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Oral English in China


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Hello there,

WARNING: Long read ahead.

I’m currently experiencing a deep interrogation as to the purpose of my job so I’d like to share in my ideas with you and hear your take on this.

I was teaching “reading” last term and that was no trouble. We studied the “Catcher in the rye” together and it was a great learning experience for them as well.

I’m teaching Oral English this term, and it’s completely different.

I’ve been issued a book but I find the material found in the book to be way below the levels I’m teaching so I decided to teach my own material.

I try to teach something different (and I’ve managed so far for 11 weeks) every class. I do this to prevent my students from being bored from doing the same thing over and over again.

Anyways, my question is, what exactly does it mean, to you guys, to teach Oral English.

I got a TEFL (one month) so I’m aware I still have a lot to learn career-wise.

Here’s my thoughts on the subject.

Last term, the previous foreign teacher was a retired therapist. So he asked them to prepare a speech every week about something related to psychology. I think that was a good idea but the students didn’t actually learn anything related to the language, so I thought it wasn’t so appropriate a thing to do.

The teacher before that did all kinds of things, but I know little bits and pieces. I do know he watched about 10 hours of movies with his students and that bothered me somewhat.

I don’t want to be one of those foreigners who wants to do as little as possible and only watch movies all the time.

I will admit having my students watching one movie over a year and a half but I think that’s pretty reasonable.

Other teachers just come to class with a “topic” and have the students discuss it in groups.

I don’t feel this is right either because the teacher doesn’t really do anything in that case. He just talks with the students and I kind of feel like that’s a let down professionally speaking.

Anyways I do think I’ve accomplished more academically speaking than their previous teachers but I still don’t think I’m doing enough.

Maybe I shouldn’t worry too much about this and just do whatever, but I guess I just want to make sure I’m doing my job right, you know?

Here’s what I’ve done with my students:

-watched a movie

-listen to some songs (+fill in the blanks) and explained the meaning of those songs



-Fill in the blanks of a text.



-Practicing new words (pronunciation of some words and explanation of their meaning)

-Crossword puzzles

-Prepare and give speeches


-Intonation, stressed syllables, linked speech


Strangely enough, I sometimes feel like the students are expecting my role to be of an entertainer. I don’t know if other teachers have felt that way, maybe it’s just me.

Here are some more thoughts about teaching Oral English:

a) Teaching new words:

Seems to me like it’s a waste of time. The students can easily find the words in their dictionary rather than me spending a long time explaining what “nimble” means for example. So I would like to keep this at a minimum.

B) Correcting their pronunciation

That’s fine, I think that’s a viable objective and it is constructive. Only, I can’t do hardcore correction of their pronunciation all the time, for 19 weeks. My point is, it’s fine in small doses.

c) talking about foreign countries

I’ve had my students asking for this a few times. I don’t mind talking about Canada to them, I could find loads of things they don’t already know.

Only, the thing is, if I talk about Canada most of the time they’re getting zero practice in their pronunciation. I mean, it is Oral English class, not Foreign Culture class.

d)doing some listening exercises

Fill in the blanks and other kinds of exercises. I always prepare a list of questions about the movies and ask them to do some homework about it.

Here, the same problem arises, they already have listening classes, so I feel like my class is kind of not accomplishing what it’s supposed to if I spend time doing listening.

On the other hand, listening, in my humble opinion, very much so related with speaking, so part of me wants to keep listening in my classes.

e)reading exercises with discussions

I did some survey with the students and some said that they don’t want to read because this is oral English class.

So this kind of limits me further.

f) teaching slang and idioms

Some teachers feel this is a waste of time. I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s the most useful thing to teach but at least this is something I am apt to do as a foreigner. I mean, this is knowledge which is harder for students to get on their own.

Some Chinese teacher said that he would teach them useful sentence patterns. The question is, which sentence patterns are the most useful and appropriate for the level of my students…

I would like to know for sure that I’m doing the right thing, that I’m doing what I’m supposed to, but I sometimes feel confused as I have no real course outline and have to pretty much figure out everything on my own.

I’m reading stuff on the net, about what people are doing with their students, and what I read just isn’t suitable as far as I’m concerned.

Anyway, the purpose of my post:

I would like to read about your own perspective and experiences teaching Oral English in China. What is your take on it, what kind of objectives to you set for yourself and why.

