In association with Pilgrims Limited
*  Would you like to receive publication updates from HLT? Join our free mailing list
Pilgrims 2005 Teacher Training Courses - Read More
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

This article is in the form of dialogue, Mario Rinvolucri describes his observations and Simon Greenall reflects on them.

Teacher-training in the Dark: Ignorant Westerner Works with Top Quality EFL Teachers from China

Mario Rinvolucri, UK and Simon Greenall, UK/China

Mario Rinvolucri teacher, teacher trainer and author. He has worked for Pilgrims for over 30 years and used to edit Humanising Language Teaching. Regularly contributes to The Teacher Trainer Journal. His recent books include: Creative Writing, with Christine Frank, Helbling, Multiple Intelligences in EFL, with Herbert Puchta, Helbling, Unlocking Self-Expression through NLP, with Judy Baker, Delta Books, New edition of Vocabulary, with John Morgan, OUP, Humanising your Coursebook, Delta Books, Using the Mother Tongue, with Sheelagh Deller, Delta Books, Ways of Doing, with Paul Davis and Barbara Garside, CUP, Imagine That with Herbert Puchta and Jane Arnold, Helbing, Creative Writing with Christine Frank, Helbing. Mario's first CD Rom for students, Mindgame, was written with Isobel Fletcher de Tellez, and engineered and published by Clarity, Hong Kong in 2000. E-mail:

Simon Greenall is a textbook writer and a past President of IATEFL (1997 – 99). In China, he is the co-Editor in Chief of New Standard English for Junior High and Senior High Schools, published by Foreign Languages Teaching and Research Press, Beijing, and Macmillan ELT, Oxford UK. He has published many books including exam material, adult and secondary courses, as well as radio and television programmes for the BBC. One of his best-known publications is the Reward series and People Like Us (Macmillan Education), which explores cultural values, attitudes, beliefs, customs and traditions around the world. He has given workshops and conference presentations in 45 countries around the world. E-mail: ,

Mario: In a very real sense any teacher trainer is working in the dark. Even if she is working with her own compatriots she knows little of what has gone into making each trainee into the person they are. At the beginning of the course she does not know who is sanguine, choleric, melancholic or phlegmatic. She does not know which people in her group represent the world mostly in inner pictures, who live the world through their ears and for whom experience is mostly in the area of bodily sensation and emotion. She has no idea of the personal rhythms of each trainee and their tempo of thought, information processing and reading. She has no idea of what kind of teaching style the trainee in front of her is likely to seek out for herself after the training course. She does not at first understand the variables of class-based beliefs and behaviours in her trainees ( Here I am thinking of a UK trainer with UK trainees).

Simon: Mario, I’m aware that a special feature of your training involves writing letters to group members during a course. Indeed, you refer to this later in this article. Hania invited me to respond to your account of this course for Chinese teachers, and you kindly agreed to allow me to do so. May I write back to you, like this, and reflect on some of the points you raise?

Textbook writers also work in the dark, perhaps even more so than you with your trainees. But in some ways, our focus of attention is different. We’re looking at the learner and not so much at the teacher. When I observe classes in China or in any country, I’m looking for the quality of interaction between the textbook and the learner. Of course, I’m also concerned about making language learning relevant to the teacher as well as the learner, and not challenging teachers’ expectations too much about how language works. But if the textbook is not clear and motivating to the learner, it won’t be clear and motivating to the teacher. So maybe our work is very similar, in that we both want to bring joy to learners and teachers?

I’m nervous about writing to you, as I know your views on textbooks. But I do listen to you and read your books and articles, and have always tried to incorporate the spirit if not the letter of your holistic, person-centered approach to learning into something as impersonal as textbooks. In private, (I hope you don’t mind my saying so) you have had the grace to agree that yes, most teachers need to use textbooks. So I’m encouraged to write on …

