From the Classroom: Working with Chinese ELLs

Xiao-lin Yin-Croft

Xiao-lin Yin-Croft is a third-grade ELL teacher of Chinese bilingual students at Ulloa Elementary School in San Francisco. Originally from China, Xiao-lin learned English as an adult and now helps young Chinese students in the U.S. bridge the cultural and language gap that they face from an early age.

In this article written exclusively for Colorín Colorado, Xiao-lin shares some insights on ways that teachers can work effectively with Chinese students and parents, as well as some of her own classroom strategies for working with bilingual students. While some of these strategies are culturally/linguistically-specific, many can serve as a model when working with students from diverse backgrounds. You can learn more about Xiao-lin's own experiences as a student and teacher of English in our From the Heart interview with her!


ELL teachers face a unique challenge. Not only must we provide sound instruction to students with diverse learning needs, we must provide instruction to students with diverse backgrounds who speak different languages, and whose cultural references may be completely different than ours. As a Chinese teacher working with Chinese bilingual students (and sometimes with students from other countries as well), I would like to share some of my insights about working with Chinese students and parents in the hope that this information can bridge cultural gaps and dispel stereotypes. Even though these observations are based on my own experiences, it may be helpful to think about these issues as they relate to students from all backgrounds.

Language: Some Differences Between Chinese and English


Chinese is a monosyllabic language — each character has only one syllable, and most of the sounds of Chinese characters begin with a consonant and end with a vowel. Each character is clearly pronounced, unlike the flow of the sounds of English words. Based on these patterns, some pronunciation challenges that Chinese students face when learning English include:

  • the absence of the English sound such as /v/, and /th/ (Students may pronounce /v/ as /w/ in a word like "very", and may pronounce /th/ as /s/ or /z/ in words such as "tooth", "they" etc.)
  • the absence of the English consonant clusters such as /tr/, /dr/, /st/, /pl/ (Students may find it hard to blend the two consonant sounds, and it may take them a lot of practice to learn how to blend two sounds into one.)
  • a tendency to pronounce each syllable in an English word too clearly (Students may add a vowel sound after certain consonants, breaking the flow of English and making it sound choppy sometimes.)
  • a tendency to add a vowel after some consonants (For example, adding /ə:/ to consonants like "s", "x", "t", "d", "k", etc. Even I still find it hard not to add that /ə:/ sound after "k" and "d" in "asked," and after "t" in "football.")

Word Order

Due to differences in word order between Chinese and English, Chinese-speaking students often struggle with word order when learning English. These difficulties may appear in the following kinds of information:

  • Dates

    In Chinese, dates are written in the order of year, month and day. So, April 20, 2008 would be written in this order: 2008, April 20.

  • Addresses

    Addresses and people's names in Chinese are normally written in the reverse order to that of English. So an address on an envelope may look like this:

    Country: People's Republic of China
    Province: Jiangxi Province
    City: Jingdezhen
    Street/Number: Street name, house/building number, apartment number
    Addressee: Last name followed by first name

  • Adjectives

    In Chinese, adjectives or noun modifiers, no matter how lengthy, usually go before a noun, while in English long attributive phrases or clauses are placed after the nouns they modify. For example: "This is the best movie I have ever seen in my life." becomes "This is I/my whole life have seen the best movie."

  • Adverbial phrases of place and time

    They are never placed at the end of a sentence in Chinese. Instead, they tend to come right before or after the subject of a sentence. "Come to see me at 9:00 tomorrow morning." becomes "Tomorrow morning at 9:00 come to see me." "I saw him in Beijing." becomes "I in Beijing saw him."

Omission or Misuse of Words

  • Omission of verb "to be" before an adjective

    The literal translation of "She is beautiful" in Chinese is "She beautiful."

  • Omission of articles and inflectional endings / Misuse of verb tenses

    Chinese students often make mistakes in places where linguistic phenomena are present in English but absent in Chinese, such as articles, inflectional endings, and subject-verb agreement. That's why my students often forget to use articles before nouns, omit inflectional endings such as "s" or "es" after plural nouns or verbs with third person singular subjects ("he", "she", or "it"), and incorrectly use verb tenses.

