Teaching English in the nation's rural areas is no mean task, given textbook content that has no local context and teachers who themselves lack proficiency in the language. Zhang Yue reports.
"Morning! Morning! Morning!" repeats a group of third-graders loudly after their teacher, first in English and then in Chinese. This is followed by other words from their vocabulary list, taking up half the 45-minute English class at Wangji School in Dongxiang county, Northwest China's Gansu province.
Although the class of 47 third graders of Wangji take three English classes a week, few can respond to their teacher trying to initiate a simple conversation with a new face at school.
"Kids here are very smart," teacher Ma Yanhong, 24, says. "But they are very shy. Encouraging them to speak out is the hardest part for me. In the presence of strangers, very few kids are brave enough to raise their hands and answer my questions in English."
More than 90 percent of the teachers and students here belong to the Dongxiang ethnic group, which has its own language and whose members are Muslim. Most are fluent in the Dongxiang language, but find it hard to communicate in Mandarin.
Ma began teaching in Dongxiang county in 2010. She says when she first started, she sometimes had to explain an English word first in the Dongxiang language and then in Mandarin to make sure that every student understood.
Wangji School has just two English teachers teaching eight classes from the third to the sixth grade.
"We face a serious shortage of English teachers," says Yang Junwei, head of the education department of Dongxiang county. Attracting university graduates to take teaching positions in the county has always been difficult. "The place is poor and isolated and some graduates find it almost impossible to communicate with the locals," Yang says.
"In many primary schools, majors in other disciplines often double as English teachers. They have no training in English teaching and just know some simple words and sentences," Yang says.
Even Ma, who graduated with an English major in 2009, finds her proficiency in the language wanting after teaching for one year.
"Every time I participate in a teaching seminar in Lanzhou and see students from urban areas responding quickly to their teachers and hear their clear pronunciation, I feel sad. I feel I'm not capable of teaching students well with what I learned in college. I am trying to improve by learning English online every evening after class."
Both of the school's English teachers graduated from the Gansu Normal University of Nationalities in Gannan Tibet autonomous prefecture. Ma says she has never visited any place outside Gansu.
Poor knowledge of the outside world is a common problem for teachers in Dong-xiang, no matter what subjects they teach.
At Zhongbao Hope Elementary School, a school founded by China Daily in 1999, some teachers find it hard to introduce topics they themselves are unfamiliar with, to their students.
Ma Xiaojun, 25, has been teaching English in Zhongbao for four years.
"Here, we use books that are common to all primary schools across China, and the teaching material is decided by China's education department," he says. "But for many topics in the books, we have no idea how to explain them to the kids."
One example he gives is of an English lesson that deals with traffic rules.
"The book explains that in China, cars keep to the right side of the road, while in many other countries, such as Britain and Australia, cars keep to the left," he says. "But most children have no idea where Australia is, or even about traffic. Many of them walk 7-8 km of mountainous roads from home to school."
While teachers grapple with providing context to their lessons, what Wangji student Zhao Rui, 11, misses most is the one class taught by a teacher from Beijing.
Last year, a group of students from Peking University went to Dongxiang to spend some time teaching the students of Wangji School.
"Our teacher was called Tom. He was tall, and spoke beautiful English," Zhao recalls. "He explained things very clearly. I remember how he taught us about colors. He said yellow is a coward and purple is shy."
These are the only names of colors the girl remembers clearly to this day.
Similar problems crop up with Chinese literature lessons too.
Tang Xiuli, 34, has been teaching Chinese to third graders at Wangji for nine years. She has just finished reading a story to them titled A Little Photographer, which is about a Russian student trying to take a photo for renowned Russian writer Maxim Gorky.
When a China Daily reporter visited the class and asked the students what they understood by the word photographer, the class fell silent, before one of them shouted, "a journalist!" But he had little idea of what journalists did.
When asked who Gorky was, the class fell into a longer silence.
"Do you think he is from China?" the reporter prompted.
"Yes!" said the whole class, without missing a beat.
Only four students in the class of 44 had ever had their photos taken or seen a camera - and that was in the village studio.
Ma Xiaojun, who is now taking an online English teaching course, says: "My biggest wish is to write an English book for teaching students in Dongxiang.
"The book will have content that children here are familiar with, such as their ethnic dress, special celebrations for festivals and their rural lifestyles. They would be very interested in learning about something close to their lives, in English."