Teacher Sarah Bucknall writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 16, 2018
By Sarah Bucknall

Teaching assistant

At some point we have all been subjected to learning a second language. This may be voluntarily for pleasure or, for many, whilst at school and without much of a choice.

Whichever category you fall under I think we can all agree that learning a second language is not without its trials and tribulations.

Sometimes though it is easy to forget the challenges of learning a new language when it comes to teaching English in China as a second language.

Teaching English in China can be challenging

Being a native speaker, when I first began teaching English in China I found myself in need of re-learning the language!

There is so much in speech that comes naturally that thinking about why I use grammar in a particular structure required me to stop and really think.

Even if you have a perfect explanation to a grammar structure, English is one of those languages that has so many rule breakers that students can often still respond with “but why?”

When teaching younger students, life is a lot easier. You often show a picture, give the vocabulary, practice, give the grammar and combine all in a game. Everyone’s happy. Move on!

But to teach English to a class of middle school students the game changes!

Although I have found the style of learning in China is very much about committing to memory, there is no way to ignore the limitations this style of teaching presents.

Enter the teaching assistant

I really enjoy the challenges of trying to explain to my students why we use the language the way we do. However, I appreciate the way having a Chinese teaching assistant in class opens up the possibilities for the students to really acquire the target language as opposed to repeat back to me a very specific grammar structure.

In my classes of younger students, the teaching assistant’s role is often to ensure comprehension. But this is something a simple presentation of a flash card and yes/no answer could achieve.

You can benefit from having a teaching assistant in your ESL classroom in China.

The teaching assistant's role in China is to ensure comprehension, according to Sarah Bucknall.

But where I really love to teach English is with my older classes. Where we can push past the objectives for that lesson and create a classroom that promotes free English language output.

But how much output can you have without understanding?

An English and Chinese environment

One hot topic of conversation that seems to have an equal number of candidates for debate is the strictly English-only environment.

Although there is a fair argument that allowing too much Chinese could make teachers and students lazy, I have to say that I sit firmly on the side of a bilingual classroom when it comes to teaching English to higher-level students.

When a written assignment followed shortly after a taught subject I sat there and felt like I read 16 slightly different versions of the same extracted text. None of it read with the feel of authentic language use.

Overlooking the common grammatical errors, what I was presented with was the very rigid grammatical structure taught from the curriculum and applied to various discussion points.

To be honest, I wasn't willing for another marking session like that!


A conversation with the teaching assistant

The first point of call was sitting with my teaching assistant and confessing that I didn’t think this is what being an English teacher in China was going to be about.

I thought we’d be having discussions of the differences in our cultures and who our favorite pop stars are!

Her response shocked me. “Can you have that conversation with me in Chinese?”

The rhetorical quip quickly made me realize I was asking too much of my students without providing them with the right support.

The next lesson I walked in with my teaching assistant and put the writing assignment question on the board. Putting the students into groups, I asked them to discuss their answer together in Chinese.

My teaching assistant took on the role of teacher, monitoring the students to ensure they were on topic. We then opened the floor to each group to discuss their answer exactly how they want to say it using both English and Chinese where needed.

Together, the teaching assistant and I translated as we went along and the students were responsible for the writing of the English and Chinese on the board.

Resetting the assignment I was filled with excitement on the next marking session!

More than a teaching assistant

The way I like to work with people, colleagues and students alike, is to get to know people. I made a conscious effort with all my teaching assistants to know them outside of the classroom.

I highly recommend anyone teaching English in China to do the same. There are two teachers in a classroom that can provide support to the students.

You can benefit from having a teaching assistant in your ESL classroom in China.

Get to know your teaching assistant inside and outside the classroom.

Teaching with all my teaching assistants is not just effective in giving context to the language being taught. It creates an open environment where the students have the confidence to take risks with English.

Respect is given to both me and the teaching assistant equally and we support each other in creating the classroom dynamic that we both want for ourselves and the students.

Now and again Chinese will be used as a default for some students feeling lazy but part of our role as teachers is to motivate the students.

How better to motivate students than enabling them to broaden their knowledge in English outside of every lesson’s target language aim.

By creating an environment that allows for both languages I can almost guarantee students will acquire English more authentically. Breaking barriers and becoming more than colleagues is incredibly rewarding all around!

Have you had a teaching assistant in your classroom in China? If so, what's your experience been like? Please comment below.

Have your say