Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated July 22, 2020
By Kim Ooi

Three happy female Chinese university students linking arms.

What do Chinese university students really want from their oral English class with a foreign teacher?

First, let me ask you a question. As an oral English teacher, if you had a group of students who are used to being lectured and who have difficulty 'thinking outside the box', what style of teaching would you use?

In the public school system, sometimes you may be given a textbook to use. However, this is usually so dull and badly written that your students would get really bored if you were to teach them the content of the textbook.

So, instead you would give them lots of structured role-plays and model the sentences that you were trying to teach them, right?

A student survey with some interesting findings

I use that approach myself here in China and I had no idea that my university students weren’t happy until I conducted a routine survey recently about what they want. It turned out some interesting findings, as outlined below.

Chinese university students want:

  • to hear lots of stories
  • to watch lots of movies and videos
  • to listen to songs
  • to learn about Western culture
  • to learn about foreign countries
  • the foreign teacher to speak some Chinese in class
  • easy lessons, and
  • to play games.

You’ll notice that with the exception of the last two suggestions, all the ideas above involve receptive rather than productive skills. There are two main reasons why these suggestions were made.

Firstly, Chinese university students are used to being lectured. They have spent virtually their entire school career listening to teachers telling them about something so this is the environment that they feel most comfortable in.

Secondly, students in China believe that making a mistake in public would be humiliating and a loss of face. In their culture, this is something to be avoided at all costs.

The 30:70 rule

On the other hand, those of us who have completed a CELTA course would be familiar with the 30:70 rule, i.e. in an ideal English class, the teacher should be speaking 30% of the time and the students should be speaking 70% of the time.

Chinese university students sitting at wooden desks in a classroom.

Students should be speaking most of the time in an ESL class, says teacher Kim.

How do we reconcile these two vastly conflicting teaching and learning styles so that effective learning can happen in our classrooms?

In China, if you follow the 30:70 rule, you risk making your students feel uncomfortable in class which may result in them making complaints against you. Even when you do manage to get your students to speak, they may not speak much.

Teaching and learning tactics in China predominantly revolve around memorization and regurgitation.

As a result, Chinese students generally have little to no experience in voicing an opinion, making suggestions, analyzing, problem-solving or thinking outside the box.

On the other hand, if you break the 30:70 rule and give the students what they want, the following things will happen: you’ll be very popular with them, your school will like you very much and your job will be secure.

However, your students’ productive skills will be weak and you may have a problem when the exams come around.

The problem with showing videos in class

Showing videos, a great old-time favorite among many Chinese university students, may present several problems.

In some classrooms, there may not be an internet connection so the only way to show a movie would be to download it first which would require a portable disk drive with a lot of memory.

Even if there were internet facilities in the classroom, YouTube is blocked in China and some school networks block VPNs as well. So, what do you do?


Fortunately, there are ways around these problems. You could ask your university students or class monitors to find English movies on Youku, China’s version of YouTube.

Instead of telling them stories, get the students to role-play them. After each video, get them to discuss the movie.

Chinese university students doing an activity in front of a blackboard.

Get your Chinese university students more involved, like doing role-play, says teacher Kim.

The students think they are going to get to listen to the teacher sing? Uh-uh, no dice, they’re going to be the ones doing the singing.

What else the survey revealed

The findings of my survey also revealed that Chinese university students are interested in discussing the differences between Western and Chinese culture, news items and English myths and legends.

There are hundreds of cultural topics to choose from, such as movies, songs, fiction, actors, singers, customs, manners, traditional costume, and food.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words so displaying colorful photos and telling stories or gossip about celebrities will all help to engage your students.

Playing games, getting the students to act out their favorite stories and movies and giving students various problem-solving activities would also help to engage your students.

Another solution to this problem would be to use student-led teaching as a teaching method.


Instead of telling your university students about an aspect of Western culture for instance, get them to research it themselves and then give a presentation in class about their topic.

Students feel a sense of pride when they teach and your class will also enjoy the lesson a lot more when taught by their peers.

Students have the power

The bottom line is that students are very powerful in China. To be a successful teacher in China, one needs to think like a businessman and not like an educator.

Survey your 'customers' regularly, give them what they want (even if this is against your idea of what teaching is) and your job will be secure.

Do you agree with Kim on what Chinese university students really want? Please share your thoughts below.


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