Teaching Chinese Students vs Other Nationalities

Teaching Chinese Students vs Other Nationalities

I’m the kind of teacher who enjoys having her finger in different kind of educational pies. By this, I mean that I love to learn new things and challenge myself. A few years ago I decided to split my online teaching schedule into different nationalities and one of those nationalities are the Chinese.

Today I will share my experience and thoughts on teaching Chinese students, the key differences and some secret techniques most online teachers don’t know of and the simple reason is that they have not worked in a school in China.

Main features

  • You’ll notice that when you start teaching Chinese students that your students are incredibly young. In China, it’s more common for young children to learn English and not many adults. In most cases, the children are so young that do not understand the purpose of learning English, yet. This results in unruly behavior, crying, lack of motivation and ambition. In my case, a lot of spoon feeding.
  • The purpose of learning English is to provide the children with the best educational opportunities in the future such as the opportunity to study abroad at an acclaimed international university or to receive scholarships. This is all for having a better life in the future.  
  • China has an extremely strict education system and children are studying from early mornings until late at night, 6 days a week. It shouldn’t come as a shock to you if your student is tired, has an evening lesson or hasn’t completed their English homework. These little kids work so hard and so many hours that you won’t necessarily see the same commitment from them compared to European students.
  • The Chinese are perfectionists, yes they are! But not for the reasons you might think. Chinese parents and teachers put an extremely large amount of pressure on students. Should a student receive 98% on a test, the parents and teachers will focus more on the 2% that was not achieved. In Chinese culture teachers are shown the highest amount of respect and by showing their teachers respect the student shows themselves respect too. Whether it is a Western teacher or not, homework will be done, classes will be attended without fail to show respect not only towards their educator but themselves too.
  • Creativity might be a problem and most teachers don’t understand why the students are parrot learning instead of actually learning the language. It’s not uncommon to discover that your student has been parrot learning but in reality, has no idea or concept of the language. Why is that? In America for example, arts and crafts are heavily encouraged to enable students to think outside the box and creatively. When we look at the Chinese education system their way of learning is memorising (parrot learning) and using logic. The students are pressed for time to complete other school tasks. The student simply works hard to only memorize which leaves no time or room to really think about the answers.

Now, I’d like to share more lighthearted tips and get into teaching technicalities.

Teaching Young Chinese Learners (3 – 10)

  1. Phonics.

The method ‘Phonics’ is very popular in China nowadays as repetitive learning is widely practised and accepted in China and phonics fits in well with this educational heritage.

Phonics is extremely important, it’s the basics of the English language and without this base, students will find it extremely hard to move forward with more difficult courses. Without phonics students will struggle to read 3-4 letter words, let alone understand them and if 3-4 letter words cannot be understood the student will not be able to string a sentence together or even understand what they are saying. With phonics instruction, we can almost guarantee that the student will eventually understand and this will give them the tools and skills to communicate effectively. This allows them to express and read more fluently. Basically, you can’t run before you are able to crawl or walk. For some of my students who take multiple classes a week, I combine phonics with stories, very short stories made from short yet simple sentences.

If your lesson is only 30min long, it’s important to follow the same structure for each lesson.

Introduce only 4 words per alphabet letter. Teach the sound, how to write the letter in small and capital letters. Write the words. Concept check often: “circle the apple”. Introduce short sentences: “It is an apple”.  

My favourite resources are Oxford University Phonics and Oxford Reading Tree. See below an example of the phonics lesson:

  1. Chinese count to 10 very differently to other nationalities.

It’s not uncommon for teachers to use TPR and counting on our fingers to demonstrate the number of words in a sentence or word. If your student has a confused look on his or her face, it’s simply because it’s not common to use their 10 fingers for counting. This technique will be life changing for you, please remember to share as 90% of online teachers do not know this since physical Chinese classroom experience is where this is taught. However, it is up to you as the teacher to decide what method is useful for you and delivers results.

  1. It’s common for the students to be very shy for the first few lessons since it might be their first time seeing a Westerner or speaking with a Westerner / English teacher. Also in Chinese schools, all the focus is on the teacher and students simply are quiet and only absorb information. It’s rare that questions are asked and answered, it’s not common to have group work or two-way communication to take place also mostly because of the fear and pressure to have the correct answer. Remember the perfectionist part above?  Thus, when we come in and ask plenty of questions it’s normal for the student NOT to answer as this is a very unusual way of learning for them.
  2. Take it slow and limit the vocabulary as much as needed. Chinese students take classes in the evenings so keep in mind that by the time they have their English class with you, their brains are probably already tired and fried.
  3. Always deliver your classes with joy! I can carry on for hours regarding the Chinese culture but we would be stuck here for days. The best advice I can give is to do a lot of research, keep it simple and lighthearted. Understand that the students’ might be unresponsive at first out of fear of making a mistake or simply because it’s not common at school. Learners will need a lot of encouragement, patience and your learning environment must feel like a safe and joyous space for them. Chinese students learn from 7 am until 9 pm daily Mondays to Saturdays, could you manage?

Let’s wrap up

  • Reduce your strictness, they have enough of this at their school. Remember, joy!
  • Get used to parents being in the room or next to the student
  • Parents like to encourage their children and often unfortunately to our annoyance provide all the answers. Yes dear teacher, just breathe in and out.
  • Don’t lose your face / or cool. Students will pull away or the parent will pull their child from classes immediately.
  • Pace yourself and use the power of repetition wisely and correctly. Encourage thinking and creativity.
  • Drop the stereotypes! You know what I am talking about!
  • Work WITH the parents and not against them
  • Leave detailed feedback to ensure the parents are always in the loop.
  • Leave politics out of it, leave Taiwan and Hong Kong out of it. China is extremely sensitive regarding politics and let’s face it, what does the world really know about it?

Before working with Chinese students read the comparison of the relevant features of a student’s own language with English in ‘Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and other Problems’. Moreover, I highly suggest the following article as it has a lot of useful tips that will prepare you for working with Chinese students.

Keep in mind China only recently opened up to the rest of the world. They are still adapting and not used to Western culture so it is solely up to you to adapt yourself and your mindset, but it absolutely achievable.

Happy teaching!

Hanette Lian Stimie

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