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Millions in China learning English the U of A way

Education professors design oral-based curriculum
by Geoff McMaster

As you read this, millions of children in China's Hebei province are learning to speak English faster than ever before. That's because they've adopted a new ESL (English as a second language) program designed by professors in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta.

Located immediately south of Beijing, Hebei province has a population of 64 million people with about 12 million in Grades I to 12. A few years ago the province decided to overhaul the school curriculum to be more student-centred and activity-based, and officials began looking beyond their horders for expertise.

It wasn't long before they found, through a network of diplomatic connections, U of A Education faculty members Jim Parsons, secondary cducation, and his wife Tara Fenwick, '79 BA, '89 MH:d, '96 PhD, in policy studies. The couple had a proposal to help update a hopelessly archaic system of learning English in China.

With assistance from the Hebei Education Research Institute, Hebei Publishing House and Duval Publishing House (a local publisher headed up by former U of A Press director Glenn Rollans, '78 BA, '80 Cert Arts)—and partly funded by the Canadian International Development Agency—Parsons and Fenwick quickly got to work putting together student texts, teacher guides, audio-tapes, storybooks and activity books for students in Grades 4 to 6.

The project has taken off, and the U of A-designed package is now the official ESL program in Hebei province.

"The Chinese had this British system of ESL, published in Singapore, which is highly grammatical and very written says Parsons. "The [texts] are very British, in the best and worst sense of being British. They're aggressively colonizing... all this white man's burden stuff. What the Chinese are finding is their kids are learning the textbooks, but they can't speak English when they're finished."

Parsons admits he's a"simplc guy," good at communicating ideas to 11year-olds—exactly what you need to design language materials. But what helped the program really gain momentum was realizing that to reach the kids most effectively you have to prepare the teachers "who couldn't speak it either." And so lie and Fenwick have run a number of workshops for hundreds of young educators and continue to offer two institutes each summer in Hebei.

"That's been a wise choice, because as we worked with hundreds of teachers.. .their English improved a lot over seven days," he says. "It's the first time many of them have spoken English to westerners. Give me a hot, sweaty room with 400 teachers and I love it."

The project has also enlisted the help of education dean Larry Beauchamp, Joe Wu, '88 MEd, '93 PhD, in the Department of Elementary Education, Barbara Maheu, '95 MEd, of the Alberta Teachers' Association and several graduate studcnts. Last January three graduate students held a five-day institute for more than 100 teachers and supervisors in Hebei.

Secondary education waster's student Lisa Li, a native of China with experience in ESL, has been helping to design materials. She says the project has the potential to spread beyond Hebei into the rest of the highly populated country, helping millions more learn English.

"In the past, all over China we used the same textbook," she says. "But now there is a variety and [provinces and districts] can make their own choices. If the program is good, the numbers could enlarge."

Parsons says two other provinces in China have already started lookinU into the program, and the Hebei Publishing House plans to market the books across the nation.

Published Winter 2001.

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