Characterisitics of the English Language Curriculum in China
Linkage of the Curriculum to State Goals
Vocabulary as a Benchmark of Competence
Process of Curriculum Development
Since 1864, when the Tongwen Guan academy was opened, China has selectively appropriated English for her own purposes, studying the language in order to gain access to scientific and technical knowledge. The goal was initially to strengthen the nation to resist foreign encroachment on Chinese soil, but the principal purpose currently is to enable China to operate effectively on the international political and economic stage.
The status and role of English as a school subject in China has fluctuated wildly especially since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, because English has desirable but sensitive connotations. While it is the language of international commerce and communications, it also has historical connotations of imperialism, capitalism and even barbarianism that have proved problematic for the Chinese state seeking to balance economic modernization with the maintenance of geographical, political and cultural integrity.
The principle of synthesis adopted by China to handle these tricky relationships is zhong xue wei ti xi xue wei yong (“study China to extract the cultural essence, study the West for practical techniques”). This principle has been applied to the question of developing an appropriate English Language curriculum for Chinese schools since 1949. The process and outcome of the synthesis has changed according to the contemporary socio-political environment; state priorities for education have shifted over time, and these are reflected in the revisions to the curriculum—particularly the junior secondary school curriculum, where most innovation takes place—that have occurred in 1957, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1966, 1978, 1983, 1993 and 2000. The features of these curricula are summarized in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Features of the English Curriculum in China since 1949 (adapted from Adamson and Morris 1997)
Anecdotes, stories, scientific texts; some politicized texts
Anecdotes, stories; scientific and cultural information
Grammar-translation, Kairov’s Five Steps
Audio-lingualism and grammar-translation
Audio-lingualism and grammar-translation
In the initial period after the victory of the Chinese Communist Party ended the civil war in 1949, English was largely neglected, due to the political ascendancy of the USSR, which was aiding the PRC’s economic development, and to the associated antipathy towards the USA. After 1955, however, English Language was restored to the school curriculum to some extent, as there was
a gradual awareness that the complete rejection of English and other foreign languages was a short-sighted view, and that to communicate in other languages … was absolutely necessary for the progress of the country” (Tang, 1983 p 41).
The curriculum was heavily influenced by Russian approaches to pedagogy and the textbooks had a significant proportion of political texts, especially at times of movements such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Great Leap Forward that took place at the end of the 1950s. In the sixties, the politicization died down, and attention was turned to international affairs and economic progress. There was engagement with pedagogical approaches emerging from the West, such as audiolingualism. Foreign teachers were invited to serve as curriculum consultants alongside Chinese specialists, and the textbooks contained fewer political references.
This period was shortlived. The political turmoil of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution started in 1966, with schools being closed down so that students could take the lead in revolutionary activities, which were often violent and targeted at those with any affiliation with the West—so English Language teachers were particularly vulnerable. The country lurched into a state of near anarchy before a semblance of normality was restored. Following the visit to China by the US President Richard Nixon in 1972, English Language curricula started to appear in some regions. These were all locally produced, as the curriculum development department of the Ministry of Education was disbanded from 1967 until 1977. The textbooks which were published during the Cultural Revolution were heavily politicized, although the series produced in Beijing and Shanghai were more moderate in this respect.
The Cultural Revolution ended with the death of Mao and the arrest of the ruling faction, the “Gang of Four” in 1976. The Ministry of Education was re-established and a new English Language curriculum was rushed out in 1978—indeed the writers were sequestered in a hotel, working 12-15 hours a day for six months to prepare the syllabus and a complete set of textbooks. The new paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, launched the Four Modernizations drive for economic development and instituted the Open Door Policy, which allowed foreign investment in China. Suddenly, English became highly desirable for trade, careers, study and overseas travel. In the 1980s, learning English became a necessity for the ambitious and a hobby for many.
