As a teacher with years of experience of teaching English in KS1 and KS2 in England, and moving on now to teach English in secondary schools, it was interesting to review some of the similarities and differences, sometimes surprising, between my experiences and those of an English teacher teaching a similar age group out in China.
It all starts with phonics….
Although under review in the last national curriculum, the controversial method of learning to read at the youngest age that children go to school in England remains an integral part of the curriculum. Phonics has proven results at getting children reading at a younger age, and more quickly picking up reading, yet it is still criticised for not providing strong support to spelling and grammar as children get older, many still spelling phonetically well into secondary school. In contrast teaching English as a foreign language focuses on learning common words and phrases, and reading, by recognition and memory, much like the way modern foreign languages are taught in UK schools. Spelling and grammar are an integral part of this curriculum from the beginning, though some argue this makes progress more slow and the course of learning a little less enjoyable for the children.
One of my colleagues in China notes that this is an effective method of teaching English in China, as the method suits the “rote” learning method commonly associated with countries in South East Asia. Children are used to memory exercises improving vocabulary. Many note that the phonetic method can be troublesome, especially when dealing with Chinese, a language built on thousands of characters that symbolise words, rather than an alphabet system like English – (with phonics working on 26+ sounds that build words). The sounds used in the Chinese language are very different to the sounds used in English, even using different parts of the mouth and tongue to produce these sounds! It is useful therefore, to teach English as a foreign language, using a “rote” learning method that teaches the mechanics of the language.
With the new curriculum in England trying to address the number of school leavers deemed to lack core skills in spelling and grammar, additions were made to the phonics and literacy system in KS1 and KS2 seeing 4-11 year olds learning the mechanics of the English language once more. Colleagues in China are now wondering whether there is room when teaching English as a foreign language in China to expand to using more phonics in the classroom, improving pronunciation and bringing a little more English culture into the classroom abroad. English is, of course famously, a constantly moving and changing, expressive and regionally-different language, making it one of the most difficult languages in the world to fully understand.