Beyond the curriculum a chinese example of issues constraining effective english language teaching

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Beyond the Curriculum: A Chinese Example of Issues Constraining Effective English Language Teaching MINGLIN LI Griffith University Brisbane, Queensland, Australia RICHARD BALDAUF University of Queensland Brisbane St Lucia, Queensland, Australia doi: 10.5054/tq.2011.268058 tudies of English language education in primary and secondary schools in Asia—for example, China (Adamson, 2004), Hong Kong (Evans, 2000), Japan (Oda & Takada, 2005), Taiwan (Chern, 2002), Thailand (Wongsothorn, Hiranburana, & Chinnawongs, 2002), or Vietnam (Le, 2007)—have shown that at different times the orientation of English language curricula for schools has been adjusted to meet changing sociopolitical and educational trends In much of Asia the emphasis of the objectives set out in the English curricula has shifted from linguistic knowledge and skills to communicative language competence Teaching pedagogies recommended in these English curricula have changed from a focus on the traditional grammartranslation, structural approaches, and audiolingualism, to a greater focus on communicative language teaching (CLT) However, in each of the educational contexts a variety of factors have been identified that constrain the implementation of CLT, including: large class sizes, limited teacher proficiency, insufficient resources and instructional time, examination pressure, and cultural resistance (e.g., Hu, 2002; Li, 1998; Nunan, 2003; Tran & Baldauf, 2007; Yu, 2001) Thus, if language teaching is to be more communicative in the Asian contexts, there is a need to investigate the extent of these constraining factors, because new curricula and curricular policies alone are not likely to bring about the desired changes China provides one example of how these factors constrain CLT implementation The 2001 national English language curriculum for primary and secondary schools in China, which was trialed between September 2001 and September 2005, has as its focus the quality of students’ overall education achieved through task-based, learnercentered methods and CLT Furthermore, the 2001 English curriculum S BRIEF REPORTS AND SUMMARIES 793 mandates that evaluation should be based on the general objectives and requirements at the respective levels proposed in the curriculum, focusing on students’ competence in language use but avoiding those items solely emphasizing knowledge of phonology or grammar For the purposes of motivating students’ learning and developing students’ language competence, various assessment tasks should be employed in classroom teaching, focusing more on formative assessment than on summative assessment (MOE, 2001) In this report, issues that constrain the implementation of the 2001 English curriculum for primary and secondary school classrooms in China are explored through the analysis of data from interviews with English teachers from various primary and secondary schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas in three different cities in one province in China Although the study draws on this specific sample, our experience with in-service MA teacher training programs with teachers from the region suggests that these issues are ones that are more widely faced THE STUDY Method and Participants To examine how the teaching of the curriculum has been impacted by the various factors described above, semistructured focus group interviews were conducted with 11 groups totalling 73 English teachers from Chinese public schools Three groups from primary schools of 3, 4, and teachers, three junior secondary school groups of 4, 12, and 13 teachers, two senior secondary school groups (5 and teachers), and one joint group of city-based junior and senior secondary school teachers were interviewed Finally, two regional groups (6 and teachers) were drawn from either junior or senior secondary schools in various regions in that province Content analysis was employed to analyze the data (Wilkinson, 2004), with the basic unit of analysis being the ‘‘theme,’’ which was counted and recorded systematically in the form of number of ‘‘mentions.’’ This procedure provided some indication of the strength of particular themes, whereas the discourse in which these ‘‘mentions’’ were couched, that is, the representative quotations under each theme heading (Wilkinson, 2004, p 185), provided richness of meaning around each theme The analytical procedure for this study followed Miles and Huberman’s (1994) flow model for data analysis, which consists of three concurrent flows of activity: data reduction, data display, and conclusion drawing or verification The analysis process began with data reduction, which included the following steps: reconstruction of 794 TESOL QUARTERLY interview tapes, coding of textual data, searching for relationships in the data, cross-checking findings, and synthesis (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p 92) Each of the 11 groups of teachers was considered as a nonoverlapping ‘‘case group.’’ Common themes were sought, categorized, and coded and were developed within and then across each case group Quotations are presented that elaborate on what the theme represents To identify the source of the quotes, primary school teachers were identified as TP1 to TP11, teachers from the junior secondary schools were identified as TJ1 to TJ31, teachers from the senior secondary schools were labeled TS1 to TS16, and TJS1 to TJS15 was used to identify teachers in the joint junior and senior secondary school groups FINDINGS Table indicates that five main themes with a total of 398 mentions emerged from the interviews with the 11 groups of English teachers (n 73) concerning the implementation of the 2001 English curriculum, and these themes are: (1) teaching materials, (2) teachers, (3) educational system, (4) teaching methodology, and (5) assessment Other themes, which were not directly related to curriculum implementation, such as issues related to language education policy, classroom teaching techniques, and regional differences because of unbalanced economic development, were not counted or analyzed because they were not the focus of this study Although mentions were coded under their dominant themes, the analysis shows that many of the mentions had implications for assessment (e.g., new textbooks were a problem because they were not congruent with assessment), giving that particular theme greater impact than the nine direct mentions associated with it would suggest TABLE Main Obstacles to the Implementation of the 2001 Curriculum in China (n 73) Theme Frequency of mention Percent 178 102 70 44.72 25.63 17.59 39 398 9.80 2.26 100 Teaching materials Teachers Educational system (Examination orientation) Teaching methodology Assessment Total mentions BRIEF REPORTS AND SUMMARIES 795 Teaching Materials A new curriculum requires new teaching resources, and the theme mentioned most frequently by the in-service English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers is related to teaching materials, accounting for 44.72% of the total mentions This theme focused on two problems: the nature of the new textbooks (n 150) and how the texts relate to assessment (n 6) Most of the mentions were concerned with the nature of the new textbooks used in the implementation of the 2001 English curriculum, although different series of textbooks had been selected for use in schools in different cities Textbooks were judged to be too difficult for students to learn from and for teachers to use in their teaching The difficulties reported by the interviewees included: too large a vocabulary load, too much information in each unit, and inconsistent grammar explanations Inconsistencies between the series of textbooks for primary and secondary schools were claimed to lead to variation in the English levels of students entering the next level of schooling In addition, teachers felt that the adoption of new textbook series was occurring too frequently for them to become familiar with the contents, and this made it more difficult for them to prepare lessons These textbook factors caused difficulties in using CLT in their classroom teaching, as many interviewees commented that ‘‘Every teacher is crazy busy in explaining the new words, expressions and grammar to help students understand the text There’s no time for students to COMMUNICATE.’’ A second issue was that the new textbooks were reported not to be congruent with the current testing system Teaching materials have been reformed, but the testing system has stayed unchanged Teachers have to teach for students to pass examinations, so the new textbooks (which consist of much more content and richer information) only mean a heavier burden for both students and teachers, because only if we finish everything in the textbooks can we feel safe (TJS1) However, teachers in one primary school, one of the best in the province, reported that the textbooks they were using were good for students’ learning, with interesting cartoons and pictures The textbooks were seen as being helpful for improving students’ communicative competence in English, but this attitude towards the teaching materials and communicative competence training was viewed as problematic by some secondary school teachers, because they were more concerned with the language proficiency required by secondary school testing 796 TESOL QUARTERLY The oral English of the students from top primary schools is ok But in spite of that, they know nothing It is very difficult to help them to catch up with those students from other schools where communicative competence was not emphasized in order to get high marks in the exams’’ (TJ6) Teachers A total of 102 mentions (see Table 1) concerned teachers, focusing mainly on teacher training, teacher proficiency and competence, and the shortage of teachers In-service teacher training for implementing the curriculum was reported not to be effective Two main reasons were given by the teachers First, for those teachers who had already taken or were taking training lessons, the programs themselves were not useful During most of the sessions, ‘‘experts’’ in curriculum design or in material writing came to give lectures on the new ideas found in the curriculum and materials, but these were ‘‘not practical at all’’ (many teachers’ comments) During some sessions, some university lecturers were invited to teach lessons, which they did by highlighting the structural sequence of the textbooks for primary and secondary schools This focus on textbook sequence was not helpful for improving teacher proficiency in communicative competence, which they felt was their real need ‘‘I’m afraid I can’t learn anything from this program I don’t think I can teach my students using CLT if my English remains this poor’’ (TP4) During other sessions, teachers were organized to observe model classes, ‘‘but you can only teach this way (using CLT) on this special occasion! This can never happen in our normal class teaching!’’ (TS10) Second, for many in-service teachers, there was no time to take any training courses ‘‘You have no time even to be sick, not to mention to be out for one day to participate in any training activities!’’ (TP1) Some teachers lacked a positive attitude towards the 2001 curriculum, and this was another factor that influenced the effectiveness of in-service teacher training As a teacher in one group pointed out: Few teachers actually understand the curriculum There are two reasons One is insufficient training for implementing the curriculum, the other is that teachers themselves not take it seriously Many teachers have not read the document at all They haven’t studied the curriculum document to learn what the requirements are for students and what the requirements are for teachers! A few teachers may have read it, but just ‘‘bolting’’ it without digesting it No point at all Whatever in the curriculum, teachers know that they will have to teach the materials unit by unit to make sure that students know everything in the texts (TJS10) BRIEF REPORTS AND SUMMARIES 797 This lack of teacher proficiency meant that many teachers had difficulty in employing the new, more difficult textbooks to implement the new curriculum However, an additional problem related to proficiency was identified, which was a lack of financial support from the government for recruiting new teachers Teachers in one school noted that: ‘‘Our school is one of the best schools in our province, and we are lucky to be able to attract the best teachers’’ (TJS2) However, teachers in other schools, those in suburban and rural areas in particular, said that ‘‘we need qualified teachers, but the government has no money to provide any more positions’’ (TJ14) Therefore, with English becoming increasingly important in school education, more teachers majoring in other subjects like Chinese and History were being asked by school leaders to change to teaching English ‘‘If you don’t accept, then you’ll lose the job in this school’’ (TP9) The situation was even worse in rural areas in one city Because there was no financial support from the government, but English still had to be taught, some schools had to employ people who knew some English but could not find other jobs Generally speaking, these teachers did not meet the English language proficiency or professional training requirements for English teachers Educational System There were 70 mentions (see Table 1) of systemic issues related to the quality-oriented nature of educational reform in China It was reported that the examination-oriented educational system remained unchanged, although the new English curriculum emphasized the overall quality and communicative English competence of students Under this new English curriculum, there was meant to be a shift from an examination-oriented to a quality-oriented education However, as the examination system was not changed, in practice, the shift did not occur in most schools, and the goal of school education remained learning for examinations, rather than for communication The factor most frequently mentioned by the teachers interviewed was that ‘‘the only purpose of teaching and learning in our school is for students to pass exams to enter top senior secondary schools/universities!’’ (TJS11) ‘‘Marks, marks, students’/teachers’ very life!’’ (TJ2) was a very popular saying in schools, particularly those in suburban and rural areas in less developed regions This had led to the serious problem that ‘‘has ruined all the students in junior and senior secondary schools, because they study nothing else except those few textbooks all the time!’’ (TJS2) The stereotypical examination-paper design, which has remained unchanged for so long, has made the style of teaching and learning extremely rigid A teacher provided the following example: 798 TESOL QUARTERLY The writing section in the testing paper is typically stereotyped, and creative writing is not ‘‘allowed.’’ So teachers would tell students not to write long complex sentences with clauses Although students know how to use so that, teachers would tell students not to write I got up so early that I caught the first bus this morning, but write two simple sentences instead I got up early this morning I caught the first bus It is easy not to make mistakes in examinations if you write this way But is it the way of learning a language?! (TJS3) Many teachers said with helpless sighs that ‘‘It is difficult to be a teacher; more difficult to be a senior secondary school teacher; and nothing is more difficult than to be a teacher of the last year secondary school students!’’ (TS1) The reason is very clear: ‘‘under the examinationoriented education, any educational reform will be in vain if the testing system does not change And no matter how the curriculum reform is promoted, you are a loser if your students cannot get high marks!’’ (TS3) Some other teachers commented dejectedly that ‘‘Education is approaching a dead-end!’’ (TP2) and ‘‘Educational reform is a failure!’’ (TJS6) The link between the success of systemic curricular reform and examinations can be seen at one top primary school, where teachers reported in the interview that quality-oriented education was being rigorously implemented because students in primary schools not have any examination pressure; this is because entry to junior secondary schools is automatic because there are nine years of compulsory education in China In English classes, teachers did not emphasize test-taking skills training, but rather concentrated on communicative competence The pupils’ interest was aroused and cooperation with peers was encouraged In other primary schools, however, English teaching and learning were not so communicative, but remained significantly examinationoriented in order to better prepare students for their secondary school study This suggests that the more general systemic focus on exams affects teaching even when it need not so However, no matter how English was taught and learned in primary schools, many of the teachers interviewed in junior secondary schools said that their students had not learned anything in primary school, and so were not ready to enter secondary school, indicating possible systemic problems in the implementation of English language primary education Teaching Methodology The teaching methodologies proposed in the 2001 English curriculum were designed to increase the communicative competence of English language learners, but they were reported to be difficult if not BRIEF REPORTS AND SUMMARIES 799 impossible to implement in practice EFL teachers