The modernization drive was cranked up a gear in the mid-eighties, and educational reform set goals for nationwide provision of compulsory schooling and decentralisation of educational policy-making (including the preparation of curriculum materials, such as textbooks). These policies are reflected in the 1993 curriculum. The textbooks published by the Ministry of Education were innovative in that they were produced by a joint venture with a Western publisher, Longman International, but at the same time, they faced competition from other publishers. The pedagogy underpinning the 1993 curriculum was an amalgam of functional/notional and structural approaches. Political texts were no longer evident.
The boom in English Language learning continues unabated, with English being a requirement for civil service jobs, university entrance and other facets of life (such as taxi driving). China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and the successful bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games have also boosted the role and status of English. The 2000 curriculum revised the 1993 learning objectives, setting higher standards, and incorporating task-based learning into the intended pedagogy (i.e., the explicit and implicit views of language learning and pedagogy that underpin a syllabus or a series of textbooks).
Characteristics of the English Language Curriculum in China
Emerging from the historical development of the English Language curriculum are a number of trends and characteristic features. These include:
linkage of the English Language curriculum to state goals
selective appropriation of pedagogical approaches;
a structured approach to grammar;
vocabulary as a benchmark of competence;
English Language as a vehicle for moral education; and
an increasingly sophisticated process of curriculum development.
Linkage of the English Language curriculum to state goals
In the 1950s, the English Language curriculum has been linked to state goals to train people as "red" and "expert"—in other words, possessing desirable political and academic attributes. The move in the early sixties towards a stronger emphasis on economic modernization is reflected in the reduction of overtly political elements in the English curriculum. Similarly, since 1978, curriculum innovations have focused on economic and academic goals, and on international understanding through the inclusion of material that focuses on the culture of other countries. In contrast, the decade of the Cultural Revolution was a period of intense and violent political activity that disrupted formal schooling and turned the English Language curriculum into a political propaganda tool.
The linkage is typically expressed in syllabuses:
English is a very widely used language throughout the world. In certain aspects, English is a very important tool: for international class struggle; for economic and trade relationships; for cultural, scientific and technological exchange; and for the development of international friendship. We have to raise Chairman Mao Zedong's glorious flag, and carry out the policies initiated by the Party under Hua Guofeng's leadership, so that by the end of this century, we can achieve the Four Modernisations of industry, science and technology, agriculture and defence and make China a strong socialist country. To uphold the principle of classless internationalism and to carry out Chairman Mao's revolutionary diplomacy effectively, we need to nurture a large amount of "red and expert" people proficient in a foreign language and in different disciplines. That is why we have to strengthen both primary and secondary teaching. (1978 Syllabus)
There is a tentative balance between a political (i.e., socialist) orientation and an economic imperative in the 1978 syllabus, coming as it does at a time when China was in transition from the highly politicized Cultural Revolution (and when future directions for state policy were by no means fixed) and the state was moving towards the modernization drive and Open Door Policy. The 1993 syllabus, on the other hand, sets a much more confident tone in espousing an economic orientation:
A foreign language is an important tool for making contact with other countries and plays an important role in promoting the development of national and world economy, science and culture. For the purpose of meeting the needs of our Open Door Policy and speeding up the socialist modernisations, efforts should be made to enable as many people as possible to acquire certain command of one or more foreign languages.
Chinese educators have been willing to graft foreign ideas (such as Kairov’s pedagogy from the USSR or from other international trends, such as audiolingualism in the sixties, the functional/notional approach in the nineties and, more recently, task-based learning) on to indigenous pedagogy (Figure 2). The choice of ideas was occasional restricted by political circumstances, as during the 1950s when a Soviet model was desirable, but at all times, Chinese curriculum developers have been aware of the need for appropriacy. As the team developing the 1993 curriculum noted:
We should make further researches into all the pedagogic schools, rejecting the dross and assimilating the essence, and make them serve us according to our national conditions.
