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A Recent History of Teaching EFL in China

Lianjun Zuo outlines how EFL methodology in China has changed in the decades since the end of the Cultural Revolution. See Ke Xu's Communities of Practice column, "Good luck, China!", Essential Teacher, June 2008.

Driven by globalization, EFL has become a great concern in Chinese education. Educators in China are faced with profound challenges, including a substantial shift in teaching philosophy and practice. As is pointed out by the Higher Education Department of the Ministry of Education, "College English is not only a language course that provides basic knowledge about English, but also a capacity enhancement course that helps students to broaden their horizons and learn about different cultures in the world" (p. 17).

This article presents an outline of the changing approach to EFL in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Methodology has undergone many changes in the past 30 years, which can be broadly put into four stages.

Stage I: ABC English for Beginners (late 1970s to early 1980s)

In 1977 the National Entrance Examination for higher education was restored, and foreign language took its place in the school curriculum as a required course. English became a popular foreign language, but the majority of students were beginners. Textbooks contained basic grammar knowledge and simple English words and technical terms, and short passages were used for classroom teaching. The concept of English study was nothing "more than memorizing grammar rules and facts in order to understand and manipulate the morphology and syntax of the foreign language" (Richard & Rodgers, p. 5). At the time, we English language teachers described this approach as ABC English.

Classroom teaching, which was rather monotone, was delivered entirely in the native language, Mandarin Chinese. I used to lead the class in reading new words aloud for a while and then spend a considerable length of time analyzing a specific grammar rule. I would write a few sample sentences on the board to present grammar rules, and their forms and functions. Then came a detailed analysis of the grammar points in each sentence in the short text. I also used to require that students practice the given rules in customized grammar drills—"sentences that were constructed to illustrate the grammatical system of the language and consequently bore no relation to the language of real communication" (Richards & Rodgers, 2003, p. 4).

As a young English teacher, I did not know how to set goals and objectives; I regarded my responsibility as teaching all the lessons in the book according to institutional requirements. I had no sense of designing interesting activities with pictures, cards, or videos to stimulate students' multiple intelligences (Christison, 2005). What I did well was analyze grammar rules clearly and point out common grammar mistakes that students made.

Other teachers and I joked that this teaching method consisted of teaching about English rather than teaching English. It wasn't fun, but it was required. For adult students with logical thinking ability, teaching through grammar analysis proved to be a feasible road. At least these students learned enough about English to enable them to advance in their academic achievements. It turns out that some accomplished scholars abroad and at home today are the English beginners of that period. However, those scholars toiled long and hard to gain English proficiency, and the minimum classroom efforts for oral and listening skills hindered their development. For the majority, English was almost forgotten after they left school.

Stage II: EFL for the Low Level (early to mid 1980s)

Several factors contributed to a questioning and rejection of the grammar-translation method (Richard & Rodgers, 2003, p. 7). The growing desire to go abroad and increased opportunities for communication drew more people to the EFL classroom. Tired of monotone grammar study, students in public schools as well as private language schools developed an appetite for improvement in spoken English. Language skills training classes sprouted like mushrooms after spring rain, and attending evening English class became a popular hobby.

Enrolled students were much better in English. Two reasons accounted for this: English was strongly required in middle school, and proficiency in foreign languages carried an important weight in the National Entrance Examination.

Demands for oral–aural skills in English created a boom in English book markets. English-version textbooks poured into China's markets. The New Concept English series published by Longman was among the bestsellers. It contained short story passages that were full of good language points and patterns. The grammar rules served as a supporting element in the passage rather than the organizing principle. The contents from unit to unit were not related to one another but were all enjoyed as good language materials and made for good reading. With more skills-oriented textbooks available, the teaching procedures were designed to increase students' competence in reading, speaking, and listening.

Disillusioned with the grammar-translation method, many instructors turned to new approaches for building skills that were popular with students. Reading a passage aloud and learning some sentences or a paragraph by heart was a common practice for learning English. Grammar teaching was still necessary, but no longer the focus. The focus switched to learning good sentence patterns and phrases. Listening to recordings at the beginning of class was part of class procedure: Students were required to read new words and text passages aloud after listening to the native English voice on the recording. The instructor's work shifted from explaining grammar in detail to paraphrasing the text, emphasizing key words, set phrases, and sentence patterns. For homework, students often had to learn paragraphs or a whole passage by heart. Bilingual teaching came into fashion, mostly in the form of Mandarin Chinese mixed with some English words, phrases, and sentences.

English immersion programs also appeared about this time. In our college, students were chosen for the program from among the medical school freshmen on the basis of an oral interview in English. With small class size and above-average students, all the professional courses were required to be taught in English rather than Chinese. I taught in this program for 10 years. As a teaching team, my fellow teachers and I chose a few textbooks, focusing on both language knowledge and skills. Students were engaged in listening, speaking, reading, translating, and writing. Class interactions were characterized by frequent questions and responses between the instructor and the students. What I enjoyed then was that the teaching process provided a wider space to improve my professional proficiency and the opportunity to explore effective teaching methods that catered to students' needs.

Teaching was uphill work for me then; I was a young teacher with little experience with English-speaking cultures. I was challenged by new textbooks without any standard answers for exercises. I worked as a teacher in front of the students, but actually I felt that I was learning among them, catching my breath with them. What I enjoyed most was that we had no pressure from the difficult national examination assessments, so I was free to design my own teaching tasks in whatever way I liked and to choose class activities that I felt were beneficial. With no hard criteria troubling them, students were able to make good use of their time, and their efforts were rewarded later when most of them enrolled in PhD programs in various foreign countries.

