Document Sample
feature Powered By Docstoc
					                               Feature Article
                                 Teaching Asian Tigers
                       Gillian Scott (Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh)

When first faced with a class of young mainland Chinese students several years ago, I
would leave the room feeling deflated and somewhat defeated. My communicative
approach, with all its tried and tested activities, appeared to be failing to capture the
imagination of this new group of learners. It was not uncommon to see a student slump
onto the table, yawning profusely, as I struggled to explain the rationale behind pair
and group work or the finer points of vocabulary acquisition. It was obvious that the
students’ expectations and mine as a teacher did not equate and I would have to do a
little investigative work into their backgrounds.
   The result is this article, which is based mainly on personal experience and sharing
ideas with students and colleagues, rather than on any formal research. Although I
have taught Chinese students of all ages, I shall concentrate on the particular
expectations and needs of the 17–20 age group: those who intend to study on an
undergraduate course in the UK.
University Entrance
Low-level Chinese students often arrive with the unrealistic expectation that through
hard work and effort, their English will improve sufficiently within six months or a year.
The idea that it is easier to gain entrance into a British university also exists. Certainly,
there is severe competition in China for university places. According to the World
Education Forum, only 3% or 4% of those who sit the Chinese university entrance
examinations actually get a place. 1 In addition, the one-child policy means parents pin
all their hopes on their one child, exerting enormous pressure on them to do well at
school. Abroad, there may be more university places, but for the majority the costs are
prohibitive. Apart from a few exceptions, most of the students who come here will be
put under tremendous pressure to learn English as quickly as possible so that the real
goal, i.e. obtaining a degree, can be embarked upon. If the student’s academic
qualifications are acceptable, the only barrier will be the IELTS exam.
The teaching style in British EFL institutions is obviously very different to Chinese high
schools, where classes of around fifty are commonplace, and the teacher’s role is
dominant. The teacher acts as a role model and is held in high regard. This means
being strict, but friendly, meticulously organised and setting a good moral example! The
students are not encouraged to be creative or give opinions. In a recent BALEAP
meeting, speakers Lixian Jin and Martin Cortazzi 2 demonstrated how English lessons
are well planned, with step-by-step instructions in Chinese and prior preparation by the
students. Modelling, memorisation and translation all play important roles. Learners
are trained how to respond in the classroom: the teacher will give a hint and the
students will automatically respond. In other words, they know exactly what to expect
in the Chinese classroom.
  Whereas a British child described as ‘quiet’ in their school report might be cause for
concern, this would be seen as a virtue in China. According to a survey by Lixian Jin,
Chinese students rarely ask questions because they do not wish to put the teacher
under pressure or ‘waste time’ in class. There is a high awareness of time and pace in

 BALEAP Professional Interest Meeting, Sheffield Hallam University, November 2001. Cultural
Synergy: Using Chinese Strengths for Learning in EAP. Lixian Jin and Martin Cortazzi.

the Chinese classroom and students dislike wasting time. Great importance is placed
on a prescribed textbook, with dense text, translation and few pictures. Initially, they
may perceive our colourful textbooks and fun and games in the EFL classroom as
childish and unproductive.
  When asked to comment on the kind of activities common in English classes in China,
my students revealed that they were often asked to memorise chunks of text for
homework and stand up to recite them in class. Only one student was able to
remember part of a text: ‘Karl Marx was of German extraction’. The students said they
did not value this method, except for passing their exam in China. They do believe, on
the other hand, that homework preparation is essential, even if they are not so
enthusiastic about completing the task.
When setting a homework task, the teacher needs to be explicit. A vague ‘you can finish
this off for homework’ seems to get rather disappointing results with Chinese learners. I
make my students keep a homework diary and ensure that every task, no matter how
small, is written on the board and copied down. When work is handed in, I tick the
names off on a homework record and tell the students I plan to use this if they require a
reference. This is regarded as ‘serious’ and ‘strict’. Regular class tests are also perceived
as useful and the sign of a serious course. A test in the form of a quiz with competing
teams particularly appeals to Chinese students.
Given the pressure to enter university, it is not surprising that all effort in the Chinese
classroom tends to be focussed on the exam. Teachers are judged on examination
results, just as much as their pupils and it is not uncommon for teachers to visit their
pupils in the evenings to give extra tuition.
In Britain, it is sometimes frustrating for Chinese learners when they fail to understand
the value of certain communicative activities and how they relate to the IELTS exam.
Whereas IELTS assesses the four basic skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking,
in Chinese exams there is a strong emphasis on reading comprehension and grammar,
though writing and listening are also tested. Gap-fill and multiple choice questions are
common, critical essay writing is not. I have been asked on numerous occasions how
many words must be memorised in order to pass the IELTS exam. It is important to
emphasise that although learning a certain number of individual words and structures
might be useful for passing the CET (College English Test) in China, the IELTS exam
requires entirely different strategies and preparation.
Oral Skills

