How does TEFL work?

Beijing, China

A couple of people have been asking me how it’s possible to teach English to Chinese students when we don’t have a shared language to communicate in – I don’t speak Mandarin! Since every single child in China now has English lessons from a young age, normally from a Chinese teacher, it’s pretty safe to assume they already know some English – they are also exposed to it through TV, music, etc. There are a wide range of activities we can use in the classroom to suit all levels and ages, and all kinds of purposes (vocab learning, speaking practice, functional language, grammar, phonemes, etc.); we would normally focus on one topic in a lesson (like ‘food’) and do several short activities relating to that topic. For example first you could do an activity relating to some vocabulary of different foods, asking students what food they like and brainstorm, you could then slowly (step-by-step) build this up to students performing a role play of ordering a meal in a restaurant.
We need to remember to give very simple instructions that the students will understand, without using new vocab in the instructions, and then give them an example of the activity so they can see what they have to do. We have to use lots of gestures/facial expressions/board drawings, and there are many different ways to explain the meaning of a new word without simply translating it into Mandarin – like pictures, actions, synonyms, examples. The main purpose of getting foreign teachers in to teach English is for speaking practice; Chinese teachers may not have the correct pronunciation. We have to speak English always, and never use Mandarin; which is good practice for the students who will in time pick up words, phrases and even idioms from the context in which we use them in. There is a lot of emphasis on teaching ‘natural English’ – that is, conversational English rather than textbook English. It is hard for someone who is not a fluent speaker to teach this.

Yonghegong, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square


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Beijing, China

We’ve reached the ‘weekend’!! (we have them on Thursdays and Fridays instead of Saturdays and Sundays). It’s been so awesome to finally have a chance to explore the city. I’m really falling in love with Beijing. Everything about it is BIG… the roads are the size of motorways, and it takes a whole minute to walk across them (also cars sometimes just don’t stop for red lights, which is scary). The population is big, but the city is so big too that it rarely feels crowded. Although, February is a quieter time for Beijing due to people who work here travelling to see family for New Year.

In class the other day, as a break from Mandarin we went outside and did some Tai Chi. It was different to the Tai Chi I’d done before – the lady teaching us said it was mainly for older people. Also, we had Bella (who works with the ImmerQi team, and is Chinese) come into a lesson and teach us Mandarin while speaking only in Mandarin. Basically what we will be doing when we teach, except with English obviously. It really struck me how difficult it was to understand what she was asking us to do, it was so bewildering! I’d never thought about that before, this is going to be a tough job, and we really need to make sure we use vocabulary that is suitable for the level we are teaching. Anyway, that was an exercise I definitely benefited from, I know how the children will feel now!

After finishing class yesterday a bit earlier than usual, I headed straight for a temple with a few others. The Lama Temple (Yonghegong) is a Tibetan Buddhist temple and people still worship there today. It was very beautiful, and also a really warm day – I was only in a long-sleeved top! Unheard of for Beijing in February. The sun was shining, the skies were clear, it was lovely. All the temples I’ve seen so far seem to have the same design and they are very intricate. They are all mainly red (which is the colour of prosperity in China), and the edges of the roof have a line of animals standing up which I really like. There are lots of painted decorations near the roof, often of snakes – I don’t know the significance of this yet. There were lots of different temples and rooms, inside they had different Buddhas for example one room had 3 Buddhas which were for the past, present and future. It is disrespectful to take pictures inside these holy places so I only have pictures of the outside of the temples. There were different styles; I liked the Tantric Buddhist statues, they were rather eerie. There was a statue of something with lots of arms, each arm was holding something different – e.g. a foot, and something that looked like a baby alien. Strange. Right at the end of the temple complex was a room with an absolutely huge Buddha – when I walked in I was stunned by the size of it! So so awesome. I loved all the decorations around these holy statues also – lots of carvings of different animals from dragons to horses, candles, lots of very detailed artwork on the walls and even the ceiling was beautifully designed. I can tell I’m going to like visiting temples, and I’m really excited to learn more about Buddhism.

There were lots of people worshipping, which gave the whole complex a peaceful air. It was interesting to watch how people worshipped. They stand in front of one of the statues with some incense in their hands, they clasp their hands together like in prayer, and bow twice. Then they move onto the next statue and do the same thing. A quick mark of respect. I wonder if they go round the whole place or just focus on a few buildings?

So after a hard week of training, there was only one thing to do that evening – go out for some beers! We got the bus to a pretty area with lights in the trees and a massive lit up sheep I can only imagine is for New Year. After wondering around we found an Irish bar, which was full of expats, and everything was English-speaking which was refreshing! Went to a few different bars, a nice and chilled out night.

Today was a big day – around 25 of us headed over to the Forbidden City, where the Emperor would live. Let’s just say I can see why it’s called a ‘city’… the place is massive! I’d heard from people that it was big but I didn’t know just how big they meant! It was beautiful, I spent a few hours wondering around on my own taking it all in. A lot of people just kept walking straight down the centre, where all the main buildings/rooms are, but if you veer off to the left or the right there are plenty more rooms and temples, plus an absolutely gorgeous Imperial Garden with very interesting-looking trees and rocks. There was a big hill of rocks with a temple at the top, and I think a path ran through the middle of the rocks to get up there – that was cool. Visitors can’t go up though.

