Cultural conundrums

This month, Genevieve White – who we believe is our most northerly member – tells us about writing for the Far East. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

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Cultural conundrums: writing for a Chinese publisher

by Genevieve White



As ELT writers producing material for international markets, much of our work may be geared towards the archetypal ‘communicative’ classroom. As we write, we may be visualising a teacher moving freely around her twenty or so students, facilitating lively discussions and overseeing creative projects. The students we envisage are generally willing to express opinions and take part in appropriately pitched speaking tasks, enjoying group work more than they do teacher-led lessons. With a little thought and imagination, we can confidently suggest contemporary and interesting topics which have a broad appeal.

What happens, though, when we are asked to write for a specific teaching and learning context in a culture very different from our own? All of a sudden, our usual points of reference melt away.

I speak from personal experience, as in December 2013 I was asked to write a sample unit for a Chinese ELT coursebook. The brief described a multi-level course aimed at Chinese vocational students. This course aimed to motivate Chinese students (who often regard English learning as a tedious chore) through taking a new and innovative approach to skills and activities.

Always up for a challenge, I submitted my sample unit. After a fair amount of emailing back and forth, receiving adjustments to the original proposal and rewriting my sample unit accordingly, it was confirmed that I had got the job.

Over the following months, I was to learn a lot about China – both the country and its education system. The experience of writing this coursebook, although not without its difficulties, was overwhelmingly positive. I’d like to share some of the challenges I faced, explore the personal and professional benefits of working on this project and reflect on key lessons learned.

Challenges faced

  • Firstly, I learned that my summer’s worth of teaching experience in Shanghai (in which I taught a class of confident postgraduate students) was not wholly representative of China’s educational system. As a result, unit drafts were frequently returned to me with the dreaded comment ‘This would not work in a Chinese classroom.’
  • It sometimes took a certain amount of time to establish what was required. For example, my editor frequently stressed the importance of developing students’ speaking skills and yet many of my speaking tasks were initially rejected. In time, I learned that very structured speaking tasks (broken into small chunks and accompanied by lengthy phrase banks) were deemed necessary for Chinese students. Discussion questions needed to come with a set of potential answers to choose from rather than being left wide open.
  • Although I was writing an intermediate coursebook, I was essentially writing to a higher level for writing and reading than I was for speaking and listening. This was to reflect Chinese students’ strengths and weaknesses, but getting the balance right took a little getting used to.
  • My editor frequently requested I write ‘short funny stories’ to be used as reading and listening texts. Being amusing for a completely different cultural audience is not easy. I was glad I was not around to see the bemused faces of the editors as they pondered my attempts at jokes. A little research into Chinese humour helped here.

Benefits gained

  • A project like this is a great opportunity to learn a lot about a different country and culture. During the course of my writing I learned about Chinese festivals, cuisine, traditions and even attitudes to dating.
  • An experience like this can stand you in good stead for future projects involving the same country or culture, as you will develop specialist knowledge regarding a different educational system.
  • If you develop a good relationship with your publisher (see below), you stand a good chance of becoming the person they turn to when they need English language advice. Since completing my coursebook, I’ve been asked to do a number of copyediting jobs on different English language materials.
  • Communicating across cultures is a skill which can be transferred, if working with a different culture in the future.

Advice for cross-cultural writing projects

  • Think carefully about class sizes and relationships between students and teachers in the country you’re writing for. Watching YouTube clips of Chinese classrooms (with seventy students sitting in rows listening to a teacher with a headset and microphone) helped me to visualise my audience.
  • Develop a thick skin. Some of the delicacies in feedback can get lost in translation and you mustn’t mind too much if a task you’ve designed is described as being ‘boring and old-fashioned’ or (rather more ambiguously) ‘too abroad’.
  • Put yourself into your audience’s shoes and plan your content accordingly. What films and TV shows are popular? (In China, The Big Bang Theory and Sherlock are huge). Conversely, what will be unfamiliar or inaccessible to them? (In China, Twitter and Facebook are not used, and so social media topics were off-limits.)
  • Embrace ambiguity. Having corresponded on an almost weekly basis with my closest in-house contact for over a year, I am still no closer to finding out if he or she is male or female. Searching for this person’s first name on the internet has offered me no further clues and I have not yet figured out how I can establish my contact’s gender after all this time without asking directly.

