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Chuck Carney
IU School of Education

Last modified: Tuesday, May 19, 2009

School of Education researcher to assist China's efforts to improve English instruction

Private gift funding Chinese professor visit, faculty work in China

May 19, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A professor from the Indiana University School of Education is heading to China for a month to provide input to Chinese educators who are reforming their English instruction system.

Faridah Pawan will spend a month in China observing classrooms and working with teachers of "English as a Foreign Language" (EFL), as it's called there. Pawan is an assistant professor in the department of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education, and she is director of TACIT -- a program to prepare more English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors.

Prior to her visit, Pawan hosted Wengfang Fan, professor in the Department of Foreign Language at Tsinghua University in Beijing, whom the government has selected to head a massive effort to reform English language instruction in China.

Pawan's work is supported by the Fund for the Advancement of Peace and Education, which is permanently endowed by a $500,000 gift from an anonymous donor who wished to encourage the School of Education to foster global understanding through practical means. Approved projects must promote peace and education across cultural and national boundaries with a design toward strengthening communication among diverse peoples. The IU School of Education received the gift in 1999, and it funded the first project in 2000.

Estimates vary greatly about how many Chinese actually can use or speak English. Some reports indicate more than 200 million may have some use of the language, while 10 million may actually speak it. Recent surveys have found little enthusiasm among China's students to learn English. China's Federation of Youth Groups polled 519 students in secondary schools and universities and found few speak with native English speakers frequently. Just under a quarter of the students said they never read English newspapers and magazines. Just over a fifth said they did not browse English Web sites.

Chinese leaders are calling for reform as the nation continues to advance in trade and global power. "All of this was initiated by the vice-premier of China, who said that English Language Teaching uses a lot of resources," Pawan said. "But it's very ineffective, because kids are not using English to communicate, and they're having trouble with English exams. So that's been their concern."

That's why the government has placed Fan in charge of "The Dragon Project," an effort to teach language through content -- a change from the previous method of teaching English in China.

"What she's trying to do is to make language teaching more meaningful by having it integrated with the subject area content in the course," Pawan said. "That is what we're doing right now in our schools. So we're riding the same wave together, and she's trying to lead that reform."

Fan toured several Bloomington schools during a just-finished two-week stay. She observed how United States English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers taught English to non-native speakers by using English. "Here all the teachers are native speakers of English," Fan said. "Our teachers, most of them don't have a high degree (of fluency), even as English majors."

As Fan observed Binford Elementary teacher Jenny Noble-Kuchera conduct ESL instruction with around 10 students, she remarked that Chinese EFL teachers would rarely enjoy such a small class. "That's a very special phenomenon," she said. "In China, we have very big classes. It's not possible to work one-on-one."

But Fan found some commonalities in the methods that U.S. and Chinese teachers use. Understanding U.S. instruction was part of the point for her visit preceding Pawan's trip starting this week.

"She will be able to help lead some of the conversations I will be having with the teachers (in China) because she knows now what my context is in the United States," Pawan said.

As Pawan visits around 10 schools, she said she'll try to share with teachers the importance of "taking ownership" of their classrooms. She wants the Chinese teachers to feel comfortable enough with their instruction that they can adjust to the learning needs of the students. "That ownership is part of their confidence and their expertise as teachers," she said.

Pawan and Fan said The Dragon Project hopes to change the approach to English language teaching in China, focusing more on everyday usage instead of simply grammar translation. The most important way to implement such change, Fan said, is by improving the preparation of English teachers.

"We need systematic teacher training," she said. "In China, English is mainly learned in classrooms. So teachers make a difference."