Published on:
July 23, 2018

by: Guest

How To Plan Lessons When You’re New To Teaching ESL in China

This week, our guest blogger Zoe reflects on her top lesson planning tips for teachers new to ESL teaching…

When you enter your first classroom in China, the reality of what you have to contend with on a
daily basis can come as quite a shock. I teach in a public primary school, meaning that I often
have to grab the attention of fifty to sixty little ones all at once and then retain it for a full forty
minutes. This isn’t easy at the best of times, but it was especially difficult when I just started
teaching. In most cases, based upon my own experiences and those of friends, public schools
are necessarily clear on what they expect their foreign teacher to do in the classroom. When I first
arrived in Shenzhen, the head of the English department instructed me to ‘do something fun’ in
my classes and didn’t elaborate far beyond that point. My friends who also work in ESL positions
spoke of similar experiences; a friend of mine was handed a textbook on their first day and told
that this was the content covered in classes, so could they do something like what was presented
in the textbook but different. It can be difficult to know where to start when you first step into the
classroom, so I thought it may be beneficial to put some ideas together on where to begin as an
ESL teacher.

1. Survive your First Week!


It seems obvious, but a good lesson starts with a good plan. During your first week, that isn’t as
straightforward as it sounds given that you may not even know what grades you will be teaching
until the minute you step in the classroom. Prepare a simple introduction lesson; tell the students
a little about yourself and show lots of photos in case their general level of English is low and they
cannot understand what you are saying, then as them about themselves. Don’t expect to be a
great teacher from the start and don’t be hard on yourself if you struggle in your first week. After
all, how do you know what level of English to use in your classes or what they are interested in of
you have never met them? Use this week as an opportunity to get to know your students and try
lots of different games, methods and approaches to get to know what you feel comfortable
presenting or doing with fifty pairs of eyes staring at you.

2. Grab a Textbook


On your first day, if the English department at your school does not provide you with a copy of the
textbook for the grades which you teach, ask for one. In Shenzhen, much like other cities in
China, the textbooks used for English teaching are standardised across the whole city making it
easy to access, locate and share resources with different teachers across the whole city. Owning
a copy of the book is essential in planning constructive lessons as you can familiarise yourself
with which topics the students understand well, given that their Chinese-English teacher would
have covered it with them just a week before. I also learned from experience that presenting new
content, particularly language items that the students haven’t covered in their regular classes is
extremely difficult. They are scared to try new content in front of their native English teacher so
will be shy or not responsive so it’s often better to present content they have already seen before
in a new, fun way. At my school, the Chinese-English teachers tend to focus on pronunciation,
grammar structures and the essential pieces of information which the students need to be familiar
with in order to pass their exams. Often, the language which they learn has no meaning beyond
the textbook or exam paper, so in many ways it’s the job of the foreign English teacher to present
the same content in a way that seems meaningful in the wider world.

3. Choose Your Method and Stick to It


This may not be necessarily true in all classes, but my students hate surprises. They are so
adjusted to constructed lessons, that the minute I deviate from my usual schedule the students
either panic or lose interest. That’s not to say if you have a structure or method that you follow,
you present the same content every week. What I mean by schedule is a particularly framework
which I present content in, so the students have enough time to prepare, practice and produce
language items in their own time without feeling like the whole world is watching them. If you are
not familiar with the hundreds upon thousands of language theories out there which nobody
unless those of us that suffered through a masters degree (like me!) have had time to read, then I
recommend starting with ‘Learning Teaching’ by Jim Schrivener. It’s a simple, straightforward
manual filled with ideas of how to structure different lessons, what to include in your lessons and
how to plan content to cover a whole semester. My favourite thing about this teaching guide is it’s
accessibility; it’s written in simple, straightforward language and doesn’t spend pages upon pages
discussing theories which don’t even cross your mind when you’re in action in the classroom.
I follow Scrivener’s prescribed method in all of my lessons because it is easy to plan,
straightforward to conduct in the classroom and my students can follow the content without too
much confusion. It follows a process of ‘Present, Practice, Produce’ (sometimes referred to as
PPP in literature) where you present students with new or familiar language items, either using
PowerPoint, flash cards, a short video or news article and then offer them the opportunity to
practice this through a small game, a group quiz or role play. Finally, students will be encouraged
to produce the language on their own; I like to either repeat the original activity with some
changes (like students quizzing each other like a game of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire) but the
point is to remove the safety net used in the practice stage so the students are then speaking or
writing without support. Then, finish it up with a quick review and you’re ready to go. I find the
best lessons to conduct are those which are the most simple. It is easier to stick with something
straightforward that students can understand and join in with, rather than something complicated
where you lose the attention of the class in the first ten minutes and then end up talking to
yourself for the rest of the class.

4. Remember Why You’re There


Being the foreign English teacher is a weird in-between job. You are not required to help the
students pass their exams, you often are not required to give homework and will be monitoring
your students through in class testing and observations. This means you shouldn’t focus on
teaching complex grammar, or get caught up in whether the language spat out by your students is
pronounced perfectly. That is the priority of the Chinese-English teacher, who is able to ensure a
better level of comprehension by explaining English to the students in their native language.
Instead, you are supposed to be the fun class. You are meant to show the students what English
can be used for, how it will be used in a real life situation and show them aspects of your culture
which is entirely alien to them. In short, you are the fun game show host of English language
teaching. Embrace your role and enjoy it. As soon as you start to enjoy it, you can almost
guarantee the kids will too.

5. Be Prepared


As I mentioned in a previous post, I highly recommend collecting a bunch of different types of
resources so you can mix and match the activities you use in your lessons as much as possible to
keep the students entertained. The PPP method is the structure for the lesson and how you
intend to get students to fully understand the language items from the textbook which they would
have been shown previously, but what activities you choose to get there is entirely up to you. I like
to use a mix of visual and creative content; videos, cool comic strips, roleplays just to name a few.
Most of these I will make myself based on the needs of my students, but to get started there are a
number of websites (ESL Collective, BBC Learning English, British Council Learning English,
English on TV to name a few) which can help get you started. YouTube is full of channels, such as
Pink Fong, The Singing Walrus and Simple Songs which are designed to support ESL teaching.
Just make sure you download a copy of the videos you want before the class as you can’t access
YouTube too easily here. There are also a number of more experienced teachers which you will be
able to reach out for to help, so don’t hesitate to ask if you are not sure if you are planning the
right type of lessons or not.

In short, lesson planning is not something that comes naturally when you first start teaching simply because the expectations of how you will be teaching in China and the reality which faces you is totally different. I like to keep things simple and fun. After all, that’s the whole reason why you’re in the classroom in the first place!

Zoe is from the UK, and currently teaching at a public school in Shenzhen as part of the February 2018 Teach China Graduate Program.


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