How to teach English

How to Teach English to Chinese Students

No one student is the same, making it impossible for learning to be generalized or taught to the average. And yet, when it comes to students from the same culture, there can be particularities specific to the group. In this article, we will look at how to teach English to Chinese students more effectively through addressing the common mistakes they make, the reasons they make such mistakes, and how these mistakes can be corrected.

With the help of Jojo Francisco, Mandy Brooking, Frank Noriega, and Victoria Branchini – teachers who have taught a combined 3,357 English language students from China between them – we will show you how to help your Chinese learner, whether as a parent or as an educator.

Common errors that Chinese students make

Chinese students of different ages struggle with different things. “At ages 2.5–4.5 years old, students often have trouble pronouncing letter sounds and basic words,” says Jojo. This is normal, as the child is learning English in addition to their native language.

Later, older ESL learners may have a hard time with complete words or sentences. “The 5–7 age group will often drop the ending sounds of words when speaking English. The 8-9 year-old group, although they have the ability to speak with full and complete sentences, fall into an easier form of communication, using simple and fragmented sentences, answering with only one word to questions, to decrease the amount of effort needed for effective communication,” Jojo adds.

During ages 10-12, ESL teachers need to pay close attention, as areas of improvement become less obvious. Jojo explains that “though an English student might be speaking with full and complete sentences, the question now lies on if he or she can speak using complex sentence structures. Another concern would be if the student is now using multiple sentences to respond to questions, and not just one. Is the student able to provide details to their opinions? Are they able to give adequate, but still basic, explanations? Can they retell stories using details from stories learned in classes and readings?”

There are certainly many nuances to teaching English to Chinese students, yet there are specific areas that often trouble Chinese learners of all ages.

1. Phonemes

“I find that students often have a difficult time with letter pronunciation/synthetic phonics,” says Frank. “I believe these mistakes are normal…considering the vast difference in phonics between the Chinese and English languages,” Frank says.

It is true that many English phonemes do not exist in Chinese. “Some of the most common errors I see with my young learners (5- 8 age group) are pronunciation errors. The /l/, /n/ and /v/ sounds are what Chinese students mispronounce the most,” says Victoria. “Most often, students struggle with /v/ and /th/,” says Mandy.

2. Adding and dropping sounds

Besides errors in pronunciation, Chinese students often change the tail sound of words. “The error that I hear most frequently,” says Victoria, “is the addition of a ‘tail sound.’ For example, ‘cat’ is pronounced as ‘cata’.”

“They often drop the ‘s’ at the end of verbs when using third-person pronouns,” says Mandy. Jojo agrees, adding, “This dropping of ending sounds is what usually creates the foreign accent.”

3. Dropping words

Chinese learners also “drop words in longer sentence frames,” says Mandy. This could be a combination of laziness, an inadequate understanding of English, or Chinese sentence structures being simpler than their English counterparts.

Why mistakes happen

The Chinese language is very different from the English language. Besides the fact that many English phonemes do not exist in Chinese, the grammar is also completely different. Sentences in Chinese are much simpler, to the point that in some cases a sentence without a verb is still grammatically correct. Also, there are no articles in Chinese, no verb conjugation, no irregular verbs, no superlatives, and the pronouns for he/she/it all sound the same. These new grammatical concepts can be tricky to grasp.

In terms of phonemes, “many Chinese sounds are pronounced at the back of the throat, while many English sounds are produced at the front of the mouth, with the tongue, teeth, and lips. Students need to learn how to use their mouth to produce these new sounds,” says Victoria.

How to correct common mistakes

To correct common mistakes, teachers will need a certain amount of patience and persistence, but there are certain techniques that may help.

One idea is using Total Physical Response (TPR), “so students can follow lip and tongue positioning and motions. I often provide, in my feedback to students, a YouTube link to a phonics song for practice. It is critical that they practice, continue to practice, and practice some more.” says Frank.

“I highlight my mouth, pair it with a common word the student would know, and get the student moving. This helps the student practice the proper mouth shape, and recall the correct sound in the future because they are using multiple senses. For short /o/, I show my mouth as a big O shape and pair it with octopus. Together, the student and I act like we are octopuses swimming around while we make the short /o/ sound,” says Victoria.

It will take time for students to develop the muscle memory required to master different sounds. Mandy says, “I have been teaching a student for about one and a half years, who, up until two months ago, was unable to correctly pronounce /v/. Consistency with pronunciation correction, and a variety of drills, finally helped him in a major breakthrough!”

If the issue is dropped sounds, the method for correction is different. “I tend to isolate the sound (such as the ‘s’ at the end of a verb), model the word again with a lot of emphasis on that sound, then have the student practice the word a few times in isolation,” says Mandy.

If the student drops a word in a sentence frame, counting words can help. “I may count the number of words in the sentence as I model it for them, then invite the student to practice. As they say each word, I will count down using my fingers to indicate that they have the correct number of words in the sentence,” says Mandy. Making sure that the student speaks in complete sentences “will help the child tremendously when they reach the advanced stages of communication,” adds Jojo.

Teachers can also encourage solo practice outside the classroom. If a student takes online English classes, those classes are usually recorded so “re-watching these videos and practicing along would also suffice in lieu of an actual teacher,” says Jojo.

Chinese ESL students often struggle with the same language problems, and it is crucial that educators and parents are mindful of these difficulties. If addressed early, with consistency, and in an engaging manner, these problems can fixed, empowering students to new heights with their speaking ability.

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