Stage III: EFL for the Low-Intermediate Level (late 1980s to mid 1990s)

With the booming of the Chinese economy and technology, as well as a more open foreign policy, English as a chief medium for international communication was given a higher level of importance in China. Tests were designed for the assessment of English proficiency; two that stood out among them were EFL tests known as EFL Band-4 and EFL Band-6. Passing these tests was required for all university students as a key element for getting a degree. This had a significant impact on the job market—the EFL certificates for Band-4 and Band-6 were recognized as the authoritative criteria for qualified new hires. Consequently, the vast majority of students saw EFL courses as one of their top priorities. It appeared that the students' English ability was enhanced remarkably, but this was somewhat misleading.

Most incoming students had a sound foundation in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, so syllabi focused on the enhancement of students' English competency. EFL teachers joined efforts to improve students' vocabulary, listening, and writing techniques. Because of the serious new criteria and competition to pass the national EFL tests, teachers and students in many schools focused excessive effort on preparing for these tests, so much so that some schools even gave up much of the course content and spent class time simply preparing for the national tests. On campuses, it was common to see students, with sample test questions in their hands, reciting English vocabulary at any given time. The language skills for real communication were ignored both in and out of class. "Strive for Band-4 and Band-6 National Certificate" was the loud and clear motto on campuses.

Several well-edited textbooks written by experts from top universities in China emerged at this time. We used one that emphasized reading and listening. The availability of teacher manuals that contained standard answers to the exercises and ready-made explanations of key words and phrases made the teaching work simpler than before.

It was still a teacher-centered classroom, and not many class activities were encouraged. Students regarded class participation as being a listener, note taker, and knowledge receiver. Lessons were delivered in English mixed with some native words, which depended on both the students' ability to express themselves and the teachers' fluency in English.

The impact of difficult requirements on English language acquisition was obvious. With some exceptions, at most colleges and universities, the regular EFL teaching work got pushed aside. The market directly affected students' motivation for high English test scores, and the sample test collections occupied too much of their time. English competency seemed to dramatically increase, as evidenced by the fact that the passing rate of EFL Band-4 and Band-6 soared year after year. The "achievements" of EFL education were remarkable because of the hard criteria. However, the feedback from society proved to be deflating. On many social occasions, students with high-scored EFL certificates in hand were rejected because of their failure to effectively apply English to real-world communication. Ironic remarks such as "deaf and dumb English" and "high score, low ability" indicated the defect in EFL teaching and learning at the university level during that period. As one Chinese EFL researcher described it, "more pain, less gain."

Stage IV: EFL for the Intermediate Level (late 1990s to the present)

The Ministry of Education launched a new campaign to reform EFL education at the turn of the 21st century. The reform aims to modernize EFL teaching on campuses, pushing it out of its traditional track and equipping it with better technology. Great importance is attached to communicative proficiency in cross-cultural exchanges. EFL national certificates are still important, but no longer a hard criterion for students to gain a degree.

The situation has improved quite a bit, with better-equipped language labs for all regular classes and the invitation of more native-English-speaking teachers to help students with authentic spoken and written English. What's more, the good command of English knowledge and skills that is encouraged at the high school level lays a solid foundation for college English. The new expectations for university-level EFL education emphasize development of students' English skills in international communicative settings and academic exchanges.

Updated textbooks cover topics reflecting life in society, and many articles are chosen from modern English language journals and books. The course contents are usually organized around topic-based units or content-based tasks. Class objectives have also been updated. In the reading and writing courses I now teach, my role is to help students read for full understanding; read critically and evaluate the text in terms of the author's attitude, tone, and argument; organize comments in English on the related topics; perform communicative tasks; and write outlines and summaries on the reading material. The ideal teacher's role now is to create a student-centered classroom where students can present the best in their linguistic knowledge and communicative techniques.

Content-based, topic-based, and task-based class models are now popular practice in the Chinese classroom, and teachers integrate Web technology effectively in the classroom. Teachers' Web pages, Web-based teaching platforms, and technology-equipped classrooms with projectors are all in use to support EFL classroom teaching. This combination of Web technology and face-to-face teaching is presenting a new conceptual structure for EFL teaching and learning in China.

In response to the EFL reform campaign, the discipline has undergone a great transformation in pedagogical beliefs. Teachers are realizing that their role includes more than adhering to a teacher-centered class model. Methodology in classroom teaching is drawing teachers' attention. Classroom interaction is required for the assessment of teaching work. Instead of being mere knowledge receivers, students are encouraged to be active participants in classroom interaction, ready to present their ideas or argue for specific viewpoints.

It is clear that Chinese EFL educators and researchers are catching up. However, we still face great challenges. How should teachers in China relate to students in large classes? How should the teaching methods and approaches adapt to the needs of different learners' purposes? How can an assessment system characterized by intense exams be perfected more for social functions than for memory work? How should the teaching resources and circumstances in remote areas be improved? As EFL educators, we should continually seek insight into our work and be well informed about what we did in the past, what we are doing at present, and what we should do in the future. Undoubtedly, there is something valuable in what we have experienced. It is wise for us to use what we know about teaching (Berliner, 1984) as valuable insight for EFL reforms occurring all over the world.


Berliner, D. C. (1984). The half-full glass: A review of research on teaching. In P. L. Hosford (Ed.), Using what we know about teaching (pp. 51–84). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Christison, M. A. (2005). Considerations for ELT in the 21st century. In M. Field & J. Fegan (Eds.), Education across borders: Philosophy, policy, and pedagogy—New paradigms and challenges (pp. 221–235). Tokyo: Waseda University.

Richards, J. D., & Rodgers, T. S. (2003). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Higher Education Department of the Ministry of Education. (2007). College English curriculum requirements. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press.

Lianjun Zuo ( is a professor in the School of Foreign Languages at Shandong University, in China.