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Teaching Chinese Students English

This is a guest post written by Bob Fonow.

Bob Fonow (2)Teachers of English at every level are working under enormous constraints in the United States.  Places like Fairfax County (Virginia), the area around Boston, San Jose, and many more urban areas are seeing an influx of Chinese and other international students. Any city with a reputation for good schools is a prime destination.  My goal in this blog post will be to share ideas that make the work of teaching English to foreign students just a little bit easier.

We will start with China because my wife, Dorothy, and I own an English education services company in the university area of Beijing.  Most of our customers intend to send their children to the US for high school or university, and some are now even thinking about grade school.

There is a myth in prosperous circles in Beijing and Shanghai that Chinese students study math and physics and US students study theater and choir.  So why not send your uniquely bright student to a place without intellectual competition, the perfect launch pad for the Ivy League?

If you teach English in Beijing, the myth is exposed. Just as in other places, there is a spectrum of students who range from very bright, to good, to mediocre, to uninterested. This is true whether the family is demanding a budding Einstein, a Sally Ride, or a future Steve Jobs. In a Chinese one-child-only culture that values education and academic success, this spectrum of capability is not easily accepted.  Only A’s are acceptable. But let’s get real. You will be teaching English to average students whose parents won’t believe or accept that their children are less than fluent.

There is also an unacknowledged stratum of students with learning challenges.  This is the worst family outcome and often ignored, to the detriment of the child.  As far as I know, we have the only after-school program in Beijing offering programs for challenged English learners.  The availability of services for challenged learners may be another reason why Chinese parents, who might reluctantly understand their child’s reality, prefer the US system.

Let me expose another myth: Chinese schools and teachers actually do a very good job of educating millions of students a year.  The system as a whole seems to me to function better than the US system in developing a universally literate citizenry.  Creativity isn’t suppressed.  I have eighth graders who can write creative and sometimes humorous stories in English at the tenth-grade US level. That’s an exception, but many students have a basic understanding of English by seventh grade.

After spending eight years in a city with the highest academic expectations, one issue is clear to me, and it transfers to the United States with the child: Parents assume that low performance is not usually the student’s or the family’s problem.  It is the teacher, the school, or the program.  This view is especially prevalent with boys.  After all, the male only child holds all the aspirations of the family name, future prosperity, and reputation.  Often there is no second child to divert the parent’s attention, and there’s never a third.

How do we deal with this spectrum of capability and attitude toward education?  In Beijing our after-school programs are in the enviable position of being able to teach to interests.   Sometimes students will come to us saying that they hate English.  This is almost never true.  They just don’t like repetitious grammar lessons, or aren’t ready to learn about Ancient Greece or Shakespeare (Shashibiya in the local lingo) in a second language at the age of 10 or 11.  They are more interested in Pokemon, the NBA, fashion, or WeChat, the Chinese Facebook.

We assess each student for ability and interests.  Then we build a program around their educational goals.  We have students who are interested in physics, math, astronomy, and other sciences, and many more interested in fashion design, art, military strategy, ISIS, travel, even regional food and music in the United States.  In addition, all of our programs are designed to secretly prepare students for the TOEFL and the new SAT.

Students like to have some fun learning English, especially after a long school day.  Why make it a chore?  We have had parents remove their children from our lessons saying that there was too much laughing in class.  Almost always they return.  We have fun with a purpose.  Over the years we have learned to teach to an average set of learners and get them ready for life abroad.

Next:  Agents and Home stays:  The perfect recipe for dysfunction.

Bob Fonow is a management consultant and chairman of Discover Club, an after school English program in the university area of Beijing, China