Special Issue (Nanhai 2015): Close Yet Different

By Miranda Chiang (Year 4, 2014-2015) and Bonnie Huang (Year 5, 2014-2015)

Nanhai is a place geographically quite near to Hong Kong. Yet, English language teaching (ELT) style, students’ learning attitude and motivation, and many other ELT issues are quite different from Hong Kong. We still remember how funny the scene was when we expressed our gratitude by saying Mandarin “Xiexie” to the immigration officers and they replied us in Cantonese, which fully demonstrated that in fact we had few ideas about how Nanhai was like before the tour, not to mention the education system there.


ELT in Nanhai

We were stimulated to reflect on various issues concerning English Language Teaching during the study tour, including the purpose of teaching for every lesson, the role of teacher, the role of first language (L1) and the design of instructional materials.


We observed two lessons in the primary and secondary schools respectively. We were impressed that the local teachers put much effort in designing the lessons. They attempted to provide a more authentic context like going to a summer camp as a class or showing photos of students as a lead-in when teaching the module about friends; one could see that the students were engaged and motivated. We have for sure gained insights from their teaching pedagogy and teaching strategies. For example, the lessons we observed in the No. 2 Xiao Xue employed an impressive way to deal with errors made by students. Students never hesitated to answer teacher’s questions in class. After sharing their answers or ideas, teachers would invite other classmates to point out mistakes made by their peers. Although it is a bit awkward that they would use a commanding tone saying “[Name of the student], follow me!” before correcting their peers, it is to a certain extent effective in maintaining students’ attention and encouraging peer interaction. It can be seen that ELT in China is moving away from chalk and talk, but to focus more on the needs of the leaners. However, the group activities we observed were mainly reading aloud with roles in groups. Hence, we might conclude the teachers interpret the communicative purposes in a rather restricted sense with striking controlled features like reading aloud.


This study tour enabled us to reflect on the role of teacher and the purpose of teaching a lesson as well. When we were exchanging teaching ideas with the local English teachers, they tended to ask us “What is effective teaching and learning?/ How should a highly effective English class be like?”. Effective teaching taps into a wide range of factors such as teacher’s quality, pedagogy, instructional materials, students, assessments and so on. It is worth noting that many beginning teachers, like us, might misconceive a lesson is satisfying and has accomplished much when teachers have done a lot and many activities are squeezed into the lesson. However, it might only be “fruitful” from the teacher’s perspective since learning is not the natural consequence of teaching. The needs of the students and the objective of the lesson should therefore be the soul of a lesson plan. The role of a teacher should be more than a reporter who reports the knowledge from the textbooks to students. Our job has not completed when we have finished what want to talk in class. Being novice teachers, we might be easily confused and get lost in our own planning. A clear learning objective, therefore, can for sure keep the class to stay focused and greatly enhance the effectiveness. In short, when designing a lesson, clear and practical lesson objectives are far more crucial than packing the lessons with a lot fancy activities.


When compared to Hong Kong, a set of centralized textbooks is used by English teachers in Nanhoi. Agreed by the local teachers, it seems that the textbooks do not contribute much to organize coherent lessons with a logical sequence. Different parts are not closely related even if they are grouped under the same skill. Thus, when planning our own lessons, we spent most of the time on modifying the tasks so that things would not be learnt discretely. In addition, it is obvious that how we view the role of L1 is different from them. Since schools in Nanhoi only have three to four English lessons per week, their exposure to English is even less than those in Hong Kong. For practical reasons, the role of L1 is quite important in class. There were constant Chinese-English translation in class. For example, Chinese translation of the key words were provided in the PowerPoint and students needed to come up questions in English by reading a Chinese passage. It appeared to be a bit intimidating when we conducted a full English class with the students. It is always tempting to use Chinese in class because it is the most direct and convenient way. Yet, L1 should not be used out of teacher’s convenience; it can be beneficial in teaching and learning when it is used consistently and with purposes.


            Number of Students

In the schools that we taught, there were around 45 to 50 students per class. At first, we wondered how a teacher could manage a class of 48 students during the English lesson. Later, we were all very surprised that students paid much attention in class and no students chatted with others, while the teacher mainly stood on the stage, gave instructions, and monitored the whole class. When asking the teachers why most class time was taken by them in presenting and giving instructions, it was replied that because of the class size, it was difficult to allow students to do tasks by themselves.


Indeed, more teacher-to-student interactions and student-to-student interactions can still be applied in a large class. For instance, pair work and group work, such as information gap task and other communicative tasks, may also be used in such big class. Apart from preventing the teacher from talking too much, students could enjoy the lesson more by actively participating in it and communicating with their friends, especially under the learning environment that English class is the only time for most students to use English in the Mainland China.


            Learning Attitude/ Motivation

No matter whether it was the primary school or secondary school, students’ learning motivation was generally higher than that of Hong Kong students. Since the schools that we visited were counted as a city-rural school, most students came from under-privileged families. Many of their parents needed to work all day outside, leaving their children at hometown to receive education. From the children’s eyes, receiving education, especially learning English, was a path to success and a way to improve their living in the future.


When chatting with the secondary school students there, it was found that they loved learning English at school since English lesson was the only time for them to learn and use the foreign language, meanwhile they knew the fact that English was extremely important in today’s world. Although they admitted that the English teaching method was quite boring, they were self-motivated to learn English so as to learn this foreign language better and perform better in the examination. Somehow, I would think that some Hong Kong students may take receiving education for granted and thus neglect how precious it is to have such learning opportunity in their life. “Why do I need to learn?” is a good question for Hong Kong students to think about.


Apart from giving a try to integrate theory and practice in classroom teaching, we witnessed personal growth in this 5-day tour too. 13 buddies supported one another as a group and created collective memories that are only shared among us. We also sincerely appreciated local government officials’ and teachers’ warm hospitality. We were so worried what we could show them and whether we could bring them any insight into their ELT before teaching. However, it was such a relief that they valued our ideas and opinions much. It is also to our surprise that we have actually learnt way more than we imagined when we were able to design a lesson overnight and perform well like a profession even when around 70 pairs of eyes (including the teachers) were looking at us. Seeing students’ eagerness to learn and teachers’ enthusiasm to teach further build up our passion in teaching.


Photo taken with Dr. Bai in No. 2 Xiao Xue (第二小學).

* Photo taken with Dr. Bai in No. 2 Xiao Xue (第二小學).

Group photo with the teachers of Qiao Bei Zhong Xue (樵北中學).

* Group photo with the teachers of Qiao Bei Zhong Xue (樵北中學).

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