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December 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

English Language Teaching in China

Dr Robin Leslie Usher Ph.D wrote a doctoral thesis `Jungian Archetypes in the work of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein`, 1992. Teacher of English language and literature since 1994 in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, Libya, China, Turkey, the Czech Republic, and Azerbaijan. Science fiction writer, 'All For Naught Orphan Ufonaut' in Shelter of Daylight, Sam's Dot Publishing (2010). Published in the British SF academic journal Foundation, `Male And Female He Created Them Both: Beyond The Archetypes` (112), and the Hungarian Institute for Educational Research`s Educatio, `Learning To Study`. E-mail:



It’s generally accepted that English language is the lingua franca for global interactions (Zhu, 2003), whether for travel; the worldwide web; entertainment and movies; international business: or education. Consequently, China recognizes the importance of equipping its citizens with English skills to communicate effectively, so ensuring competitiveness at the international level. The Chinese view native speakers more favorably as ‘linguistically privileged’ (Wang and Wen, 2016). Conversely, Chinese non-native English speakers, who speak Mandarin, or their local dialect as the primary language, are significantly disadvantaged. The officialese language of China, Mandarin replaced ‘Classical Chinese’, kanbun (漢文), which had predominated after the close of what’s known as the Spring and Autumn (771-476 B.C.) period of China’s Zhou dynasty. Mandarin is actually a vernacular form equivalent to ‘broad Yorkshire’, for example, so it’s yokel characteristics are weighted towards dictation, that is, the carrying out of dictatorial administrative edicts by serfs, which is detrimental in terms of the inculcation of higher learning.

 What’s known as the second Eastern Zhou was known as that of ‘the Warring States period’, and represented the defeat of alternative perspectives derived from a ‘Classical Chinese’ literary point of view that arose during the Western Zhou period founded by its first king, Wu, after a battle (c. 1046) to replace king Zhou [sic] of the Shang dynasty at Muye, southwest of its capital city, Yin, central Henan province. In simple terms, the war dogs won and China was ‘dumbed down’. Despite a revival of ‘Literary Chinese’, during China’s second Empire (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) of the Han dynasty, a period known as a ‘golden age’, and that might be readily translated by the West as a ‘hand dynasty’, that is, handwritten literature, Mandarin officialese was ultimately deemed a more direct linguistic tool for directing simple Chinese folk.

 However, in seeking reform and support for its citizens in the learning and use of English (Fang, 2017), the Chinese trend since 2001 has been towards primary schools. A Ministry of Education policy directive required children aged 9 to 10, in Grade 3, to learn the foreign language. Mandatory for all schools, whether urban or rural, all Chinese children would be afforded access, which suggested that Mandarin officialese might meet with some state approved resistance from local intelligentsia, so long as it didn’t interfere with communist China’s dictatorship, a modern ideological perspective representing a state sponsored, and so universally sanctioned belief, that workers’ control was what they had, so was the best form of governance administered through Mandarin ‘yokel’.

 The change revealed significant differences within the rural and urban divide in China. The household registration system, known as hukou (Hao et al., 2014), is hierarchical. Urban dwellers receive higher standing than those in rural areas, according to the General Social Survey (Li and Ranieri, 2013), for example, which produces unequal/unfair resource distribution. A proportionate decrease in support for rural students as they progress through the educational stages results in failure to raise their socio-economic profile.

 To counter traditional and long-standing exam-centered education in China’s basic schooling, competence-based education was promoted and, regarded as the goal of the innovation, proposed higher standards (better training, and a higher level of English) for teachers, whose support and understanding of the new reforms in 2001 played a vital role in the outcome. Its implementing in rural schools in China was linked to the ideals underpinning UNESCO’s Dakar ‘Education for All’ initiative, which stated inequality in education must be avoided and prevented (OECD, 2016) so as to not transmit poverty across the generations. The Chinese aim was to identify teachers’ professional development needs (dello-Lacovo, 2009) in the implementation of a new curricula. During the transition to a Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach, the advantages of conversational English were weighed against the virtues of traditional rote memorization, and students’ advancement solely through knowledge of academic procedures.