  • Misuse of simple personal pronouns or possessive personal pronouns

    In Chinese, male or female personal pronouns, though written with different characters, have the same pronunciation. And pronouns have no inflectional differences in case. This may account for why Chinese students might say "he" rather than "she" or vice versa, and often use subject and object pronouns interchangeably.

  • Misuse of verb "to be"

    In Chinese, the verb "to be" remains the same, disregarding whether the subject is "he" or "you" or whether the subject is singular or plural. And in Chinese, a verb does not change its form according to tenses. Therefore, Chinese students have great difficulties remembering to use the correct form of verb "to be," and often use incorrect forms and tenses of the verb.

Using Literal Translations

Even after being corrected many times, my students sometimes still say "Open the light" or "Close the light" when they mean "Turn on the light" or "Turn off the light" because they are translating directly from the equivalent Chinese expressions ("Kai Deng" and "Guan Deng").

Culture: Building Background Knowledge

I have found that my students usually live in a close-knit Chinese community with very little exposure to western culture; their experiences beyond their home and classroom are quite limited due to their parents' busy work schedule and financial conditions. Perhaps the most significant result of this is that students don't have as much background knowledge from which they can draw when learning vocabulary and content, so I try to provide my students with a variety of direct experiences on a day-to-day basis in order to build background knowledge. Some of the ways I do this include:

Since my students don't have too much interaction with adults who are not Chinese, I invite visitors from different ethnic backgrounds to our class who can talk with them about a wide range of topics. Not only do they learn about the topics, they have the opportunity to become more comfortable and confident around people of different backgrounds. Some of my visitors include museum docents, scientists, government officials, and college professors.

At our school we have set up reading buddies between our classes, and this year I have gotten a group of American high school students to be field trip buddies on our upcoming trip to a marine sanctuary. When I first told my students that they would be paired up with high school buddies who weren't Chinese, they were very nervous, but this is part of the strategy to broaden their horizons.

Another way of expanding my students' social circle is to have them participate in third-grade science rotation classes. My students join other third-grade students and are taught by a different teacher during each cycle of the science rotation class. During those classes, my students collaborate with students of different backgrounds, and have a taste of what it is going to be like in fourth grade, when they will be in a mainstream class.

In the beginning of a school year, it is impossible to use grade-level Social Studies textbooks to teach my students the subject effectively, so I give my students lots of non-fiction supplementary materials that are suitable for ELL learners. I start with something they are familiar with, such as hot dogs, chewing gum, hamburgers, coca-cola, blue jeans, baseball, etc. Gradually we move on to historical topics such as the Pony Express and the Gold Rush, as well as American symbols, landmarks, and people. My students interact with the texts by identifying main ideas and supporting details, and by learning to ask each other questions to demonstrate their learning. Through these ELL supplementary materials, they learn the organization of non-fiction materials, enlarge vocabulary and background knowledge about American history and culture, and practice academic oral English. After about half a year, the foundation is built, and they are usually able to read and understand the textbook materials as homework and, to participate in class discussions.

  • Taking them out on meaningful and educational field trips

    I align educational field trips with social studies and science curriculum in order to provide my students with firsthand experiences as they learn and have fun at the same time. We recently went to a technology museum, and the students were able to learn about what it takes to put together a newscast. They worked in groups to write their own news scripts, pick a background, and choose related sound effects. They dressed up as the people in the news, and posed as news reporters. They loved it!

  • Inviting non-Chinese speakers to speak to the class
  • Working with a group of other students
  • Collaborate with my colleagues to conduct rotations
  • Use high interest non-fiction supplementary materials to bridge students' vocabulary and background knowledge.

