A Tentative Study on Problems of Oral English Teaching in Middle Schools in China


A Tentative Study on Problems of Oral English Teaching in Middle Schools in China



[Abstract] With the increasing development of international countries, English has become a worldwide communication language, and high spoken English proficiency is especially required in many international situations. English education in China has been popular in the last few decades, but most learners’ English competence in speaking turns out to be rather limited as a result of the traditional English teaching methods in middle schools where most Chinese students receive the major part of English education. A reform of oral English teaching in domestic middle schools seems urgent and important. Based on relevant research on current situation of oral English teaching and learning in middle schools, this paper aims at providing a comprehensive analysis of problems of oral English teaching in junior and senior middle schools on the part of students, teachers, teaching materials and language learning environment. This paper finally puts forward some strategies from communication approach, metacognition theory, motivation theory, inpidual differences theory, which are expected to enhance the understanding of oral English teaching and learning in China.

[Key Words] oral English; English teaching; middle schools; problems; strategies

1. Introduction

“Language affects life!” The importance of English has never been neglected by Chinese people in the past few decades. English learning has been recognized as an essential part of one’s required education and English teaching has become rather popular for years. However, after many years of English learning in schools, many learners still find themselves awkward in various English speaking situations even though they may be quite confident in different types of written tests of English proficiency. Many, therefore, question the traditional English teaching methods, esp. those used in middle schools where most Chinese students receive the major part of their English education.

At present, there are still some problems existing in oral English teaching in junior and senior schools. For examples, students encounter a lot of obstacles in the process of learning oral English, such as, uncertain or inaccurate pronunciation, unnatural intonation, limited vocabulary and phrases, inappropriate asks and answers and a lack of body lanaguage(Xun Daoming, 2006: 49). On the part of the teacher, their concepts and approaches of teaching seems somewhat traditional and out-of-date(Yang Yinghua, 2005:114). Although teachers are required to update their acquaintance with the new teaching material as a result of the adaption of new curriculum reform carried out in the past few years, some researches show that still a lot of teachers do not know how to make good use of it or how to get involved in it(Yang Yancong, 2007: par16). Further, it is assumed that the lack of the languag learning environment hampers the improving of oral English teaching in middle schools as well(Wang Biaohong, 2007:143). It is, therefore, urgent and important for us to have a meticulous study of these problems.

Among the materials I consulted for this paper research, I found many were dealing with just one or two aspects that involve the problem of oral English teaching in middle schools, such as students, or teachers. For examples, Sun Xiuping(2006: 44) focused on psychological barrier most students encounter; Some(Cheng Yongjun, 2006: 119) argued that the special quality of the teachers, especially their listening ability, spoken proficiency, and knowledge of teaching would largely determine middle school students’ speaking ability in English. However, few were involved in more than two factors and some factors under discussion were not categorized or summed up. Based on what the researchers have found in current situation of oral English teaching and learning in middle schools in China, this paper, therefore, aims at providing a more comprehensive analysis of some problems in oral English teaching in junior and senior middle schools, on the part of students, teachers, teaching materials and language learning environment, and puts forward some strategies which are expected to enhance the understanding of oral English teaching and learning in middle schools.

  1. Oral English teaching and learning

Oral English is an activity of expression in English which involves three processes of psychological mechanism(Yang Lianrui& Xiao Jianfang, 2003: 210).

2.1 Psychological mechanism of oral English

2.1.1 Psychological mechanism from listening to speaking

Either mother-tongue acquisition or foreign language acquisition, the learner should experience the listening process first. As we know, listening is the preparation of speaking. During the listening process, the learner comes to a situation of accumulating knowledge and preparing what to speak. It is an objective regularity which is called “an active silent”. According to this, a language teacher should try to arrange listening lessons or activities for the student before the oral exercise and it is also vital for the teacher to combine the listening process into the oral English teaching in the middle school(Yang Lianrui&Xiao Jianfang, 2003: 210).

2.1.2 Psychological mechanism from conscious speaking to unconscious speaking

It is obvious that the study and the usage of English should involve the course which is from conscious speaking to unconscious speaking. We call this “passive and unconscious speaking”. And, it is vital for the student to experience the course from the conscious speaking to the unconscious one through continual hard-working process. Learners should be given more chances to speak, learners should have eager motivation to speak, and then insist on speaking English in the long run(Yang Lianrui&Xiao Jianfang, 2003: 210-211).

