5 Tips for Teaching English to Low-Level Adults in China

5 Tips for Teaching English to Low-Level Adults in China
Aug 04, 2020 By Alistair Baker-Brian , eChinacities.com

More and more adults are learning English in China, whether for work, travel or opportunities. Some adult students in China start with a very low level of English, and dealing with them as a teacher can feel like treading a tight-rope between grading your language and patronizing your students. Here I bring you five tips for teaching English to low-level adults in China.

5 Tips for Teaching English to Low-Level Adults in China
Source: Sean Kong

1. Check Your StudentsStarting Ability 

This is crucial before starting to teach any class, but unlike with younger students of the same age, English levels among adults may vary greatly, even within one class. Your school or training centre will most likely have set an oral examination to assess students’ level of spoken English before assigning them to a class. If this is not the case or you are teaching one-on-one, create a little pop quiz of your own.

The assessment could go as follows: Begin with the most simple questions e.g. “What’s your name?”, “How old are you?” etc and gradually increase the difficulty. Once a student is unable to respond, you should have a good idea of their level and the appropriate class or material for them.

Student ability can be defined by the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), through which a “beginner” student can be either A-0 (absolute beginner) or A-1 (beginner with a basic level of English). While these terms can be ambiguous, checking your students’ English ability before you start teaching will in the very least help you identify who is stronger and weaker. You can also do similar tests to the one described above to get an idea of your students’ reading, writing and listening ability in these early stages.

If the difference in ability between students in the same class is vast, you could consider asking your school to move a few students elsewhere. If you feel the differences are manageable, however, you can utilise the stronger students by getting them to assist others or by helping you demonstrate games and activities.

Avoid patronising your students, but don’t be afraid to start with the basics if necessary. For instance, going through the “International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) may be necessary to help A-0 students with pronunciation, while A-1 students may be beyond this. Either way, it all hinges on checking your students’ English levels in the first place.

2. Plan, Plan, Plan

This is just as important for teaching adults as it is for young learners. A teacher who fails to plan, has planned for a bad lesson.

When teaching English to low-level adults in China, TEFL teaching plans will be your best friend. Each lesson should have a target language (usually a grammar point) and a theme (usually a set of vocabulary). Let’s say you're teaching adverbs of frequency (never, rarely, sometimes, often etc.) as “the target language, and hobbies as the theme. The aim of the lesson should therefore be to have students produce sentences like, “I never play soccer” or “I sometimes play piano”, etc. Here’s what the lesson plan may look like:

Start by introducing the theme. Use plenty of visual aids like pictures, slideshows, props and whatever else can represent hobbies. Be careful not to overload your students with information. Consider keeping vocabulary to no more than five or six items.

Next, present the adverbs of frequency target language. Again, use plenty of visual aids. You could perhaps use a weekly schedule to illicit the meaning of each word. Next come the practice activities. Written exercises like gap fills may be useful here. Students may also benefit from listening activities. At this stage of the lesson, be sure to help students as much as possible and correct their mistakes where necessary.

Finish with a production activity. Get the students to produce the target language and vocabulary as much as possible without assistance from the teacher. Students could complete a survey in which they ask classmates the question, “How often do you do (hobby)?” and write down the answer. This way, speaking and student-to-student interaction is maximised.

Remember throughout your lessons that low-level English learners may not follow everything you say. This makes visual aids crucial. Similarly, when giving instructions, simply telling your students what to do may not be effective. Be sure to demonstrate the activity, either by yourself or with a strong student.

3. Get to Know Your Students (Within Reason)

Unlike with young students, the vast majority of adults have chosen to learn English. With this in mind, find out their motivations for learning. Some might learn because they need to use English at work. In this case, find out what it is they do. Do they need to learn English for a specific industry? Will they deal with clients from overseas? Others may learn English simply to better themselves. If that’s the case, you may want to find out about their ambitions, hobbies and interests.