interviewed reported that CLT was only employed by a few teachers on some special occasions; for instance, when it was observed by teachers from other schools or when their superiors came for inspections They provided the following explanations for not using CLT: First, large class sizes made it impossible to implement communicative language teaching The numbers of students in each class normally ranged from 40 to 80, a figure which is similar in each city Second, over-loaded teachers had no time to design tasks or classroom activities for training students’ communicative competence in English language Third, teachers’ lack of English language and curricular competence made it difficult to adopt CLT in classroom teaching Fourth, examination-oriented external assessment made it risky for teachers to use new methods They judged that their best strategy was to try their best to help students learn as much as possible from their textbooks in order to achieve higher marks on the examinations Some teachers thought the new methods—rather than duck-feeding—might work, but ‘‘Who would dare to try? How could you explain to the school principal, to the students and their parents if they fail in the exam?!’’ (TS3) Finally, most students, with the exception of a few of the most able, resisted the new methods One reason was their very explicit priority in achieving higher marks, which made them think it was a waste of time to engage in activities other than the study of texts during the limited class periods They also resisted because they were often confused about what was being learned through the new methods, because they were used to the traditional ‘‘the sage on the stage’’ approach, where the teacher talks and the students take notes and rote memorize them after class Assessment Although only nine direct mentions related to the assessment of student learning emerged from the interviews, the four previous themes all had implications for assessment All teachers agreed that the recommendations in the curriculum for assessing students’ outcomes sounded appropriate for students’ overall development in English language learning, but that there were problems of application in practice because they were not in accord with the national testing system No matter how the students were evaluated in their formative classroom teaching situations, the summative entrance examination played a decisive role in how the curriculum was delivered and studied This can be seen from the interviewees’ comments such as ‘‘A paper will decide a student’s fate!’’ (TJS5) and ‘‘Students will finally be evaluated 800 TESOL QUARTERLY based on the result of the examination, and teachers will be evaluated according to students’ marks’’ (TS4) Therefore, many EFL teachers had the same opinion: ‘‘There’s no point to the overall evaluation’’ (TJ17) Thus, although the number of mentions from the thematic analysis suggested that assessment did not appear to be a very important topic, as the discussion has shown, assessment issues are central as they are actually interwoven among the comments on the other four topics For example, EFL teachers thought that the new series of teaching materials were not suitable for both teaching and learning, because they would not lead to students achieving high marks in their English tests They claimed that the EFL teachers themselves were not ready for the new changes created by the curriculum reform, given that student performance was still evaluated through examination Therefore, they firmly believed that the methods they selected needed to help students with their testing skills DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS As the results from elsewhere in Asia have shown (see, e.g., Chern, 2002; Li, 1998; Wongsothorn et al., 2002), changing the curriculum to a more communicative one does not provide a solution to effective language teaching problems Despite efforts to reform teaching materials for implementing the new English curriculum, EFL teachers are not following the new ideas in the curriculum in their classroom teaching One of the major constraints on change found throughout the data is the unchanged examination-oriented educational system, which dictates teachers’ attitudes toward the reform and their selection of teaching methodology This is particularly problematic, because it is a matter of national policy and not something teachers can change themselves Thus, the current testing system has actually hindered the effective implementation of the 2001 English curriculum in China, and this is evident from the following two perspectives First, it can be seen from the interviewees’ overemphasis on students’ test scores created by the current testing system that high scores in examinations are the foremost priority of students, parents, teachers, and school principals, because this is seen as the only equitable way to assess their achievement, because places in tertiary education are limited Thus, test scores are treated by most teachers as the only purpose for student learning and teacher instruction, because scores decide a student’s future This priority has actually rigidified the process of foreign language teaching and learning, placing the focus on linguistic knowledge while creating resistance to language competence BRIEF REPORTS AND SUMMARIES 801 training This was evident from the teaching methods adopted in participants’ classroom practice Teachers chose not to take the risk to try the recommended teaching methods in the new curriculum (studentcentered, task-based CLT), but, rather, they stuck to the experienceproven duck-feeding procedures, characterized by rote memorization and drilling In this way, the least possible amount of the limited instructional time would be wasted in nonlinguistic knowledge-related tasks that are not needed for examinations Second, teacher comments focused on the impracticability