I'm helping a middle-aged, college-educated woman from mainland China improve her English. This is a hard-working, well-educated, highly-self-motivated student. She has lived in the USA for many years.

My student's reading skills are around that of the average native English speaker. Her listening skills are fine. Her speaking is perfectly comprehensible.

The biggest challenge has to do with grammar. Anyone who has helped a Chinese speaker improve their English has surely encountered these difficulties.

  • My student regularly leaves off articles like a/an/the.
  • My student often fails to properly conjugate verbs. She can conjugate verbs correctly if she thinks about it but usually does not. The challenge here is breaking a long-established bad habit.

This student talks to people all the time in English, but they don't correct her. She regularly reads adult-level English nonfiction books. She's actively studying from several TOEFL preparation guides.

What are the most effective exercises and homework for helping an advanced-level student fix these errors in speaking? I'm a native English speaker. I can speak/read Mandarin.


1 Answer 1


Given your student's background, overall aptitude and difficulties. I would have to say the approach really needs to be two pronged:

1) He/she needs to be diligent in thinking and speaking properly, this will be tricky but can be done. I assume, they have already "kicked" the stereotypical habit of mixing he/she up when speaking (a result of the Chinese language saying he/she the same). The verb conjugation quirk is no different, time - effort - polite correction. It will be slow an arduous but doable. This applies to the articles as well, for instance in Chinese you wouldn't say, "Please give me an apple," you would say, "Qing ni, gei wo yige pingguo" (Please give me 1 apple). I find a lot of people coming from languages where articles are essentially quantities struggle with this.

2) The other would be using their habits and hobbies of reading books to learn. If they read with intent and see how these nuances are used and utilized this too will help.

Now, where I am getting this is personal experience. I volunteered in Uni. at a ESL Help Centre, taught ESL for a year in China - and my wife is Chinese (albeit her English is better than mine, as I only speak sarcasm and cuss-words). Additionally, I am the inverse of you I can speak and understand Mandarin, but can't read to save my life.

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