 China officially started its students English language learning program at Grade 3 in primary school in 2011. The tendency was towards English as a communications’ tool. Communicative teaching relies heavily on eliciting verbal responses. Urban school students had more opportunities to speak English, because of their relative internationalism, whereas rural students didn’t, so experienced a lack of motivation, which needed to be addressed in the training of teachers in the Communicative Method. As the government emphasized communicative teaching, it was more student-centered. However, the teacher-centered exam-orientated approach remained embedded within the system, that is, a traditional Chinese education ideal of an instructor directing students to memorize. Problems during the implementation of curricula reforms, especially in rural primary schools (Thomas and Postlethwaite, 2014), related to the perspectives, quality and standards of English language trained teachers. Examinations needed to objectively determine communicational ability in order to produce fair results. However, although text books were provided for communicative English, teachers of mixed ability were found to have subjectivities incommensurate with examining objectively.



Since the founding of the People’s Republic by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedung in 1949, there’ve been two education systems in China. The Chinese Empire had been ruled inefficiently during the Qing dynasty (1636-1912) and was overthrown, according to China’s sexagenary calendar cycle, in the Xinhai (‘metal pig’) Revolution of 1912, which was followed by a disastrous period of strong local rule known as ‘the Warlord Era’. The failed autocracy of General Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government of the Republic of China (ROC), which had introduced the Examination Yuan for the civil service in 1928, resulted in the emergence of the Communist Republic of China (CPC) through Civil War (1927-49). An examination-oriented approach towards education had owed much to the historical need for preparing Imperial administrators since the Tang dynasty (618-907), but by 2010 the quality-oriented approach superseding exam-based assessments had become a further revolutionary movement. China introduced a nine-year compulsory education requirement in which both urban and rural students would have schooling without fees; from Grade 1 through Grade 9. The aim was to ensure urban and rural equal education opportunity (Li, 2012). Some rural students hadn’t been able to go to school because of fees. The comprehensive reform solved that issue. It would be the same for urban and rural students; all would have equal opportunity to progress.

 Now that it was viewed as essential to converse in English (Hu, 2010), that is, to modernize the nation, and become more competitive internationally within rural China and its urban areas (Wang, 2013), fluency was socially, economically, intellectually and nationally prestigious. Nevertheless, English language teaching was perceived to lack objective and subjective conditions for improvement. Focus was put on (1) changing teachers’ roles; (2) reinforcing English teaching methodology training, and (3) creating a good environment to practice English. However, reform involved media teaching methods, and Western teaching methods and instruction in teachers’ roles, which was difficult to implement in rural areas where traditional teaching methods prevailed.

 Traditionally, grammar-translation was most commonly used in China. Learners learnt grammar using L1 (first language) focusing on sentence level and accuracy; almost without speaking practice (Harmer, 2015). The audio-lingual method was another prevailing approach, which employed stimulus-response and reinforcement models. It relied heavily on drill; aiming to cultivate good habits. To further the quality-oriented approach, teachers needed to receive training in Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).


Urban and rural

Gaps between urban and rural students’ achievements remained, because of different environment and social elements, for example, migrant influences and children’s personalities. Under consideration were shyness-sensitivity related to adjustment factors. A study of 411 rural migrant children, and 518 urban children with a median age of 10 (Chen et al., 2009), found urban school children’s shyness linked to social problems and depression. In rural areas, shyness was linked to indexes of adjustment; leadership problems; perceived teacher incompetence, and the inability of children from migrant workers’ families to achieve academically. Children experienced shyness, and perhaps stress, when adjusting to teachers' perception of their competence, which was an aspect of the quality-oriented approach that was new.

