How to Teach English to Chinese Students: Linguistic Challenges and Best Classroom Strategies
Chinese students who are learning English have to tackle certain linguistic and cultural differences. This is why your teaching won’t be the same as with a class of French speakers, for example.
Whether you have a mix of Chinese ELL students in a mainstream class or an entire class of Chinese students, a little understanding of China and its people will be incredibly helpful.
Consider yourself lucky, because that’s exactly what I’ve put together for you here: the main differences to be aware of, plus common questions and activities specifically for Chinese students.
- How to Become an English Teacher to Chinese Students
- Cultural Differences Between China and the Western World
- Linguistic Differences Between English and Chinese
- Common Questions
How to Become an English Teacher to Chinese Students
Whether you’ll be teaching online or moving to China, you’ll absolutely need a TEFL certification (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). Most companies will also require a bachelor’s degree.
For teaching online, you can then apply to English tutoring companies like Preply and Cambly. You should know, though, that the Chinese government implemented a law in 2021 that reduced online lessons for kids and banned China-based companies from hiring foreign tutors online, so China-based teaching platforms like VIPKid and MagicEars have had a lot less activity.
If you want to be an English teacher in China, there are plenty of teaching job posts on websites like Teast, Dave’s ESL Cafe and Teach Away. You’ll need to be from a native English-speaking country and submit additional documents like a criminal background check and medical tests.
Cultural Differences Between China and the Western World
To be a successful English teacher to Chinese students, it’s important to know a bit about the Chinese culture. Here are some of the most obvious and relevant differences:
1. Focus on Education
From the Chinese viewpoint, education is very formal and serious, and teachers are expected to tell students exactly what they need to know. Students are expected to respect teachers, work hard and do lots of homework in order to succeed.
Sometimes the appearance of studying—being present (though not necessarily alert) and learning lists of words—seems to be more important than being engaged in learning.
2. Learning Styles at School
In Chinese education, factual information is important, fantasy is not; science wins over arts. Students expect to be taught steps to solve problems. Teachers must not be questioned or challenged.
So it comes as a surprise to them to find that they’re expected to problem-solve, without necessarily being told exactly how. There could even be more than one answer to a question.
You’ll want to facilitate and model problem-solving, and your students should be actively involved rather than passively observing. Encourage them to question you, and help them discover that reading is a constructive process.
3. Families and Home Life
In Mainland China until very recently, only wealthy families (who could afford the fine) and ethnic minorities in rural areas were permitted to have more than one child. So most children have no siblings, and no aunts or uncles.
Each child has six doting adults (parents and grandparents) pressuring them to succeed for the sake of the family. On top of that, there are far more boys than girls, and boys are often treated with more deference than girls.
4. Special Interests
Chinese students love numbers, math and things that are predictable. They don’t seem to mind if things are complicated.
So if a class of students appears bored, try giving out something like word search puzzles and immediately you’ll see such total engagement that even recess is of no interest until they’re finished.
5. The Importance of “Face”
Nobody likes to feel stupid or be made to look silly. But you have to realize that “losing face“ is a much, much bigger issue with Chinese people.
If you notice a change in your students, you might like to consider that they have lost face, and look for ways for them to save face again.
Handling Cultural Differences in the Classroom
Here you have already taken the first step: being aware of the differences.
Depending on the age and ability of your students, open discussion times about cultural expectations can make students (western and Chinese) more sensitive to other cultures. Groups of students could complete projects and present talks on their own or each other’s cultures.
Students in a Chinese classroom—especially if they haven’t yet had much experience with foreign teachers—may at first be surprised, or even somewhat disconcerted and hopefully eventually delighted by your teaching style.
Linguistic Differences Between English and Chinese
Now let’s look at four main differences between the English and Chinese languages (speaking rhythm, word stress, pronunciation and grammar) that can trip students up.
6. Speaking Rhythm
Have you ever noticed how English speakers don’t say each syllable and word with the same degree of clarity?
In any sentence, the important words or syllables are stressed and spoken at an even, rhythmic pace, almost like the beat you can feel in music. The other (less important) syllables and words just get squashed in between. Here’s a simple example:
Dogs chase cats.
Each word is important, so each word is stressed.
Now, let’s add some less important unstressed syllables into the mix:
The dogs will be chasing the cats.
These sentences essentially take the same time to say because the stressed syllables still dictate the timing of the sentence. The unimportant, unstressed syllables are tucked in between, and are often reduced—such as “will” reduced to apostrophe “ll.”
In Chinese, however, every syllable has the same value and takes the same amount of time.
Teaching techniques for speaking rhythm
You may have heard of jazz chants or grammar chants, usually said to have been invented by Carolyn Graham. Even though it might seem counterproductive because we don’t strictly talk like that all the time, there are benefits to using these in class.