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I mean, it is Oral English class, not Foreign Culture class.

From my humble point of view, there's no point in studying a language without studying the culture(s) of where that language is (has been) used.

I don't teach neither studied languages as it is. Full stop. I combine both, and my students really appreciate it: that's what they really want to learn.

So my suggestion is to investigate properly with your students what their aim is ... and continue from that. (Except if they only talk about marks or any kind of certifications ...)

Edited by Senzhi
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Let me begin by saying I hate the term Oral English, it's one of these awkward English phrases that seems to somehow to have become standard usage in China. Anyway, that being said, I taught Spoken English to college level students in China for a total of three years (not consecutively).

The way I saw it, my role wasn't to teach them English, but to teach them confidence and to teach them to communicate. Like a large number of Chinese students, many of my students had good levels of English if they were reading or writing, but they had difficultly with even basic everyday things. e.g. you see a student in the corridor and ask "how are you going?" and the typical reply would be something like "to my dormitory" :-?. Or they just didn't have the confidence or the familiarity with speaking regularly in English. I saw my role as trying to get them to speak as much English as possible and then to provide guidance when they ran into problems.

For building confidence, one of the things I did was choose 2-3 students to give a talk up in front of class at the beginning of each class. The students were chosen the week before to give them enough time to prepare, and the talk was not allowed to be a recited essay/article/story that they had found in a book or a magazine, or that had been written by someone else. It didn't have to be long (2-3 minutes) but it had to be something they had come up with themselves (a personal story/anecdote etc). I was able to set the marking scheme for my class, and made the speeches count for a small part. I made it clear from the beginning that reciting some article or story would make the students lose marks. I also made it clear that the other students in the class would need to ask questions at the end of the speech. If no-one did, I would pick names from the roll. Pretty soon people got the idea. I had reasonably small class sizes for China so every student would need to speak twice during a semester. It was obvious to see the difference in confidence once everyone had given their first speech and we got to second round. Although most stories are pretty ordinary you do get some absolutely amazing ones, and it also gives you some great insights into Chinese life. Anyway, I definitely recommend doing this. With talks, questions, and then feedback and corrections from me, it would usually take up about 10-15 at the beginning of each class. Although sometimes if the topic aroused the interest of students, the question/answer sessions could go for much longer (the longest I had was questions/answers that went on for half an hour from just one talk). It doesn't teach them so much English (although you can provide corrections and suggestions on things they have said), however it does wonders for their confidence at speaking English, which for many students is just as important.

In my classes I also had a rule that no Chinese was to be spoken in the classroom, even during the break. This is how I enforced it: During the first lesson of the semester, I taught the class to sing the nursery rhyme "I'm a little teapot", along with corresponding movements and actions. They all thought it was great fun. Then I told them that from now on, anyone who speaks in Chinese has to come and stand up the front of the class and sing that song and do the actions. This was enforced rigorously, even for the good students who might accidentally slip in a 'neige' while pausing for something to say. It usually doesn't take more than about 5-10 mins until you hear someone talking in Chinese and so, much to the embarassment of that student and the amusement of the rest of the class, you have a few examples. Once 2-3 students have had to do this, you'll have everyone in your class doing their absolute best not to speak Chinese. :D You'll also have other students letting you know when someone speaks in Chinese because they all think its fun to watch someone else stand up the front and sing this song.

Anyway, the way I see it, the real challenge of a Spoken English class is to get the students speaking and communicating in English as much as possible. You can't really do this if you are getting them to speak one-by-one (including doing speeches/skits/roleplay at the front of class with everyone else just watching/listening), or if you are up at the front doing a lot of talking. Therefore, typically I would structure my classes so that students would be split up into groups and would need to speak with each other. Preparation time and example sentences relevant to the topic of the class were always given, so that the students wouldn't just be going into a topic cold and not know what to say.

Example 1: Split the class into groups of 3-4. Each group needs to create a company, including company name, what the company, does, how many employees it has, and the role of each person in the company. Give them a few minutes to do this and then say, ok, now one person from each company resigns/gets fired and has to look for a new job. Have that student move to a new group for a job interview with that company. You can introduce all sorts of interesting vocab and example interview questions/answers here, and the interview sessions can be as simple or as complicated as you like depending on the students' level. After 5-10 minutes, move them on to do interviews at the next company, and so on and so on. This sort of activity is great because it means that students are really maximising the amount of time they get to speak and communicate during the lesson. As the teacher, I would walk around to each group, listening for common mistakes, offering corrections and suggestions. Before moving the people on for their next interview, these would be summarised on the board so that everyone could pay attention to these things in the next round.

