Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated July 22, 2020
By Kim Ooi

Teaching oral English to university students in China

Ah, the lure of the TEFL industry.

See the world, they said, experience a new culture, broaden your horizons! The EFL job ads literally scream at you, “Come and teach in our country!”

So, after a robust interview process, you get accepted on a CELTA course. You absolutely work your butt off for four weeks and you’re thrilled to bits when you pass.

You get a job teaching oral English to university students in China. You think you’re ready to take on the world, one classroom at a time.

But are you really ready?

The truth about teaching oral English to university students in China

Teaching university students in China can be a challenge.

At most public universities, you often won’t be given a textbook. You’ll be expected to design your own syllabus and student assessments from scratch.

You’ll find that many techniques you learnt on your CELTA course don’t work in China.

You’ll encounter many students with weak critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

This means the range of activities that you can use in class is somewhat restricted.

Understanding the mindset of university students in China and the role of the foreign English teacher

If you’re to be successful in business, you need to know your customers. Teaching oral English to university students in China is no different.

That’s why, for my first oral English class in every school that I’ve ever taught at, I always do an icebreaker.

I try to find out my students’ names, backgrounds, aspirations, hobbies and reasons for wanting to learn English. Knowing my students’ interests and aspirations makes it easier to choose the topics for my oral English lessons.

So why do university students in China want to learn oral English?

Some have genuine reasons, like a desire to travel, to be able to speak with foreigners, or an ambition to be a teacher.

Others will absolutely hate learning oral English and will be in your class only because they have no choice.

Students in China rarely get the chance to choose the subject that they study at university unless their results in the Gaokao (final high school exams) are outstanding.

If your results aren’t particularly good, you’ll have to be content with studying whatever subject the university arbitrarily assigns to you.

Chinese university student sitting in classroom

Chinese students may not get to choose what they study at university.

Chinese university students also have an extremely demanding schedule.

Since English is not one of China’s Four Modernizations (agriculture, industry, defence and science & technology), many students tend to view the study of oral English as unimportant at best and irrelevant at worst.

Is it any wonder then, that engaging Chinese students is such a challenge for the foreign English teacher?

At Chinese universities, teaching observations are rarely, if ever, carried out. A teacher’s performance may be rated solely on how popular they are with their students.

How to teach oral English to university students in China

Bearing in mind the above, it’s not difficult to realize that teaching oral English is not as easy as it sounds.

A good oral English lesson at a Chinese university needs to be as entertaining as it is educational.

The challenge is in trying to figure out what activities would be appropriate for your students, taking into account their interests and English level.

Four activities that can be used for teaching oral English to intermediate-level students

Here are four activities you might like to use in your classroom.

1. Role-plays

Chinese university students are used to learning by rote. Therefore, they need a lot of structure in their oral English lessons.

When using role-plays, I try to focus on areas that have some practical use. For example, shopping, ordering food in a restaurant, job interviews, airport/hotel check-ins, and dealing with customer complaints.

Role-plays are also useful for learning about foreign cultures as they can be used to act out stories.

The students get to plan and write down what they want to say before role-playing the scenario in question.

Male Chinese university students

Use role-play activities when teaching oral English to university students in China.

2. Videos

Chinese university students love watching videos!

When using videos, I focus on those that can help my students to improve their oral English in some way, like Mind Your Language, a TV series from the UK.

I also try to teach my students something about British culture by showing classic stories like Robin Hood.

For purely entertainment purposes, sometimes I show them comedies like the Mr Bean series.

3. Games

Games can be a bit of a challenge for Chinese university students. They find it difficult to think on their feet.

This provides more authentic oral English scenarios but may be too advanced for beginner students to be able to cope with.

The games that I’ve used include sentence auctions, story-telling relays and ‘Two Truths and a Lie’ (where students guess what you’re saying is true or not).

I’ve also used ‘Rocket Ship’. This is a make-believe scenario where the earth is going to explode and you have a chance to escape with a limited number of people.

Students have to say who they would take with them and explain why.

4. Discussions and debates

There are a wide range of topics that can be used for this but I try to use news items from China. These are more relevant to my students.

I’ve asked them to debate whether they agree with China’s censorship of the internet, and whether they think it’s possible to find love on the internet.

I’ve also asked them what they think of the custom of a man having to buy a property in order to marry a Chinese woman.

It’s also a good idea to have a look at the textbook (if there is one) that your students are using with their Chinese English teacher. You can supplement a few of the topics in there.

Activities that can be used for teaching oral English to beginner students

Students with little English ability will obviously need much simpler activities.

Those that I’ve used include describing pictures, simple questions and answers, greetings, introductions, talking about routines and habits, making suggestions, invitations and excuses.

Which method should you use for teaching oral English?

The most appropriate method for teaching oral English to university students in China depends on many factors.

This includes your students’ preferred learning style, your personality and your students’ ability level, among others.

Each method has their respective pros and cons.

Your students will get bored if you only use just one teaching method. A good teacher will usually use a combination of some or all of the ideas mentioned above.

I’ve also learnt that it’s a good idea to survey your students on a regular basis.

This will give you valuable feedback on your performance and may even throw up some lesson ideas that you haven’t thought of before.

Ask your fellow teachers what methods they use in their classes and keep your eyes on the TEFL resources on the internet. Let me know how you go!


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