ANNUAL CONFERENCE 2021 – Q&A with Yi Zhang & Fu Xiong

This year we have two separate workshops both centred on student engagement, to be delivered by Yi Zhang and Fu Xiong. Yi Zhang will focus her workshop on effective strategies that can be used to create memorable learning experiences, and Fu Xiong will discuss the role of the target language in developing language skills. Yi Zhang and Fu Xiong have kindly spoken to us about their upcoming workshops for our Annual Conference blogpost series.

Yi Zhang, Teacher of Mandarin.

‘For me, teaching Mandarin is incredibly rewarding, as it is possible to impart knowledge and passion to my students. It makes me feel worthy seeing students’ progress and achieve success and that I have made a difference. What I love most are the moments when students’ eyes sparkle with desire to learn and to explore’.

Fu Xiong, Teacher of Mandarin.

‘My career in teaching began in Southeast China teaching English to secondary school students. After immigrating to the UK and gaining a PGCE in Secondary Education from the University of Hull, I began teaching at a private girls’ school in London, where I continue to work today, in a department with an excellent track record with some of the best GCSE and A-level exam results. In recent years I have worked as an examiner for Pearson, and I completed an MA in Education at King’s College London. My interests are learning languages and travelling, playing the piano and blog writing.’

Q: Hi Yi and Fu, please give us a brief introduction to your workshops.

Yi:  My workshop is an invitation to like-minded colleagues who also love to explore creative and fun ways to design and deliver student-centred and contextualised active Mandarin learning experiences that integrates different skills. I am hoping to “throw a brick to get a gem”(抛砖引玉) with this workshop, and inspire others through the collective power of creativity.

Fu: My workshop will examine how students can be inspired to use daily target language and how to make using the target language more manageable for both teachers and pupils. In addition, given that there are limited listening resources available, I will discuss how to produce tailor-made listening materials to help students improve this neglected skill while keeping workload manageable for teachers, as well as reducing students’ anxiety when doing listening activities.

Q: What inspired you to choose your respective workshop presentation topics?

Yi: “Mad” has multiple meanings; one possible explanation is to be passionate at something. On one hand, as a teacher, one of my all-time targets is to ignite students’ curiosity, passion and love of Mandarin, so that they become the owners of their own learning.  On the other hand, being “mad” at bringing most creative ideas and making the student learning experience memorable has always been an expectation set for myself. I would like to share my passion and “madness” about Mandarin teaching with colleagues.

When I started my teaching journey, I taught students across primary to sixth form. Time was limited, and I wanted to give every student the best learning experience, no matter what stage they were at. I asked myself:  How can I maximize the use of resources and integrate different skills? How can I make learning more student-centered? How can I turn it into active learning? With these questions in mind, I have thus developed my own way of lesson preparation and sequencing.

Fu: As a language teacher, I have always thought about creating and implementing an immersive language environment by maximising target language usage in my class, and making learning as fun and motivating as possible, instead of being exam driven. This has been a gradual process, and I have made it more tangible over time by adding practical-based learning as my knowledge of how to implement a target language-based classroom has grown. My Master’s course at King’s College London provided me with theoretical knowledge from which I have gained a deeper understanding of the importance of encouraging students to speak target language in class.

Q: What are some key student engagement strategies in language learning?

Yi:  For me, active learning is my key strategy. I just cannot stand teaching a lesson with no interaction in which students learn passively. I seek to plan my lessons in a way that students are actively listening, reading, speaking and writing for a meaningful purpose, and that there is always something new or fun. I like to give context to my activities, and make them relevant to my students, by allowing students space for creativity and imagination whenever possible. I endeavour to make my lessons student-centered and frequently use student input as resources of learning for all. For me, it’s important that students are actively involved in the learning journey and that they provide feedback so I can adjust my teaching to best suit their needs.

To make this happen, behaviour management and giving clear instructions are equally important. To allow any creativity in class, you need students to be on your side, be interested and follow instructions. Creative projects without clear instructions and success criteria are disasters. Peer evaluation is also a very useful tool to increase student engagement, especially when it is embedded in the activities.

Moreover, for any lesson, the first 5 minutes matter. I have learnt and personally experienced how important it is to engage students in the first 5 minutes of the lesson—it is essential to set the tone of the lesson right from the beginning.

Fu: Developing positive relationships with learners has been key. Being consistent and providing sufficient and equitable support and encouragement has been essential for building trust and enabling learners to explore the language in an immersive way.

Q: How can teachers create a memorable learning experience for their students?

Yi:  Before answering this question, I think we should firstly ask ourselves: what kind of lessons do I enjoy as a learner? And then compare and reflect: have I used some of the elements that I enjoy as a learner in my own teaching? Putting ourselves in students’ shoes probably would give us a better idea.

Knowing your students and their needs and preferences, and building a bond is a good starting point. I have also found that creating relevant memorable learning experiences that are related to real-world problems, encourage collaborative learning and develop thinking, analytical and evaluating skills are very important.

Q: How can teachers encourage students to communicate in the target language?

Fu: Classroom culture is important. In language learning teachers understand that there will be mistakes. This needs to be communicated to learners that mistake will happen and that one mistake shouldn’t hold back the whole sentence being communicated.

There are many ways to encourage students and develop the classroom culture. Sometimes a simple smile can do wonders. I have created a very simple, yet effective reward chart which is easy to implement and which the students enjoy. This chart is designed to avoid any unnecessary disruption and to sustain students’ motivation.

Also, I think it is important to provide students with substantial support, such as materials, thinking time, and creating opportunities for them to consolidate the knowledge that they are learning.

Q: How does student engagement impact learning?

Yi:  Students learn best when they are engaged and taking responsibility for their own learning. It makes a huge difference when they are engaged and when they are not. When students are actively engaged, they pay attention and stay focused for longer, and they are more likely to be motived to challenge themselves, and therefore have a positive impact on their learning and achievement.

Q: What challenges have you faced with student engagement during lockdown and how were these overcome?

Yi:  The biggest challenge that I have faced with student engagement during lockdown was to encourage full participation in online learning. We had a blend of video lessons and live lessons. I made video lessons and tried to make the recordings as interactive as possible, as if I was teaching students in real time. During live lessons, I tried to make my lessons as interactive as possible and encourage real time feedback through various online tools, using Teams emoji and chat functions. I also gave students opportunities to do fun projects which had enormous success that I was not expecting.

Fu:  It is very difficult to deliver lessons online in the learners’ native language, let alone in a language with which they are less familiar. With reduced timetabling and technical issues, using the target language becomes more challenging. But there are also potential benefits, as I do feel that some less confident students perform better in terms of using the target language online, as they do not feel as closely observed by their peers and they can have ready access to online tools to assist them.

To maximise the possibilities of my students’ target language usage online, I have used various useful online tools during lockdown. For example, I have used the online game platform Gimkit to encourage group discussion in Chinese. One of the games is called Trust no one. It provides opportunities for students to pause the game and to discuss who the imposters are in this game in Chinese. It was great fun. My students were keen to find who the imposters were. To ensure they conversed in the target language, I offered basic translations for key vocabulary, and made the rules abundantly clear that they must discuss in Chinese.


To book your ticket for the Annual Chinese Teaching Conference 2021, please click here.