese teaching methodology and the inability of someforeign teachers to adapt to this new teaching environment.


For instance, formost of Huamei students, English is not a dominant language in their lives.Because of this, many students, fail to see the obvious practical benefits fromlearning English, hence, they might not have any intrinsic motivation instudying the language. Because of this, foreigners have a lot of difficultiesreaching out to students and motivating them to speak up in class. To makethings worse, the foreign teacher may be the only English speaker that theyhave exposure to, which isolates even further students from learning thelanguage. On the other hand, Chinese English teachers are pressurized to givemore and more oral practice to their students, and end up just drilling commonsentence patterns instead of trying to develop a more student focus lesson.Which in turn confuses the foreign teacher as students might be able to answerone question flawlessly but then cannot expend on their answer – the “I’m fine,thank you!” dilemma.  All and all,foreign teachers do struggle a lot and must adapt or leave, there is also verylittle support for them, and as result, they often end up leaving the school.


To solve thisproblem, a better communication between the Chinese English teachers andforeign teachers is needed. Meetings, social network, Chinese classes, andcultural classes, general emails, and social gathering are essential in orderto maintain a good communication. However, in reality these are not oftenimplemented, and instead, foreigners and Chinese staff tend to isolatethemselves and communication between these two parties is often broken ornonexistent. 

Another way tosolve this issue is to improve students’ interest in learning the language byteaching them where to find opportunities to practice speaking English outsideof the classroom. Many students come from very different part of the societyand have very different values and norms. The teacher needs to educate themabout western culture and norms in order to help them get along with westernsocieties.


Teachers need tonever mislead their students into believe that English is just a set of rulesand words to memorize. It is the living, breathing creation of cultures andcommunities around the world. And therefore, they need to do whatever they canto reveal this depth.  Such as, introducing Pen pals, usingnon-traditional teaching materials, invite them to use of social networks andeven online games to communicate with non-Chinese people, in brief, they needto find creative ways to make English come alive for the students. On the otherhand foreign teachers need to be reminded that English can be very theoreticalwhen you have been growing up in a non-English environment. They should try to Findout more about each student’s passion and hobbies, and then, tie English intothem.


To conclude, Crosscultural struggles, a very rigid bureaucracy, emphasis on doing the job ratherthan the purpose, and failure to focus on students’ interests and needs are themain problems that needs to be tackled in order to improve ESL courses inChinese Schools. And though some of these issues can be resolved quicklythrough better training and teaching support, some might take more time as theyare directly rooted into Chinese rich culture. Yet, I believe that at somepoint in time these issues might be resolved. As, in the west we had similarproblems, and yet, thanks to the media, radical cultural and social changes,these issues resolved by themselves or/and by people who decided that educationwas not just to teach a subject but a way to help broader young people’s mindand give them knowledge and skills to help them be better individuals in ourmodern society. After all, all it takes is to have teachers that decide to domore than just their job and inspire their students and colleaguesrespectively. A wise man said once: “A mediocre teacher tells, the good teacherexplains, the superior teacher demonstrates, the great teacher inspires”(William Arthur Ward).



(Nick has two Bachelor degrees from London Universityand  two English teaching qualificationsfrom Cambridge.He has worked for a variety of organizations and gained a wide range ofteaching experiences.)


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