Example 2: Split the class into pairs. Each pair is told they are the parents of a child and they have to come up with all the characteristics of their child e.g. name, age (has to be between 20-30), occupation, three good characteristics and three bad characteristics (it's important to get them to write all of this down, for reasons that will become apparent soon). They don't get to choose the sex of their child however, this is given out by you, and should be alternating boy-girl-boy-girl for each group. After time to prepare, tell the students they need to find someone for their child to marry, and so all the parents with male children need to go and speak to all the parents with female children, and vice-versa in order to find a potential match. It's important you don't tell them this until after they've finished writing their good/bad characteristics, as this way you'll get all sorts of funny things written down that will make it interesting when prospective parents come looking. This one can be really fun, especially when you get two sets of parents fighting over the same person for their child to marry.

There are all sorts of variations and themes you can come up with similar to this, but the general idea is to have activities where the students spend most of their time speaking with other students, with you providing guidance, feedback, corrections and sample sentences/vocabulary to the class as a whole. Getting the students speaking to each other as much as possible is the best way to maximise their speaking time, and after all it's a Spoken English class so this is what they should be doing. It also prevents students from getting too bored like they would do if you were getting them to speak out one at a time. By providing sample sentences for a given activity, even the bad students can have something to say.

Every semester I'd get a few students complain that didn't want to be speaking so much with their classmates in class, and wanted me to be doing more speaking. My typical response to this was that this was their Spoken English class and not mine, and it was them that needed to practice their speaking as much as possible, even if that meant speaking with their classmates instead of the native speaker.

Anyway, these are my thoughts on the matter, I hope you can find something of use in them.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Thanks to both of you.

Interestingly, imron, it seems like we pretty much share the same ideas as far as teaching activities are concerned.

I'm focusing my classes on getting them to practice more and correcting their mistakes for the moment.

Take care,

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Before moving the people on for their next interview, these would be summarised on the board so that everyone could pay attention to these things in the next round.

A useful five/ten-minute activity for the end of the class is to write all the mistakes you've collected up on the board and then have the class, in teams, try to identify the mistakes and correct them. Gain a point for every mistake they identify and lose half a point for every failed attempt. You can also write up a couple of 'good' sentences you've heard to make things a bit more interesting - warn them that they're there, but not which ones.

If you've still got a little time at the end of the class, you can use this as the basis for a little pep talk - "yes, you may make mistakes when you're talking, that's natural. But you can see from this activity that you're able to correct the mistakes you made, that you've got the ability to improve your own . . . ok that's the bell, bye."

A note on correction though - anything that's key to what you're actually teaching should (well, so I was taught) be dealt with as soon as possible, not left till later. If you're teaching the present continuous for future and you hear a student come up with 'I going swimming tomorrow.' then you should jump in and try to elicit the correct form. 'I'm going swimming tomorrow with friends together.' can wait and go up on the board. Although that said if it was a mistake that student shouldn't be making they might get a cough and an outraged glare.

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A note on correction though - anything that's key to what you're actually teaching should (well, so I was taught) be dealt with as soon as possible, not left till later. If you're teaching the present continuous for future and you hear a student come up with 'I going swimming tomorrow.' then you should jump in and try to elicit the correct form. 'I'm going swimming tomorrow with friends together.' can wait and go up on the board.

Second that!

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  • 3 weeks later...

Very interesting thread. I've been hired to teach Oral English to university students next semester in Beijing. When I spoke with the woman who hired me over the phone, she said that they had a textbook, but now it seems that they recommend a textbook which it is then my option to buy and use, or not, when I get there. Of course, it's not readily available in the States. This is curious to me, because from the sounds of things they do not expect the students to have a book or any written materials at all. Is this anything like you all's experience? Any recommendations on book titles? Looks like I will have to buy something I can get here if I want to show up at all prepared in Feb...

I taught listening and some culture classes earlier this year but the school supplied books.

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