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A Week in Beijing

I was recently invited by an Australian-Chinese entrepreneur in Beijing, China, to provide expertise on how best to teach the Chinese to read and speak English.

  • Samuel L. Blumenfeld,
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I was recently invited by an Australian-Chinese entrepreneur in Beijing, China, to provide expertise on how best to teach the Chinese to read and speak English. His company had already put an English phonics program in over a hundred elementary schools, and was interested in a program for adults. He had heard about me (it's a small world!), and thus, before I knew it, I was winging my way to Beijing via Air Canada, which had the best fare.

It took six hours to get from Boston to Vancouver, and ten hours from Vancouver to Beijing. And it was daylight all the way. I had left Boston at 7 a.m. and got to Beijing at mid-afternoon — on the next day, having crossed the date line.

China Today
The Beijing airport is a huge modern structure built of glass, marble, chrome, and steel — an impressive entry to the Chinese capital, fit for the thousands who will arrive for the Olympics in 2008. My suitcase had been checked through from Boston to Beijing. But first I had to pass through border control. While waiting in line I looked up at the People's Republic seal, prominently displayed in red on a huge wall with an electronic board giving instructions in Chinese and English. Some of the English words were misspelled. That happens when the Chinese try to write English without the help of an English speaking person.

My host and a colleague, both of whom spoke perfect English, met me at baggage claim and took me by Jeep Cherokee, to a small, newly built, American-style hotel in Beijing, with all the conveniences you'd find in the States. The ride from the airport alone produced a bit of a shock. In every direction, as far as the eye could see, high-rise apartment buildings were sprouting up like mushrooms. The large number of cars, trucks, and buses on the roads surprised me. This was clearly a boom town, and I could see in an instant why China's rate of economic growth is so high.

That evening I had my first real Chinese meal, buffet style, in a very upscale restaurant. I ate a bit of everything, and it was all quite good. The tastes were a little strange, but then in China they use spices that are not usually found in American Chinese dishes. And so, my first day in China was surprisingly perfect.

Actually, I had been somewhat apprehensive about going to China. I had no idea what to expect. I took Sudafed, Vitamin C, American candy bars, trail mix, and tissues, just in case. But the hotel provided a nice box of tissues. In fact, during that entire week I never felt better physically, my sinuses were remarkably clear, and I slept quite well. I didn't catch a thing and hadn't the slightest hint of indigestion. I did drink bottled water, which many Chinese also drink. The only problem was some slight eye irritation caused by some sort of cleaning disinfectant used by the maid.

Teaching English to the Chinese
My second day in China, I visited my host's office where I had a discussion with his staff. We all agreed that intensive phonics was the best way to teach the Chinese English. The teaching program they were using was an Australian adaptation of Romalda Spalding's reading program, in which children are taught to memorize about 75 English phonograms and a number of spelling rules. This was a six-year program that produced fluent English readers and speakers.

Believe it or not, most schools in China teach English by the whole-word method. Children associate words with pictures. While the children can memorize a good number of words, they cannot advance toward fluency without phonics. We have 600,000 words in English. The Chinese have only 50,000. They have to memorize about 3,000 characters before they can read a newspaper. No easy task.

My host had wanted me to observe how children were taught by the two methods, and so he arranged for me and his translator to visit a large K-6 public school in Beijing. We were greeted by very friendly first-grade teachers and students. The children sat at desks in rows. The teacher was the focus of attention, and she taught everyone the same thing. The children responded beautifully. They were eager and attentive. They enjoyed what they were learning. And judging from their reaction to an American in their classroom, they were happy and delighted by my presence.

Chinese children are quite acquainted with alphabet letters. Many of them wear jackets with American words on their backs. Also, they learn Roman letters when they are taught pinyin, an alphabetic way of writing Chinese words and characters, and they are taught the pinyin spelling of all the characters they learn. Yet, pinyin has not replaced the characters as the way to read in China. If it had, Americans would be able to read Chinese before understanding it.

The children in this first-grade class had started learning English by the Spalding method at the beginning of the semester, had memorized all of the phonograms and spelling rules, and were now learning to read two-syllable words. They learned that every syllable had to have a vowel. The teacher used an overhead projector to write words with an "le" ending, such as lit-tle, ta-ble, ap-ple, mid-dle, etc. They recited the words in unison. And when she questioned individual students, they stood up and answered correctly. It was obvious that after completing this six-year program, these children would be able to read any English word they encountered.

We then sat in back of a fourth-grade class where the teacher was using a whole-word method of teaching English. She held up cards with words, on the back of which were pictures. The words were: fruit, candy, coffee, jacket, bread, juice, milk, animal. The children recited the words in unison as she flashed the cards. Then she called on individual students to identify a word on a card. Most of them got it on the first try. She then put the words in sentences, such as: I like jacket. I like animal. I don't like jacket. The teacher, not being herself fluent in English, did not realize that the sentences required articles or plurals, which do not exist in Chinese. Obviously, this method would seriously limit how many words the children could learn in English.

My host had been trying to convince the curriculum makers to use the phonics method. But the whole-word method was quite entrenched in Chinese schools, and it was an uphill battle to get phonics into these schools.