Wherever possible, work this material into your lesson plans. After all, if a lesson is tailored to their needs, the students will likely find it more interesting. Don’t be afraid to veer away from the material in the textbook from time to time and connect with your students more personally.

Although getting to know students is important, remember to keep your professional boundaries in place. Being friendly and perhaps grabbing a coffee with students outside of class may not be a problem, but having an intimate relationship or a close friendship with them could result in a conflict of interest.

4. Set Class Rules

Behaviour and motivation to learn tend not to be a problem with adult students. However, you’ll still probably want to set a few class rules so everyone knows where they stand. Here are a couple of suggestions:

Make clear to your students that they should speak English at all times during the class. If they want to use Chinese, they should ask permission from the teacher first (preferably in English). By doing this, you’re creating an immersive English learning environment in the classroom.

Make clear to students that they should avoid using their phones during class whenever possible. There may be times when your students want to look up a word they’re unfamiliar with or add something to their language learning app. Perhaps you’ll decide to allow this, but you could insist that phones remain silenced and turned face-down on the desk at all other times. As you’re teaching adults, there may also be times when your students need to keep an eye on their phones for work or personal reasons. The balance you strike is up to you, but overall most teachers would likely agree that phones are nothing more than a distraction in the classroom.

When teaching English to low-level adults in China, remember to make these rules clear at the beginning of the first lesson and do so by demonstrating the rule rather than simply telling your students. For example, show them your phone and cross your arms to indicate they should not be used.

5. Give Homework and Do Assessments

Make clear to students that continuing to study outside of class is crucial to language-learning. For low-level learners, you may need a colleague to explain this in Chinese. Explain that on this basis, you will give them a small amount of homework after each class.

For many adult students with work and family commitments, time is scarce and completing English homework is not always a priority. Many Chinese adult students also struggle to find the opportunity to practice their spoken English outside of class.

Here’s one suggestion: Create a WeChat group which includes yourself, your students and any other relevant colleagues. After each class, ask some questions related to the lesson material using the voice message feature and let students respond. This gives students a very quick and easy way to practice speaking English outside of class.

Assessments are equally important to ensure your students’ progress is monitored. Some course books may come with assessment material, but otherwise you can create your own. In most cases, your adult classes will take place in a language training centre or a similar establishment. This means your students are paying customers. Knowing their goals and keeping track of their progress towards them will likely result in satisfied customers.

Working with adult beginners can be tough. In my four years of teaching experience, they’re probably the most challenging group I’ve ever taught. But with set goals, well-planned lessons and good rapport with students, teaching English to low-level adults in China can be both fun and rewarding.

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Keywords: Teaching English to low-level adults in China Chinese adult student


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What is most important beyond that is planning a lesson ahead.

Nov 03, 2020 08:37 Report Abuse



This article is beneficial to those who decide to come to China to teach. Though most of the points are already covered in TEFL course.

Sep 06, 2020 14:52 Report Abuse



Well said

Aug 23, 2020 20:07 Report Abuse



Most major English schools in China don't assign foreigners to teach low level students. That's what the Chinese teachers are for. If you have to teach low level students, you need a better job.

Aug 13, 2020 09:18 Report Abuse



Thanks for the article!

Aug 12, 2020 23:52 Report Abuse



Good suggestions, thank you for this article!

Aug 09, 2020 17:38 Report Abuse



I should say it will be a great opportunity to teach English to Low-level adults in China.

Aug 05, 2020 12:08 Report Abuse



I noticed that almost all mandarin teachers overseas know English, some are quite good at it. When they face low-level adult learners it helps being able to communicate in English (or whatever other language). Even better if the teacher him or herself is the same native to the learners. It's not necessarily the case for English teachers in China. So the teacher might not experience the pain point of the low-level adult learner of English, he/she keeps trying and trying in English to no avail. On the other hand, a native teacher might not be as good in oral communications or other stuff, but he/she knows where the difficulty is, from own experience. Just a thought.

Aug 04, 2020 23:44 Report Abuse