Teaching English in China Part 2. Language Education and Common Teaching Settings

In the last article on living and working in China, we looked at some practical considerations for relocating and getting into your new life in this amazing, beautiful and very different country.

In this article, we will look at the nature of language education in China, which can tell us a lot about the expectations that students have about English teaching, and the types of school which are common for overseas teachers to work in.

China’s test-based culture of education

Prioritising Exam: One defining feature of education in China which affects language education is that all aspects of teaching and learning happen in preparation for tests and examinations. This leads to very high pressure on students and their teachers who prioritise exam preparation over skills development in many subjects.

High Competition: With high population meaning high competition for places at the best universities, the overriding perception is that the harder you prepare for an exam, the more likely you will be to get the competitive edge over the tens of thousands of other students who are competing for the same place at a good high school or university.

Outcomes orientation and grade focus

The focus on exams and grades is so heavy that the process of preparation in a performance-based subject like English gets lost in the drive to ace the exam by learning its structure, question types and exam strategies for success.

This in turn can mean hundreds of hours of test practice, late nights remembering word lists and repeated exam question practice.

As a result, Chinese students tend to be very focused on the outcomes of exams, and may not have such developed skills when it comes to using language in communication.

English as a subject, not a language

In a typical Chinese high school, English (and other languages) are traditionally treated in the same way as knowledge-based subjects such as history or mathematics – that is, that it is taught in Chinese, with students being presented with phrases and patterns to translate and use in textbook exercises.

This leads to Chinese students typically having a very strong knowledge about English, without the necessary practice to actually perform in English (especially in speaking and listening).

Fear of failure

Another symptom of the exam culture when it comes to languages is a fear of making mistakes. If one incorrect answer on a standardised test can mean the difference between going to a good university and a mid-range one, missing out on all the opportunities that entails, errors have huge consequences.

This is reflected in the classroom, where many students, rather than trying out new language and making mistakes along the way, would prefer to stay silent and safe by saying nothing during class.

This can be frustrating for a communicative language teacher, but with some understanding of this aspect of Chinese learners, and the necessary encouragement, praise and motivation in the classroom, this can easily be overcome.

Speaking and listening as needs for Chinese students

As previously mentioned, speaking and listening skills are typically underdeveloped in Chinese learners, as practice in these areas s often lacking in high school classrooms in China.

This is because speaking and listening are difficult to lead in classes with upwards of 40 students, and often the teachers themselves may not have a level of English high enough to provide a good model for students.

This is another reason why most English classes are conducted in Chinese, and use safe, practised translation as a technique for ‘learning’ the language.

With simple speaking tasks and praise for participation in the classroom, activities which are graded from easy to more complex and a lot of support early on, however, these issues can be addressed in a sensitive way for the students, leading to great development over time.

Critical and evaluative thinking in English

The test-based culture also leads to the assumption in many students that there must be a ‘correct’ answer to most aspects of language learning. This makes discussions and debates difficult, and prevents a lot of evaluative thinking where pros and cons are evaluated, or arguments picked apart for their validity.

If everything you have done in the past has been graded as ‘correct’ or ‘wrong’, how can something be good, but not right?

How can effort be rewarded if it does not lead to success?

This is a further challenge for overseas teachers in China, who often aim to develop these skills in learners. As with other areas of need, the answer is to build up slowly to critical thinking activity, looking at ways of evaluating familiar topics and situations, before getting to more controversial or two-sided topics.

Language schools and centres in China

Due to the above factors, many parents in China want their kids to have a competitive edge in the areas of speaking, listening, vocabulary use and motivation to learn English more freely.

For this reason, the majority of language schools in China are set up to provide extra-curricular language teaching to fill the gaps left by the test-oriented school system.

Evening and weekend classes are common, and the main aim of the private school setting is to provide a fun and engaging environment for younger learners of up to 18 years of age, when they sit their gaokao university entrance exam.

The role of overseas teachers

In schools such as this, the role of the teacher is mainly to engage students through types of activity that they do not experience at school. This means delivering lessons through communicative games and activities which challenge students to speak, participate actively and have fun while learning.

Before arriving at a school, there is no way of knowing what kind of resources you will be able to use, so if you are thinking of going to teach in China, it is a good idea to get hold of some resources which you can use to facilitate this kind of learning – there are a lot of communicative games and activity books out there designed for exactly this purpose.

Native-speakerism in China

Unfortunately, there is a bias in China towards ‘native speaker’ teachers (i.e teachers from the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), which is of course totally unfounded; there is by no means any requirement for a good teacher of a language to be from a country where that language is spoken.

This prejudice extends to other features such as accent, skin colour and country of birth, with some provinces only granting work visas to English teachers who come from specific countries.

If you are not from an English-speaking country, it is definitely worth finding out from any school you apply to whether this is the case in the region where the school operates.

Although this ‘native-speakerism’ is counter productive to the development of the language teaching industry, many parents hold the view that neutral-accented, white teachers from English speaking countries are ‘better teachers’, and as parents are the main clients of private language schools, even the school managers themselves may bow to this demand.

Business English and English for Specific Purposes

Another type of teaching which is common in private language education centres is business English, where teachers work with local company staff to improve their English for international business.

This is a great way to make contacts in the city where you are living, especially as classes are often in one-to-one or small-group settings, where you can really get to know your students well and tailor your teaching to what they need.

Other students may have different purposes for learning English in the industry where they work, so courses in English for tourism, English for hotel management or English for medicine may also be provided by the school.

These English for Specific Purposes (ESP) courses are interesting to teach, though they often require more preparation as the teacher has to become familiar with the topics and language that the students need.

ESP and Business English can bring more variety to work of this kind, away from the young learners’ classes which are the bread and butter of most centre’s activity.

Cultural sensitivity

A final note about teaching in China to do with culture and taboos: Education is held as one of the pillars of Chinese society. On the one hand, this means that you will have a high level of respect for being a teacher. On the other hand, this brings responsibilities to uphold some cultural conventions for overseas visitors to China.

Some topics are very sensitive, either personally or politically, so it is best to stay away from discussions of religion, politics, controversial social issues and other topics such as Tibet, Taiwan or Xinjiang (a region in North-west China which is traditionally Muslim, and has experienced a lot of conflict with the Chinese government over the years).

Avoid these topics, as they can bring points of contention between Chinese and non-Chinese cultural views, and in most cases, students will simply refuse to open up about them as much as other safer topics.


Overall, teaching in China can present challenges, but if you are prepared to adapt what you are doing in the classroom according to the specific needs of your learners, it is also a very rewarding experience as you watch your learners grow in areas which are not traditionally taught in mainstream education.

The most important thing is to go into the job with your eyes open, do your research about the types of teaching that go on in any school you apply to, and ask about the expectations of teachers at the centre. In this way, you will be prepared for the experience and you will have realistic expectations when you arrive.

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This article was originally published on March 18, 2019 and was last updated on January 14, 2021.

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