English conversation class at Xuzhou Normal University, I only have a blackboard and some
chalk. The class is made up of 70 students. These students are good at doing
multiple-choice exercises but are poor at doing exercises in which they are asked to
produce and create in the language. This weakness is due to the types of exams the
students have to take at the end of the semester. In the class, the students are
encouraged to think in English instead of translating, learn to write essays, and pass
Level Four in a years time. Both the teachers and the students are under much
pressure to do well. I believe that my first responsibility is to help the students make
rapid progress in speaking the language. I usually focus on speaking activities beginning
with the first class.
I begin by teaching some general expressions (e.g., "Im sorry," asking
directions). I follow this with situational expressions such as what to say at the bank or
at the post office. The students are asked to recite all of the expressions. It is hard
and sometimes boring. Most of them will recite because they are eager to speak the
language. To make it interesting, I usually ask them to practice with their classmates.
To my surprise, most of the students, when asked to practice with their classmates,
refuse to do so or at least dont put their hearts into it. When asked why, they tell
me they think it is silly to talk in "baby English" and they feel embarrassed
because they speak slowly and use broken English. To me, the shortcoming of this kind of
practice is that I dont know who is practicing and who is chatting in Chinese. And
if they make any mistakes, no one will correct them because the other students are
preparing their own sentences. Feedback is the responsibility of the teacher, but I
dont have time to check and monitor the performance of all of the students.
Second, I ask the students to listen to the VOA Special English program. I encourage
them to try to imitate the English they hear in the program and to use it for their
four-to-five-minute daily reports. The students like doing this. They learn much from
their classmates this way. Whats more, the other students excellent work will
be an impetus to them. However, the shortcoming of this activity is that they still do not
In preparation for giving their reports, they listen to the VOA, read newspapers,
translate, look up new vocabulary in their dictionaries, and talk about their report with
others. With all of this preparation, they generally give an excellent report. Students
who do not prepare for the reports are not able to answer my questions and they use broken
English. To motivate the students, I try to give them interesting topics, but only some of
the very brave students want to get involved. I realize that what Im asking them to
do might be too difficult.
I often hear foreign teachers complain that Chinese students are too indirect and too
silent. This is not always true. For example, I was at a party with my students and they
were very active and noisy because they were playing an idiom game. Each students had to
say an idiom containing four words. The last word of the idiom and the first word of the
one following it had to be the same. The students were very active and happy as they were
playing the game.
As I watched them an idea came to mind. Why not use this technique in class and ask
each of them to say just one or two sentences and thus make a complete story? I tried it
out during my next class. I told the students that they were going to tell a story and
that each of them would be responsible for saying one or two sentences as part of the
story. They seemed very pleased with the exercise. They also looked forward to the next
class when we would do the exercise again.
I asked them why they liked the activity. They told me that they didnt feel
pressured any more and that the lack of pressure made it easier for them to participate
and say something. They also said that they werent afraid of embarrassing themselves
in front of their classmates because even if they didnt have much to say, one
sentence was easy to deal with. The first time we did the story, it took 50 minutes
because I had to break in constantly to correct their mistakes immediately, to insert some
words to make the sentences connect, and sometimes to repeat to let everyone hear clearly.
That took too long; so the next time we did the exercise, I divided the class into two.
Now, while one half is telling the story, the other half is writing it down and making the
After doing this exercise for two months, I can report that it works very well. The
students show much more confidence in speaking. They think about what they are going to
say and enjoy talking about various topics. They almost dont need me any more.
In conclusion, I know that when I give them a topic to talk about for the next class,
they will participate and maybe even argue in English.