2.1.3 Psychological mechanism from wanting to speak to clearly speaking

As we know, when a person is speaking, his or her mind might be first controled by a kind of motivation---want to speak; then he or she will concentrate on the content of speaking---what to speak. Finally, they would combine the content of speaking closely to the form of expression---how to speak. In a word, there are two ways to make the train of thinking agree with the speaker’s level of English: One way is that the learner should speak what he or she wants to speak; The other one is that he or she should speak what he can speak(Yang Lianrui& Xiao Jianfang, 2003 :211).

2.2 Oral English teaching

It is acknowledged that oral English teaching is a kind of cultivation which train the students’ oral English ability embodied in the activity of English teaching(Yang Lianrui& Xiao Jianfang, 2003: 210).

The purpose of oral English teaching is to train the student to acquire the ability of transformation among two or more kinds of languages, including abilities of thinking, creativeness, analyzing the problems, and putting forward their opinions independently. All these abilities should be set up first through some ways of input, such as reading and listening processes, which are then put into the process and rearrangement of all materials just having been read and listened before finally being transformed into the output of spoken language(Huang Yuanzhen,2003:128).

Syllabuses of oral English teaching in middle school in China suggest that junior students should have clear and correct pronunciation, natural tone and rhythm during their oral expression, and learn how to repeat the content of the textbooks and answer the questions in it (cf: Ma Jie,2005: pars11,19), while senior students should apply appropriate intonation, tone and rhythm to express their personal intention and emotion effectively in different situations. If necessary, they should be able to answer some interview, and do some oral interpretation(cf: Cartershen,2007:pars26,34,38,44).

Among the factors that may influence the oral English teaching and learning in middle schools, we can categorize them into several familiar factors, which are mother-tongue interference, inpidual differences, teachers, teaching materials, language teaching and learning environment. Furthermore, as an active factor in psychological emotion, anxiety is asssumed as a kind of feeling which Chinese students facing generally during speaking originates from the sense of shamefulness and inferiority (Zhou Lei, 2003: 24). Therefore, the teacher should pay more attention to students of this kind and try to help them reduce anxiety for the good of developing spoken English.

3. Problems of oral English teaching and learning in middle schools in China

3.1 Students

It is believed that the learner’s first language affects the other language acquisition levels (Ellis, 1994: 19), it is, therefore, no wonder that oral English teaching and learning is strongly influenced by the learner’s mother-tongue. The “Chinglish” phenomenon in English learning seems to be the best evidence of the negative transfer of one’s mother language.

In junior schools, most of the junior learners, affected deeply by their mother-tongue, are used to expressing themselves in Chinese way and are very likely to make grammatical mistakes.

3.2 Teaching materials

There are still some problems in these teaching materials. For example, some show an over-emphasis on the combination between the learning and the application of language which results in disorder and incompleteness in students’ study(Yang Yancong, 2007: pars13-19). Moreover, some subjects and circumstances provided in the speaking unit are not familiar to both the teacher and the students, so most teachers find it very hard to organize the oral activity. According to some research, only a few teachers would like to pay attention to this section and some teachers just spend limited time in this part, and some other teachers even neglect it. This fact results in the case that the practice of oral English becomes a kind of form.(Yang Yancong, 2007: par17).

3.3 Teachers

Several possible factors about the teacher, such as, teaching concept, qualities of language and teaching, the approaches of teaching, which seem to play an important role in affecting the teaching and learning of oral English in middle schools.

Most teachers are affected strongly by the traditional examinations which involve written tests rather than spoken ones. Some teachers still prefer the traditional teacher-led teaching method where teacher speaks with the students just listening what the teacher has said and taking notes in great hurry. The teaching method provides limited chances for the oral English practice(Mo Xingyun, 2001: 143).

In junior schools, the teacher seldom bothers to bring objects to class or draw pictures on the blackboard to give learners the most direct and vivid connection of the English name and the objects. Some still feel teaching students how to pronounce and spell the words together with their Chinese meanings a way to save class hours. They seldom ask whether these junior learners feel bored(Le Xiaosong, 2006: 80). In senior schools, the teacher seem to have more reasons to make good use of class hours by stuffing the learners with more explanations in grammatical points, sentence meaning and translation, cultural knowledge and even test tips, all for the count-down day of college entrance examination(Zhang Yullian&Liu Xiuzhen, 1996: 38). No doubt, students at this stage are mostly deprived of speaking English in class.

    1. Language learning environment

The English learning environment in middle schools is not satisfactory. It is ever discovered that chance and environment are the most influential factors affecting Chinese students learning of spoken English(Zhang Dongchang, Yang Yajun & Li Rong, 2004: 19). Unfortunately, current teaching situations in China fail to offer an advantageous English-learning environment for learners. Although in most middle schools, students have to take at least six class hours in English subject, most of these hours are actually designed for written tests. Chinese schools’ speech activities are often isolated in separate courses or brought into the English class only as enrichment units (Tchudi & Mitchell, 1989: 270).