Parent Outreach: Bridging the Gap

Understanding Chinese Families

For teachers who are working with all ELLs, it is very important to increase understanding and knowledge about students and their family backgrounds. I have learned about this first-hand even as I teach students with whom I share a cultural connection. When I first heard what the people around me would say about the Chinese community, I felt that they had it all wrong. Many people believe that the Chinese are only good at numbers, and in schools, I heard so many negative stereotypes; learning a bit more about a culture and a community, however, can go a long way in fighting those stereotypes.

Most of my students are second-generation immigrants, but each year I may have some newcomers from China or Vietnam. The majority of them are from economically-disadvantaged families where both parents often work at a number of low-paying jobs for long hours. Often my students are in bed by the time their parents get home. The parents often know very little English or none at all, and usually the families do not go outside the confines of their ethnic communities. For many of these students, besides watching television, school is the only place where English learning and American culture acquisition take place. Yet even at school, the children they talk to and play with are mostly Chinese because they are in the bilingual program through third-grade.

Although Chinese parents cannot provide as much support in terms of time because of their busy work schedules, they value education very much. They hold teachers in high regard, and trust the teachers' opinions and decisions. For the most part, they will do everything they can to support the teachers and the school so that their children can fulfill the dreams that they themselves couldn't due to a lack of education and the inability to speak English.

Using Parents' Native Language

Communication with parents in Chinese is crucial in order to keep them informed about their children's academic progress, their classroom behavior, and what they as parents can do to help their children to achieve success. At my school, once a week, parents get a school newsletter translated into Chinese sent home with the children, and everyone in our school office speaks Chinese. Our school provides bilingual paraprofessionals as well, and they act as interpreters at parent-teacher conferences. For schools that don't have teachers that speak Chinese (or other languages spoken by students and their families), it is imperative to use interpreters and to translate important school documents — otherwise parents will not be able to participate in their children's education at all.

It is also helpful to remember that Chinese parents are typically shy. They feel embarrassed when they don't speak English. For example, parents are often willing to help on field trips — I usually have all the help I need and parents are even willing to take time off from work — but they are willing because they know they will be with other Chinese-speaking parents.

If their child is in a non-bilingual class and all other parent helpers are speaking English, parents may think, "I will be embarrassed. Why should I go?"

I would recommend that ELL teachers who want to have increased parent involvement find a group of two or three parent volunteers who speak the same language so that they have someone to talk to on field trips — it will make a big difference.

Another issue is that of fundraisers. It's hard for our families to contribute, but we always raise the money we need to raise. Many times, the issue is simply that parents don't know that money is being collected, and that it is used for their children's education. Communication is the key.

Encouraging Bilingualism

At back-to-school night, I try to make parents aware that their children need to keep the home language alive even as they learn English. I encourage parents to do whatever they can to make that possible. My students' parents usually think they cannot play a role in helping their children to learn English because they don't know English. I tell them that native language literacy skills can transfer to new languages, and I encourage them to read to their children in the language they feel comfortable with whenever they can.

I also talk about how important Mandarin is. Cantonese is more common in San Francisco, but it is only spoken by people in Hong Kong and one province in China. There will be lots of opportunities for our young people because China is developing so fast, but those opportunities will be more available if they know Mandarin. I encourage parents to speak Cantonese at home, and then find schools where their children can study Mandarin.

In addition, I encourage parents to supervise what their children watch on television, and to watch news and other educational programs together because it is a good way for their children to learn English and build background knowledge.

Drawing Upon Strengths and Interests: Using Math as a Stepping Stone

At the beginning of a school year, I give my students an informal survey to measure their interests and abilities. Over the years, I have consistently identified math as the subject my Chinese students are best at and most interested in when they first enter third grade. Since math is often their strongest subject, I use it as a stepping stone for instruction and accelerate instruction in the beginning of the school year. The other advantages of this strategy are that my students love solving challenging problems, and it's an area where parents can provide immediate support at home.

First, we read math word problems; I demonstrate the logical thinking process while translating words into pictures and, finally, into number sentences. Soon, they start to explain their own thinking after reading complicated word problems that involve several steps. They correct each other, and argue about which number sentences they should use to arrive at the correct final results. As they sharpen their math skills, I capitalize on their enthusiasm to teach them how to extract the most important information from texts, and move them toward the oral and reading fluency they need to understand and discuss more challenging texts.