Mario: If a UK teacher trainer is working with trainees from foreign cultures she knows, at least to some extent, she is aware of the meaning of some of their behaviours in class. So I know that a Swede who is very satisfied with her course may well say “ it was not bad at all”. I know that when a German trainee says “ I want to try that out with my students” she means what she says and will probably do exactly what the words suggest. She calls a spade a spade. If a Southern Italian secondary school teacher praises a technique in the training room this may be entirely to do with how she wishes to appear to others in the training group and probably has little to do with what she will do when she gets back to the reality of her own classroom. When a Japanese secondary teacher is appreciative of teaching techniques she has experienced in the training room this is within the awareness that nothing in her school will change unless there is a corporate decision by all the teachers in her department to change together. In her culture any serious modification of teaching techniques will, of its nature, be a professional group decision not an individual one. A UK trainer who knows a little about the authoritarian structures prevalent in Turkish society is fully conscious that in presenting concepts like “learner autonomy” to a Turkish training group, she is asking them to swim against the full force of the Mississippi of their own culture which holds obedience to authority to be a central cultural tenet. . If she presents the same concept to a group of Danes and Norwegians she knows she is carrying coals to Newcastle or cod to Iceland.

Simon: Although my recent textbooks are for the state sectors, in fact, it’s not state differences that you’re describing. You’re talking about the huge differences between East and West, between collective and individual cultures, and between the North and South, especially in Europe.

I like to talk about the ecology of English language teaching. This is an environment where features such as deep-held cultural beliefs about the role of education, educational policy of the region, the ethos of the school, the sense of direction by head teacher, the classroom environment, all the way through the teacher and learner themselves, are all interdependent, and co-exist alongside each other in a kind of ecological balance, each feature contributing towards the development of effective teaching and learning.

Mario: When I was asked to work for three weeks with a group of 15 in-service secondary school teachers from Hubei Province (the Yangtze) China ( August 2007) I faced all the normal difficulties outlined in my first paragraph above and was aware of my considerable ignorance of Chinese culture, of how to read the cultural signs relevantly in the training room.
I was also emotionally unaware of their teaching situation, though I was given plenty of intellectual information about it. A further difficulty was that in front of me I had 15 highly-motivated , carefully selected, very dedicated teachers whose job it would be, on their return to Hubei, to pass on what they learnt in Canterbury to their more normal, run-of-the mill colleagues. So what I offered them had to be useful not only in their own classrooms but in those of much less high-flying colleagues with a less good knowledge of English.

Simon: I’ve worked in China on two state textbook projects for eight years, and have visited classes all over the country, observing teachers using old textbooks, as well as the ones we’re developing with my Beijing and UK colleagues. I still suffer from the same ignorance of the culture, although maybe because China has been such an important focus for me during this time, I’m even more aware of how little I know.

I have also worked alongside – not opposite – my friends and colleagues in my publishers’ Beijing office. All of them are sparky bright English graduates, with masters degrees, and all of whom share the same variety of views about teaching, ranging from the traditional to the more progressive. More important, however, is a search for what we can hope to ask teachers and learners to do in our textbooks. So our cultural ignorance is not limited to where we were born and brought up, it’s also to do with understanding and appreciating other people’s educational backgrounds.

Emotionally unaware – it’s a very perceptive expression. I’ll try to examine the extent of my own emotional unawareness. Maybe all I can say is that my experiences have been as both emotionally and intellectually engaging .. maybe draining is another word.

Mario: Tentative evaluation of results… Nine months have passed since teaching this Hubei course and I wonder what was achieved? Let me start with what I am sure about: language.

In this area there was massive learning to be observed as eleven of the fifteen people for the first time entered the world of English through the ear and the mouth rather English through the eye and the hand. I can confidently claim that all these eleven people began the process of aural-oralising their English and coming to grips with the primary forms of the language, English as a stream of sound, English as ideas cataracting from the speaker’s mouth to the listener’s ear. ( The other four members of this group had been abroad before and simply continued and deepened the oralisation process.)
One particular exercise we did on a daily basis fed this thrilling process. Each day a different native speaker came to our class and talked for 20 minutes about a topic of their choice while members of the group took thorough notes of everything the native said that they would not say in their way of speaking English.
I then went through my own notes with the learners and taught some areas of oral grammar from the real life utterances of the native. ( see Carter and McCarthy, “Grammar of Spoken English:).

