Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 16, 2018
Nicholas McKay

teaching english to Chinese students

In teaching English to second-language learners, there are many stereotypes I have come across.

Some teachers I’ve met are quick to label their students. Below are just some of the stereotypes I have heard in conjunction with Chinese learners.

Stereotype one: Chinese students do not participate in classroom activities

Whoever was the first to suggest this has clearly never visited my year 10 English class (I’ve previously mentioned them before): 24 Australian students, and not one of them was eager to talk. I imagine Tutankhamen’s tomb is louder!

A number of teachers I’ve met are quick to point out Chinese students don’t want to lose face. Fear of giving the wrong answer stops them from speaking. However, this idea could be applied to students of all backgrounds.

When a student says something wrong, their peers are often quick to criticize. Students have concluded that the best way to avoid embarrassment is to not say anything at all. Some teachers misconstrue this as evidence that students lack competence.

This is contradicted by the many Chinese students who I’ve met that love talking during class, albeit in their mother tongue. This is despite the great big sign on the wall which reads ‘English Only Zone’.

Students bring with them a lot of knowledge. However, they are far more confident communicating in their native language.

Furthermore, some Chinese students prefer silence. They use the time as an opportunity to think, generating their own individual meaning.

Some teachers believe that the students who don’t talk, don’t understand.

There are, however, other ways students demonstrate comprehension. By observing those students who rarely speak, I sometimes notice they use reams of paper, jotting down notes, demonstrating their thoughts.

Communication isn’t just speaking. Although I am one of the first to admit that dialogue is important, sometimes it’s not the students’ fault.

Some teachers ask students to regurgitate information back at them. Other teachers ask closed-ended questions. These require little thought, and honestly, some students find these annoying.

In case you haven’t noticed already, many Chinese students enjoy a challenge, and have a thirst for self-improvement.

With this in mind, perhaps teachers could think of ways to motivate verbal communication. Try pair work, or small group tasks. Or give students a whole class activity that requires them to get out of their chairs.

Example

I recently gave permission for a learner to ask students about their favorite food over lunchtime. He kept a journal of all the interactions he took part in.

In short, maybe the students are just not experiencing the appropriate atmosphere for dialogue.

As a further example, I recently discovered a student I’ve been observing has a fondness for music.

Though he’s usually silent, he writes lyrics and poetry, and is learning the guitar. While writing this article, I was observing him, and other students, undertaking a test.

Upon completion, during which he was allowed to leave, he said: “I can disappear silently from the world, until another day.” I found this very poetic.

In short, perhaps the inclusion of music or poetry into the lesson could motivate him to contribute further. Might something similar work for your students?

I’ve met many learners who don’t fit the stereotype that Chinese students refuse to participate interactively.

Two Chinese girls I met recently were the total opposite. In fact, it was trying to stop them from talking that was the problem.

Additionally, after having a class summarize some readings, there was one Chinese girl who surprised me. The task was very short but after ten minutes she was still talking!

Moreover, there was a boy, who, whenever I called upon him to speak, said one word: “Nah!” However, when it came to giving an oral presentation, his voice was as clear as it was confident.

I also met another young girl, who, despite her height, spoke louder than King Kong. Though many have said Chinese girls are shy, she went around the school punching people in the arm to get their attention.

In short, this stereotype is very wrong.

Stereotype two: Chinese students are obedient

A friend of mine told me once that Chinese students have immense respect for their teachers. So much so, they will believe anything their teachers say.

In having taught a class of Chinese students, I can confirm that many of them are incredibly respectful, in contrast with their western counterparts.

The Chinese students I taught at high school were very compliant. In telling them to listen, stop talking, or do the work, they would always follow instructions.

When I provided similar instructions to my Australian students, I would have to yell until I was blue in the face before they took me seriously.

Chinese students originate from a culture where great respect is bestowed upon elders. Where Australian teachers I’ve met have said “teaching is a thankless profession”, Chinese teachers are seen as important figures.

China even has a Teachers Day, where educators are praised for their abilities. No offence to my home, but I can hardly imagine Australia ever doing this.

Moving on, I’ve rarely had to raise my voice when teaching Chinese students. However, I know this isn’t always the case.

Example

When I attended school as a student, there was a Chinese boy in my class. I remember him particularly, because he had some of the worst behavioral issues I’ve ever seen.

In one class, he set fire to the curtains when the teacher left the room to talk to another misbehaving student. On another occasion he punched a hole in the plaster because he was told off.

There was even an occasion when he brought a knife to school, and threatened the lives of many others. I can think of a dozen other instances, too.

The truth is, there are bad apples in every society. How teachers respond to these instances though, is what’s most important.

Stereotype three: Chinese students lack critical thinking

I read recently that second-language learners may make the best second-language teachers. This is because they understand the difficulties faced during second-language acquisition.

Students require an opportunity to construct their own individual understanding. As stated previously, Chinese students occasionally prefer to do this silently.

In the West, we often depict the Chinese as being the smartest people on Earth. Due to this, I think we sometimes expect too much from our Chinese students.

Learning is longitudinal, and because of this, it takes time. Corners cannot be cut to extradite this process.

I once met a teacher who informed me, “You cannot save everyone”. In short, some students are beyond help. This has pertinence, because I’m surprised by how many teachers immediately give this label to second-language students.

Truthfully, even low-literacy learners are capable of achieving much. Just because their English skills are not superb does not mean they are not superb in other learning areas. These students hence will draw on anything around them to communicate with.

Again, it comes down to the situation that teachers give to their students. If we do not provide opportunities to foster constructive, creative or critical thinking, our students cannot be held accountable.

Example

Although Chinese students may respect what teachers say, that doesn’t mean they won’t critically reflect. As an example, I recently asked students to draw me a response to a question.

One Chinese girl, however, incorporated writing into her response. I asked her why she hadn’t followed instructions. She referred to a previous comment of mine, ‘rules are meant to be broken’. She therefore took some initiative, believing that mantra fit the situation.

For students to be critical, we must foster this ability. To do so, we must incorporate support, examples and patience, else who are we to expect this from students?

Final thoughts

Some teachers I’ve met, when they stereotype their students, try to justify their opinions. However, these teachers should instead be looking for individual differences amongst their learners.

Regardless of the culture or ethnicity of students, teachers are likely to encounter a variety of different personalities. Yes, some Chinese students may be quiet, though others might be aggressively active.

Some students may be reserved, though others could be outgoing. Some students may be very well-behaved, just like others might be positively rotten. Not every student fits a stereotype, because no two students are the same.

The moment we begin to stereotype our students, we immediately cease to notice them for who they are. When it comes to education, this is quite possibly the biggest crime a teacher can commit.

Are you guilty of stereotyping your students? Please comment below.

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