It is hardly surprising then that many newly-arrived Chinese students feel insecure in
the EFL classroom, where they are never sure what to expect, nor how to react. ‘Variety’
for us may mean ‘inconsistency’ for our learners. Furthermore, Chinese students’
primary concern is with accuracy and they may be reluctant to risk making vocabulary
and grammatical mistakes, especially when speaking. The point that fluency, coherence
and pronunciation are just as important should be reinforced. I take advantage of the
fact that many Chinese students know the phonemic script and have a good awareness
of word stress patterns. I have found that self-study pronunciation practice in the form
of shadow readings, is a popular activity among Chinese learners.
  As there is no oral element to the CET exam, there is very little speaking practice in
Chinese schools. Consequently, Chinese students often lack confidence in these areas
when they first arrive in an English-speaking country. Semi-controlled speaking
activities with clear instructions and sufficient homework preparation time will help
these students to feel more confident about participating in classroom discussion
activities. Although such an approach may result in a lack of spontaneity in the
speaking class, it will initially act as a support. Pair and group work and more

impromptu speaking practice could be introduced gradually, once a little confidence
and trust are gained and the students are hopefully more willing to take risks. They
may also need to be well briefed on current issues, before being expected to discuss
such matters as the environment, population growth, genetic modification and so on.
  In any monolingual group, learners will inevitably resort to their mother tongue
during English lessons. I have tried numerous methods to ensure that my Chinese
students speak only English in class (some experiments involved appealing to their
rational side, whilst others, I am ashamed to admit, were more brutal – marking their
foreheads with red chalk). Luckily, the Chinese have a great sense of humour. My
students have applauded my schemes to help them help themselves, but have come up
with their own solution: next term they are to pay a fine of 50p each time they speak
Chinese in class without first seeking permission. At the end of term there should be
enough for a small party and not, I hope, a large banquet.
I face difficulty in convincing some of my students that in order to learn a language
well, socialising with other nationalities and native English speakers and finding out
more about the culture are just as important as individual self study. One student
confided that she could not contemplate communicating with others until she had
mastered the language by herself. Risk-taking is indeed an issue. Apart from arranging
cultural trips, social gatherings and the occasional language exchange, in my
experience, there is little else we can do to help students. In a recent staff-student
meeting, our students suggested that we ‘provide entertainment’ at the weekend! They
really meant that they considered the only useful exchange to be with a teacher who
can check their language. Nevertheless, it is very rewarding when some students do
develop an interest in British culture or take the initiative to make new friends outside
their nationality group.
Self Study
After some time in the UK, many students appear to be adopting new study methods,
only to revert to rote learning as the exam period approaches, as they clearly feel more
comfortable with this. A typical approach to learning the language might be to lock
oneself in a room for hours on end and memorise a long list of discrete items with
translations. Chinese learners are well aware of the importance of autonomous
learning, but they may have a different idea of what is involved. Initially they will
require a lot of guidance on time management and how to organise their work, for
instance, keeping vocabulary notebooks. It is wholly appropriate to show Chinese
students what it means to ‘know a word’: they may have particular difficulty with word
forms, collocation and register.
  Memorisation does of-course play an important role in language acquisition, and we
could harness this ability by encouraging students to learn phrases and examples of
the target vocabulary in context, rather than a meaningless list. Learning in this way
will aid long-term retention. In class it is vital to exploit English-English dictionaries
and to demonstrate how electronic translators are often imprecise. To cite an example,
according to one of these dreadful machines, ‘action’ and ‘activity’ have the same
meaning. Like mobile phones, they should be banned from the classroom!
Learning Styles
One of my colleagues, Iain Davidson, recently conducted an informal survey into
Chinese students’ preferred learning styles. The results were striking. It emerged that
Chinese learners have a strong tendency to learn visually, as opposed to verbally. The
least successful medium will therefore be lectures unsupported by visual material and
handouts: unfortunately the favoured method of teaching in our universities. In
addition, Chinese students seem to learn in a stepwise, logical manner. Their ability to
absorb textual information, from a coursebook such as Headway, is excellent. The
downside of this logical and visual learning style is often an inability to see the ‘big