(People's Education Press, 1989)
Figure 2 Pedagogical Influences on the English Language Curriculum
The End of Soviet Influence
Kairov’s pedagogy from the USSR & traditional Chinese/Western ELT methods (Grammar-Translation/ structural approach)
teacher-centred; focus on accuracy and written language; memorisation; Kairov’s ‘Five Steps’: (review old materials, orient new materials, explain new materials, consolidate newly-learned materials, give assignments)
Towards Quality in Education
traditional Chinese/Western ELT methods (Grammar-Translation/ structural approach) & some modern Western influence (audiolingualism)
variable: traditional Chinese/Western ELT methods (Grammar-Translation/ structural approach) and modern Western influence (audiolingualism)
various: mainly teacher-centred; focus on accuracy and written language; memorisation; some reading aloud and oral practice
Modernization under Deng Xiaoping
traditional Chinese/Western ELT methods (Grammar-Translation/structural approach) and modern Western influence (audiolingualism & Functional/Notional Approach)
oral practice in contextualised situations, memorisation, sentence writing, students’ independent learning, accuracy and written language
Towards the 21st Century
traditional Chinese/Western ELT methods (structural approach) and modern Western influence (audiolingualism, Functional/ Notional Approach and task-based learning)
oral and written practice in contextualised situations, memorisation, sentence writing, students’ independent learning, accuracy and written language
The attraction of the Grammar-Translation Method in the 1950s lay in its resemblance to approaches to learning Chinese as a mother tongue (Dzau, 1990) and the accent on reading skills that meshed well with the state policy of boosting science and technology (through access to Western journals) at a time of relative political isolation. Likewise, audiolingualism incorporated repetitious learning as a strategy that was akin to the most common methods of learning Chinese characters.
Interestingly, the explicit attention to pedagogical quality in curriculum documents dips at times of politicization. Teachers complained bitterly about pilot textbooks produced in 1960 during the Great Leap Forward, finding them unteachable (Adamson, 1998). The textbooks were predominantly political tracts, with little control over linguistic input and very few activities for the students, other than memorizing the passages by heart. While memorization was suited for political indoctrination, the Ministry of Education was reluctant to publish the series without the approval of the teachers—a notable victory for educationalists over politicians.
In times of depoliticisation, there was greater emphasis placed on pedagogy. The increasing focus on communicative competence was a product of greater interaction with Westerners arising from open door policies in the sixties and from the late seventies onwards. The more liberal socio-political climate allowed more opportunities for experimentation in current Western ideas to graft on to indigenous methods and other established pedagogies. Hence the 2000 curriculum proposes an amalgam of audiolingualism, the Functional/ Notional Approach and task-based learning merged with a carefully structured approach to learning grammar and rigid control over vocabulary that are features of established English Language pedagogy in China.
A consistent feature of the English Language curriculum in China is the structured approach to grammar. With minor variations, the sequence of tenses presented in textbooks starts with the present simple tense before covering the future simple, present continuous, past simple and present perfect tenses. This sequence was first advocated in Professor Zhang Daozhong’s ‘A Practical English Grammar’, published in the 1950s. Zhang, in turn, had been influenced by the work of curriculum developers in the Soviet Union at that time.
A linear sequence has been the preference of teachers: when the 1993 textbook series introduced a reiterative approach, the teachers complained that it was “very disorganized” (Wang, 2000).
Vocabulary as a benchmark of competence;
As part of a mass literacy campaign in the fifties, the Chinese government prescribed the number of characters that could be used in mass media publications. Newspapers were limited to 3000 characters. A similar principle has been adopted for the English Language curriculum, with the syllabus defining the number of vocabulary items to be mastered and even, at times, the percentage of correct retention expected. The 1993 curriculum sets out the following targets for vocabulary:
an active oral and written command of around 600-700 frequently used words plus 200 common expressions;
the ability to use the rules of reading to remember the spelling of words;
the ability to identify the meaning and parts of speech of derivatives and compounds;
the ability to identify the meaning and parts of speech of polysemants in context. (1993 syllabus)
The 2000 curriculum increased the first target to 800-900 words (Wang, 2000).
