Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated April 12, 2020
By Nicholas McKay

How to motivate your students in China

Fact: unless we’re inspired to do something, it probably won’t get done.

As a TEFL teacher in China, we’re often required to not only bring an enthusiasm for teaching, but to bring enough motivation for all of our students too.

This can be very draining, especially when teaching in China. I mean, have you seen the size of public school classes in this country?

You mustn’t fret, however, for there are ways of motivating Chinese students to learn.

It’s not a perfect world

In an ideal world, students would come to class with 100% enthusiasm to learn.

Although Chinese students are often perceived to be more enthusiastic than their Western equivalents, this isn’t always the case.

If you’re teaching English in China, many of your students will have little interest to leave the mainland, let alone want to learn a language spoken outside of their country.

Fortunately, however, there are ways of influencing your students to take a more vested interest.

Extrinsic motivation

A friend of mine (let’s call him Li) grew up in Beijing.

During his second year of high school, he walked home with a sheet of paper which said he was the second best student in his maths class.

His parents were impressed. His uncle, who happened to be there, was less so.

"Why aren’t you the very best?" he asked (in Mandarin, of course).

Li’s uncle urged him, if he could get a higher mark, then he should be striving for that, and he insisted that his parents hold him to it.

When Li next completed a maths test, he received the highest mark.

How will you motivate your students in China?

How will you motivate your students in China?

In Li’s case, as is for many students in China, extrinsic motivation plays a strong role in their ability to succeed.

Thanks to pushy Chinese parents who want their children to be impossibly fabulous, some students are inspired to learn before you set foot in the classroom.

In a beautiful world, all students would come to class with a likeminded commitment.

This, however, is not often the case.

Desires are delicious

To want something will often be motivation enough for a student to do well. As a teacher, you should try to cash in on this.

By discovering what students like doing, or what their endeavoured future career is (particularly for senior students), you can attempt to include this in your lesson.

Say you have a student who wants to be a doctor. You could create an activity relating to vocabulary in that profession.

Or, if a student likes badminton, you could develop an incomplete short story (or find one online) about a game of badminton.

Students, when reading the story as a class, are required to amend the spelling and grammatical errors. Upon completion, they develop their own conclusion.

The key is to make students enthusiastic about what they are doing in class.

Are we on the same page?

In China, so often you will be teaching to the test.

Students are like sponges, soaking up all of that information, and later, reproducing this on their exams.

By reminding students that the work they are asked to complete in class might end up on the test, can sometimes be motivation enough to hold their interest.

When teaching in China, the desire to do well can sometimes be the strongest motivator of all.

If you’re teaching at a high school, a lot of your students will want to get into the best universities. Keeping students accountable to this dream can guarantee their continued enthusiasm.

Using food as a motivator

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the expression, ‘the easiest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’ – or is that ‘the best way’ – I keep getting those confused.

Anyway, the same philosophy can be applied to students in China. Food is a great extrinsic motivator across all age groups.

When teaching language, you can use the five senses: taste, touch, sight, sound and smell.

One possible activity involves bringing some chocolate into your classroom (you might want to know about any allergies before attempting this).

Students, before unwrapping the chocolate, feel the wrapper.

What does the chocolate feel like? What does the wrapper, when they crinkle it, sound like? What does it look like?

Chocolate is an extrinsic motivator

Chocolate can motivate your students and provide a great basis for a lesson.

Now, unwrapping the chocolate, what has changed? What does it look and feel like now that it is out of its packaging?

What does the chocolate smell like?

Finally – the wait is over! Ask students to bite into the chocolate, and describe its taste.

Not only this, but what does it feel like as they bite into it?

This activity is designed to get students using their senses for creative purposes.

An activity for your first class – Family Matters

When meeting your Chinese students for the first time, there will be two very obvious facts.

The first is, you will have no knowledge of these learners, and vice versa. You may also know little about Chinese culture, and they even less about yours.

Secondly, you will have little to no data on your students’ abilities.

What I call the Family Card Activity is one such method of, cliché I know, taking out two birds with one stone.

Using any kind of word software, create a series of cards.

Ideally, there will be a cartoonish image of someone, with their name listed beneath. An example can be seen below.

Family Card game to help motivate students in China

You will need one image for each student. Cut them out and place them upside down in a pile. Ask your students to each collect one card, then place themselves randomly in the room.

