Author: Maria Lourens, lecturer and an author, teaches English Writing at South China University of Technology.
I was asked to write an article or give my thoughts on teaching English in China which many people commented on and I am grateful for any criticism and especially helpful ideas.
I arrived in China with the usual Western arrogance: I started teaching in 1984 and I thought my experience in South Africa, the UK and Algeria would be a good foundation. However, China has unique challenges. For those who have never taught in China, I want you to consider the following:
- There is no differentiation in the Chinese education system. It is not uncommon to see a severely autistic student in a class with high performing students. The autistic student will be left to his or her own devices and passed year after year. I enquired about this and was told by Chinese teachers that the parents do not want to “lose face” – and there are very few ‘institutions’ for such students.
Chinese English teachers often have bad English. They receive lesson plans, CD’s and flashcards from the government and work towards completing a workbook. I observed several of these classes at a very good primary school in Shenzhen and asked the teacher if she ever checks understanding. She said no, she has to finish the book; there is not enough time. Many schools do not have libraries and no English books.
Students are not failed or held back and the explanation given by the director of the school was this: China is a very big country; they do not have the resources to fail students.
- The levels of schools and universities differ greatly. Peking and Wuhan are very prestigious and cannot, for example, be compared to South China University of Technology. In that respect it is very similar to Western countries.
- There is often a perception amongst parents that English education is “easier’, ‘fun’ and not as rigid as the Chinese education system. Children failing in the Chinese system are enrolled in so-called International Schools, some of them extremely bad, in the hope to get their child into a university or college in the US. Most of these schools only teach the standardised tests.
- 8000 Chinese students failed in the academic year of 2013/2014 in the USA alone. The problem is this: Chinese students often have specific learning problems and instead of testing students and getting the help they need, or testing their type of intelligence and aptitude, they simply push them into an educational institution in the West. The West gladly accepts the money, often knowing students are not capable of meeting the academic demands.
- Most importantly, these students are not encouraged to read in English nor taught how to write in English from a young age, yet the entire academic career of a university student in the West depends on their ability to write well.
- The moment a student in China leaves an English lesson they have no other contact with the language. It is different in the US and UK where students are surrounded by English speakers and media. Reading therefore becomes essential for Chinese students.
- The Chinese phonological system differs vastly from English, there are no Chinese counterparts for some English phonemes. Students find English difficult to pronounce and hard to learn and orthography is especially problematic. Visual decoding of alphabetic scripts is extremely difficult for beginner Chinese students. Exposure to English books from a young age is essential in overcoming these challenges.
My interest or obsession in teaching English close reading and writing stems from personal experience: I was an ESL student. I went to an English university after schooling in my native language and was completely unprepared for the rigours of English academic writing.
I later did an MA in English Close Reading and Creative Writing. My creative writing won accolades; an agent in London accepted my first novel, so I know it can be done.
I continue to study and my research led me to Granada Hills Charter School in LA, California. An exceptional school: They have won the USA Academic Decathlon for 5 years and 54% of their students are ESL’s. I researched their Humanitas Programme, an interdisciplinary programme, spending time with their amazing English literature teachers. Their dedicated ESL programme uses co-teaching and literature, yielding great results.
Last year I researched a reading programme used in South Africa and Mozambique, which is culturally based and taught using Bloom’s Taxonomy. I have since started using elements of it to teach a basic writing course at university level and introduced it to colleagues. We are currently seeing great results.
There are brilliant Chinese students and I am honoured to teach one of them. Her dream is to study law in the US at an Ivy League. I introduced her to Henry David Thoreau, Plato, Locke and Hobbs – because I want her to have the same reference fields when she engages with her fellow students in America. Literature is essential and enables me to teach on so many subjects in a country where the Internet is restricted and students are not exposed to as much information as in the West. I coached her for Harvard’s Model United Nations where she won an award (the first Chinese student to do so). She attended the summer school at Columbia last year and the professor wrote a glowing recommendation for her future application to Columbia.
This summer I am again doing research with an NGO that focuses specifically on reading programmes in Africa.
I tell you all of this because I believe in the power of close reading in order to teach writing. I am extremely honoured to serve in China and hopefully develop my method to help students read and write proficiently in English.