Learning to Speak in an Exam-Focused World: A Study of Independent Language Learning in China

  • Don Snow
  • Olivia Sun
  • Xu Li
Part of the New Language Learning and Teaching Environments book series (NLLTE)


While the English language curriculum in China encourages teachers and students to give attention to oral English skills, required high-stakes English examinations in China generally do not test speaking skills, and the washback effect of this is that oral skills are not often practiced in middle school and university English courses in China. Despite this, some Chinese students learn to speak English quite well, leading to the question—how?

This chapter reports on an interview study of Chinese students at an English-medium university in China who had successfully achieved levels of oral English proficiency. The study found that virtually all of these successful learners had built their oral English skills by supplementing their oral skills practice opportunities in various ways. Many did this partially by taking additional English classes in private English schools or programs. However, virtually all had also engaged in various forms of independent language learning; in other words, they devised their own strategies and plans for building speaking skills and then carried out these plans.


Independent language Speaking Motivation 


  1. Benson, P. (2011). Teaching and researching autonomy in language learning (2nd ed.). Essex, UK: Pearson Education.Google Scholar
  2. Benson, P. (2007). Autonomy in language teaching and learning. Language Teaching, 40(1), 21–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Chen, Z., & Goh, C. (2011). Teaching oral English in higher education: Challenges to EFL teachers. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(3), 333–345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Crabbe, D. (1999). Introduction. In S. Cotterall & D. Crabbe (Eds.), Learner autonomy in language learning: Defining the field and effecting change (pp. 3–9). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  5. Dörnyei, Z., & Ushioda, E. (2011). Teaching and researching motivation (2nd ed.). Harlow: Pearson Education.Google Scholar
  6. Gan, Z. (2004). Attitudes and strategies as predictors of self-directed language learning in an EFL context. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 14(3), 389–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Li, X., & Wang, Y. (2000). Testing oral English on a mass scale: Is it feasible? The oral component of the MET in China. Hong Kong Journal of Applied Linguistics, 5(1), 160–186.Google Scholar
  9. Littlewood, W. (1997). Self-access: Why do we want it and what can it do? In P. Benson & P. Voller (Eds.), Autonomy and independence in language learning (pp. 79–91). London: Longman.Google Scholar
  10. Macaro, E. (2001). Learning strategies in foreign and second language classrooms. London, UK: Continuum.Google Scholar
  11. Morrison, B. (2011). Building on experience, seeking new perspective. In B. Morrison (Ed.), Independent language learning: Building on experience, seeking new perspectives (pp. 3–10). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Nunan, D. (1997). Designing and adapting materials to encourage learner autonomy. In P. Benson & P. Voller (Eds.), Autonomy and independence in language learning (pp. 192–203). London: Longman.Google Scholar
  13. Nunan, D., & Richards, J. (2015). Preface. In D. Nunan & J. Richards (Eds.), Language learning beyond the classroom (pp. xi–xvi). New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Pan, Z. 2011. Daxue Yingyu siji kaoshi wangkao yu zhibi kaoshi duibi大学英语四级考试网考与纸笔考试对比 [A comparison between Internet-based College English Test (band 4) and paper-based College English Test (band 4)]. 外语测试与教学/Foreign Language Testing and Teaching, 2, 1–10.Google Scholar
  15. Pemberton, R. (1996). Introduction. In R. Pemberton, E. Li, W. Or, & H. Pierson (Eds.), Taking control: Autonomy in language learning (pp. 1–11). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Rao, Z. (1996). Reconciling communicative approaches to the teaching of English with traditional Chinese methods. Research in the Teaching of English, 30(4), 458–471.Google Scholar
  17. Rao, Z. (2002). Chinese students’ perceptions of communicative and non-communicative activities in EFL classroom. System, 30(1), 85–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Reinders, H. (2010). Towards a classroom pedagogy for learner autonomy: A framework of independent language learning skills. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 35(5), 40–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ren, Y. (2011). A study of the washback effects of the college English test (band 4) on teaching and learning English at tertiary level in China. International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning, 6(3), 243–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Snow, D. (2007). Sustaining self-directed language learning in the Chinese context. In L. Jun (Ed.), English teaching in China: New approaches, perspectives and standards (pp. 211–230). London, UK: Continuum.Google Scholar
  21. Thomson, C. K. (1996). Self-assessment in self-directed learning: Issues of learner diversity. In R. Pemberton, E. Li, W. Or, & H. Pierson (Eds.), Taking control: Autonomy in language learning (pp. 77–91). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Wang, C., Yan, J., & Liu, B. (2014). An empirical study on washback effects of the internet-based college English test band 4 in China. English Language Teaching, 7(6), 26–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Wen, Q. (1999). Kouyu jiaoxue yu siwei nengli de peiyang口语教学与思维能力的培养 [Teaching oral skills and cultivating thinking skills]. 国外外语教学. Foreign Language Teaching, 2, 1–4.Google Scholar
  24. White, C. (2008). Language learning strategies in independent language learning: An overview. In S. Hurd & T. Lewis (Eds.), Language learning strategies in independent settings (pp. 3–24). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.Google Scholar
  25. White, C. (2011). Inside independent learning: Old and new perspectives. In B. Morrison (Ed.), Independent language learning: Building on experience, seeking new perspectives (pp. 13–23). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Wong, L., & Nunan, D. (2011). The learning styles and strategies of effective language learners. System, 39, 144–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Wu, Y. (2001). English language teaching in China: Trends and challenges. TESOL Quarterly, 35(1), 191–194. doi: 10.2307/3587867.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Yang, Z., Gu, X., & Liu, X. (2013). A longitudinal study of the CET washback on college English classroom teaching and learning in China: Revisiting college English classes of a university. Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics, 36(3), 304–325.Google Scholar
  29. Zhang, F., & Liu, Y. (2014). A study of secondary school English teachers’ beliefs in the context of curriculum reform in China. Language Teaching Research, 18(2), 187–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Zhang, Y., & Elder, C. (2009). Measuring the speaking proficiency of advanced EFL learners in China: The CET-SET solution. Language Assessment Quarterly, 6(4), 298–314. doi: 10.1080/15434300902990967.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Zhao, Z. (2013). Diagnosing the English speaking ability of college students in China—Validation of the diagnostic college English speaking test. RELC Journal, 44(3), 341–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Zheng, X., & Borg, S. (2014). Task-based learning and teaching in China: Secondary school teachers’ beliefs and practices. Language Teaching Research, 18(2), 205–221.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Don Snow
    • 1
  • Olivia Sun
    • 1
  • Xu Li
    • 1
  1. 1.Duke Kunshan UniversityKunshan ShiChina

Personalised recommendations