 Rural populations had been left far behind (Biao, 2006), compared to urbanites. Seeking to determine the constraining factors that prevented rural individuals from moving to urban areas, or how their rural situation constrained them from other local and contextual successes, it was found that mainly elderly, women and children were most constrained, because of their reliance on others for security and safety. A key factor was the lack of provision for the public good; for example, sufficient education for the pursuing of employment opportunity/income. Moreover, rural schools lacked urban schools’ infrastructure and resources. Consequently, curricula improvement was less impactful. From 2001 through 2011 (Wang and Zhao, 2011), problems related to rural schools’ funding, and unstable and worsening levels of teaching resources, that is, a failure to implement quality education (CLT), and a need to integrate information technology (IT).

 If grandparents didn’t live with, or near, their grandchildren (Zeng and Xie, 2014), influence on the educational pursuits of children waned. Consequently, rural schooling was a socio-psychological pathway. Grandparents’ education directly influenced children’s minimum educational level attained. The positive influence from grandparents’ leverage was needed. Schooling had represented severe obstacles to the rural poor (Copland et al., 2013), who needed their children’s income. Improving curricula, infrastructure, and resources, was insufficient.

 Of ELT teachers in rural primary schools, there were those who were temporary, that is, part-time and unprofessional, and without qualifications, and those who were professional, and whose numbers were lower than required. Teaching suffered from a paucity of qualified deliverers, so the change to quality education was more difficult for rural areas. With regard to the employment of ELT teachers, there was the problem of funding; lack of resources, and failure to integrate IT. Professional ELTs faced students’ higher demands with regard to language proficiency, and that autonomy in classroom decision-making which CLT encourages. Moreover, both teachers and students in rural areas typically lack English practice out of class. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) wasn’t rigorously used, because teachers themselves lacked confidence (Dornyei and Ushioda, 2009) resulting in their appearing unable to engage with the material. Teachers found themselves teaching without training; especially in CLT.

 Approaches to teaching were mimetic and epistemic, that is, they only followed the text book. Activities and interactions with students weren’t created by teachers. In a study of eight primary school English teachers from the rural regions of Guangdong (Li and Siu, 2009), it was found that the English curriculum through entertaining activities and tasks with promising outcomes was sufficiently promoted, so demonstrating that a quality approach could rely on motivation. However, a general paucity of resources meant rural teaching remained dependent on textbooks, which didn’t focus the teaching through the teachers’ own transmissions, that is, interactions with students, so leading to the desirable goal of abandoning traditional memorization-based, teacher-centered and transmission-oriented approaches hampering students’ receiving quality education.

 China’s rural teachers’ role had been typically teacher-centered, because of a lack of training. Rote, memorization, and recitation were the core of teaching and assessment. Formal examinations represented a barrier to students’ development of communications’ skills, because of reticence (Pan and Block 2011) through fear associated with being examined. Consequently, student-centered learning was promoted, which meant spoon-feeding and chalk-talk methods were replaced by meaningful task-based teaching.1 Teachers’ controlling role gave way to that of a monitor and organizer’s.

 As with other Asian countries, China’s education system tended to invoke teaching methods based on memorization, that is, being able to answer specific pre-determined questions (Jin and Cortazzi, 2006), which qualified as characteristically ‘Chinese’ in terms of a learning approach. ELT in China had a ‘Chinese character’ and CLT wasn’t a part of its personality. Engaged with ‘Chinese characteristics’, teachers of English delivered learning approaches culturally acceptable to the Chinese, so increasing a sense of capability, which made teaching more comfortable. However, cultural acceptability retarded communication.

 Reform in China`s schooling led to an increase in the influence of the examination system, and a standardization that brought the level of achievement attained by rural and urban students closer together. Reform supported Chinese citizens’ functioning effectively in communicative English. However, lacks in local prioritization, that is, funding in the utilization of a wider range of more effective teaching tools, because of a paucity of knowledge with regard to the livelihood-relevance of English, proved debilitating. Although pragmatism did oppose the 'chalk talk' method of rote memorization; so shifting the focus from teacher-centered to student-centered classrooms with a consequently greater emphasis on communication. (A ‘chalk talk’ is a monologue presentation; spoken while the speaker/teacher works with the bored.)



