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English First – Tangshan China

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The Importance of Grading / Gauging

For those of us who have taught English as a second language in a country where there might not be an official second language, the ability to effectively gauge, grade and contextualize language is absolutely paramount, when we consider that in China each age group may not have a set standard of second language ability. Getting a sense of how we should speak in order to teach effectively and also have the students understand not just what they are learning but also all the directive and incidental language which is used by teachers each and every lesson, is not something that is necessarily an easy or natural thing for us to do.

Why Choose China to Teach in?

How to grade your language as an ESL teacher - photo 7China is a wonderful place to live and teach. Its rich and ancient culture is to be in awe of. It is the fastest developing nation in the world and the world’s second largest economy. With the mix of new and old everywhere we as tourists can experience the sights and sounds of an old and wise culture along side with the modern conveniences we all enjoy from any technologically advanced western equivalent, so the best of both worlds. This makes living and working in China not such a daunting proposition.

Having said that, China is a country of international advancement but still does not have an official second international language (eg English, French or Spanish etc.). While this is the case China has embraced to an extent English as a pseudo second language, but as a result the mean English levels on an age base changes considerably from city to city and province to province, resulting in quite a random experience for Teachers of English as a Second Language throughout the country. Something that only either quick learning on your feet or a lot of well directed Teacher training can remedy.


So here are some guides to help us understand what is language gauging, grading and contextualizing and understand why this occurs. The points of consideration are:

1. What to expect from your students?

How to grade your language as an ESL teacher - photo 10The false sense of fluency. When a new teacher arrives off the plane and then into the classroom perhaps fresh out of TEFL school the first thing that hits them is how well the students can greet them and how good their English is, but soon after a sense of disappointment when they realize that this is not the case. Language is taught in little groups or (chunks) of vocabulary and grammar.

While a student will feel comfortable using the language they have learned and can apply it quite fluent sounding, anything outside of their learned language group is completely not understood. So while a student may be able to talk quite confidently about how they feel that day (“I’m fine thank you, and you?”), as soon as you ask them “why” they may freeze and stare quite blankly at you and whisper out of the side of their mouth to their friend “ting bu dong” at the same time as their friend is smiling widely and nodding yes at you. At this point you should understand that you have used language forms out of the student’s knowledge base and they have no way to understand you.

When first learning another language, teachers teach and student’s learn very set language forms and functions in very sequential grouping types: numbers, colours, family, things at home, greetings, feelings etc etc, along with well established practical phrasal forms “what’s your name?”, “my name’s___.” So the first thing a teacher should endeavor to do is to discover what the students actually know and pitch and direct their language accordingly. As a student’s language base grows, so will the complexity in which a teacher can communicate with them. A teacher’s job is to facilitate a student’s growth and development, something they should take seriously and at the same time have fun doing with a sense of pride of their student’s achievements.

2. Student’s Listening Skills

Listening skills, scanning skills and the voice emphasis for teachers. Listening skills are probably the most challenging of all of the language acquisition skills out of (reading, writing, listening, speaking). This is partly because (particularly new students) of the unfamiliar sounds of the new language. When listening to a new sentence, for example a student will hear ”Blah Blah Blah red ball Blah Blah I like Blah Blah mum and dad Blah Blah park”, now while listening to the sentence the student will be listening for what they can actually understand, tune out what they don’t and then try to put meaning to sentence though reasoning skills, this is called scanning. They are scanning for what they can understand and then apply natural deductive reasoning to interpret meaning from.

The way a teacher can help this process in the language learning process is to use voice emphasis which is the use of over emphasizing the parts of the sentence which the teacher wants the student to understand. So with the sentence example above the student hears: ”Blah Blah Blah red ball Blah Blah I like Blah Blah mum and dad Blah Blah park” so the teacher changes the volume and pitch of their voice to bring attention to what they want the student to hear specifically, so the student should hear: _______/^^^^^^\ ___/^^^^^^\_____/^^^^. (__is low emphasis) and (^^^is high emphasis). This method helps guide the student’s listening skill and promotes increased overall understanding. While some academics say this may not be a good representation of true native natural speaking, others like myself use this for what it is, a tool to help teach, especially lower level students.

3. Use Classroom Language

How to grade your language as an ESL teacher - photo 1Incidental and directive language. Incidental language is language that we don’t necessarily teach as part of our curriculum but we would use it in most of our classes, for example “Jack, could you turn the lights off please but leave the dim light on?” something you wouldn’t teach but would use as practical language. Incidental language is good for improving everyday talk and helps with a natural sounding class, however this can backfire on a teacher who changes their incidental language each lesson, the teacher must be very deliberate in their use of this kind of language and it should be repeatable and repeated for it to be effective in the classroom.

Directive language is the practical language or (classroom language) that all teachers need to use to run a class, for example “Stand up, close your books, open your books to page 45 “, etc. This language is imperative to the smooth running of a class and helps prevent teachers from doing absolutely everything for the students in the class. To do this a teacher needs to make all of the directive language repeated and standardized so not to confuse the students, so it is ill advised to use different directive language each week (get up, stand up, up, could you all please get out of your seats and move into the upright position) pick one and stick to it. When students have a good grasp of this, they would be close to the stage where a local teaching assistant is superfluous and you should be teaching without help.

While having a local teaching assistant is very helpful, it can also be a crutch for teachers who use direct translation as a big part of their lessons. It slows down the immersion process and the students listening skill progress and in some cases is like spoon feeding the students to the point where they tune out the English part of the lesson.

As educators abroad we pride ourselves on the fact that we play an important role for our students as well as reminding our friends and family that we have an interesting and enjoyable job and live in an incredible part of the world where we get to do and see new and wonderful things every day. But we do need to develop and update our professionalism and teaching skills all the time to keep ahead of the game. The bigger our tool belt is the easier our jobs are and the easier our job is the more intrinsic effort we put into it.

In part 2 of this article we will talk about the following:

4. How to pitch language at the right level.
5. Body language to fill in the gaps.
6. Grading language context for intermediate and advanced students.

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English First – Tangshan China

This school is holding interviews for teaching jobs now, apply today!
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