During the exercise break, I was able to watch from a second story window a school yard full of students, about 500, go through their exercise movements to music. It was quite a sight as all the students performed a rather complex set of movements using arms, legs, and bodies. I asked my Chinese translator how many of these children were on Ritalin. What was Ritalin, he asked. Apparently he had never heard of Ritalin or ADD or ADHD. The idea of drugging children so that they could learn seemed completely incomprehensible to him.

The next morning we drove to Tangshan, a city some two hours away by car from Beijing, to visit a school where I could observe children learning to read English by phonics, and also to see how children were taught to read Chinese. The first was a third-grade class of 43 students taught by a young male teacher. He was quite competent, but his accent was too Chinese. The Spalding phonograms were posted on the wall.

The second phonics class was conducted by a female teacher who taught the children that "big" was pronounced "beeg." Yet she was able to pronounce "him," with a short "i", correctly. What was obviously needed were teachers of English from English-speaking countries. But then how many of them would be able to speak Chinese?

I was curious to find out how Chinese children were taught to read their own language. So we were able to sit in the back of a first-grade class and observe. The teacher first taught the children to recite a short poem in Chinese. Then she began to teach each character, or word, separately, using the board to write the character with its pinyin spelling over it so that they could read the word in its two forms. Each character represented a one-syllable word: gu, xing, zuo, shi, tai. She then taught the word meanings.

Since I did not see much of pinyin writing in newspapers or signs, I wondered why it was so underused. Why weren't books written in pinyin instead of characters? The answer is probably that character writing is such an old tradition in China and so much a part of the culture that changing over to an entirely Romanized writing system would encounter great resistance. The characters are instantly recognizable as meanings, while pinyin requires a sounding out process before meaning is extracted.

The ride to and from Tangshan was on a super highway, much like an American interstate, with toll-booths and an occasional gas station. The highway signs were in Chinese and English. The passing lane is known as the "Overtaking lane," the travel lanes are "Carriage Ways," and the breakdown lane is "Parking Lane No Driving" or "Emergency Parking Strip." There were other quaint signs: "Rear Collision Lane," "Keep Space," "Do Not Drive Tiredly," "Subsidence Section Slow Down," "The Subsidence Was Not."

On Saturday, my hosts took me to the Great Wall at Badaling, one of the entry points to the wall. Located some 50 kilometers from Beijing, the place was bustling with cars and tourist buses, souvenir stalls, restaurants, and inns. We had lunch at a Kentucky Fried Chicken place before making the climb. It was a sunny but windy day, and quite cold, but I and my companions were able to make it up the wall for about a fifth of a mile. It's a tough uphill climb, but the view is spectacular.

So what do I think of China now that I've been to Beijing for a week? I enjoyed myself immensely. I did not see any trappings of a police state. No soldiers. No guards. Complete freedom of movement for motorists. Virtually no symbols of communist rule anywhere except on large government buildings near Tiananmen Square. Beijing is becoming Americanized, with McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Sprite, Crest toothpaste, Johnson & Johnson Baby Soap, Motorola, Buick. Even Cosmo has a Chinese edition.

I watched 65 channels of television in my hotel room. You see everything except political debate. Lots of young, well-groomed newscasters reporting the news straight without propaganda. There is even one channel completely in English. English has become the second language in China because it is the international language of business and commerce. Capitalism has replaced communist ideology with a vengeance. The government calls it market socialism, but you don't see much socialism. Of course, I was only in two cities and for only one week.

There is a philosophical vacuum there, waiting to be filled by something. The American fast food restaurants project a philosophy of cleanliness and wholesomeness. The service is with a smile, the food is good, and the average Chinese loves it. But it is hardly enough. It is the young people who will make China's future. But one thing is certain, the Chinese leadership is determined to make China into the world's biggest consumer economy. That is why they wanted entry into the World Trade Organization. Considering the turmoil in the Middle East, the terror scare in the United States and Europe, Beijing is a surprising oasis of peace and safety.

China is undergoing a new cultural revolution in which economic freedom is a major force. With Americanization taking place, it is hard to believe that there can possibly be a war between our two countries. With the new younger generation brought up in the spirit of enterprise and openness to Western culture, one can only hope that it will change the political system as easily as it is changing its culture.

  • Samuel L. Blumenfeld

Samuel L. Blumenfeld (1927–2015), a former Chalcedon staffer, authored a number of books on education, including NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education,  How to Tutor, Alpha-Phonics: A Primer for Beginning Readers, and Homeschooling: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children

He spent much of his career investigating the decline in American literacy, the reasons for the high rate of learning disabilities in American children, the reasons behind the American educational establishment’s support for sex and drug education, and the school system's refusal to use either intensive phonics in reading instruction and memorization in mathematics instruction.  He lectured extensively in the U.S. and abroad and was internationally recognized as an expert in intensive, systematic phonics.  His writings appeared in such diverse publications as Home School DigestReasonEducation Digest, Boston Magazine, Vital Speeches of the DayPractical Homeschooling, Esquire, and many others.

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