The success of class observations, which were used to provide clear information about the practical aspects of English language teaching, were largely dependent on the extent of teachers acceptance of reform, or whether the traditional way of teaching continued to prevail. Observations showed teachers` interactive implementation of new curricula’s influence upon students. However, in Hainan, ‘South of the Sea’, a province consisting of islands,  separated from Guangdong's Leizhou Peninsula by the Qiongzhou Strait, 25 was the average number of students in each class, and similarly in Guangdong province where school populations were declining through migration. Many students moved to urban schools, for example, in the city of Haikou on Hainan Island in the province of Hainan, and to the city of Guangzhou in Guangdong province, because of parents’ work commitments. Moreover, as rural students speak dialect, they study Mandarin, that is, the official language of Imperial Chinese administrators, who were tried in rural areas, because agrarian regions are relatively low in terms of population, so micro-mistakes could be made and rectified on a scale large enough to demonstrate an administrator’s abilities, and without damaging macro-structures. Although curricula reform was implemented in urban schools a year earlier, rural schools didn’t represent an inferior posting.

The main languages are dialect and Mandarin, and English was introduced as a third and foreign language. Dialect is the first language of most Chinese English language teacher participants, which resulted in inculcation of incorrect pronunciation in students. Learning the new language is mainly dependent on students' personalities; some students like to talk, and can speak better: some students never speak any English words. Personality can cause students to feel shy to talk, and the students’ English language skills can be another reason. Teachers don’t have to adapt, because rural students are shy. Not only because of their English language skills, but through environmental factors too. Urban primary students meet different people every day, but rural school students tend to have the same encounters. Consequently, they’ve difficulty in accepting the new, which includes English language practice.

 In rural primary schools, traditional teaching methods have predominated; for example, chalk-talk. However, to teach English language communicatively requires a wish on the part of the student to talk. In rural areas, students are shy. Few have high scores when tested, and most fail. Consequently, traditional teaching, which has produced shyness in students, needs to change. Although student-centered learning is useful in English language classes, rather than teacher-centered learning, because it gives students greater opportunities for practice, it’s considered more suitable for urban primary schools. Rural students, who aren’t brave enough to talk and answer questions, require direction, and textbook dialogues, which aim at students` imitating, are indicated as being facilitative.



Teachers are mainly influenced by examination systems. Despite the common usage of media, as required by new curricula, methods in China’s rural settings remain perforce traditional, that is, a conventional exam-goal test system, because of a lack of access to hardware. Showing vocabulary in the form of picture worksheets and textbook dialogues is usual; partly because teachers don’t have enough training workshops in the use of games and interactive media. However, ELTs were trained by the Chinese government in activity design; for example, game preparation, which is intrinsic to Communicative Language Teaching’s methodology of motivation.

 Hu’s research (2017) concluded education policy to be shaped by 5 factors; social, economic, educational, linguistic and political. China’s English policy aims to train urban and rural areas in the use of English in their lifetimes, rather than just sit an exam successfully. The system gave rural people an option to migrate to urban areas, and take up positions where speaking English was an asset. Formerly new vocabulary had been explained in Mandarin for rural students, and sometimes for challenging and important parts; for example, sentence structure, their own dialect. China’s introduction of CLT hoped to bypass that mediating role of Mandarin and dialect. Curriculum’s presentation of a lot more activities; such as dialogues relating to daily life, which students felt familiar with, meant enjoyment in learning. It made teachers feel more confident; for example, if there was an increased use of media facilities to give computer based tests (CBTs) and reveal answers.