When new immigrant students arrive, math is the usually subject with which they have at least some prior knowledge. Besides giving them extra support in phonics, encoding and decoding, and exposing them to the basics of sentence structure and grammar through daily language spiral review, this is another way I introduce them to academic English. From learning math, they pick up frequently used words and phrases and learn how to understand questions posed in English. They also start to acquire a "language feeling" (automaticity) in English that will later help them understand other content-knowledge (science, social studies et al.), though they occasionally require translation of specific content-related vocabulary.

While it is challenging to bridge cultural and language gaps, the effort is necessary — our students' success depends on our ability to help them (and their parents) make those transitions. If your school is serving a community whose customs and cultural expectations regarding education seem to differ from yours or those of the school staff, talk with your principal about the possibility of working with liaisons who can offer staff training and provide you with the tools you need to communicate effectively and include all families in the school's activities. Not only will your students and their parents appreciate the effort, but it may go a long way in bringing the family together around the children's education — a goal we all share.


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I have several Chinese students as ELLs . This article has helped me greatly in understanding why I am having difficulty in overcoming some language patterns with them.

i am a science teacher in rural montana. recently a chinese family moved to our community. they have limited english skills and a son who is 17.
i have been asked to teach an adult ed english class as i have experience teaching ell students. my experience, however has been limited to native spanish speakers.
i am just looking to broaden my repitoire to structure things more appropriately for my native mandarin speakers.
any ideas or lessons would be appreciated.
stacy hansen
[email protected]

I have been asked to teach a 16-year old boy English. He has recently arrived in Ireland. He learned some English in China. I would welcome any/all advice as to how best to start/proceed. Grateful for all comments. Karla

I have a newcomer in kindergarten who just moved from China. I am desperately searching for a good APP or website for audio translations or commands in Mandarin to help him understand expected school behaviors and/or tasks. Any suggestions?

I am teaching english to a 23 year old student from China.. She is very good at understanding English, but finds its very difficult to speak English. She is very shy when speaking once outside the lesson. she does not interact with many english speaking people as she surrounds herself with Chinese people all day. What kind of lesson plans would you suggest we do, as we have tried role plays.
Please send me some information at : [email protected]
Kind Regards

I have a four-year-old Mandarin speaker in my preschool class. He speaks little English, which he thinks gives him the right to do whatever he wants. What would be a good way to discipline him? I appreciate this article and the insight it gave me into native Chinese speakers. I want more!

I am an English Language teacher in Mexico. At the moment I have a 13 year-old Chinese student in my English class. I am having some difficulties working with him since he doesn't speak either Spanish or English.Time is also an issue because I only see him in class 3 hours a week. The information provided here was very useful to me, than you.

Any teaching materials that would behoove a native Mandarin speaker who speaks advanced English would be welcome.

I have another interesting question.. I have noticed the Chinese students that I have had as ELL students.. their proficiency in speaking is last to come.. is this a cultural thing? I tend to try and use interests that they have to get them talking.. also a lot of pronunciation errors but after reading your article maybe this is an area specifically I can focus on.. any suggestions are appreciated

A nice supplement for intermediate Chinese students of English would be the just-published bilingual collection of Chinese proverb stories. Written by two language teachers, this reader is designed to provide students with familiar Chinese stories written in simple, yet real language. The stories provide an enjoyable reading experience while also giving students access to natural language.
The stories are written with Chinese ESL students in mind.
Audio version of this book will be available Sept. 2014.

There is a really useful book for English Language teachers called 'Learner English' by Michael Swan. It looks at the different pitfalls (pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, etc) facing learners of English from about 25 different language backgrounds. It includes Chinese languages as well as Arabic, Swahili and all the major European Languages. Some of the info is a bit technical but it's a book I frequently refer to as I prepare my English classes here in Stamford, UK ([email protected])

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