picture’ or play with conceptual thoughts and ideas: key aspects of communicative
In Chinese schools the approach to reading tends to be ‘bottom-up’, i.e. at the word and
sentence level. It is therefore extremely unrealistic to expect a student to suddenly be
able to see the ‘big picture’, read for gist or to read between the lines. Given an IELTS
style text for homework, Chinese learners will diligently look up the meaning of every
new word in their electronic translators. After hours of work, imagine the
disappointment if they are unable to answer the questions correctly. Over a period of
time various reading strategies, such as predicting, skimming and scanning, can be
introduced. Some students may at first object to doing reading exercises in class as this
may be perceived as wasting time: they are used to preparing texts as homework in
China. If we are very strict with the time limits for reading in class, it should soon
become apparent that it is possible to increase one’s reading speed and to understand a
text without knowing every word.
Chinese students are often fascinated to learn about English discourse, essay
structure, topic sentences, supporting detail and so on. Such details do not appear to
be taught in English classes in China. Regular written homework, marked using a
writing correction code, will help students to spot their errors. Nonetheless, grammar
and vocabulary, though important, are just two areas to consider. Chinese learners
should be made aware that particular attention must be paid not only to form, but also
to content: ideas, argument and organisation. Young Chinese students would benefit
from a study of contrastive texts on current issues, perhaps preparing opposing sides of
an argument for homework.
  They also greatly appreciate reference sheets illustrating patterns in writing, such as
moving from the general to the specific, cause and effect and comparison and contrast.
Such knowledge, coupled with their great attention to detail, has meant that some of
my Chinese students have produced impressive results within a matter of months.
  With any nationality, plagiarism is an issue and it is important to explain why it is
considered a serious offence at university. This is especially the case with Chinese
students, who may see nothing wrong in lifting large sections of text from the Internet
or from books without acknowledging the source. Some of my students are amazed that
I can highlight the precise parts they have copied in their writing (which I refuse to
mark), and doing this helps them to avoid the temptation in future. My colleague,
Olwyn Alexander, suggests giving students a model answer, for example for the IELTS
writing task one, and dividing it into jumbled sentences. The students then work out
the correct order, thinking carefully about the task. The sentences are then taken back
while the students write up their own version in class.
Many Chinese learners hold the false belief that learning a foreign language merely
involves memorising grammatical rules, words and individual structures. They expect
their education to be formal, heavily regulated and exam-oriented. However, feedback
from friends who have undergone the ‘British experience’ is now helping to prepare new
students for what to expect. Likewise, learners are being exposed to new teaching
approaches in private language schools in China and changes are slowly taking place in
the Chinese education system. As teachers, an understanding of Chinese students’
preferred learning styles and initial expectations helps us to plan our lessons more
effectively, though of course it should not be forgotten that they are all individuals. A
patient and systematic approach to stepping up communicative activities and
developing critical thinking is invaluable. You will leave the classroom feeling reassured
and rewarded.