Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 15, 2018
By Kim Ooi

Teaching subjects in China - class of university students at Jiangsu University

You’ve passed your TEFL course.

After a period of job hunting, you get offered a job as an English teacher at a university in China. Full of excitement and enthusiasm, you fly off to the Middle Kingdom.

As you wander around your new surroundings, you marvel at the new sights and sounds that you have never seen or heard before.

You can’t wait to start practicing your TEFL skills on your new students. Everything is going well.

You go to the welcome meeting for new foreign teachers and are introduced to your colleagues. Then it happens: you get given a subject to teach that bears no relevance to the training that you’ve had.

Chinese schools seem to think that foreign teachers can teach anything so you may be given subjects like history, geography, culture, politics, and business – in short, knowledge subjects which have nothing to do with the development of language skills.


This can be quite daunting, especially for newly qualified teachers with little to no experience.

You start to panic, you don’t have a clue what to do, because the skills needed to develop fluency in a language are totally different to those required to teach subjects.

What doesn’t work when teaching subjects in China

Don’t make the same mistake that I did. Don’t assume that Chinese university students have the same skillset as their Western counterparts.

Chinese students learn by rote. They typically listen to the teacher, memorize and regurgitate. They struggle with problem-solving, discussions, analysis, lateral and critical thinking.

Teacher Kim teaching subjects in China.

Teacher Kim says Chinese students have different skillsets to their Western counterparts, which makes it difficult when teaching subjects in China.

Lectures don’t work either. This is ironic as lecturing seems to be the main method used by Chinese teachers.

But when a foreign teacher tries to lecture, the students often don’t like it. Somehow, they seem to expect foreign teachers to be more engaging than that, which smacks of double standards.

Chinese students’ inability to think outside the box severely restricts the range of techniques that a subject teacher has at their disposal.

What does work (to an extent) when teaching subjects in China

Quizzes, stories, videos and roleplays can all work to an extent when you’re teaching subjects in China. Here’s how:


Divide your class into teams and get them competing to answer questions.

Chinese students are very competitive so they will be enthusiastic about any chance to beat their classmates at something.

This method also forces students to open their books and to try to find the answers for themselves instead of relying only on the teacher.

You could even ask your students to make the quiz themselves by getting each student to ask one question. But do this too often and your students will get bored.


If you do decide to lecture your students, try not to simply present bland facts but try to also tell them stories related to the subject.

For example, when teaching students about the English Reformation, you could say that if they want to find out what a monk in Medieval England looked like, they should look up the character Friar Tuck in Robin Hood.


What can I say? Students simply love watching movies in class!

Using videos is especially good for teaching subjects like history and culture.



Get the students to write and act out a dialogue based on an event from history or to pretend to be a tour guide showing a new location to, and answering questions from, tourists.

Teaching subjects in China can be challenging but role plays can help.

Role plays work to an extent when teaching subjects in China, according to teacher Kim.

The method that works every time when teaching subjects in China

Student-led learning is something that I had never come across in my TEFL training.

This is simply a project-based methodology where the teacher puts their students into groups and then assigns each group a topic to research and present during their next class.


The advantages of using student-led learning are as follows:

  1. It empowers the students. Students are naturally more enthusiastic when they have a reason to feel important.
  2. Students are more engaged when being taught by their peers.
  3. It means less work for the teacher.
  4. Students remember better what they have found out themselves.
  5. It is a speaking activity. Not only will students get to learn about a subject but they get to practice speaking English too.

The disadvantages of using student-led learning are as follows:

  1. The teacher loses control over the content of the lesson.
  2. The students may present information that is factually incorrect or inaccurate.
  3. The students don’t have the authority to manage the class.
  4. The students won’t have an in-depth understanding of the topic and may be unable to effectively field questions from their classmates.

Teaching subjects in China – what’s the verdict?

Variety is the name of the game.

Regardless of how effective student-led learning is, even that will become boring if that is the only teaching method you use.

By combining student-led learning with things like quizzes, videos, jokes, interesting stories, pictures, role-plays and games, you will create an engaging and stimulating environment that will make your students eager to keep coming back for more!

Have you taught subjects in China before? If so, share your experience by commenting below.

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