TEFL Teaching English In China 1993 vs. The Present

China has been proclaimed to be the largest market for English learners. In the last twenty years, progress in teaching and learning of English has exploded.

Arriving in China August 1993 was not my first time there. Though it was my first time in the Northeast. I was to spend the next twelve years of my life in the city of Shenyang. An industrial city of 7 million people. My first impression was that it was like being in a 1950´s black and white movie with no sub-titles..

I was to teach at Shenyang Institute of Technology. My first year, I had 800 students. All except one of the classes, were freshmen. One was a class of 25 graduate students. Shenyang was my home until October 2005. There were tremendous changes in China during those years affecting all aspects of life. Especially education. What I will share here is specific to Shenyang. All of my years in China were spent living and working there. I did take opportunities to visit several other cities.

I thought I was prepared when I began. I had been working at an American university the previous 13 years and had spent a lot of time with students from China. In addition, I had many Chinese friends from different countries, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Singapore and Malaysia, as well as ABC´s (American Born Chinese). I was in for a shock.

Class Size

The first thing that overwhelmed me was the class size. There was anywhere from 65 to 125 students in a class. The freshmen classes I only met with each for 2 hours, every other week. Not much time to get to know the students let alone for them to learn English. Since the desks were bolted to the floor there was no way to arrange the class in a different order. I had them do a lot of pair work or group of four, tops. Two people could turn their chairs around and talk with two behind them. I sometimes tried to get them all to sit n different seats. That almost never worked. I think I spent half my time just trying to keep track of the students and make sure they were in class. They had new tricks every week to get out of class. But, I counted heads several times during the class. Part of their grade was class attendance. Students would often leave at the break time or slip out of class when I was writing on the board. For these freshmen, the classes were mandatory. They had to have on their transcript that they had taken English. Because the had to be in this class, many of them really were not motivated or even interested in learning English. Usually there was a core group that would sit in the front of the class and participate. The rest did only what they were made to do.

At that time, students in China had no choices in their education. Not in what, nor where they studied. They spent their years up to college doing nothing but study and prepare for college. They had to take an entrance exam which determined where and what they would study. They were able to list three choices each for an upper level college, a mid-level and low-level college. According to their score they were placed in a college. The needs of the state determined what they would study.

As a result, very few students were studying where or what they really wanted. They had no interest in what they were studying. Therefore no motivation. When they graduated, the state would determine where they would work and what work they would do. It could be totally different from what they studied. You could have a student who was studying education, to be a teacher, who really wanted to study engineering, and who would end up working in sales. There was no reason to do well in school. Everything was already determined for you. Today, the system is totally changed. Students do have choices in where and what they study. After graduation they have to find their own job. This means that there is competition for the jobs available. They must do well in school if they want to get a good job. Result, motivation to learn English.

I had a picture in my mind of these diligent students that had total respect for their teachers and were hard working in their studies. Wrong!


In order to be effective in teaching any subject, you´ve got to have some resources. I was given a photocopy of an American English textbook that had the worst dialogues I´ve ever read. At least each student had a photocopy of the book also.

Every year when I came back to the US for the summer break, the first thing I would do is go to a bookstore for ESL books, and to an office supply store for pens and paper.

After a couple of years different materials started showing up in stores in Shenyang. Magazines, written for the college student, with accompanying cassettes became popular with the students. A newspaper titled "21st Century" was used a lot by me. It had grammar lessons in it. It was inexpensive and I could afford to buy several copies for students to share. Listening lessons could be taped from shortwave radio from Voice of America and BBC with their special English programs..

The introduction of the internet has become a source of unlimited materials for any and all kinds of materials for the ESL classroom. Students can listen to VOA and BBC on the internet. Even if it is blocked, as some websites are in China, they do broadcast on other sites.

Today there is an abundance of materials for students of all ages to study English. Books, tapes, dvd´s in American, as well as British English. I even found copies of the textbooks that I had read in graduate college studying TESL.

With the growth and expansion of language schools, and materials available, parents are getting their children into English classes at a very early age. As a result, by the time the students reach college now, their level is much higher than it was in 1993. They also have more opportunities to use what they learn as there are many more foreigners living in China.

Teaching in a foreign country usually will produce monolingual classroom. There are advantages and disadvantages to both monolingual and multilingual classes. In a monolingual class you are able to focus in on specific pronunciation or grammar problems. Students may be more comfortable with other students who speak with the same accent.

In a multilingual class, there would be different accents. This would be good for the students to get used to hearing words pronounced in different ways. They would also have a variety of life and cultural experiences to share, prompting conversation.

I see in the near future I may have the opportunity to teach a multilingual class. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area (East Bay) and there are people from all over the world here who want to learn or improve their English. I know this course is going to be a great asset for me as a teacher.

Author: Patricia Eckel

Date of post: 2007-04-18