What Chinese students teach us

chinese students elt speaking student attitudes Aug 13, 2021

By James Jenkin

As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s little evidence for the widespread view that Chinese students don’t like speaking in class. In fact, a number of large-scale studies (e.g., Littlewood, 2001, 2010; Kim, 2006) show students from the PRC question lecture-style teaching, value communication over form-based instruction, and want to participate actively.

Chinese students with some experience of a Western classroom are capable of comparing the two approaches; they can weigh up their benefits and shortcomings. This can give us valuable insights into what we do.

While Chinese students want to communicate in class, we may not always be providing the optimal environment for this to happen.


Chinese students say they may be unwilling to participate in a communicative activity for two main reasons: they feel unprepared, and they feel unmotivated (Cheng, 2000; Littlewood, 2010).

Students feel unprepared because they:
•  haven’t learned the language they need to attempt the activity
•  don’t understand a culturally unfamiliar topic

Furthermore, teacher expectations to contribute – and urging from the teacher to speak – increases the pressure.

Students feel unmotivated because they:
•  can’t relate to an unfamiliar topic
•  can’t see the link between English and real world
•  see a clash between foreign teachers’ lessons and institutional requirements
•  don’t understand the aim (of a lesson or activity)
•  don’t receive feedback


Feedback such as this from the student is enormously important. It makes us think seriously about our teaching – for example, do we rely too much on ‘top down’ (‘Just speak!’) activities to develop fluency, are we too cautious about correction, do we assume students can ‘read’ what’s going on in our lessons?

To help students feel prepared, we can consider:
•  staging teaching and practice activities more systematically
•  teaching discourse features so students can interact with confidence
•  staging exposure to a new topic from the familiar to unfamiliar
•  giving students time to prepare alone, and practice in small groups, before we expect them to speak to the whole class

To help students feel motivated, we can consider:
•  a visual lead-in to a topic, and the same staging from familiar to unfamiliar
•  appealing to students’ real-life aspirations – for example, using texts and contexts related to their lives and dreams
•  finding out students’ needs inside and outside school, and addressing them
•  presenting explicit lesson aims, signposting of activities, and reviews
•  providing frequent and appropriate feedback inside and outside class

None of this is new, or controversial. However, insights from Chinese learners have given us a great opportunity to think about what we actually do, and we should take advantage of this.


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

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.

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.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Vitchanan Photography