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What We Use in China

Teaching English in China to Young Students


Young Chinese Students

This three-part series of articles is intended to prepare novice EFL teachers for their very first EFL classes with younger students in China. Although written with a slant towards teaching English in China at private language schools, public school teachers should also derive much benefit from these tips. Additionally, while targeted specifically for teaching Chinese students, the overwhelming majority of material presented here would be applicable to any population of either EFL or ESL students of primary school age.

Teaching younger students brings its own joys and challenges to new teachers. Younger students tend to be highly active and emotionally volatile, and this can be demanding for inexperienced teachers. On the plus side, these younger students are funny, clever, and adorable. It is a real privilege and pleasure to watch a new class develop English speaking and reading skills under your tutelage.

We will assume you have recently arrived at your new school and are charged with preparing your very first EFL class.

Part One: Preparing to Teach Your First Classes

Observing Other Teachers

If your school and time permits, it is an excellent investment of your time to observe how other, experienced teachers in your school approach and manage their classes. This will give you an idea of what the school's expectations are of its teaching staff.

Novice teachers who first observe a top-notch teacher in action often think, “That looks pretty easy. I can do that.” Later on, during their first day of class, they have a train wreck of a class. Why? Because a top-notch teacher is so good she makes it look easy.

Observing other classes may seem tedious if you are not paying attention to details. Don’t sit in class in the role of an overgrown student. Instead, take careful notes and focus on important details.

One of the biggest problems new teachers have is knowing how to gauge the developmental English levels of each of their classes. Consequently, they will commonly overshoot the level of their class by introducing methods and material above the ability level of the class. Related, don’t assume that because you see one teacher presenting something to a class that is chronologically similar in age to your own that you can necessarily teach the same material.

Make a list of key points to focus on when you are observing. I have attached a checklist that you can use for recording your Class Observation Notes for this purpose. Just click on the thumbnail image below to download.

After observing classes, you can discuss with the teacher (when the teacher has free time, of course), anything you have questions about.

Lesson Planning

Foremost, your lesson should have an expected outcome. Teaching a lesson is more than simply having one activity occurring after another until the bell rings.

Think of these three statements:

  1. “At the end of this instruction, my students will be able to ________ [fill in desired outcome]”
  2. “In order for students to [desired outcome] they must first be able to ________ [fill in subordinate outcomes]”
  3. “I will measure my students mastery of the desired outcome by ________ [fill in outcome measure]”


  1. “At the end of this instruction, my students will be able to write the days of the week in order."
  2. “In order for students to [write the days of the week in order] they must first be able to identify days of the week, spell days of the week, sequence days of the week and write days of the week.”
  3. “I will measure my students mastery of the desired outcome by observation of verbal output during a related game play followed by a written assessment.”

Use these three statements when writing your lesson plans until it becomes second nature to use them as the foundation of all your lesson planning.

“Know” is not a measurable outcome, so use measurable verbs instead, like identify, count, write, say, select, etc.

Plan your lessons so that they can be completed in relatively brief periods of time: seven minute segments seem to work well for younger classes. Even if you will need longer than seven minutes for an activity, plan on breaking that longer time into seven minute segments. Intersperse those segments with TPR (Total Physical Response), a different lesson segment, or a Learning Activity, (“game”).

Proper Use of Games

Games should not be played unless they reinforce an educational outcome. A teacher who spends time playing games simply to fill time, with no educational purpose, is missing an opportunity to impart knowledge in a fun way.

There are countless games that really reinforce the learning and work well. “Run ‘N’ Touch” is terrific. With this game you can quickly assess the classes’ English language skills and the kids love it. You can find dozens of free EFL games on the Internet and we even include a 97-page EFL Games and Activity book as part of our PDF Edition of the Foreign Teachers Guide to Living and Working in China.

Ideally, your school has a adopted a series of textbooks and accompanying student workbooks (and, perhaps, even the teacher's editions of these books if you're lucky) as a framework for learning.

Try to use the book during every single lesson. Even if you only open the books to review a previous lesson, use the book. Using the book every lesson adds structure to your class and teaches positive habit transfer in a ‘book sense’ to the younger students. The students' progression through the textbook also serves as a yardstick for your own progress in the class.

You should write a lesson plan for every class. Write large enough so you can read it from nearly one meter’s distance. Be sure to include the date and class so you can file it correctly later. One good habit you'll want to acquire is writing in large letters on the left margin of the pages you will be studying in class. For example:

WB 43 cues you to tell students, “Open your workbooks to page 43.” You can read this from a distance of nearly two meters away and, at a glance, know what to write on the board while you instruct students what to do.

Plan at least fifty percent of your lesson as a review of previous lessons, every week. If you attempt to learn Chinese while in China, you’ll very quickly understand why significant review is necessary. It is simply not possible to learn a language by covering the material only once.

Organize your material. A firmly constructed plastic basket with a handle seems to work well to hold lesson plans, books, flash cards, and a few “props” a.k.a. learning aids. Have everything where it is always visible and readily accessible.

Flash cards: Ideally, flash cards should be full color, laminated, A4 size. Buying such cards, were they available, would be prohibitive. However, they are relatively inexpensive to make.

If you or one of your coworkers has any Photoshop skills, you can make full color flashcards A4 size. I think actual photos are better than cartoons, but, it’s your choice. Now, here is the good news: You can have them professionally printed cheaper than you can print them yourself on an inkjet printer.

The secret to this is to go to a sign printing store. They print huge adhesive vinyl signs that go on billboards and posters. It costs less than 1 yuan to print an A4-sized full color flashcard. They’ll print them on a huge vinyl roll and you will then later need to cut each one out individually. Now you just need to laminate them. A good laminating machine costs about 400 yuan and the heavy duty lamination is less than 1 RMB per sheet. Find out where your local wholesale area is, that’s where schools buy supplies cheaply.

Teaching a Demo class: Why do schools have demo classes? Because while students are consumers, parents are the customers.

Parents who observe your classes are only interested in three things: the teacher’s teaching style, the appropriateness of the level for their child, and seeing their child produce at least some English words.

In some cases, parents want to be sure the teacher is in fact an authentic native English speaker, if that is what has been advertised.

Teaching a demo class is a little different than teaching a normal class. The biggest difference is that students almost certainly won’t have books since they are not yet paying customers.

Quite often, demo class students are quite young and have had no prior English instruction. The good thing about demo classes is that you can write one lesson plan for whatever level you’ll be likely to teach and use it forever.

A good demo class uses a variety of teaching methods, transitions seamlessly from one activity to another, and elicits maximum student participation.

Sometimes, students in demo classes will present with English language skills that are at a higher level than you expected, so it is a good idea to have developed a lesson plan than aims at a level slightly higher than what is typically encountered.

Part II in this series addresses linguistic difficulties faced by Chinese students as well as effective teaching methods that are appropriate for young EFL learners.

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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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