Firstly, they’re a lot of fun, and secondly, they emphasize the stress-timed nature of the English language. You can find and use the chants from the websites above, watch grammar chants on YouTube, buy the books or simply create your own around the sentences that you’re currently practicing.
Create 4-beat sequences, and use clapping/clicking/movement or music to keep the beat as you say them. If there are only three beats in your sentence, you can either have an empty beat on “4” or start the next sentence.
So, for the two sentences above, we could have:
|Beat 1||Beat 2||Beat 3||Beat 4|
|dogs will be||chasing the||cats,||and (the*)|
|cats will be||chasing the||dogs.||( )|
*Note: The extra unstressed words at the end of the line (i.e. and, the) are spoken quickly on the “upbeat” just before the start of the next line.
Lots of rhythmic speaking practice will give your students a chance to be totally engaged and have fun, and the rhythmic aspect of the language will help them to remember it better, quickly internalizing the grammar.
7. Syllables and Word Stress
The Chinese language is monosyllabic, meaning that basically each one of their characters is one syllable. Each syllable receives the same amount of attention (same stress, same time allocation) and each has its own tonal shape, giving the language that delightful sing-song sound.
One result of this is that Chinese ESL students tend to pronounce each English syllable too carefully, messing up the word-stress pattern, causing discomfort to English-speaking listeners and sometimes causing confusion by changing the meaning. For example:
- DEsert is a place where there is very little water.
- deSERT is the action of abandoning someone or a place.
In English, each word is made up of one or more syllables, and each syllable can consist of a vowel (V) or consonant and vowel (CV) or a consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) sequence.
An important difference with Chinese syllables is that if they end in a consonant, it can only be an /n/ or /ng/. This affects Chinese students’ pronunciation of English because they’re uncomfortable with syllables that end in other consonants. As a result, you’ll often hear students adding a vowel —usually a schwa—after the consonant. For example:
“Get up!” might be pronounced “Get-a up-a!”
Teaching techniques for word stress
Firstly, teach your students the word stress rules. (In my experience, students actually like to learn these rules.)
Then use games to practice correct word stress and stress patterns until it becomes second nature. For example:
- Bingo — Use a Bingo card creator to make cards with 25 multiple-syllable words to practice. (Create a card for each student, each card contains the same words in a different configuration.) As students hear the words on their card, they mark the square with small objects such as counters or sunflower seeds. As soon as someone has five markers in a row in any direction, they call “Bingo” and win the round.
You can play the game several times over and/or have multiple winners per round (i.e. Keep playing for second place, third place, etc.) Winners can also take turns being the caller—with you monitoring correct pronunciation.
- Scavenger Hunt — Each student will need a paper dictionary (English-English). Call out multi-syllable words and have students race to find them in their dictionaries.
Once a word is found, students can check the pronunciation and possibly look at and discuss related words—which may have a different word-stress pattern (i.e. pho-to-graph vs. pho-to-graph-y). Students can work in teams to select words to call for others to race to find.
Both of these games can be played with a class including ELL students, and also with a whole class of Chinese students.
/l/ and /r/
It’s well known that Asian students have difficulties trying to pronounce these two sounds, but often teachers don’t realize that they really cannot hear the difference.
The first step is to make sure students clearly understand the physical difference in pronunciation. Demonstrate and practice putting the tip of the tongue against the top of the mouth for /l/, and moving it away for /r/. (This can be done with the whole class if you’re teaching in China, or you can take individual students aside for ELL students in a regular class.)
The second step is to have some fun with pronunciation practice games (shown below, after #5) which can include the whole class.
/v/ and /w/
Chinese students also have difficulties with the difference between /v/ and /w/. Demonstrate and practice touching the top teeth to the bottom lip for /v/, and rounding the lips for /w/. Give students mirrors to practice with, and/or practice with a partner.
Many ESL students, including Chinese, have difficulties with the /th/ sound because there is no such sound in their language. Help students make sure that their tongue sticks out between their teeth while they make the sound. They can use a mirror or a partner, and/or put their fingers in front of their mouth to make sure that their tongue is far enough forward.
Play pronunciation games (below) to practice and improve awareness and confidence with these two issues.
Consonant clusters /tr/ /dr/ /st/ /pl/
Chinese students often find it hard to blend consonants together, because there is nothing like that in their first language. Add to that the fact that most of the blends include their nemesis—an /r/ or an /l/—and you can see how daunting this must be.
Students often need concentrated practice on targeted words and it needs to be fun. So games are best!
Teaching techniques for pronunciation
Here are a few games you can use to work on pronunciation.
- Bingo — As with word stress above, Bingo is great for focusing on particular words over a period of time.
- Telephone — Put students into teams of equal numbers. Give a message (maybe show them something written, or whisper to the group of leaders) to the first in each line. Then students race to pass the message along by whispering from one to another. The final team member runs to you and announces the message. Make sure that there are some of the target sounds in the message.