Writing materials for a different culture has been an invigorating and, at times, humbling experience for me. Sharing these experiences is useful for writers working for the first time in a new culture and it would be great to see comments here from other writers who have their own cross-cultural writing tales to tell.

My own story has a happy ending. While writing this blog post, I received an email offering me further work with my Chinese publisher. Perhaps this time around I will manage to ascertain the gender of my in-house contact.


Genevieve White is an ELT materials writer and an ESOL tutor at a community centre for adult education in Shetland. She has written a wide range of print and digital materials, including teacher’s notes, tests and the speaking component of an online course. Her first book, Collins English for Life: Skills – Writing was published last year. She blogs at and tweets from @ShetlandESOL.

19 responses to Cultural conundrums

  1. Rachael Roberts 17 August 2015 at 6:45 pm #

    Really interesting insights, Genny. And I like the tip about watching videos of a typical class online

  2. Karen White 18 August 2015 at 7:42 am #

    Fascinating! I love the tip about watching YouTube videos to find out more about the classroom situation.
    I’m interested in hearing more about the editorial process – did you go through the same stages as you would have done if you were working with a western publisher? You say you didn’t find out the gender of your editor – was your relationship very formal. How would you compare the overall experience of working with the Chinese publisher with others you’ve worked with?
    Thanks again for some really interesting insights.

    • Louis Rogers 19 August 2015 at 4:22 pm #

      Hi Karen,

      I wrote the other two levels and think the process was fairly similar to my experiences with western publishers. The only difference is the point Genny makes about getting texts approved first. I have had to do this for western publishers but hardly ever. As a result I have had to do entire spreads again as the main text/idea was rejected as ‘not interesting’, ‘too similar to another level’ etc. If everyone is agreed on the text/topic angle before first draft, the second draft is much smoother as the feedback is all at exercise/flow level.

      I echo much of what Genny has said. It was a really interesting project to work on.

      • Genevieve White 20 August 2015 at 9:05 pm #

        Hi Louis,
        Nice to see you here. I didn’t realise that you had written both of the other two levels. I would be really interested to have a look – must try and get my hands on them somehow!
        Interesting what you say about getting whole spreads knocked back just because the text wasn’t deemed to be suitable. Although it did seem time consuming writing two lots of texts for each listening/reading at the outset of this project, I guess this is a less time consuming and less frustrating way of doing things.

        • Louis Rogers 21 August 2015 at 10:50 am #

          Hi Genny,

          The first stage did seem never ending. 48 ‘texts’ across the two books! Then add in the genre issues you mentioned. I probably gravitate towards writing something like a Guardian article but the feedback often required something on the same topic but like an Aesop fable. However, it was definitely less time consuming this way. Also by the second book (and hopefully earlier) I had got my head into the genre expectations better 🙂

  3. Penny Hands 18 August 2015 at 11:01 am #

    This is a fascinating read, Genny! I couldn’t agree with you more that a project like this is a great opportunity to learn a lot about a different country and culture. Really interesting to compare it with my experience of working with HarperCollins India on an English course for primary schools there. I had the added interest of discussing with my Indian colleagues whether Indian authors’ ‘Indianisms’ constituted Indian English (allowed by the Indian publisher to a certain point) or ‘mistakes’. The editors I worked with were fairly pro-British English, and I often found myself arguing for Indian English turns of phrase, where that seemed to be the most common usage in India, as far as I could tell. But it’s all about negotiation and mutual respect. I found these discussions led to some really rewarding working relationships.

