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Problems and strategies of teaching English in large classes in the People's Republic of China

Zhichang Xu
Visiting Fellow, School of Languages and Intercultural Education,
Curtin University of Technology
and Applied Linguistics,
Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics

I. The present situation

Since the late 1970s, there has emerged a "boom" of learning English in China primarily due to its "open door" policies. This has been challenging the ELT profession in China. At tertiary level, there has always been a great need for both qualified non-native and native English teachers. Historically, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) has virtually brought about a "fault zone" of intellectuals in many academic fields in China. On the other hand, a considerable part of those who were trained as English teachers in the late 70s and early 80s have either "gone abroad" or "plunged into the sea" (engaging themselves in business, trade, administration or management) - two other "booms" that have arisen since China's opening to the outside world.

However, the number of English learners in China has not dropped accordingly, instead, it has gone up at an overwhelming speed in the last two decades. Over 90 percent of all the college students are taking English as a compulsory course. Most of the students have to meet the minimum requirement of passing the nation-wide College English Test Band 4 (CET4) to be bachelor degree holders; many of them need to have sufficient knowledge of English to search through the literature and the latest developments in their academic fields; and some of them intend to further their studies in an advanced English speaking country, or to find a job in a joint venture, or a foreign funded international company upon their graduation. Therefore, college students tend to be learning English in large classes, where they "sit in straight rows facing the teacher, the teacher does most of the talking, and where students and teacher share a common first language, the talking tends not to be in English." (Parry, 1998)

There used to be much resistance to the teaching of English in large classes in most of the Chinese universities. Many universities would take many other measures rather than enlarging the class size. They would try to increase the workload of their existing staff (from 12 hours to 16 or 20 hours per week); to recruit part time English teachers through various channels; or to arrange the postgraduate students majoring in English or linguistics to teach 4 to 8 hours per week. However, these measures bring with them some management problems and to some extent they result in an unstable teaching quality. Under such circumstances, some universities experimented on enlarging the English class size. Take Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA) for example, since 1994 students from some departments and schools have been learning English in both large and small classes. However, is enlarging the class size a valid solution to the shortage of personnel and material resources? What problems are associated with the teaching of English in large classes? What strategies can the teachers in large classes adopt to cope with these problems? Apart from the many commonly held disadvantages, are there any advantages of teaching English in large classes in Chinese universities?

II. Teaching English in large classes

2.1 The definition of a "large class"

People have varying opinions on how "large" the number of students should be in a so called "large class". "There can be no quantitative definition of what constitutes a "large" class, as perceptions of this will vary from context to context." (Hayes, 1997) Some people hold that 50 would be large enough for a college English class; others would argue that a large English class could have as many as over 100 or even 150 students. However, most English teachers generally agree that a language class with 50-60 or more is "large" enough. In this paper, a "large class" refers to a college English class with the number of students ranging from 60 to 150.

2.2 Attitudes towards teaching English in large classes

"The issues raised by teaching in large classes are rarely addressed ... Those teachers - and they are numerous - who have to cope with classes that contain 50 or more learners are therefore often ill-prepared to deal with the situation in which they find themselves in schools." (Hayes, 1999) Most English teachers tend to view teaching English in large classes rather negatively. They often associate large English classes with disorderliness, lack of control, lack of students' attentiveness, lack of teacher-student interactions, and therefore, lack in efficiency and effectiveness.

Kennedy and Kennedy (1996) wrote in their article Teacher Attitudes and Change Implementation that "what worries her (a Greek language teacher), however, is the size of the class since she believes that as soon as the number of groups passes a certain number, it is difficult to 'control what happens'." Phil Wankat (in Felder 1997) went even further by saying that "anything you can do in a large class you can do better in a small one".

However, not all English teachers think that class size matters. Such teachers would say that good teaching is good teaching: what holds true for small classes also holds true for large ones. Richard M. Felder(1997) holds that "there are ways to make large classes almost as effective as their smaller counterparts." Recent research shows (Kickbusch, 2000) that "Reductions in class size to less than 20 students without changes in instructional methods cannot guarantee improved academic achievement." and that "class size appears to have more influence on student attitudes, attention, interest, and motivation than on academic achievement." In reality, it is not very uncommon that some teachers enjoy teaching in large classes, and they feel that if proper strategies are adopted and the classes are well-organised, they may have a greater sense of achievement. As Felder (1997) stated that "the instructor's satisfaction may be even greater in the large classes: after all, many professors can teach 15 students effectively, but when you do it with 100 or more you know you've really accomplished something."