of almost everything related to their classroom teaching, including the recommended teaching methodology, the means of assessment in the new English curriculum, the various series of new teaching materials, and the current in-service teacher training programs These attitudes occur despite the fact that the new curriculum was designed in line with the international trends in its standards and norms It emphasizes learnercenteredness and English language competence training Teaching materials were required to be compiled based on the objectives and teaching recommendations set out in the curriculum, and must be approved by the National or Provincial Evaluation Committee for Primary and Secondary School Textbooks before they are used In addition, various teacher training programs have been provided to help teachers to effectively implement the new curriculum However, these programs were reported to be impractical, because they were not congruent with the current testing system Thus the implementation of the new curriculum was regarded to be useless and time- and manpowerinefficient by both teachers and students Given the current conflict between curriculum and assessment policy, it is hard to test the extent to which the objectives and recommendations in the 2001 English curriculum can benefit English language teaching and learning in Chinese schools, because the participating teachers would not dare to implement them; it is also hard to explain how various textbooks would help the implementation of the new curriculum, because data are not available However, the findings of this study show that teachers have been resistant to a change in their ideology This is obviously due to the testing system where students are accepted by universities according to their entrance examination marks One of the implications of this study is that, for real change to occur, it must go beyond the curriculum Unless other related issues, including national educational policies for testing for entering higher education and effective measures for implementing these policies, are addressed, EFL teachers’ attitudes, ideas, and teaching methods are only likely to be changed around the edges 802 TESOL QUARTERLY THE AUTHORS Minglin Li is Senior Lecturer of TESOL in the School of Education and Professional Studies at Griffith University in Australia Her research interests are EFL/ESL teaching and learning, TESOL teacher education, and TESOL curriculum studies, language education policy and planning Richard B Baldauf, Jr., Professor in the School of Education, University of Queensland, is executive editor of Current Issues in Language Planning and co-author with Zhao Shouhui of Planning Chinese Characters: Evolution, Revolution or Reaction (Springer, 2008) Interests include TESOL, curriculum, and language policy and planning REFERENCES Adamson, B (2004) China’s English: A history of English in Chinese education Hong Kong, SAR, China: Hong Kong University Press Chern, C (2002) English language teaching in Taiwan today Asia-Pacific Journal of Education, 22, 97–105 doi:10.1080/0218879020220209 Evans, S (2000) Hong Kong’s new English language policy in education World Englishes, 19, 185–204 doi:10.1111/1467-971X.00168 Hu, G (2002) Potential cultural resistance to pedagogical imports: The case of communicative language teaching in China Language, Culture and Curriculum, 15, 93–105 doi:10.1080/07908310208666636 Le, V C (2007) A historical review of English education in Vietnam In Yeon Hee Choi & B Spolsky (Eds.), English Education in Asia: History and Policies (pp 167– 180) Seoul, South Korea: Asia TEFL Li, D (1998) ‘‘It’s always more difficult than you plan and imagine’’: Teachers’ perceived difficulties in introducing the communicative approach in South Korea TESOL Quarterly, 32, 677–703 doi:10.2307/3588000 Miles, M B., & Huberman, A M (1994) Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage MOE (2001) Quanrizhi yiwu jiaoyu putong gaoji zhongxue yingyu kecheng biaozhun (shiyangao) [English curriculum for compulsory education and senior secondary education (Trial)] Beijing, China: Ministry of Education Nunan, D (2003) The impact of English as a global language on educational policies and practices in the Asia-Pacific region TESOL Quarterly, 37, 589–613 doi:10.2307/3588214 Oda, M., & Takada, T (2005) English language teaching in Japan In G Braine (Ed.), Teaching English to the world: History, curriculum, and practice (pp 93–101) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Tran, T T T., & Baldauf, R B., Jr (2007) Demotivation: Understanding resistance to English language learning—The case of Vietnamese students The Journal of Asia TEFL, 4, 79–105 Wilkinson, S (2004) Focus group research In D Silverman (Ed.), Qualitative research: Theory, method and practice (2nd ed., pp 177–199) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Wongsothorn, A., Hiranburana, K., & Chinnawongs, S (2002) English language teaching in Thailand today Asia-Pacific Journal of Education, 22, 107–116 doi:10.1080/0218879020220210 Yu, L (2001) Communicative language teaching in China: Progress and resistance TESOL Quarterly, 35, 194–198 doi:10.2307/3587868 BRIEF REPORTS AND SUMMARIES 803 ... method and practice (2nd ed., pp 177–199) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Wongsothorn, A. , Hiranburana, K., & Chinnawongs, S (2002) English language teaching in Thailand today Asia-Pacific Journal of Education,... through the new methods, because they were used to the traditional ‘ the sage on the stage’’ approach, where the teacher talks and the students take notes and rote memorize them after class Assessment... educational policies and practices in the Asia-Pacific region TESOL Quarterly, 37, 589–613 doi:10.2307/3588214 Oda, M., & Takada, T (2005) English language teaching in Japan In G Braine (Ed.), Teaching
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