    • Genevieve White 18 August 2015 at 3:15 pm #

      Hello Penny,

      Thanks very much for this. Actually, you (and the fascinating talk you gave at IATEFL in April) popped into my head while I was writing this blog post! 🙂

      I’m especially interested in what you say about British English v Indian English. During the final stages of writing the book for my Chinese publishers there were a few discussions about specific structures/ turns of phrases I’d used in some of the texts/activities. I usually wanted to stick with what sounded “right” to my ears, but your comment has started me thinking about global Englishes and the process of negotiation which is a necessary part of this kind of writing assignment.

      Thanks again!


      • Penny Hands 18 August 2015 at 3:53 pm #

        Yes, I found it harder to go with unfamiliar language items on the first project I did with India (Grammar in Action), but I gradually got used to it. As you might imagine, it’s much easier to accept that another variety of world English uses a different vocabulary item than it is to accept grammatical differences. For example, Indian English uses the present continuous in some cases where British English uses the present simple, and there are also differences between countable and uncountable uses. I fought ‘fruits’ for a while until I realised that it is perfectly acceptable and normal in Indian English. (‘There are some fruits on the table.’) Another example of a difference I have had to get used to is adolescents of both genders addressing their mother as ‘Mummy’.

        • Genevieve White 18 August 2015 at 4:13 pm #

          I suppose correcting a colleague’s English can feel pretty awkward at the best of times! It’s more complicated still when you are taking different varieties of English into consideration. Did you just kind of “pick up” Indian English as you went along, Penny?

          I think the “mummy” thing is lovely! I really wish that would catch on in British English. When my children get too grown up for “mummy” I’d rather be called by my first name. Anything but “mum”!

  4. Genevieve White 18 August 2015 at 11:40 am #

    Hello Rachael and Karen,

    Thanks very much for reading and commenting!

    In answer to your question, Karen, I have never written a course book for a UK publisher, so I’m not quite sure how similar/different the editorial process was. The writing/rewriting process seemed fairly similar to my experiences of writing resources/self-study books for UK publishers though.

    After getting my sample unit accepted I responded to editorial feedback, rewriting this initial unit several times. I was then given a series of unit headings (film, celebrations and festivals, the environment etc.) and was asked to source/write reading and listening texts to correspond with these. A couple of texts/ideas for texts were required in each case and the publisher chose the one they thought most appealing. Once the texts were approved, tasks and activities needed to be designed around each one. I also had to choose the grammar focus for each unit, using the texts I had chosen to help with this. Generally, I rewrote each unit about four or five times, although the changes I made were pretty minimal by the fourth/fifth rewrite.

    I also wrote the teacher’s notes, which I wasn’t expecting to do. However, I found this pretty straightforward as I knew exactly what I’d had in mind when I designed the tasks.

    In terms of my relationship with my editor I think it has been a little different as I’ve been aware of being more careful than usual. I suppose I’ve been feeling worried about unwittingly causing offence by making a major cross cultural etiquette blunder via email! Despite my timidity, I’ve found my editor really warm and kind – a pleasure to work with! I received a lovely gift at Chinese New Year and when the roof of my house blew off in winter gales my editor sent me (via email) a gorgeous studio portrait of his/her one year old daughter to “cheer me up”. And it did!

    As I said, I’ve never written a course book for a UK publisher so I’d be interested to know if the process I’ve described here is at all similar.

    Thanks again for your kind comments,


  5. Lewis Lansford 18 August 2015 at 3:48 pm #

    Thanks for the post. It’s a valuable skill to put yourself in the hands of an editorial team in this way. It can feel like drawing a landscape picture while blindfolded, with someone describing the scenery to you. Sort of fun once you get used to it?

    • Genevieve White 19 August 2015 at 1:50 pm #

      Great analogy, Lewis! 🙂 Yes, It does feel quite a lot like that at times!

  6. Karen White 18 August 2015 at 7:21 pm #

    Thanks for your response, Genny. That sounds like a very similar process, although it’s interesting to hear that you decided what the grammar focus of each unit was, rather than a syllabus being given to you. I’m sure a lot of writers would like that to be the way it was more commonly done! Also less common in this part of the world for SB writers to write the teacher’s notes, but not unheard of. Good to hear you had an easy relationship with your editor – it’s the little personal touches that make all the difference when you’re working on a long-term project, I think.