 Although useful new activities involved the deployment of flash cards facilitating elicitation, CLT indicated that training teachers in Information Technology (IT) was a further technologically innovative means to assist in the motivation of students’ learning. IT mediated presentation activities were found to motivate students, and multimedia tasking. However, audio was generally used only for students to hear the sounds of vocabulary words from textbooks, that is, the audio-lingual or ‘Army method’ that, alongside grammar translation, prevailed as an approach amongst teachers employing stimulus response and reinforcement models, didn’t place any emphasis upon the CLT method of authentic language interaction using realistic, socially necessary language, as both means and goal in language learning. Making use of real life situations, the goal of CLT is to create communicative competence in learners.

 In rural areas, lack of support in the classroom environment caused students to appear retarded when compared with urban students’ language skills. Moving to urban schools, or Universities, rural students’ studies appeared to their minds more difficult. Achieving admittance to institutions of choice appeared less likely for rural students, because of examination results, which in their isolated regions might have seemed excellent to local administrations. Uncertainty over how to proceed with CLT meant that some teachers went back to relying on tests in assessment: preparing an examination paper was easier. Although teachers knew rural students needed more motivation and support, rather than develop strategies to change it, there was an attitude of acceptance, “There is a girl in my class whose cousin is studying at university, so I let her practice her English-speaking skills with her cousin and then come back to show me.” Rural school students can only know English language through their classes, and in supervised practice with English language teachers.

 Teachers’ setting of the examinations themselves is essential, because China’s curricula reform didn’t deal with specific facts or problems. The conversational style of the directives was reflected in the examinations, that is, subjectivity in teachers’ question setting reduced objective assessment of ability in favor of average comprehension. Instead of a gradient curve indicating achievement of use to a region, standard mean prevailed, so where the ambition of the educators had been excellence, normative was average.

 The aspect of conversational English within curricula reform had significant benefit in that teachers were required to implement Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) lesson plans. Despite limitations, teachers` resources, training and workshops, improved teaching methods and competence. Although teachers’ traditional methods didn’t measure up to the new standards and requirements, teachers who did interact with students didn’t motivate students enough. Fortunately, the pedagogical shift to CLT and CBT as a transmission model of language instruction, meant a utilization of less traditional approaches. Traditionally, the imparting of knowledge (Chen, 2014) followed the ‘Chinese characteristics’ of memorization and standardized testing. However, Chinese students adjust well to the CLT Western teaching style of transmitting language proficiency. Shifting from the typical chalk-talk ‘Eastern’ method of teaching to a more discussion-based subjective method, influenced young learner classrooms positively. The spread of English as a common language assisted people’s awareness of the need to master communication skills, rather than English knowledge. Pair and group work’s task-based language teaching (Zheng and Borg, 2014) furthered the communicative method. Effective multimedia prioritizes communication abilities over a rote memorization-based exam system (Hannafin et al., 2013), so furthering the student-centered classroom setting.


Teacher Training

 Because of the vastness of China, and its many small population groups, there are countless sub-cultures, which vary from city to city, and even village to village. Although there are numerous ways of teaching English, for example, the ‘Army method’ of grammar-translation, and task-based language teaching, the ideal for primary school students was an informal CLT multimedia method. Consequently, English language curriculum reform incorporated informal and flexible approaches to learning in the classroom. Unfortunately, shortfalls in funding, and incohesive infrastructures, which impacted upon students` access to learning tools (Zhang and Liu, 2013), were a diluting factor in terms of success in rural areas. However, single expatriate English teachers were often found in rural primary schools teaching every grade to compensate for shortcomings. Consequently, there is a sensible fear from authority, overseers, and outside observers or officials, over expressing insights or opinions that might impact negatively on teachers.



The future is government support to attain English language learning targets in decentralized schools in rural settings. A top-down approach dictating policy change needs to be complemented by a decentralized support. For rural communities, learning English had been considered a `lifestyle` choice, rather than aligned to future career opportunities, which new curricula reforms aimed to promote.



China needs to focus on successful English language programs in rural as well as urban areas. Students lacked facilities; such as learning centers where they can learn and communicate: a significant barrier to be overcome.



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