Q & A ON TEACHING ENGLISH IN HIGH SCHOOL IN CHINA

Q & A ON TEACHING ENGLISH IN HIGH SCHOOL IN CHINA

Shengliver’s Note: In July 2010, Shengliver was on a training programme, whose purpose was to prepare frontline teachers of English in China for what is officially termed curriculum reforms. On the programme, Shengliver, as a trainee, answered six questions set by the trainer. This entry is a collection of the questions and their answers. The questions here are translated from their Chinese versions on the programme, and the answers are Shengliver’s work.

 

Q:

 

An English instructor is supposed to treat a course book as a means rather than an end. How do you interpret it?

 

A:

 

A teacher is a master of his course book. He should not be bound by the contents of the book. He should put his students’ interests and needs at the core of his work. Meanwhile he should keep in mind the objectives of the curriculum, which can be achieved by means other than the course book—activities, projects, and real-life materials.

 

The objectives of the curriculum are the end. A course book is a means to the end. There is one national English curriculum, but we have a dozen course books across the country at our disposal.

 

Q:

 

How do you prepare the freshmen for high school?

 

A:

 

Orientation is the first leg of the high school journey. My job in the first few weeks is to orientate the newcomers to the new learning environment, by preparing them in vocabulary, strategies, and attitude, for their upcoming foreign language exploration in secondary education.

 

Vocabulary

 

It is not necessary to revise the words and expressions they learned in middle school by doing repetitive paper work. Instead, talking about their everyday life will get them ready for the new lessons. Basic vocabulary will be processed in lively and meaningful conversations. Words like dorm, canteen, toilet, eraser, and library will be recalled in the process.

 

Strategies

 

The youngsters must have employed some learning strategies in middle school. However, the high school curriculum requires them to adjust their learning styles to the demanding tasks in the new phase. In the first few weeks, I should show them the ways to manage key learning issues—how to learn vocabulary, the relationship between knowledge and practice, and short-term and long-term goals. Also I will make it clear that a learner is expected to come up with his own strategies as new problems arise in the three years.

 

Attitude

 

Learning the language should be integrated into the students’ workload. I should help them form a balanced view of the language. What role does it play in their academic life? Why do we learn the language? What can the teacher offer? What cannot he offer? And what is expected of the learners?

 

Q:

 

Design a lesson in which you are to teach the unit “Friends”. Make sure that your design reflects the spirit of the NEW curriculum.

 

A:

 

A Teaching Plan

 

FRIENDS

Steps

Duration

What to do

Lead-in

2 minutes

Do you have some friends? Who are they? Why are they important to you?

Warming-up

2 minutes

Hand out a questionnaire. The students complete the questionnaire by interviewing two classmates about friends and friendship.

1st Reading

8 minutes

Ask the students to skim the text before they answer the following global questions.

 

1. Is the story real or fictional?

2. Normally there is a meaning behind a name. What does the name Chuck Noland mean? Is it a clever name?

3. Is the desert island in the Pacific or the Atlantic?

2nd Reading

15 minutes

Ask the students to read the text again to absorb as much info as possible. When they finish it, put them in groups of three or four and have them ask and answer the following in-depth questions. Walk around the room to listen or join a group in their discussion.

 

1. What was Chuck’s job before the accident?

2. Why did he have his family and friends ignored?

3. Where did he end up after the accident?

4. How did he feel on the desert island every day?

5. Did he have any companion on the island?

6. Why do you think he treated the ball as a friend?

7. What lesson did he learn from this experience?

Language Focus

15 minutes

Ask each student to locate five language items from the text which he finds useful or has difficulty with. Then have the class use their dictionaries or reference books to make notes of the items. If necessary, shed light on the thorny ones.

Reflection

3 minutes

People have different dreams. Some want to be rich; some famous; and some powerful. What is your dream? What role do your friends play in the pursuit of your dream?

 

Q:

 

What is the essence of ongoing curriculum reforms? What feature of the new course book impresses you most?

 

A:

 

The essence of the reforms is to lighten the workload of students and teachers, to optimise the ways teachers teach and students learn, and to help students cultivate their critical thinking and creativity.

 

Not everything old should be discarded. A lot of the old ways, however, are to be shed or modified if we hope to do better teaching. Look at the following practices: attempting to achieve all learning goals by doing one exam after the other; excessive homework; and dry lessons.

 

We can find pearls amongst the old ways still: good student-teacher cooperation, patient tutoring of the learners with special needs in the office, and pragmatism in the classroom. These pearls glitter whatever curriculum we might follow and whichever course book we might adopt.

 

With the new curriculum, we will attain learning objectives by being innovative and being able to challenge ugly aspects of the system. By taking care of all facets of the language (four skills, and learner attitudes and affective needs), and by catering for all students instead of just the few whom the authorities earmark as hopefuls in the game, we will definitely find our language teaching stimulating, productive, and elevated.

 

What impresses me most is the contents of the course book, with rich vocabulary and diverse means to teach it.

 

The shift from grammar-orientated to vocabulary-orientated instruction is a revolutionary step in ELT in China. In the 1980s the best high school graduates wrote English perfect in grammar. Yet when it came to using the language for a real life purpose, they would find their grammatically-correct English did not help very much for lack of core vocabulary, which never made its entry into the curriculum and the course book.

