Almost every day I am asked by someone in China to teach English. Professors ask me to come to their classes; friends ask me to tutor their children; deans ask me to join their foreign language departments. This constant barrage of requests for English teaching services, however, has led me to think about the Chinese obsession with English.
Certainly, English functions as a global language. Globally, schools now offer English as a second or foreign language. Many countries have even adopted English as their second national language. International students attend classes and seminars in English; the bulk of research in most fields is transmitted in English. Tourists everywhere employ English as their lingua franca when they travel to exotic places. International corporations demand that their employees be fluent in English in order to travel, live and share information with coworkers around the world. There is no doubt concerning the importance of English for educational, social, and economic purposes.
This view of English conveying power, in terms of educational opportunities, mobility, and enhancing earning, is also held by young adults. But what about teenagers, who are not yet forced to think about their lives in the work force and/or attaining a post-doctorate in a Western country? Why are kids interested in English? How can we, as educators and concerned parents, use their interest to further stimulate their desire to learn academic English?
Teen motives for English differ from the adults: Young people feel rather than know English. They perceive English to be a kind of conduit toward being "cool." As I travel throughout China and Asia, I watch teens using technology, in the forms of social networking sites, as well as music and movie downloads, to listen to, learn, and enjoy communication in English. Often, these young people know more than their parents or teachers about software and using the Internet, because they constantly seek cool things to watch, listen to and read in English.
We must incorporate this technology in our classrooms. Nowadays, from kindergarten to college, a range of genres and formats exist, from classic texts to hip hop lyrics, texts and video clips from Internet sites, that widen the ways in which the English language can be employed to instill literacy in English learners. English cyber texts of various genres can also impart aesthetic appreciation to students, while also illuminating cultural and aesthetic norms embedded in the texts.
Moreover, by comparing and contrasting the way Internet genres are constructed structurally and stylistically—and by a critical reading of the texts—our students can also validate their cultural identities, while becoming global citizens. This, in turn, leads our English language students toward both biliteracy and biculturality, while simultaneously supporting their critical thinking skills that encourage creativity.
Using a variety of Internet genres and formats that model culturally embedded genres, educators can help students grasp an aesthetic and diverse reading of English from an international perspective. Technology engages students critically with English cyber texts; it feeds their sense of self and teaches them to engage as global citizens.
Teachers in China may employ a variety of Internet genres that go beyond the traditional classroom materials: textbooks, pens, and paper. In fact, English language teachers in other countries are dropping these traditional teaching modes and are using the Internet via electronic tablets exclusively.
The multigenre research project is a form of writing that merges several genres together to offer a cohesive overview of the topic presented. Students do research on the Internet, searching through various genres: social media sites, blogs, music and video sites, and also sites where more scholarly text is presented, like newspapers, academic articles, online journals and magazines. They research their topic thoroughly, just like in a traditional research paper. The major benefit is that it allows students to consider multiple perspectives on a topic and represent those perspectives through different genres, some of which may be popular as opposed to scholarly. Variety stimulates young learners. Validating cyber sites students enjoy stimulates more learning. Kids perceive the Internet as a tool, not just as a place for recreation. Finally, researching, writing, and presenting information in different genres is not only creative, but also encourages different perspectives, wider cultural outlooks.
In sum, I hope English language teachers in China will choose the multigenre research project as one way to support and amplify their students' critical engagement with global and international texts in English.
The author is an American living in Hohhot, north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region