The vocabulary in the various curricula was initially based on the wordlists drawn up by Edward L. Thorndike and Michael West in the first half of the twentieth century. Conscious of China’s specific needs, curriculum developers amended the lists to include relevant cultural, political or economic items. In 1983, Tang Jun, the leader of the curriculum development at the time, drew up the list based on a needs analysis she conducted.
Political messages have waxed and waned in the English Language curriculum over time, but moral education has remained. Moral messages mainly promote a "healthy" lifestyle, such as early rising and studying diligently, or participation in outdoor activities—often inculcating civic responsibility. The moral messages are conveyed through traditional fables (from China or Aesop’s fables), modern stories or everyday anecdotes and dialogues. In the 1983 textbooks, two teenagers exhibit exemplary behaviour by handing in a lost watch to the police and, elsewhere, offer their seats to an old woman. One passage (Book 6 Lesson 8) offers the children advice on social situations, including forming an orderly queue, using a handkerchief, not spitting, standing up when speaking to an older person and not making too much noise in public. It goes on to cover the classroom:
As a student, it is bad manners to come late to class. If you are late, you should make an apology to the teacher either at the time or after class. It is also bad manners to keep silent when the teacher asks you a question. If you do not know the answer, say so immediately. If you do know, answer in a loud enough voice so that all the class may hear. It is polite for the students to help the teacher. Sometimes students can help their teachers to clean the blackboard, to close or open the door or windows. Sometimes there are papers to collect or hand out. This kind of help is always appreciated.
Process of curriculum development
The process of curriculum development has evolved from the work of a small group of writers in 1957 to the complex, pluralistic system that currently operates (Figure 3). In the 1960s, an editorial team was established, including consultants. Drafts of textbooks were piloted in Beijing and Shanghai, and teachers’ feedback received considerable attention. In the 1990s, piloting of textbooks was conducted on a larger scale—in large cities, county towns and villages—and participants were offered opportunities to provide input. Teachers’ suggestions, such as a handbook of blackboard drawings, and facemasks of the main textbook characters, were followed through, and changes to the books were made before general publication.
The English Language curriculum has reflected the vagaries of the socio-political climate in China. The curriculum has served as a mechanism for the state to appropriate English to serve its different aspirations, be they revolutionary activity or economic development. The (often sudden) shifts in state priorities have required curriculum developers to be nimble-footed in ensuring the political correctness of the resources, but within the constraints, they have maintained the principle of selective appropriation of pedagogy and have evolved a system that allows stakeholders a considerable role in helping to make sure that the finished product is teachable at the chalkface in China.
This pluralism has evolved particularly during times when economic priorities have shaped state policies. It will be interesting to observe how the decentralisation of curriculum development affects this pluralistic model. At present, the textbooks produced by the Ministry of Education are used by over 70% of the schools in China, but the increasing competition and the influx of foreign publishing companies are changing the dynamics of the market place. Whether the Ministry can afford the luxury of an elaborate system of curriculum development—even one that is tailored to ensure pedagogical appropriacy—remains to be seen.
References: Adamson, B., and Morris, P. (1997). The English curriculum in China. Comparative Education Review 41/1, 3-26.
Adamson, B. (1998) English in China: the junior secondary school curriculum 1949-94. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Hong Kong.
Dzau Y.F. (1990) Historical background. In Dzau Y.F. (ed.) English in China.Hong Kong: API Press, pp 11-40.
People’s Education Press (1989) Program for the compilation of the English teaching materials for Nine-Year Compulsory Education in the full-time secondary schools. Beijing: People’s Education Press (mimeograph).
Tang Lixing (1983) TEFL in China: Methods and Techniques.Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Languages Press.
Wang Qiang (2000) The National Curriculum Changes and English Language Teaching in the People’s Republic of China. Paper presented at the International Language in Education Conference, University of Hong Kong, 17 December.