4. Strategies of oral English teaching and learning in middle schools

4.1 According to the inpidual difference theory, age, intelligence, language potential, style of cognition, motivation, attitude, psychological emotion and learning strategy of each inpidual play a significant role in the degree of spoken English one owns(Su Dingfang & Zhuang Zhixiang, 1996: 128). Studies show that successful teachers often have a good combination of motivation and inpidual differences.

Therefore, interesting oral activities should be involved in the class to raise learners’ interest and make them more active and enthusiastic in the oral class. For instances, the teacher could apply more audiovisual teaching materials including small models, vivid pictures, photographs, etc. and arrange activities which are self-introduction, word puzzles, repetition, duty report and so on for junior students, while to senior studets, some more complex practices such as oral presentation, group discussion, imitating teaching, role play could be used. However, because of various personalities of students, different students’ cognition styles, or even different classes, the approach may play different roles in different oral situations, thus the teacher should pay more attention to the difference, and find some relative strategies to meet the specific situation.

4.2 American psychologist Flavell(cf: Lu Jingxun, 2005: par3)said that metacognition focuses on people’s self-consciousness and self-control of cognitive activities, and it includes metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive experience and metacognitive monitor. It fulfills a main function of metacognition to offer the student and teacher the key of cultivating metacognitive ability in English learning and teaching.

Therefore, the teacher could teach junior and senior students some strategies such as communicative strategy, posture usage, communication approach, and nonverbal language strategies and so on, and tell them how to apply these strategies to the real communication and help them set up self-control of cognitive ability. In addition, teachers should not only teach students knowledge but also tell them to have a good learning habit and learn by themselves in spare time.

4.3 Li Hanchun(2005: 16-17) believed that the influence of attitude on language learning process is mainly recognized by motivation, and attitude and motivation are closely related. Positive attitudes towards oral English learning may have a person learn it with strong desire and high interest.

According to this theory, it is relatively important for the teacher to stimulate students’ learning interest and motivation, which is considered as a vital element in improving the students’ oral English ability. One of the things teachers could do is to master some techniques of comments they make each time on the students’ answers. It is believed that comments such as “good”, “quite good”, “excellent”and so forth from teachers will make the student feel more encouraged and confident after they put forward their answers. Even for the answers which are out of the teacher’s expectation, the teacher do not have to show obvious dissatisfaction especially by saying, say, “No. Your answer is wrong”. Instead, the teacher could ask more simple questions which may lead the student to the expected answer. In a word, students’ performance and motivation in speaking could only be encouraged to help learners develop a positive attitude in English speaking.

4.4 Besides the encouragement in class, teachers are also responsible for introducing to students various channel to practice English listening and speaking. Middle school teachers could guide students to some English new broadcast, for examples, BBC, VOA, crazy English, English TV programs and watching English movies are all good for the improvement of oral production.

4.5 It is believed that the improvement of English teachers’ professional level also plays an important part in the overall improvement of English teaching and learning. For middle school teachers, since they are now in a period of reform of curriculum, they should grasp this great opportunity to update their teaching ideas. They may at least have a constant reexamination of all the teaching methods they have ever used in order to find out the effective one to suit the new students every year they have, for example. Learning by themselves or taking part in training and any other activities, exchanging teaching methods and experiences with each other may also be helpful.

From the above discussion, it seems very important for the teacher to attach more attention to the connection of the oral English teaching and learning among the elementary schools, junior schools, senior schools and colleges, and make the oral English teaching and learning develop in a good circle, the problem which seems ignored for some decades and need to be attached more attention by people in future teaching process.

5. Conclusion

Oral English ability is believed to be required by the increasing development of international countries, and great attention has been attached to the oral English teaching and learning by a great number of researchers in recent years, and some achievements have already made in this field. However, because of years of traditional teaching, some problems and drawbacks in the teaching and learning of spoken English are obvious. This paper, therefore, focuses on the discussion of existing problems in speaking teaching in junior and senior middle schools from the perspectives of students, teachers, teaching material and learning environment. Although some suggestions for the improvement of this teaching are provided at the end, this paper still hopes to see more exploration of the solution to the problems in the future to make the situation of English speaking teaching in middle schools in China closer to satisfaction.


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Li Hanchun. 2005. A Study of Factors Affecting Students’ Oral English Proficiency in Chinese College English Teaching Setting. M.A. Dissertation. Dong Nan University.

Cheng Yongjun [陈永军], 2006, 初中英语教师专业素质的退化与对策,《内蒙古师范大学学报》,19,2:119。

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