2.3 Problems commonly perceived with the teaching of English in large classes

The problems associated with teaching in large classes can be physical, psychological and technical. The teachers in large classes may feel physically weary; they may unawarely speak louder and move more often or longer distances than they do in small classes etc. Psychologically, some teachers feel it intimidating to face a large "crowd" of students, especially when they don't have much idea who their students are and what their students are expecting from them. To the teachers in large classes, students are not "people" but "faces". Technically, teachers have to be capable of using microphones and OHPs properly to make their students hear and see clearly. Inadequate use of such classroom equipment may lead to the lack of interest and involvement of the students in the classroom learning. Other problems such as monitoring attendance and checking assignments are also constantly worrying many teachers involved in large class teaching.

Hayes (1997) summarised the problems with teaching in large classes as the following:

Discomfort: Many teachers are worried by the physical constraints imposed by large numbers in confined classrooms. They feel unable to promote student interaction, since there is no room to move about. Some teachers also feel that teaching in large classes is physically very wearing.

Control: Teachers are often worried by the discipline aspects of large classes. They feel they are unable to control what is happening, and that the classes become too noisy.

Individual attention: Many teachers are concerned that they are neglecting the needs of their students as individuals.

Evaluation: Teachers feel a responsibility for checking all of their students' work, and are worried if they cannot do so.

Learning effectiveness: All teachers want their students to learn English. They are understandably worried if they don't know who is learning what.

However, problems such as these are not impossible to be solved, or at least partially. In fact, what the teachers perceive as problems associated with large classes sometimes may not be so problematic to the students. The following questionnaire shows what the students who are learning English both in large and small classes think about the large classes.

III. The questionnaire

A questionnaire was conducted among the second-year college students at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1997. About 380 students who were learning English as a compulsory course four hours a week ( two hours of reading and writing in large classes; and two hours of listening and speaking in small classes) were asked to make comments on the advantages and disadvantages of learning English in large classes (compared with those in small classes). The following are some negative and positive responses summarised along with some typical students' comments.

3.1 Negative responses

3.1.1Individual students feel they can't draw enough attention from the teacher, and they feel it unlikely to be asked to stand up and answer a question; therefore they tend to be more relaxed than they should be and less attentive to the teacher.
  • I don't have any stress learning in large classes, and consequently I don't preview the lesson before the class.
  • Even if I sleep in the large class, the teacher won't care about me.
  • In the large class, it seems that learning has nothing to do with me.
  • In the large class, I feel neglected; while in the small class I feel my existence.
  • In large classes, I keep losing my attention, therefore I tend to learn less.
  • I am too relaxed in the large class. I can't discipline myself.
  • I used to be much attended in the classroom by the teacher when I was in high school. Therefore, I am not used to learning in the large classes.
3.1.2Students feel they can't have two way communication with the teacher; and that they rarely have chances to practice what they've been learning.
  • There are rarely any chances for me to express myself in the large class.
  • There are many students in the large class, thus the student-teacher contact is little (if there is any). I dare not ask any question in the large class.
  • There aren't many chances to practice what we are learning.
  • The students and the teacher in the large class are emotionally distant.
  • In the large English class, the teacher nearly asks no questions, so we listen to the teacher like a group of fools.
3.1.3Some students feel uneasy if they can't be the "early birds" for the seats in the few front rows of the classroom.
  • "Fighting" for the front row seats is hard. Although there are loudspeakers in the classroom, I still think it is good to have a front row seat.
  • If I come to the classroom late, I have to sit at the back of the classroom. I can't see clearly the words on the board.
3.1.4Some students feel uncomfortable with the "air pollution" of the classroom.
  • I feel uncomfortable learning in the large class. It is too crowded.
  • After sitting in the classroom with so many classmates for two hours, I am desperate for some fresh air.

3.2 Positive responses

Despite the many problems with learning English in large classes, about 77.1% of the respondents to the questionnaire stated that the differences of learning English in large and small classes are not significant. Typical comments are, "There isn't much difference. So long as I can hear and see clearly, I don't care how many people are sitting around me and who they are." "In a word, the atmosphere in the large class is like a symphony, and that in the small class is like a serenade." "If a person really likes English, place and time will all be no problem."