- Beetlejuice — In the movie, they had to say the name (Beetlejuice) three times to make certain things happen. In this game, your students have to say a word (one that they may struggle with) three times to get what they want.
You can choose and change the word as often as you need, and different students could have different target words. The words could be presented to them hourly/daily on a card or even by email or text message. You might even ask students to repeat their word to leave the class at the end of the lesson, to be allowed to be seated, when they hand in a paper, to receive a treat or reward—it all depends on your class.
These aspects of English grammar are significantly different from Chinese, and can cause confusion.
- Sentence structure — In English we look for a subject (S), verb (V) and often an object (O). In Chinese the subject is not necessary in every sentence.
- Word order — Chinese word order is very different from English, and so students who do a direct word-by-word translation will run into difficulties. Also, dates and addresses in Chinese are presented in the opposite order from English. The date is written year-month-day and addresses are written country, province, city, street, house.
- Adverb phrases — Those phrases of place and time are situated differently in Chinese sentences.
- Articles, inflection and agreement — English has definite and indefinite articles, but Chinese has no articles. Also, in English the verb changes to agree with the number (singular or plural) of the subject, but Chinese words do not change.
- Male and female pronouns — Chinese has (written) pronouns for each of the genders, as well as animals and spiritual beings, but they all sound the same in speech. So Chinese students often have difficulties using the correct pronoun in English.
- Plurals — There are no plurals in Chinese. A number word is placed in front of the noun, or a word that means something like “many.” So, naturally, remembering to change an English noun because it’s plural can be troublesome.
- Verb tenses — English verbs change according to the tense, as well as sometimes by adding auxiliary verbs. Chinese verbs do not change at all. There are a number of ways to express tense in Chinese, such as by adding a time expression or verb particle. So having to change the actual verb in English is confusing for students.
- The verb “to be” — The Subject-Verb-Complement (SVC) type of English sentence is difficult for Chinese students, as they tend to miss out the verb “to be.” For example, “The boy is sick” will become “Boy sick.”
- Superlatives — The Chinese language does not include the wealth of superlatives and extravagant language that English does. In fact, recently the Chinese government banned the use of superlatives in advertising.
- Forms for written and oral language — When you look at English written down, it’s the same as how you speak. But in Chinese the two do not correspond in the same way. When looking at a piece of Chinese writing, a speaker of the Cantonese language will read the same meaning but with different words and sounds from a Mandarin speaker.
- Literal translation — It’s not possible to translate literally (and get sensible language) from Chinese to English, or vice versa. But, of course, Chinese students would really like to be able to, and will often try—sometimes with amusing results.
Teaching techniques for grammar
Don’t let your Chinese students disappear into their dictionaries and word lists, which is often their expectation for language learning. Kindly and gently, with sensitivity to their “shyness,” bring them lots of varied, fun and engaging activities—which they don’t usually expect to see in the classroom:
- Watch movies — Go through each movie more than once—maybe once with Chinese subtitles for beginners, and once with English subtitles and then without. Get students to mimic, anticipate and dramatize favorite scenes. Transfer this learning into reading and writing by dictating snippets of conversation, or getting students to write a retell or a review of part or all of the movie.
- Listen to music — Participate in related activities such as singing along, lip-syncing, completing worksheets, writing reviews or participating in a quiz about the song(s).
- Listen to stories — By using a digital story, students can listen to it again and again. They could listen to you reading it first, and maybe later they could try reading it (aloud) themselves. It could be a homework task which could later translate into an in-class drama exercise (or game), a retelling or a review writing exercise.
- Read the news — There are websites with specially prepared news stories for ESL students. My Chinese students have been notoriously unaware of world news, and thus can find it enlightening while they improve their language skills. This can lead on to speaking activities—drama, quizzes, talks—and writing activities which require natural English.
One resource that includes all of the types of English content above is FluentU. Its English lessons are based on videos that native speakers watch—from TV series, news, pop songs and more. The clips include interactive subtitles and multimedia quizzes, so you’ll be able to teach grammar while showcasing native English interactions.
To round it off, let’s address some common questions about teaching English to Chinese students:
What do Chinese students struggle with when learning English?
Chinese students often struggle with English’s stress-based rhythm and distinct sounds (like TH!). Another tricky area would be grammar concepts like English word order, verb tenses, plurals and the verb “to be.”
What is the best website to teach English online to Chinese students?
China-based companies like VIPKids and DaDa ABC used to be very popular, but because of the Chinese government’s ban, I’d recommend going with companies based outside China, like Preply, Skooli, Cambly, QKids and iTalki.
How much do you get paid teaching English to Chinese students online?
Most online English teaching jobs pay you per hour, with the salary generally ranging from $14 to $25. There are also tutoring platforms that allow you to set your own rate.
Enjoy the respect you get just from being the teacher, and pay attention to these differences to keep on earning your students’ respect by being an effective, fun teacher. Good luck!