Saturday, April 18, 2015

Oral English classes in Chinese Universities

This post is my response to a question from Linked-In:

Many of my colleagues entertain students by showing movies, telling jokes, having fun role-plays, playing games etc. In these activities, should we merely be encouraging students to speak more using a variety of prompts or should we also be teaching grammar?

Note I tried posting this as my response on Linked-In, but ever since a troglodyte group owner banned me from his kingdom several years ago, I seem to have lost all rights to respond to all groups in Linked-In. Meh.

I have taught in Chinese Universities for over five years; English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for more than ten.

I never teach grammar; their Chinese English teachers do that. I do occasionally show examples of broken grammar and ask the students:

  1. Is there a problem?
  2. What/where is it?
  3. Fix it.
I accept any reasonable, grammatically correct fix to the sentence and point out changes in meaning when necessary. I don’t spend long on these moments and I don’t turn them into grammar lectures.

I do teach pronunciation, like linking and elision. I show the rules and we practice with example sentences. I teach the necessary background for this as well (like the syllable rules because linking depends on an understanding of syllable patterns).

I never show movies (unless it’s something like a TED with a definite purpose for watching it). I almost never use role-plays. They can be entertaining, but I see a lot of wasted time and the productions are often superficial. I should probably re-visit this tool to see if I can improve my use of it.

Of course I aim to have fun in class — it relaxes students and lets learning happen. I sometimes (but rarely) play EFL based games. One of my favourites is called "Wow!" where a word is written on the board behind a student standing at the front of the class and the other class members have to describe the word without using it or cognates. They’re not allowed to speak Chinese or use body-language (face/hands) or make sounds (like barking) either. I started playing "Wow!" as described but quickly converted it into a computer based solution so that students could quickly work through as many words as possible within their short time in front of the board. I now call this Marathon Wow!


I had a very inventive group of junior high school students who created their own English-based code for cracking the "Wow!" rules.

This was a decade ago and it was the very first time I tried "Wow!". What an adventure! These cunning kids immediately found ways to shortcut and "win". It was a war of escalation: They used hand gestures, so I introduced the "no hands" rule. They spelt words; a new rule. They mouthed words/spellings; rule. In the end, with their help, I came up with 7 water-tight rules for a happy and harmonious game of "Wow!".

Water-tight, I thought, until I noticed one group was winning so many more points than all of the others. I watched for cheating, assuming they were using gestures or mouthing answers but I couldn’t catch them. Then I realised that the English prompts their team-mates were giving couldn’t possibly cause the student at the board to think of the answer he so deftly produced. The look on my face told them the game was up. They laughed and confessed that they had devised a code for spelling the word by using English words.


So far this semester, I have not shown any movies or played any games. I chose this semester to teach my students about Critical Thinking and Creative Thinking. I have given them a semester-long project called "Think Big!" in which their group (5-7 members) presents a problem that exists in their world and various possible solutions. I have taught techniques like Reverse Brainstorming, PMI, Decision Matrix, Mind Mapping, Presentation Design and the rules of effective dialogue. The groups present their problem & solution and then lead a class-wide discussion based around the topic. They prepare questions to prompt dialogue but are not required to use any/all of them if the topic generates sufficient interest for spontaneous and enthusiastic discussion. I have successfully used this model before (with a different topic) and the students love the format.

To prepare them for this task I slowly (over the course of the first 10 weeks of semester) show them the various thinking, planning and presentation tools they need to produce good work. I show them examples of good work so they know what to aim for. I show them examples of bad thinking/planning/work so they know what to avoid.

I present thinking challenges in every class. Often these come from the students themselves when they talk to me outside of class. Because of this, the problems are often very real for the students so they are more motivated (and able) to ponder them and offer suggestions/solutions.

Another project I run concurrently during the first ten weeks is an opportunity for each student to tell the class something about themselves (this semester the topic is called "Five Minutes of Fame" where the students tell us about a talent, skill or achievement) and then answer questions from classmates. I record each week who presents and who asks questions — that participation constitutes a very large portion of their overall grade (and they are told so at the outset of the semester and reminded regularly throughout). I show a rank-sorted leaderboard before each class as an extra bit of motivation.

As my third and final assessment piece this semester, I am trying something new: I have asked the students to keep a Surprise Journal. They are required to show me their final journal and present to the class one of their surprise moments.

Each journal entry has the format:
  1. What surprised me?
  2. Why was it surprising?
  3. How has this changed me?
I spent the first few weeks inviting students to present surprise entries they had collected so far as a way to model expected behaviour for this assessment piece.

My goal is to get the students to use their English, not bore them with meaningless, isolated, disconnected snippets and exercises. They’ve done that throughout high school. In general, I get good participation and feedback — the students enjoy being given the opportunity to think and contribute their ideas.