3.2.1The learning environment of the large class is "safe" and "relaxing".
  • In the large class, students are very active, but in the small class, everyone keeps silent.
  • I feel relaxed in the large class. I have nothing to fear about.
  • In the large class, I have my own time and space to think about what I am learning.
  • I can't learn very well when I am under the pressure of being asked by the teacher to answer any questions. In the large class, I feel I am learning in a safe environment, and therefore, I can focus on the learning.
  • In the large class, every time a question is raised by the teacher, there are always some students who can come up with some answers. I can compare and think about the answers.
  • In the large class, we can quietly listen to what the teacher says and put them into our hearts.
  • There is some freedom in the large class. If I have already known what the teacher is teaching, I can preview what's to be taught or do something more useful.
3.2.2There is a sense of competition in the large class.
  • The atmosphere in the large class is relatively better and more lively. Students from different small classes are secretly competing with one another, which enhances learning.
  • When I see so many students studying English hard in the same class, I also have to study hard.
  • I can always learn not only from the teacher, but also from my classmates. I can see clearly the distance between me and others, which makes me work harder.
  • Because we are learning with the students from other departments, our sense of competition is strengthened. We feel that we can't afford to lose or to be left behind.
  • Large class ... brings us into an atmosphere of competition.
3.2.3Learning in a large class in an interesting and novel experience.
  • The lively atmosphere in the large class can stimulate my learning. I've never been learning in a large class. It's interesting to me, especially when the teacher talks through the microphone, I can hear clearly.
  • In high school, students seldom have a large English class. They often have the small one. So I think not only me but also quite a few of my classmates are tired of having small English classes. To me, it's a wonderful thing that even one hundred students sit together and learn English in a very thick English studying climate.
3.2.4Learning in a large class helps students to make more friends.
  • It (large class) helps me make many friends from other departments.
  • In the large class, I get to know more people and it is more likely for me to know people who share my interests and hobbies.

IV The rationality of large class English teaching in Chinese universities

David (1997) holds that "Given that class size is most unlikely to be reduced in the foreseeable future, teachers need to come to terms with their problem". Allright (1989) argues that "class size may not be the problem many teachers think it to be." In addition, Littlewood (1998) classifies English learning students in Southeast Asia into two categories: collectivism and individualism. His research shows that "people in East Asian countries have emerged as showing a much stronger collectivist orientation than people in Western countries." Therefore, Littlewood concludes that "1. East Asian students will have a strong inclination to form in groups which work towards common goals. 2. In the open classroom, East Asian students will be reluctant to 'stand out' by expressing their views or raising questions. 3. East Asian students will perceive the teacher as an authority figure whose superior knowledge and control over classroom learning events should not be questioned. 4. East Asian students will see knowledge as something to be transmitted by the teacher rather than discovered by the learners. They will therefore find it normal to engage in modes of learning which are teacher centred and in which they receive knowledge rather than interpret it."

If such characteristics of the Chinese students as in group inclination, reluctance to 'stand out', teacher authority and teacher centredness are true, then it seems class size does not matter much to Chinese students. As Jin and Cotazzi (1998) argued that "... learning in large classes in China needs to be understood not only in terms of patterns of ... interaction, but also in terms of underlying cultural values." In other words, Chinese students may not, to some extent, feel learning in large classes uncomfortable because large classes seem to suit their cultural characteristics more than small classes do.

V. Coping with the teaching of English in large classes

5.1 Make the best use of the manpower saved from large class teaching

Teaching in large classes can minimise a lot of human resources. Take the foreign languages department of BUAA for example, if English were being taught all in small classes (25-45 students), then the average teaching hours per person per week would be 16; however, teaching in large classes actually makes it 10.5 hours per person per week. With the extra time, teachers can look more into their teaching materials and methodologies and can have more chances to collaborate with their colleagues or observe them teach. In fact, careful and thorough planning of a lesson is the first step to the effective teaching in large classes.

5.2 Bring the teacher authority into full play and teach not only knowledge but also learning methods.

Since Chinese students tend to obey the teachers, and wait until they are being asked even in small classes, the teachers of large classes should make their teaching more of a lecture based or transmission style. In large classes, the teaching of knowledge is as important as the teaching of learning methods. Most teachers agree that telling the students how to fish is more important than merely giving them some fish, no matter how many fish they can give their students.

5.3 Collaborate with the students and build up a good learning atmosphere in large classes

According to the above questionnaire, many students value the "safe" learning atmosphere in large classes. Therefore, teachers of large classes should take advantage of this, and build up a collaborative and lively learning atmosphere. In a survey by Senior (1997), many teachers held that a good language class has an atmosphere of "a feeling of warmth", "mutual support", "an absence of fear", "a safe environment", "a feeling of comfort", "mutual respect", "people mindful of other people's abilities and limitations", "a feeling of cooperation", "a feeling of relaxation", "a feeling of trust" and "rapport between class members" etc. Senior further commented that "Surprisingly, the teachers ... seldom identified classes of quiet, compliant, hardworking students as good classes. Rather, they judged the quality of their classes according to how far the students cooperated with each other to form single, unified, classroom groups. They clearly perceived that any class with a positive whole group atmosphere was 'good', whereas any class which lacked a spirit of group cohesion was unsatisfactory, even if it was composed of high achieving students."

