My View of English Education in China

Xiao Qi, Dalian University of Foreign Languages

In this issue’s Teaching Assistance, Xiao Qi explains how she has circumvented what she believes is a common flaw of English education in China by putting Content Based Instruction (CBI) methodology into practice in her classroom. The author also exposes the overemphasis on memorization techniques to learn grammar and vocabulary. She attended the School of English Studies at Dalian University of Foreign Languages (DUFL), which was founded in 1970, obtaining her bachelor’s degree in 2012 and master’s degree in 2014. To experience life overseas, she visited America for 3 months and took on a part-time job selling clothes. She admitted, “This was the first time I felt a close tie to English, and recalling this experience is why I decided to continue my English studies.” She later became a faculty member at DUFL where she was able to implement CBI into her class. She taught English until July 2018, when she gave up her job to pursue a doctoral degree in English literature at a private university in Japan.

A major drawback to developing English education in China is that teachers overemphasize the value of memorization techniques to learn grammar and increase vocabulary. When the United States and China established diplomatic ties after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1979 the Ministry of Education directed schools to begin teaching English. In their rush to promote English language education, Chinese educators quickly adopted Grammar-Translation and Audio-Lingual methods. Even though these methods had been debunked prior to 1980, they fit well with the demands of classroom teaching in China. In China, most schoolchildren experience their first English lesson in the second year of primary school. Despite the early start, the focus is on passing university entrance exams and final exams. Teachers in China encourage students to memorize grammar rules and vocabulary, and creative skills such as writing and speaking are not considered as important as reading skills. According to a national survey (Qing & Kelly, 2009), only half of the teachers in China consider that vocabulary should be learned through conversation or communication. However, since “change can come only through teachers,” Qing and Kelly (2009, p. 405) claim that teachers need to “provide more help to students as they learn vocabulary.” Unfortunately, only a small percentage of teachers support activities such as role playing and vocabulary games in their classrooms and students are rarely asked to put newly learned English words into use. Students who memorize vocabulary without being exposed to its contextual use might be able to translate, but are unlikely to be able to write freely on a variety of topics.

This problem may be because Mandarin is the official and dominant language in China, whereas English is perceived to be of little use in the country. A typical lament of language majors who graduate from college goes along the lines of, “What use is a degree from this college when I can only get a job as a laborer?” This problem is further reinforced through the College English Test (CET). CET is the primary English language test in China. As of 2011, employers have uniformly set scores in both the CET 4 and CET 6 test levels as requirements for employment. Qiang and Wolff (2011), however, “debunk the claim that CET 4 and CET 6 reflect an appreciable English writing proficiency in China.” (p. 1). Although doing well in CET 4 and CET 6 National English Tests implies that a student has achieved English proficiency in reading and writing, and is ready for employment, Qiang and Wolff (2011) point out many deficiencies in the national tests.

Dalian University of Foreign Languages (DUFL) is trying to promote the learning of foreign languages by modernizing its teaching methods. DUFL offers 20,000 students bachelor’s degree programs in Japanese, English, Russian, French, Korean, German, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Chinese, Chinese literature, and teaching Chinese, as well as subjects in the fields of arts, management, and information. In 2010, the School of English received permission from China’s Ministry of Education to recruit translation and interpretation majors to an English Language and Literature program. Simultaneously, the CBI method was launched to increase the ability of instructors to attract and support English majors. Traditional ideas for teaching foreign languages that focus on 4 skills (speaking, listening, writing, and reading) were replaced by the implementation of the multi-skilled approach of CBI. In addition, a series of courses on special topics are now instructed through the medium of English. The curriculum includes the history, geography, and culture of English speaking countries, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. Courses on American movies and media have also been developed. The curriculum combines the teaching of content with the teaching of linguistic skills. This wide variety of materials and subjects is intended to cultivate critical thinking skills in English major students. Faculty members have had to increase their knowledge of these liberal arts subjects as well as updating their own teaching ideas and teaching methodologies. Students are asked to demonstrate their understanding of the content by actively discussing in groups and making presentations. The faculty has published more than 100 course books and translated works. These textbooks provide a wide range of real English materials for use in the classroom, compared with textbooks made by other publishers in China. Realia—objects such as artifacts that teachers have picked up on their travels overseas—and activities such as games, are used to relate classroom teaching to the real lives of American, British, Australian and Canadian people. These materials and activities have enhanced the quality of linguistic input in the classroom.

I taught a required course, Introduction to British History, to first-year English majors. Taught in the fall semester, the syllabus for this course was written and approved by several faculty members. The primary objective of Introduction to British History is to develop intercultural communication skills and sensitivity through the study of British history. The course is also intended to help students understand the basic theories, strategies, and practical skills of English pronunciation so that they can pronounce words, sentences, and texts clearly, accurately, and fluently. Realizing that teaching British pronunciation is difficult for Chinese teachers, our faculty took care to prepare a course syllabus that language teachers could follow. I was asked to ensure that students learn how to express their own ideas with clear and appropriate English pronunciation and intonation. In correspondence with the British course content, I was asked to emphasize British English pronunciation and spelling. Moreover, a textbook with British English pronunciation exercises was used. With these support materials, my colleagues and I agreed that we could help improve the students’ pronunciation of individual words, sentences, and longer discourse.

I decided to cover British history from the early settlers to the era of Queen Victoria. Teachable content was developed on topics such as the Glorious Revolution, the Reformation, the War of the Roses, English Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution.

The course also aims at improving English conversational skills and intercultural communicative competence. Without giving much direction I asked students to begin by preparing their own presentations about an invention from the Industrial Revolution. I had them try on their own, thinking I could give them guidance during the class. I was impressed by what they came up with quickly on their own. Students gave a great range of interesting presentations, using historical illustrations and fascinating videos as visual aids. For example, a student majoring in Chinese Studies gave a presentation on Railways during the Industrial Revolution, and the content of his presentation held the audience’s attention well. He began by introducing the first railway system in Britain and the inventor of the locomotive, George Stephenson. Then, he brought the class to the present-day underground system in London. The development of the London railway was explained using the examples of Baker Street and King’s Cross stations, which are familiar to the students from the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter. This aided everyone’s understanding of the map of the London Tube. With just five minutes to explain all of this, his summary left a deep impression on me, so he got the highest grade. The CBI course Introduction to British History is one of the most popular offered at my university.

Although the current situation of English language education in China leaves little room for optimism, the developments taking place at my university, at least, have ushered in a new era for me and my students. After one semester of teaching the course Introduction to British History in English using CBI methods, I noticed that the students seemed motivated to prepare presentations, share information with each other, and widen their range of interest in British history. The combination of practicing language skills through real English content—Content-Based Instruction—has become my preferred way to enhance the comprehensive ability of students to speak, write, read, listen, and think.


Qiang, N., & Wolff, M. (2011). The Lowdown on China’s Higher Education. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Qing, M., & Kelly, P. (2009). Overcoming hurdles to Chinese students’ learning of English lexis. Changing English Studies in Culture and Education, 16(4), 405-412.