User:Charles Jeffrey Danoff/China ELT Curriculum

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From the inception of the People’s Republic of China until the 1970’s, there was an ambivalent addiction to English. Despite many opposing its influence it stayed on in China in different forms. Once China began opening its doors, the ambivalence was removed and the world’s most populous nation unequivocally and guilt-free embraced their addiction. A micro-example of the fallout of this macro trend can be seen with the Ming family.

In the early 1960's, the Chinese severed ties with their Russian political blood brothers. A college student at the time, Mr. Ming ceased his Russian studies moving to English (Mrs. Ming, personal communication, February 23, 2010). Upon graduation, he began work as an English teacher (Mrs. Ming, personal communication, February 23, 2010).

Luckily, he was in the midst of his nation's "First Renaissance" (Adamson & Morris, 1997, p. 11) in regards to the English curriculum. Pedagogically this translated as "shifting toward an amalgam of audio-lingual and grammar-translation methods-extending the focus from reading to also embrace listening, speaking, and writing" from 1960 to 1966 (Adamson & Morris, 1997, p.14). Unfortunately for Mr. Ming, the Cultural Revolution squelched the renaissance.

A period of cultural upheaval and focus inward ushered in a dark age for English education, "English was viewed as the language of the enemy" and until 1971, "virtually all English teaching programs were abolished in the school system" (Liu, 1993 as cited in G. Hu, 2004, p 7). Despite these turbulent times, Mr. Ming continued to teach, "he really wanted the students to study English and he thought that English is just a language, its a tool, its useful for students, but the students and even the leaders couldn't understand that" (Mrs. Ming, personal communication, February 23, 2010). Students even vandalized their home with signs saying, "we are Chinese. Why you force us to learn English?" (Mrs. Ming, personal communication, February 23, 2010).

In the fourth year of the revolution, English "reappear[ed] on the curriculum in some schools", and "the prevailing pedagogy involved a return to a teacher-centered grammar-translation methodology" (Adamson & Morris, 1997, p. 16). Such approaches continued at the revolution's close in 1976, as seen when Mr. Ming's daughter began studying English in junior high school.

"My first English lesson is just one slogan, it is said 'Long live Chairman Mao! And the second lesson is, 'Long live Communist party.' and the third lesson is 'Never forget the class struggle.'" (Mrs. Ming, personal communication, February 23, 2010). The style was soon to change, once Deng Xiaoping took control.

Deng was convinced that advanced science and technology held the key to China’s modernization and that China would need to access scientific and technological advances worldwide to develop the scientific knowledge base needed for national revitalization (People’s Education Press, 1986, as cited in G. Hu, 2004, p. 7)

This gave a big incentive to study English for to access current knowledge was “predicated on the availability of a large pool of personnel proficient in English, the international medium of scientific and technological information.” (G. Hu, 2004, p. 7) Despite this Mrs. Ming points out that English remained a small part of the college entrance exam, only 30 points, compared with 100 points each for Math, Science and Politics.

Following her father’s footsteps, Mrs. Ming began teaching English in 1984, entering in a continued time of great dynamism for English. As the country moved “from a centrally planned economy to a market oriented one” (People’s Education Press, 1986, as cited in G. Hu, 2004, p. 9) this development brought money in from abroad creating a “need for expanding English language education” in many areas (G. Hu, 2004, p. 10). By the early 1990’s, English was taught one hour per day, the same as English and Math (Mrs. Ming, personal communication, February 23, 2010).

Pedagogy returned to the audio-lingual approaches of the First Renaissance (Adamson & Morris, 1997, p. 20), including a sharp focus on communication as the new curriculum’s “principal aim” (Adamson & Morris, 1997, p. 22). To create textbooks for that end, the People’s Education Press, The Ministry of Education directed publish house (PEP), worked with a private foreign textbook company and the United Nations Development Program, an “unprecedented” collaboration, writing books which also delve into Western cultures (Adamson & Morris, 1997, p. 24).

The exponential growth of English continued in China into the twenty-first century. By 2001, there had been a ”353% [increase] in the number of [English] teachers from 1978” and the value of teacher training had been recognized as “more than 85% [held] qualifications that meet official requirements, as compared to less than 22% in 1986” (MOE Department of Planning (1984) & MOE Department of Development and Planning (2001), as cited by G. Hu, 2004, p. 17). That year, the government moved to introducing English as a compulsory subject in the third grade (MOE, 2001 as cited by Y. Hu, 2007 p. 1). Lianning Li, the Director-General of the Department of Basic Education at the time wrote,

Currently, economic globalization is accelerating; our country is on the verge of joining the WTO and is opening its doors wider to the outside world. … The decision to teach English in primary schools was made precisely to address the needs of opening up; it also reflects our country’s determination to accelerate the pace of opening up. (p. 1, as cited in Y. Hu, 2007, p. 103)

In addition to joining the WTO, anther factor was Beijing leading “its rivals in its rivals in the bid for the 2008 Olympic Games and was highly likely to win the bid” (Jiang, 2003; Nunan, 2003, as cited in G. Hu, 2004, p. 11).

These trends also coincided with pedagogical developments, as Lianning LI also wrote on the new curriculum moving from “subject-centeredness, textbookcenteredness, and teacher-centeredness” to “integration of technology into foreign language teaching, studentcenteredness, and task-based instruction” (p. 1, as cited in Y. Hu, 2007, p. 105). Additionally, teachers now have to study English as their major at college (Mrs. Ming, personal communication, February 28, 2010).

The students have an acute motivation for studying English, as it is now valued as highly as Chinese and Math, and more so than geography, history and politics (Mrs. Ming, personal communication, February 23, 2010). And as Mrs. Ming’s daughter, Alice, related the exam “is the ONLY criteria for you to get a class one university” (Ming, personal communication, February 27, 2010).

Learner outcomes are quite specific. After Junior High School, Mrs. Ming said that her students are expected to know/be able to do the following:

  • Recognize 2,000 or 3,000 English words.
  • Speak using simple sentences and grammar to describe things like food or films.
  • Read small articles and understand what the writer wants to tell them.
  • Write small articles within 100 English words.

For all the grades, they use a leveling system based on “language skills, language knowledge, affective attitudes, learning strategies, and cultural awareness”, and “Specifically, students are expected to attain Level 2 at the end of primary school, Level 5 at the end of junior secondary school, and Level 8 at the end of senior secondary school” (Y. Hu, 2007, p.117).

Commenting on changes since the 1993 syllabus, Mrs. Ming especially noted the “focus on much about western culture” and how “cultural communication is more important than the language itself”. This can be seen in the decision by the school she works at to recruit foreign teachers, decisions she said which make students want to attend (Mrs. Ming, personal communication, February 23, 2010).

The Ming family has studied English throughout most of twentieth century China’s fluctuating feelings for the language, from derision to adoration. Now a grandfather who was chastised by students for teaching them a foreign tongue they did not want to learn, must smile with a daughter whose risen to the top of her school’s English department and a granddaughter on the path to fluency.


I would like to thank Mrs. Ming and her daughter Alice for their time, kindness and forthright answers to all my questions as I prepared this piece.

Editor's Notes

Words in brackets were added by me. Ming and Alice are pseudonyms.


  • Adamson, Bob & Morris, Paul (1997). The English curriculum in the People’s Republic of China. Comparative Education Review, 41, 3–26.
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