5.4 Take advantage of the "size" of the large classes

The teaching practice and experience of many who have ever been teaching in large classes show that it is not only possible to build up a good learning atmosphere in large classes, but also feasible to take advantage of the large class size.

5.4.1The more students, the more ideas, and the more lively a class can be

The warming up period of a lesson in large classes can be very important. At this stage, the teacher can assign a number of students to write down a few sayings or proverbs on the board well before the class begins. The teacher then starts the lesson by explaining or giving a few remarks on the sayings or proverbs. The teacher can also make the students write down short poems of their own, which can better attract the attention of the large class. As Yang (1999) put is, "These warm up activities motivate students. Not only do they arouse students' interests and associations with the texts, but they also improve their thinking skills. No sooner has the class begun than the students become involved in these creative activities, which in turn foster a positive learning environment."

5.4.2The more students, the more interrelated and the more unified the class can be

There are many ways to make a large class unified and cohesive. For example: when Christmas is approaching, the teacher may ask the students to prepare a card with Christmas and New Year wishes to an unknown person in the large class. During the class, all the cards can be collected and randomly redistributed to the students by a "Christmas Father". When all the cards are being opened, the whole class is in an atmosphere of surprise and good wishes. The teacher then may ask the students to "track down" the senders of the cards after class. Such like activities can make the whole class interrelated and rather lively.

5.4.3The more students, the more competitive, and the more positively motivated the class can be

In the limited times of the students' being asked questions, only those few excellent students may always volunteer to answer them. However, these students set good examples to the other students. Although most students may not have chances to answer the questions, they may compare their answers with the ones given by others. In a large class, the competitiveness is everywhere, especially when the class is composed of students from different small classes or different departments or schools. This competitiveness, if manipulated properly, can be turned into motivation.

5.5 Communicate, discuss and share regularly the classroom management techniques with other teachers who are involved in large class teaching

Touba (1999) held that, "The teachers' skill in classroom management is the primary ingredient for success with group work in large classes." Many teachers who are teaching in large classes may come up with a few tips on the skills in classroom management. For example, teachers of large classes may come into the classroom a bit earlier and chat with a few students; they may move around the classroom while giving the lecture or move towards one or two students and tell the whole class what they have just talked about; they may also stay briefly in the classroom after the lesson to make themselves approachable, accessible and available. The more skills shared by the teachers, the more likely it would be for these teachers to apply them to their classroom management. They will automatically adopt those that work, and drop them if they don't.

VI. Conclusions

Teaching English in large classes is presently still not being preferred by most teachers. In other words, many teachers choose not to, but have to teach in large classes, because they take it for granted that many problems arise along with the increase in class size. However, from the literature of teaching in large classes and from the questionnaire and the teaching practice of the present author, there does exist rationality in the teaching in large classes. On the one hand, teaching in large classes can reasonably save human and material resources to ease the problems caused by the lack of teaching staff and equipment and classrooms etc. On the other hand, many renovations in teaching methodologies can be applied to large classes teaching just as well as to small classes. The large size of a class should not be an excuse of not improving on the traditional methods or not trying various other methods apart from the traditional ones. In fact, not all students, including teachers in China are against the learning and teaching in large classes. So long as the teachers know the characteristics of the teaching in large classes, and adjust what and how they teach accordingly, they can make their teaching just as effective.


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Littlewood, W. (1998). Defining and developing autonomy in East Asian contexts. Applied Linguistics, 20(1), 71-94.

Parry, K. and Su Xiaojun (Ed) (1998). Culture, Literacy, and Learning English: Voices from the Chinese Classroom. Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc. Portsmouth, NH.

Senior, R. (1997). Transforming language classes into bonded groups. ELT Journal, 51(1). Oxford University Press.

Touba, N. (1999). Large classes: Using groups and content. English Teaching Forum, 37(3), Jul-Sep.

Yang Mingguang (1999). Warm up activities. English Teaching Forum, 37(3), Jul-Sep.

Author: Zhichang Xu is an Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the School of Languages and Intercultural Education of Curtin University of Technology.

Address: SOLIE, Curtin GPO Box U1987
Perth Western Australia 6845
Tel: +61 8 9266 3137 Fax: +61 8 9266 3186
Email: xuz@spectrum.curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Xu, Z. (2001). Problems and strategies of teaching English in large classes in the People's Republic of China. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/xu.html

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