 

The new curriculum covers vocabulary that a native user of the language frequently applies in his daily communication. If a learner actively practises the words and expressions in the learning tasks, he will be able to function well in English by the time he completes the curriculum. He will understand general English media and write practical English like email or an application.

 

Q:

 

How do you teach grammar? Freshmen make a lot of mistakes in Sentence Completion and Writing. What approach do you take to those mistakes?

 

A:

 

How do you do grammar?

 

A guiding principle I follow is to teach grammar in a context. Each daily lesson should focus on one element of the language—listening, speaking, reading, writing, vocabulary or grammar. A grammar lesson is necessary and is one category of the different lessons we do.

 

A traditional grammar session comprises the following steps.

Step One

Presentation

The teacher presents the grammar item to be learned—its name, its format, and its function.

the passive voice in the present simple tense

 

am done

is done

are done

 

We use this format to say “something is done” instead of “someone does it”.

Step Two

Mechanical practice

The teacher should use exercises in the course book for mechanical training. The purpose of this step is to familiarise the students with the grammatical format.

Turn the following into passive.

 

Teens like music.

Birds eat insects.

Father adores me.

Step Three

Practice in a context

This step combines the format with the meaning. The students are required to express themselves using the new format. Mistakes are unavoidable and tolerated.

Every Friday afternoon, you and your classmates clean the classroom and the dorm. Write five sentences to describe what is done for cleaning that afternoon. Use the format in your sentences.

Step Four

Application

This step is for advanced learners of a class. The students are required to use the new grammar format, together with those at their command, to express themselves freely for a communicative purpose, verbally and/or in writing.

Your British e-pal Jack asks you what bamboo is used for in China. Write Jack a reply in which you explain the uses of the grass.

 

Grammar cannot be learned merely in a grammar lesson, however. In the other lesson categories such as speaking and listening, the teacher should reinforce the learners’ mastery of the newly-learned grammar point. Mistakes are corrected when necessary, and it is perfectly OK to refresh their memory from time to time as long as the focus of the lesson is not lost.

 

An instructor should not limit himself to an established method. No method serves all circumstances given differing learning styles and an instructor’s preferences. We, teachers and students alike, are humans. If we had no appetite, we would not touch any meal no matter how delicately it might have been cooked or whether it had been done by a star chef or mother.

 

That said, the traditional mode still works in a Chinese classroom. Of course, when it wears out (I am sure it will in time like any other method), we are free to experiment with whatever appeals to the learners.

 

How do you deal with grammatical mistakes freshmen make in Sentence Completion and Writing?

 

I take their mistakes as acceptable. We are in charge of their three years’ learning, and therefore we should have a bird’s eye view of the learning experience—its ups and downs, nuts and cakes, and short-term goals and long-term goals. Before a learner gets a point right, he will get it wrong.

 

Of course, giving the students practice focused on Sentence Completion and Writing helps. Some teachers commit their pupils to copying and memorising the sentences. It helps, too. Apart from focused work, we can devise fun tasks to help the students improve their performance in Sentence Completion and Writing. However, taking into account the whole learning experience, we should go further than focused practice. Providing we do not compromise or dilute the syllabus, the learners will excel in whatever exam they might sit.

 

(Shengliver’s Note: Sentence Completion and Writing are questions from the National Matriculation English Test Hubei.)

 

Q:

 

How would you revise the course book if given an opportunity to do so? What question would you put to the editor of the book if you should talk with him face to face?

 

A:

 

How would you revise the course book if given an opportunity to do so?

 

I would reduce the amount of speaking and listening and increase that of reading materials concerning China and Chinese society.

 

The present listening and speaking is based on the topic of a module. Each listening practice is taped and the speech pre-recorded for classroom use. A lot of teachers and students find the contents inflexible, boring, and irrelevant. The truth is that most students cannot comprehend materials in which the script readers go too fast. Because the speech is set on the cassette tape, slowing it down is out of the question, thus leaving the learners baffled and beaten. How can a teacher hold his pupils’ attention if they are all at sea?

 

The best teaching is geared to learner needs. If the students find the materials beyond them, we teachers should bring the difficulty down or simply come up with our own tasks and activities.

 

When the contents are meaningful and close to the everyday life that teachers and students share, learning will come about. If the difficulty is such that the learners can surmount it with a reasonable amount of exertion, then they will end up with a sense of accomplishment rather than frustration. Repeatedly frustrated, a learner will lose his appetite. Enticed by progress through endeavour, he will eat more and grow stronger.

 

Also one key purpose of learning the language is to facilitate communication between China and the world. We should understand them, and of equal importance is that we should get ourselves understood. The fact is that most learners find it hard to introduce Chinese ways of life in English to the outside world. That is why I feel it is necessary to increase reading contents on China and Chinese society. The amount of material of this nature in the current version is far from enough.

 

What question would you put to the editor of the book if you should talk with him face to face?

 

My question would be: What level of language proficiency should a teacher reach if he were to teach English using your course book?

 

The quality of a course book matters. No doubt that the present course book is much better than older versions in many respects. Nonetheless, the final product of the teaching endeavour is to a large extent contingent on how good the teacher is—his language proficiency, his dedication to the career, and his skills in building up rapport with the teens. The fact cannot be ignored that a lot of English language teachers across the country, for one reason or another, see their language proficiency degenerate into a turd. It is not the responsibility of the editor to train the teachers, but a teacher’s proficiency is a BIG issue when it comes to using the course book.

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