What I loved while walking around was seeing the contrast between this old city and the skyscrapers of modern Beijing which surrounded. Once we’d left the Forbidden City (I did manage to get lost so it took me a while to leave), most people got the subway back, but me and two others headed to Jingshan Park opposite. It’s a pretty park, and it was quite warm again. So glad it’s not minus 20 as expected. The main attraction of the park is that it has an awesome view of the Forbidden City and of Beijing in general. There are a few small temples and apparently they were built there on purpose, because this is the place with the best view of the city. So we climbed up to the top… incredible views, it was just amazing. After being inside the Forbidden City, we then got to see it from an outside perspective and really understand just how huge it is. I sat there for a while just taking it all in – as well as the surroundings of modern Beijing. The view from the other side showed more of the city – tall buildings next to old temples, the contrast was stunning. There’s nothing I like more in a new place than getting as high as I can and looking from above… you get more of a feel for the size, position and character of the place.

So then we decided to have a little peek at Tiananmen Square – problem is, we were now on the north side of the Forbidden City and the square is on the south side, so we had a long walk ahead of us! We walked past the walls of the City and then down a long, long street with hutongs – this street went on for a half hour with no side turnings or anything! We eventually reached the square, which was huge (standard Beijing) – apparently it is one of the largest city squares in the world. We were too tired to go in any of the museums by this point, so after being asked to pose for a photo with a Chinese family (that happens all the time here, they love foreigners, it’s like being a celebrity), we headed back. Long day… awesome day.

I’m finding the fact that I have to study and do assignments, while being in an exciting new city and country, really difficult. There’s a clash between the part of me that wants to spend every day exploring and wandering, and the part of me that wants to study hard and do well. It’s tough trying to manage both!

First days- from TEFL training to scorpion eating


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eijing, China

Already four full days into my month of teacher training in Beijing. Most of that time so far has been in classrooms – we have TEFL classes from 8:30-14:30 every day (with a break for lunch), followed by an hour and a half of Mandarin lessons (later on this time will be for lesson planning). Luckily, the classes have been interesting as well as helpful, and the teachers are very good – these first few days have been rather overwhelming however. There’s a lot to take in and a lot to think about when planning lesson activities. We’ve also had a rather extensive class on grammar, something which I thought I was good at but have been proven otherwise. Those who learnt English as a second language (most of the people on the course) actually found this part easier!

We’re staying in a hotel just outside the main city centre, so apparently it doesn’t take long to get to the main places of interest. Although, after being told the subway station is 15mins away (when it’s actually around half an hour) we started to wonder if a ‘Beijing minute’ is longer than a normal minute – well, it is such a big place! It’s been pretty easy to get around and understand things here because a lot is in English, but I think that’s just because it’s the capital… the real ‘culture shock’ will begin when we go off to our placements in smaller cities and towns! I’ve now done a total of 4.5 hours of Mandarin, and just as expected it is not easy. I’ve got the hang of the four tones and most of the pronunciations of initials and finals (in pinyin), and we’ve learnt some vocab and phrases. I’m definitely not a natural though.

Our meals are included during training, mainly the dinners and lunches have been good, I haven’t been able to eat the breakfast so far though – cold noodles and weird dumplings just aren’t appealing to me at 8 in the morning! One night me and Annelieke (from Holland) did try out a local restaurant; it is very much a case of pointing at one of the (very small) pictures and hoping it’s nice! We were looking at one of the pictures where the food looked good, before I looked closer and saw there was chicken feet in it. So… be careful. Unless you fancy some chicken feet.

Last night a lot of us went on our first outing which was VERY exciting considering we’d been in intense classes for a few days and had barely been past the supermarket next to our hotel. After dinner we headed to Wangfujing – main purpose: to see the night market and eat some bugs. We got there by subway, and they have video adverts in the tunnels that follow the train along so you can read them, which we thought was pretty cool. Wangfujing is the main shopping district, so lots of huge shops – I was especially impressed with the size of the bookstore. Down a little side street with lots of hanging lanterns, is Donghuamen Night Market. Some stalls selling scorpions, starfish, centipedes, spiders, snakes, even seahorses and turtles – to eat. Pretty sure this is a tourist thing, apparently the locals don’t actually eat these (I guess they think ‘hey, what’s the weirdest thing we can get Westerners to eat?’.. and it works). Even so, I had a weird curiosity and so me and Morgan (from UK) shared a starfish, whilst I had a baby scorpion and a bite of snake also. The scorpion was actually quite tasty, wasn’t expecting that! Not a fan of starfish at all though (apparently tastes like mackerel but having never tried fish I can’t verify that)!

There were other stalls too selling dumplings, sweets etc. After we’d had enough, me and Annelieke wandered down Wangfujing and into the mall, just to be somewhere warm; by this time it was way down in the minuses. It was huge, with a countless number of floors and obviously the location for all the posh/expensive shops. People tried to scam us twice while walking around the district, luckily we’d been wised up to the black taxi and the tea room scams so we were having none of it.

Although I haven’t had a chance to see much of China so far, I’m really looking forward to what is to come – trying weird food, learning Mandarin, experiencing the cultural differences – but most of all teaching in a real Chinese school and travelling around the country. The next six months are definitely going to be an adventure!