I just got back from an incredible Educators’ Tour in China with EF. Our group was very pleased with the experience, and although I am not usually fond of traveling with a tour group for leisure, I wouldn’t visit China any other way. I’ve traveled with students various times with EF, but this expedition was specifically designed for teachers and professors. We were not able to tour a Chinese school because students were on summer break when we visited, so EF graciously included a visit to EF’s Language Schools in Shanghai. (I was not aware that EF has so many different businesses, including language schools and IB programs.)
On a later post I’ll share some thoughts and insights I have on Chinese education in general, but for now I want to address English as a Foreign Language in China. Chinese students start taking English classes around year 4 or 5 in their primary schools. EF Language Schools and other language schools like this supplement the learning students do in their regular school day. According to our teacher tour guide, Natasha, tuition to a language school can be as much as 6-10% of a family’s annual income for bi-weekly sessions. One of the reasons families are willing to spend this kind of money on a supplemental language learning is because the Chinese schools teach a grammar based curriculum that requires memorization and a “formulaic” approach to learning English, but provide very little authentic practice or language usage.
Our tour started out in the EF headquarters. We had four speakers address the EFL program that EF markets & promotes. Currently EF has over 100,000 students in China alone! The school’s philosophy can be summarized with the goals of their Life Club program. EF wants to expose their students to authentic tasks, encourage autonomous learning, incorporate motivation, promote mixed ability learning and use language in a meaningful way.
Currently they are launching Trailblazers, a multimedia textbook series, written and created by EF. The manga inspired textbook follows the adventures of some teens as they battle aliens who are trying to cause havoc. The target audience is 11-15 year olds, but I think it may appeal more to the 9-12 crowd. I like the concept of having a plot based textbook (rather than a grammar-based), but I have to question how “authentic” scenarios with aliens will be. I understand how the cartoon videos that come with the series may engage a young language learner, but I have reservations about how well they will work for listening comprehension exercises. It is important to keep in mind how drastically different this curriculum is compared to rote memorization that comes with the language classes in a traditional Chinese school. EF is trying hard to create a product that will keep students motivated. EF also has several iPad apps and computer games that supplement their program.
After the presentation our group of 35 teachers & friends broke up into four groups and each group was assigned one specific Shanghai EF language school. Our group had the best experience. Our school was located in an affluent area with beautiful high-rise residential buildings all around it. We had personal student tour guides for our school visit: Sabrina & Jenny. Sabrina, 12, was a fluent English speaker and ballerina, with more poise and personality than I ever will have. Jenny, also 12, was a little shyer, and sometimes required a little help from Sabrina. Our students ranged in ages from 5-16. We visited the youngest language learners’ classroom first just to say “Hi” and “What’s your name?”. Another classroom was testing. The third classroom had presentations going on. After presenting their dialogs, we sat in a big circle and had a Q & A. The students had prepared questions for us, but they felt awkward & self-conscious trying to have a conversation with such a big group listening on, so instead, we turned to the kids sitting next to us and tried to engage them with one-on-one conversation... much more effective. The next activity was a group game using a smartboard. Although classes ended at 4 pm, most of our students stayed on to talk to us in the school’s lobby. A few of the students had traveled to English speaking countries and were pretty close to being fluent English speakers. Most students I talked to wanted to go to the US, England or Australia for university (one of the advertising billboards tag line was “From EF to Harvard”). We found out the school’s director had had a two days to prepare for our visit. We appreciate their time, and I was very impressed with what I saw.
I understand that our experience was not shared by the other 3 groups. One group only had a few minutes of contact time with the students, and another group’s visit was not as organized as our visit was.
Most of our tour guides during the trip spoke English well, even if a couple had some problems with pronunciation at times. I was surprised that most of the staff at the hotels did not speak English at all. Several times during our trip we had young language learners come up to our group to practice English. Obviously the Chinese value speaking English quite a bit, and as tourism in China grows, I believe conversational English will be more prevalent.
Sorry to say, I only picked up a little bit of Chinese during my visit. How do Chinese programs in the US compare? Here is a 2010 article from the New York Times that summaries Chinese language learning.