Your students will then need to walk around the room, introducing themselves to each other, using the name on their card. In short, these students take on the personas of their characters.

As an example, Zhang may have received the image of Jeanette Rice. She will be required to walk around the room, saying to her peers ‘Hello, my name is Jeanette Rice. Who are you?’

The goal of the activity is for each student to be united with their family. So, all the students with ‘Rice’ as their last name need to find each other.

Once this has happened, the students in each familial group need to use the images to determine their age, and position in the family.

Are they a grandmother? Are they a father? Are they a teenager?

When students in each group are satisfied they are ordered appropriately (from oldest to youngest), one member from each group will need to introduce themselves to the class.

So, Zhang might say ‘Hello everyone. My name is Jeanette Rice. This is my daughter Lily, and my older son, Benjamin.’

Benefits of this activity

This activity serves a number of purposes.

It teachers your students in China how to introduce themselves in English. It also teaches them the connective importance of imagery and words.

Moreover, the activity teaches Chinese students how families outside of China might appear.

As an example, the Rice family is a single parent household. In China, a stigma is still attached to divorcees, and this activity could be an opportunity to discuss some key cultural differences.

This activity can motivate your students from the very first class, and help set the scene for your entire semester.

The Coloured Card game

This activity can be used when teaching in China to scaffold learners after they have completed an area of study, and before a test.

A lot of work is needed to create this activity, but it really does pay off.

You first need to create a series of questions.

One variety can be multiple choice. The second can be short answer questions, while the final example can be the equivalent of long answer essay questions, requiring a paragraph response.

Primary school students in China can be motivated by games

Students in China can be motivated to learn English with games.

Upon completion, the teacher will assign a colour to each card.

So, all multiple choice cards could be coloured green. All short answer questions could be blue, and all long answer questions could be red.

Multiple copies of each question will need to be printed, as the activity requires students to be arranged into different groups. There should be, approximately, a similar number of learners in each group.

Apart from the questions, two plates of candy are also provided to every group.

One plate has candy that is the same colour as the cards, so, green, blue and red. The other plate contains candy of various other colours.

When the activity begins, a student in each group will take one of the green, blue or red candies at random. They will then pick up a card of the same colour, and in their group, respond to the question.

Upon completion, all students take a candy from the other plate, in recognition of their achievement. Then, another student takes a green, blue or red candy, and the process begins anew.

This is undertaken until all questions are completed, after which, a class discussion is generated, to determine the answers each group provided for the questions.

Benefits of this activity

This activity is designed to test the knowledge of your Chinese students in a relaxed environment, allowing your students to help each other.

It temporarily removes the competitive atmosphere often associated with students in China.

This provides motivation for students to actively participate in your classroom.

The candy also acts as an extrinsic motivator.

Humour is not just the best medicine

Most students in China are terrified of making a mistake in class, and trying to involve them in the lesson can be about as easy as trying to nail water to the wall.

Occasionally, making everyone equally vulnerable can help motivate student contributions.

There is a language game I have played with my classes, and it often results in lots of laughter.

A select group of students (say five) are sent outside. The others are treated to a short story.

Here’s an example for senior students.

Depending on your class, you will need to pre-teach students (minus the five sent outside) select vocabulary, to assist with comprehension.

Once students understand the text, they are provided a handout. They will be tasked with assessing the five students, who will be called in one at a time.

The first student called back in is told the story. They must remember as much as possible, and say what they remember to the next student, and so on.

Each time, the rest of the class records how the story changes over time.

The last student turns to the class and says the final version of the story. The rest of the class is asked to respond on how the story evolved over time.

This activity is multimodal, using a combination of writing, reading, listening and speaking.

This educates students on intonation and meaning, and motivates them to learn in a group setting.

Motivation is a key aspect of teaching

If a student isn’t motivated to learn, chances are, they won’t.

Regardless of what is being taught, the process of learning something is not always interesting, and sometimes this cannot be helped.

Your job as a TEFL teacher, however, is to find creative ways to motivate your students as much as you possibly can.

Using some of the strategies I’ve outlined in this blog might help make a difference in your classroom.

They’ve worked for me, and I hope they work for you too!

Are there any motivational activities you have tried while teaching in China? Please, share them with your fellow readers below.


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