At first this activity was very hard for some of the colleagues. They found it difficult enough to follow the native’s gist, never mind note down tendrils of his or her language.
But the difficulty of the exercise was just the right challenge for this group and over the three weeks they got better and better at it. I learnt something of dogged Chinese determination in the face of an uphill task. I learnt to respect their energy and effort.

Simon: You will certainly have made a huge contribution to their language knowledge and language skills in both your insistence on aural-oralizing and the techniques you use. Many teachers and many of my colleagues are highly proficient users of English, but their written skills show a subtlety which their spoken skills sometimes cannot match.

Yet many teachers in China teach in English, insistently so, throughout the whole forty-five minute lesson, seizing the opportunity to expose their learners to the strange sounds, as well as practising their own speaking skills.

Mario: “Realising UK”… Everybody on this group had plenty of knowledge of UK history and literature and yet to actually see and hear and feel things they had known about as over-there information was wondrous to behold. When on tour in London some folk broke away from the main group and took a tube for a few stations. They had taught about the London underground from the pages of their coursebooks but to smell the Tube, hear its resonancies, sense its burrow-like spaces and see its adverts….this was something else. I was amazed to discover that “realizing UK” was a majorly important part of this course and a part that demanded a lot of experiential energy from the Chinese.

Simon: I appreciate this comment, as I have looked after many Chinese guests in the UK. Most Chinese have never left China, and their first visit to the UK is a revelation. Their knowledge of UK culture is intellectual not emotional, - they too are emotionally unaware, to use your expression when they arrive and for most of their stay here.

Between knowing the plot and words of all the songs in The Sound of Music, and choosing between Friends and Sex and the City, there are may surprising gaps in their cultural knowledge. Sometimes the cultural reference points which we consider so significant can be quite unknown to them. And of course, the same is true for their own cultural references and me.

Mario: Learning about UK culture… To begin to understand the English class system is quite a tall order when the older members of the group had memories of the Maoist cultural revolution and when a number of them had, in their lifetime, effected the transition from the Chinese village to the great city. When you read Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” with its delicate and precise evocation of the signs that indicate class belonging to UK natives, when you try and do this from a Hubei perspective I guess it must have a sort of Alice through the Looking Glass effect on your mind.
On a daily basis my colleagues from Hubei had to deal with the amazements of being in UK and meeting a mixed bag of Europeans as well as the English. Here are a few of the phenomena that shocked/amazed them:

  • people happily accepted to eat stodgy, uneatable English food,
  • people inexplicably showed no wish, desire or need to have a decent length post- prandial nap,
  • people who come to class without a flask of hot water on their desk,
  • wild rabbits in the woods behind the university that show no fear of humans,
  • friendly English people in their gardens who were willing to talk to you over the fence,
  • cold and rainy summer days,
  • people of such culinary ignorance that they do not know how to peel the stem of a broccoli head before chopping it up for a stir-fry.

Simon: There’s another term which I find useful: cultural dazzle is when visitors to a foreign culture become so enchanted and enamoured with it that they compare it over-favourably with their own home culture. The British sometimes do this when they spend a holiday in France or Italy, praising the food and the climate there, and talking down the same features back home.

For my part, when I’m in China, I’m overwhelmed by the sense of safety in the streets, the friendliness and profound goodness of the people I meet. I’m taken aback when I ask for a glass of water and am given, without further question, a glass of hot water, or when my editor cooks at home and peels off the beautiful purple skin of the aubergine she’s preparing. And I still don’t know how to say no when I’m offered chickens’ feet.

Working and living in another culture avoids the distorting effects of cultural dazzle. I think it’s a privilege to discover the strangeness of other people when the basis of the relationship is trust and friendship. I’m sure your Chinese trainees felt the same.

Mario: Relationship and group belonging… In this area I know that the course was a powerful success. I had deep and respectful contact with each member of the group and my practice of doing tutorials with each person in the breaks was a useful part of this. So were my personal letters to the group each morning. ( over the three weeks they got 15 of these texts). I think I can make this claim based on some of the letters group members wrote back to me.

...Another thing is that you give us a letter everyday which let us deepen our friendship and be aware of your thoughts. At the same time we’ve learn more vocabulary and useful expressions that we cannot learn from our textbook, even in our daily life, the non-English speaking circumstance...

