Thinking Right: Coaching a Wave of Chinese Students for College in America

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

July 19, 2011

Last November, the Institute of International Education announced that there were now almost 130,000 Chinese students studying on American campuses, making them the largest international contingent. While this represents a significant cash flow out of China, Beijing supports this trend because the Chinese economy is in desperate need of globally educated Chinese.

The rapid increase in the number of Chinese students in America, however, is leading to significant changes in China's secondary-education system. With Beijing's official backing, and facing increasing demand from parents, public schools in China's largest cities are heading toward a two-track system—the traditional stream that prepares students for the national college-entrance examination (the gaokao), and a new one that prepares them for the SAT Reasoning Test and the Test of English as a Foreign Language, or Toefl. Some of China's very best public schools, where the smartest and wealthiest students congregate, will one day become international in focus. Get prepared: A wave of young Chinese students is about to wash across America.

But there's a problem. For most Chinese students, secondary education means lectures and memorization and cramming for exams. Other skills—like communication, critical thinking, and speaking English—get slighted. As a result, these students often show up in freshman classes unprepared for the challenge of an American college education.

English presents their biggest problem, and the problem is deceptive. Most colleges carefully screen Chinese applicants using test scores and essays, even interviews at times. They admit applicants qualified on paper who often struggle after enrollment. What has gone wrong? Colleges use criteria that are easily fudged—SAT cram schools and ghostwritten essays are fixtures throughout China—and at first glance, unreliable tests and essays are the prime suspects. And no doubt they deserve some of the blame: The file of many a Chinese applicant is a manufactured confection.

Yet the real language problem is a more subtle one, and one that's not really a language problem at all. It's a thinking problem. Because to read and write and analyze English like a native speaker, Chinese students first have to start thinking like a native speaker. This is difficult when they've long been trained to think in Chinese.

In Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, the Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf writes that brain scans of native English and Chinese speakers show that each group relies on different mental processes to read. English is phonological, so English readers can sound out words when they read; written Chinese is not, so hundreds of mutually unintelligible Chinese dialects can use the same written script. English speakers access audio-sensory parts of their brain to "hear" a text, while Chinese speakers use visual-sensory parts to "see" a text, she explains. To teach a Chinese person to read well in English thus entails a significant rewiring of the brain, and while science says this is possible, there's nothing quick or easy or fun about it.

There's another complication. Westerners and Chinese have different mind-sets, and even fluent English-speaking Chinese can misinterpret English texts. In The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why, the social psychologist Richard Nisbett explains that Western civilization emphasizes debate and logic, while Chinese civilization prefers harmony and groupthink. Good English builds a formal structure of Aristotelian logic, while good Chinese demonstrates a chaotic stream-of-consciousness beauty.

I've worked with Chinese students at Shenzhen High School and now at Peking University High School, in Beijing, who intend to head abroad. I've seen how our students have been trained to read a Chinese text like they're taking a walk in the woods, as a free, spontaneous, and emotional experience. They've been taught to admire the whole of the vision—the trees, the sky, the stream—then breathe the fresh autumn air and delight at suddenly seeing a jaybird. This is an appropriate technique for reading Chinese, but not for reading English, which demands a more structured approach. The traditional Chinese curriculum does not teach concepts such as thesis, logic, support, evidence, and structure.

Thus we teach our students that reading an English text is like heading out in a big city: The walk has to be planned, deliberate, and meticulous, or it will end in an alley of confusion. In our classes, students start by drawing a road map, representing the structure of the text, then identify the destination, representing the text's thesis, and finally check the soundness of the route by analyzing the text's logic, evidence, and support.

We teach our students to identify the thesis and then draw the road map so they can appreciate the tightness and coherence of the structure. We teach them that each paragraph represents one coherent idea and ask them to highlight the first sentence of the paragraph in yellow and the last sentence in red. We then ask them to draw boxes around pronouns so that they can identify the subject, underline synonyms to identify the theme, and circle new vocabulary to understand the meaning. We ask them to group related words and phrases into bubbles, which helps develop their vocabulary. Finally, we ask them to summarize each paragraph in one simple sentence. By using this technique, our students can see the structure of the text and understand the flow of the thesis.

Although our reading program is a work in progress, we have seen some dramatic improvements over the semester it has been in place. At the outset, our students wrote quickly and haphazardly, producing incomprehensible homework. Now that they've begun to change their approach to reading a text, they're turning in well-argued and well-structured five-paragraph essays. And just as important, they've become more observant and reflective.

There is a message here for colleges about to be flooded with Chinese undergraduates: Most of these students are going to need English-language assistance. And the traditional remedial-English curriculum is not going to help them much. They are going to need remedial courses tailored to the Chinese mind, courses that change the way they think and give them the opportunity to thrive in an American academic environment unfettered by a mind-set in Chinese.

Jiang Xueqin is deputy principal of Peking University High School and director of its international division.

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