Helping Students Deepen Their Knowledge by Applying What They’ve Learned

Lower School Mandarin teacher Guimin Tang at the 2022 Community Meeting Lunar New Year Celebration

With his context-based teaching method, Lower School Mandarin teacher Guimin Tang guides students to find joy and ownership in their language acquisition

Throughout his career, Guimin Tang has combined intensive academic study with practical application in the classroom. He began teaching at Napo Middle School and Tianyang High School in Guangxi Province, China, while earning a BA in English from Guangzhou Institute of Foreign Languages and an MA in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. He then spent 15 years on the faculty of Guangdong University, first as a Teacher of English and then as Associate Professor, during which time he was also a visiting scholar at the University of Central Lancashire, U.K. Guimin relocated to the U.S. in 2006 and earned an MS in Education in 2009 from Portland State University. In 2010 he joined the faculty at Catlin Gabel.

While teaching in our Lower School, Guimin has continued his personal educational journey; he earned an EdD (Education Doctoral Degree) from Portland State University in 2016. To date, he has written and published over 20 textbooks on English language, international business, legal English, and second language acquisition.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Guimin in April 2022.

My first year here, the main teaching method we use is called the communicative approach. And I find that this approach, on one hand, it’s good. It helps the students improve their listening and speaking. But that's not enough. So I developed a new teaching method called context-based teaching method. This teaching method consists of three levels.

The first level is called linguistic context. This direction emphasizes listening, speaking, writing, and reading. In a linguistic context, a kid needs to know that. But there's one issue: They cannot apply or transfer what they learn. For example, they cannot communicate effectively with a native speaker. That means they lack something. What is that something?

Once I went to McDonald’s, and they asked me, “For here or to go?” I said, “I beg your pardon?” I didn’t understand. Because in your mind, the sentence should be “Would you like to eat here or would you like to take away?” “For here,” I understand, and “to go,” I know what it means. But I never had a chance to learn that expression in a situational context. So I come to understand that we lack something when we come to teaching the language. And what we lack is situational context. When we teach something, for example, about a tree, a flower, the best way to do it is take them to the forest. This is situational context.

Sometimes a sentence does not mean anything without the context of a culture. So my theory is that the third context is cultural context. For example, we learn a lot in the classroom, like “happy new year,” something like that. And the kids know the language. But when I say to them, “Hey, have a happy new year,” they look at me with their eyes open wide. “What do you mean?” Because they cannot associate with the culture part. So that is the reason why when Chinese Moon Festival comes, we celebrate. And when Chinese New Year comes, we have the celebration in a Chinese classroom for each grade, and also schoolwide and in Community Meeting.

So that is the reason why when we come to learning a language, we try to provide three levels of context: linguistic, situational, and cultural.

One thing I think is so important for progressive education is how to collaborate with other subjects. Core subject collaboration is very important because the essence of second language acquisition lies in communication and application. We learn a lot in the language classroom, but need to also provide enough opportunities for the kids to use that language, to apply the language, and the knowledge they have learned. This is what we call in UPD—understanding by design. That is the essence of a second language acquisition. You learn it, you have a chance to use it. You know it to teach someone.

This school year, we had all the kids work on the project together—not just the Chinese language kids, but also Spanish language kids. And it's so important for the Chinese kids to share all they know, to teach the Spanish kids. And I see the Chinese kids show the Spanish kids how to do it. “This is how you hold a Chinese brush, this is how you do the Chinese characters in the correct order.” Now, if they show another kid, if they're able to do that, it means they know it.