And another person wrote:

….Another thing I want to mention is that you wrote us a letter every day. It’s a really good way to get us close to each other; we have great interest in it. And here I want to say something about your affection towards the student. You have a deep love in your students. You know, on that Chinese evening I experienced it strongly. You gave me a deep embrace to congratulate my success. Thank you! It gave me a lot of comfort and encouragement. I’ll take over this from you to pass it to our students.

I can say with confidence, that despite differences of culture, training, beliefs and behaviour this course was a major relational success. If it has been of value to participants over the past academic year it will be mainly because of the very strong personal links forged and deepened as the three weeks sped by.

Simon: The care and attention you showed them, Mario, would be surprising to them, maybe at first even shocking, as teachers are held in awe as figures of intellectual respect and distance. In many ways, your kindness is exceptional even in everyday circumstances, because it would be unusual to attempt to establish that type of relationship in professional circumstance other than an ELT training course.

But I have known so many instances when teachers in China have shown me acts of generosity and kindness. My favourite is the teacher who came up to me after a training session in Anshan, Liaoning province, and instead of giving praise or asking a question, she gave me some traditional Chinese medicine for my throat, as she thought I was losing my voice. I hope I have returned these gestures as well.

I think they’ll remember you Mario, as much because of as despite the cultural differences.

Mario: Let me now look at what I am unsure about… I do not know if the exercises that I taught these people over the 21 days we spent together are ones that they:

  • could use with classes of sixty students
  • may have felt like using with classes of sixty students
  • were able to adapt for use with sixty students
  • will have used once and then abandoned.

I do not know how the person-centred activities we dealt with on the course will have melded into the coursebook centred technology they have used for ten , fifteen, twenty years and which they are comfy and familiar with.

Simon: We have to do this in the textbooks, it’s part of the curriculum reform for which we’ve been developing new material. We need you and your colleagues to show how these activities can work. And in the classes I have observed recently, and after many hours of teacher training given by colleagues from my publishers, there is a noticeable difference in most of the teachers’ approach to their work. It can happen, it will happen, but it will be on their terms, not ours.

Mario: I do not know how much the course I offered these people will have hit walls inside them at the level of beliefs. These could be personal beliefs, pedagogical beliefs or Chinese cultural beliefs.

Let us suppose that some of the participants have adapted and used some of the techniques I showed them and allowed them into their teaching repertoire ( and this a big “suppose”). How skilful will they have been in passing these teaching ideas on to the people across Hubei Province ( population: 60 million) who they were meant to train, people who may well feel skeptical about new-fangled foreign ideas? The idea that “cascading” or “ trickle down”, to use two unpleasant technical terms, actually works to any appreciable degree needs a lot of proving.

Simon: I don’t really think this matters. You may be applying your own criteria for a successful course on a situation which is beyond your experience. But courses often succeed for reasons which have nothing to do with the way they were intended or planned.

Mario: In conclusion… I know for sure that for most of the participants this was an excellent language course, an adequate culture course, and an outstanding course in terms of human relationship ( which is at the heart of teaching) but I have no firm evidence for thinking that it was an effective methods and techniques course, nor a course geared to turn these outstanding language teachers into competent teacher trainers. For me, the trainer, it was a trancelike total immersion in the Chinese way of being and major learning experience, mainly at levels I do not have conscious access to.
A huge thank you to my Chinese colleagues!

Simon: Well, I’m nervous again, this time about taking the last word – after all, you did all the work on this article.

But let me just say what I think. This kind of training can work, it must work. In textbook development in China, we’re taking our lead from you and others in similar training organizations, from your writings, courses and seminars. We can’t follow every step you take, because there are things I know and others know and which change what we write.

You may not always approve of what we, as textbooks writers, do. But textbook writers, teacher trainers and teachers share the responsibility for bringing new ideas to China and Chinese ELT. It’s a huge task because over 20% of teachers and learners of English are Chinese, and it’s going to keep most of us busy for the rest of our careers. Thanks, and please keep up the good work.


Please check the Skills of Teacher Training course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Expert Teacher course at Pilgrims website.

Back Back to the top

    © HLT Magazine and Pilgrims