I must admit that after hearing “What-a is-a your favorite-a color?” for the 100th time, I was not too interested in English corners. The idea was to give the Chinese students an opportunity to speak to the Americans and practice their English. Hopefully, we could then persuade them to visit our training center and take classes. In theory, it was a good idea for everyone except for the Americans. I can still see the shy elementary school student being prodded by his Chinese mother to “show off” the few English phrases the boy had memorized. I felt sorry for the boy as I tried to keep an hour-long smile up and could relate to the boy’s awkwardness.

After spending over 300 hours in English corners over the 7 years that I spent in China, I have found that there are right ways and wrong ways to have them. We were initially told that if we, the Americans, would simply show up somewhere, that a large crowd of aspiring English learners would bombard us with intense English conversations. This never happened. I helped to hold English corners in libraries, bookstores, parks, colleges, on a busy street and even at McDonald’s. Each of these had to be built from the ground up, but can be developed into a very successful program.

We had two types of English corners – free talk and activity based. Free talk English corners were usually effective in colleges and libraries. Activity-based English corners were effective in each place, but required more work and preparation. Listed are a few tips on how to have a successful activity-based English corner.

  1. Decide on the format of the English corner. We typically broke up the English corner up into 4 parts. First, we taught 8 – 10 “Frequently Used American Expressions.” These were either idioms or collocations that we could act out and try to present in a vivid way. We never tried to explain the meanings, but instead we tried to act them out so the students could try to guess the meanings. Next, we usually taught a song that had simple words to understand. Then we taught a culture tip, and finally played a game.
  2. Decide to enjoy the situation. I knew that if I was bored with what I was doing, then my students would be bored too. I clearly remember trying to teach the idiom, “You’re barking up the wrong tree.” I had a student stand on a chair, while I pretended to bark like a dog up at him. We always did what we could to throw in some spice into the lessons, not only to keep the students coming back, but also to keep ourselves interested in the lessons.
  3. Be flexible. I vividly remember teaching for two years in McDonald’s. We sectioned off a corner of McDonald’s and had a weekly English corner at 3:00 PM on Saturdays. We brought a portable display to let people know what we were all about. We brought a professional sound system with two cordless mics. Whatever we needed to do to try to make the English corner a success. However, many times, something went wrong. Either there was a mistake in the worksheet or no batteries for the mics. Sometimes we would plan for 30 students and 100 would show up, and sometimes we would plan for 100 and 5 would show up. If you ever conduct an English corner, you’ll have to be willing to “ride the waves.”
  4. Follow the 10% – 50% focus rule. Typically in China, I would look at one of my classes and divide it into half based on their English level. Then I would take the lower half and come up 10%. This usually was a good focus for the material. I would try to give this 40% of the students the majority of my time and effort. For the top 50% of the students I would throw out nuggets (not McNuggets from McDonald’s) of harder English to keep them interested. Then whenever we had pair work or group work, I would focus in on the lower 10% and try to give them some individual help. Be warned. English corners in public places will attract everyone. It was common for our public English corners to have both kindergarteners and college English professors all looking to learn some English.

I still have many great memories, and I made many friends through the work at the English corners.


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