Are Chinese students different?

chinese students elt Aug 13, 2021

By James Jenkin

We’ve heard the stereotype: Chinese students don’t like speaking in class, expressing opinions, or playing games.

Is it true?


In fact, for decades this view of Chinese learners was received opinion in the literature.

Chinese students were described as:
•  less autonomous, more dependent on authority figures, and conforming to rules (Sue & Kirk, 1972)
•  reticent and passive learners (Tsui, 1996)
•  less willing to participate in classroom communication (Jones, 1999)

‘Chinese culture’ has often been given as the root cause, in particular the influence of Confucianism, and the importance of maintaining face (e.g., Flowerdew & Miller, 1995). Charlesworth (2008) suggested East Asian cultures value ‘contemplation’ and not ‘imposing … opinions on others’, resulting in a ‘reflective learning style’.


However, in the last 20 years, a considerable body of research has emerged which challenges these assumptions. It draws in particular on the views of Chinese students themselves.

Liu and Littlewood (1997) initially conducted two large-group studies of Hong Kong secondary students, and found that the overwhelming majority of students enjoyed ‘group discussions’ over other classroom activities.

Littlewood (2001) later surveyed learning preferences of 2656 students in 13 countries. His survey found that students from the People’s Republic of China:
•  question the ‘traditional authority-based, transmission mode of learning’
•  wish to participate actively
•  have positive attitudes towards working in groups

A number of further studies (e.g., Kim, 2006; Littlewood, 2010) suggested Chinese students have a clear preference for communication-type activities over form-oriented instruction, and most disagree that knowledge is ‘something the teacher should pass on to them rather than something they should discover themselves’ (Littlewood, 2010: 54).


Cheng (2000) suggests that if Chinese students seem to be reticent in certain circumstances, it’s likely to be ‘situation specific’ rather than ‘culturally pre-set’: in other words, a learner feels ill-at-ease because of the way a lesson is delivered.

The easy interpretation of this is that Chinese students need time to adjust to a radically different teaching style.

More challenging is the idea that students can rationally compare two approaches, and are expressing valid concerns about aspects of the communicative classroom.

I’ll go into exactly what Chinese students say about Western teaching, and what we can learn from this, in my next post.


Charlesworth, Z. (2008). Learning styles across cultures: suggestions for educators. Education and Training, 50(2), 115-127.

Cheng, X. (2000). Asian students’ reticence revisited. System, 28(3), 435-446.

Flowerdew, J. & Miller, L. (1995). On the Notion of Culture in L2 Lectures. TESOL Quarterly, 29(2), 345-373.

Kim, S.  (2006). Academic oral communication needs of East Asian international graduate students in non-science and non-engineering fields. English for Specific Purposes, 25(4), 479-489.

Littlewood, W. (2001). Students’ attitudes to classroom English learning: a cross-cultural study. Language Teaching Research, 5(1), 3-28.

Littlewood, W. (2010). Chinese and Japanese students’ conceptions of ‘the ideal English lesson’. RELC Journal, 41(1), 46–58.

Liu, N. & Littlewood, W. (1997). Why do many students appear reluctant to participate in classroom learning discourse? System, 25(3), 371-384.

Sue, D. & Kirk, B. (1972). Psychological characteristics of Chinese American students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 19, 471-478.

Tsui, A. (1996). Reticence and anxiety in second language learning. In K. Bailey & D. Nunan (Eds.), Voices from the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.

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