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What We Use in China

Teaching English in China to Young Students-Part II


Part Two: Linguistic Issues and Teaching Methods


You were hired to be the model of correctly spoken, authentic English. You are the watchdog of English pronunciation. Needless to say, a watchdog that sleeps while trespassers enter the premises is of little use.

Too many teachers blithely ignore the tendency of Chinese students to add an extra syllable to English words that end in a final consonant sound, e.g., good-uh, and-uh, have-uh, etc. Ignoring this trailing schwa allows bad speech habits to fossilize on your watch. This is a disservice to your students.

You will need to develop a sixth sense for knowing when and how to correct pronunciation mistakes. If a student is struggling to make a sentence, don’t jump in and interrupt with a correction. However, after the student has finished, praise his effort and state the mispronounced word(s) correctly.

For a detailed discussion of linguistic difficulties faced by our Chinese students, please refer to the chapter Difficulties Faced By Chinese EFL Students in the Guide.

Board Work

Observing a teacher’s board work tells a lot about a teacher. Teacher’s who have a disciplined and organized approach to board work tend to have well disciplined and organized classes. Board work consists not only of what you write on the board, but, especially, what you write on the board for students to read during dialogues. Write legibly and evenly.

Don’t write at the bottom of the board or students in the back won’t see it.

Beginning from very early on, have students come up to the board and begin doing board work. For example, you might write the letters C A T on the board. Have the student come up and take the pointer from you.

  • If a student snatches the pointer from your hand, or swings it about, correct the student’s behavior and have him correctly repeat the action. Do not let students slam the pointer on the board.
  • Have the student lightly tap with the pointer and clearly pronounce each letter. Do not let the student simply slide the pointer across the letters and mumble.

When doing paired dialogues, use a single pointer and have the students politely hand the pointer to each other for use. Do not leave the pointer in a student’s hand any longer than necessary to complete the task or it will become a toy.

  • Later, when students are working with multi-syllabic words, have them tap with the pointer and say each syllable aloud.
  • When demonstrating a teaching point using board work, it is more efficient to first call up the more advanced students so they can model the desired outcome for other students.

Working with Teaching Assistants

Try not to over rely on your Chinese teaching assistants as translators (assuming that your school uses them and not all do). Of course, young students don’t bring much store of information and English ability with them, so you will need to adopt ways to communicate with them to bridge the gap. This is where patience and pantomime will come in handy. Apart from translating instructions, or for discipline or administrative matters, your TA should do as little speaking in class as possible.

After a few months together, you and your TA should have developed a nonverbal method of communication. If you glance at her and nod towards a misbehaving student, your TA should immediately address the problem.

Don’t have your TA hover near you in class. Your TA will perform best by working a constant 180 degrees from where you are. That way, the TA can see what is happening from a different perspective. Your TA will spot students who are off task, playing with toys, or reading comics under their desks.

A good TA will snake through the rows of students, making quiet corrections and offering assistance where needed while you teach the class.

Total Physical Response

Dr. James Asher, in the 1960s, developed Total Physical Response (TPR) to aid learners of second languages. It is a method useful for teaching early learners using a simple stimulus-response, i.e., the teacher gives a command and students respond with sound and motion.

TPR is not classroom calisthenics. Having students run or march in place followed by jumping jacks is not what is intended. TPR should engage large motor muscles and have a specific learning purpose, such as teaching prepositions, body parts, etc.

A fifty-five minute class ought to have at least three or four TPR sessions. Even if they are only one minute, they will bleed off the “wiggles” and refocus the students as well as reinforce the TPR teaching point.

A more experienced teacher sees the appropriate time to use TPR just before, or at the first signs of, student restlessness. New teachers are often so focused on what they are trying to do that they fail to heed subtle feedback from students. For this reason, novice teachers should initially write in the TPR activity in their lesson plans, rather than relying on memory or subtle cues.

Teaching phonics: Your school may have their own phonics program they want you to follow. The most important thing is that you and your colleagues are teaching the sounds the same way. It can be very disorientating to students who transfer to other classes in your school if you don’t all sound the same.

There are those who will argue over whether a letter’s sound should be pronounced one way or the other. That is not nearly as important as having the sound, whatever it may be, uniformly pronounced by all the teachers.

Students need to differentiate between the letter itself and its phonics sound. That’s where the following little story helps.

Tell your students that letters are like animals. For example, a dog has a name. We call it a dog. But, a dog also has a sound. Ask students what sound a dog makes. Yes, a dog’s sound is “woof” and every letter has a name, just like a dog. And every letter has its own sound just like a dog.

Use capital letters on one side of a flashcard to teach letters and, on the reverse side of the card, use the small letter.


When reading, make sure all students keep their books flat on their desks. You have no idea what those students are doing behind those upraised books. That’s why you use the command, “Books on desks.” Your students will learn this meaning quite quickly and you can then focus on teaching instead of wondering if the children are sleeping behind those upraised books.

“Fingers!” Use this command as a cue for preparing students to follow the text that is about to be read with their forefingers. With your arm upraised and forefinger pointed towards the ceiling, proclaim "Fingers" and then ensure that every student has a finger raised high in the air before proceeding. Between sentences, do this every time to direct attention to the next sentence. Have your TA check that students are touching the correct page under the words being read.

Rhythm and Pace

Tempo: Keep it moving, moving, moving. Never have a pause in your instruction that is not deliberately intended to enhance learning. It kills the tempo and looks unprofessional for a teacher to stop everything, turn his back to the class, and squint with his nose millimeters from his lesson plan while trying to make out his own notes. Write big enough and concise enough so that you can read from nearly a meter’s distance your lesson plan that has been taped or affixed with magnets to the side of the board at eye level

When you write on the board, read aloud what you are writing so there is no dead air time. When you erase, say aloud, “Goodbye Letter B, Goodbye Letter C…” as you erase them. Have the students repeat after you as you vocalize and erase.

Some of your students will likely have never handled a book themselves before. So you’ll need to teach them “book sense”, how to correctly position the book, open and close the book, turn pages, and read from the book. In addition, you need to teach them to take out and put away their books. These are drills you should begin no later than the second class period.

It is very important that you give routine instructions to student is a consistent and concise manner. Students will quickly pick up on your intent and quickly comply when instructions are concise and consistent.

Direct students, “Open your books.”, “Turn to page 44.” Not, “Okay students, last week we did some reading so this week I’d like to move on to the next page in your book…” If you are concise and consistent, students will quickly learn, “Take out your books”, “Put your books in your desk”, etc.”

Don’t use vocal sound effects to elicit responses to a cloze exercise. Instead of answering, the students will simply mimic you. Example: Teacher [writing and speaking to class]: “I want to eat some _______” [teacher makes clicking sound to indicate students need to fill in the blank being drawn on the board]

Students: “click, click, click, click….”

Participation: While a few students may be too shy to participate at first, sooner than later, every child needs to participate in your class. Not requiring one or two students to participate can send a message to other students that it is okay to not participate. Soon, you’ll have a dead class.

Create a fun learning environment that students want to participate in and, by word and deed, let students know that participation is expected.

The final part in this series explores how to develop the right attitude and offers tips for how to best manage one's EFL classroom with young learners.

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