From Textbooks to Picture Books
Zhu Yunzhi (Emma) holds a PhD in educational psychology and chairs the English Department at Ginling College, so it may seem surprising that she made children’s books the centerpiece of a recent project. With support from the United Board, she designed a service-learning project that placed her undergraduate students in primary schools and libraries, where they read English-language story books to young children. The experience opened her students’ eyes to new possibilities in language teaching and learning – and, in some cases, revealed what they had missed in taking a more traditional approach to developing proficiency in English.
“My students reported that they were amazed by the variety of children’s picture books for English language learners,” Dr. Zhu said. “They were impressed by the artistic style and language of the books and wished they could have had these books to read when they themselves were little and just starting to learn English.” The colorful books were a sharp contrast with the way many students in China learn English. In elementary school, “students are required to recite texts, which mainly consist of dialogues in family or school settings,” Dr. Zhu explained. “As students move up to middle school, the English class becomes more exam-oriented, and students spend much time on vocabulary, grammar, and various exercises.” What’s missing? Reading for pleasure – whether picture books, short stories, or novels – and the opportunities it creates for students to enjoy learning.
That spirit of interest and enjoyment highlights the benefits of student-centered learning, a guiding force in Dr. Zhu’s work as an educator. In her master’s program in child development at Florida State University, she recalled, “I was first exposed to the ideas of class participation, presentations, and group work, as well as hands-on experience,” and it has had “a profound influence”on her. Now, in her work at Ginling College, she said, “I always try to apply student-centered pedagogy in my teaching, especially when students are cognitively and emotionally strong enough to take more responsibility for their learning.”
Student-centered learning is especially valuable when working with future teachers. “Being a good teacher requires not only academic knowledge but communication skills and commitment,” Dr. Zhu believes. As her students read the story books aloud, they appreciated the importance of vocal variation, eye contact, and body language in capturing the attention of active children. Interacting directly with children, and interpreting their signals, helped her students gain the confidence to experiment with new teaching techniques.
Similarly, Dr. Zhu has come to recognize that social media can be an advantage, not a distraction, in her college classrooms. Dr. Zhu relies on popular Chinese apps like QQ and WeChat. “The use of QQ actually brings teachers and students closer. The students feel it is easier to get support from the teachers, and the teachers have more opportunities to know their students.”Dr. Zhu has found that “the rapport built through social networking benefits teaching and learning,” and in that sense, a smart phone can be as valuable as a textbook – or a picture book – in helping students to embrace learning.