    • Genevieve White 19 August 2015 at 1:53 pm #

      Thanks, Karen. Although I probably should add that I was given a list of grammar points to choose from (many of which had already been bagsied by the writers of the first and second books in the series – I was writing the third level up) so I think I may have made it sound a bit more free and easy than it was in reality!

  7. Sarah Curtis 20 August 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    Just read your blog after spending 3 hours with a large class of Chinese secondary school teachers and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ve found that in my classes although teachers happily quote language learning theories to me and willingly share ideas of best classroom practice, they never actually practice it themselves. In a lesson on teaching reading I was frequently told that they teach their students to skim and scan and not worry about individual words, but the moment I ask the teachers to read anything out come the dictionaries!!
    There also major differences between the coastal Chinese teachers and my group who come from the south west – the general level of English and world knowledge is very limited and like you, I’ve brought up topics I thought were fairly universal only to be met with a sea of blank faces.
    One thing I discovered today was that the level of English in a senior high school book is quite a bit higher than many of my teachers’ level of English and yet they have to teach it. Now there’s a challenge for a coursebook writer!

    • Louis Rogers 21 August 2015 at 10:42 am #

      Hi Sarah,

      The videos Genny mentioned above were quite fascinating to watch. They were actually using a sample lesson I had written. One thing I really hadn’t apppreciated was quite how much the teacher would analyze a text with the class from the front of the room – literally word by word. There was a warmer of a questionnaire on decision making styles. I had imagined – answer it on your own, compare with a partner and discuss. It took 30 minutes because the teacher analyzed it in such detail before letting the students loose on it.

      The publisher wanted us to create a course that encouraged teachers to move away from this word by word analysis. However, it still very much acknowledges the fact that teachers are likely to do this by having translated word lists in the students’ book and a complete translation in the teachers’ book. All of the teachers’ notes had to include ideas for interacting in with the texts in different ways.

      I think the books end up halfway between a ‘traditional’ Chinese course and a communicative approach course. There’s nowhere near as much pairwork/group work as you’d find in many international courses. However, there’s probably more than you’d usually find in a local course – quite hard to monitor usefully in a class of 80. However, there are also lots of ‘traditional’ exercises such as translation tasks – I didn’t write the key on those 🙂

  8. Genevieve White 20 August 2015 at 9:08 pm #

    Hello Sarah,

    Thanks for this insight into English language teaching in China. I feel sorry for these teachers, having to work with books beyond their level…

    It’s also interesting what you say about the gulf between theories of learning and teachers’ practice (although I know this is not at all unique to China!). Over the course of this writing project, I realised that Chinese teachers and students want to move away from more traditional approaches to learning English (lots of rote learning, word by word translation etc.) towards a more “communicative” approach with a focus on discussion and task based learning. It will be interesting to see how this works out.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment,


  9. Lyn Strutt (MaWSIG editor) 21 August 2015 at 12:10 pm #

    I just thought I’d add my experience here. I used to do sessions with state school primary teachers in Hong Kong as part of a British Council initiative to make English lessons more communicative. Fine in theory, but my suggestions of ‘find someone who’, mingling, pairwork and groupwork, use of English for instructions, etc., were all pretty unpopular. Teachers stood at the front with a mic, children were not allowed to leave desks, and instruction was in L1. What they really wanted from me was lessons they could take back and use immediately in their scenario. I wonder if things have changed since then (1999)?

  10. Genevieve White 24 August 2015 at 2:38 pm #

    Hullo Lyn!

    That sounds like a really interesting experience you had, and captures perfectly the challenges which came along with writing for this market.

    I suppose really large class sizes do make pair work, ‘find someone who’ activities and mingling rather hard. It’s not just the physical obstacles these activities present in classes of fifty or more: it’s also extremely difficult for the teacher to monitor effectively with such large numbers (and even conduct class feedback).

    I think class sizes must surely be one of the greatest barriers Chinese teachers face when trying to incorporate communicative activities in their lessons. I don’t know if that’s changing or is going to change any time soon!

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