English Corner is a group activity where several English students get together and practice their English.
It started in China and is now a regular feature on university campuses, in training centres, parks, schools, coffee shops. Anywhere where a crowd can congregate, you may find an English Corner.
It is usually led by a native-Chinese speaker, but often a native-English speaker, usually a teacher.
It lasts for anywhere between 45 minutes and an hour and there is one central topic that the speaker introduces to the crowd.
The teacher hosting the English Corner should try to introduce the topic and provide as much vocabulary and phrases related to it. Or if he might introduce cultural aspects to a topic and provide information about that.
At the end of any talk that the teacher gives, the students may ask questions or there might be an activity.
English Corner is hugely popular in China and has now spread to other countries.
Legend has it that the first English Corner was held in Shenyang, Liaoning Province in the eighties.
The story goes that a student observed another student while waiting to cross the road. He saw that the student was reading an English book. The two struck up a conversation and promised to meet each other again at the same location and the same time the following week.
And thus English Corner was born.
A great idea for an English Corner topic — The Origins of English Corner.
One thing is for certain. There is a part of Renmin University campus known as The English Corner. There is no sign, it is not even a corner, but it has been the location for many English Corner meetings since the eighties.
But English Corner definitely started in China. And it has been a main feature of studying English for Chinese students for a long time.
Ask any Chinese student what English Corner is and they can tell you.
Now it has spread all over the country.
Every Sunday in People’s Park in Shanghai, every Saturday evening in Gulou Square in Nanjing and Sunday mornings in The Great Hall of The People in Guangxi.
Along with all the thousands of other smaller spots and schools, training centres and university campuses.
It is impossible to not find one in any Chinese city.
What Topics Can You Talk About?
Effectively you can talk about anything at all.
Except you can’t.
In China, for example, there are certain topics you absolutely should avoid. What is known as The Three T’s — Taiwan, Tiananmen and Tibet.
You might have students trying to goad you into a discussion about one of these topics but it’s best to avoid it altogether.
No need to rock the boat.
Also, avoid religious topics to a degree. Anything political.
But in terms of anything else, the English Corner is your oyster so to speak.
Popular topics to talk about could be any international holidays, topics from the news, food, free-time activities or music.
So you could spend an entire English Corner talking about Christmas, Thanksgiving or Halloween. Students are usually fascinated by western holidays and what we get up to during these times.
The news is always a good subject. You might have to be careful with some news stories. If it is too politically sensitive, then it is best avoided.
I heard of one teacher doing an English Corner on the Sichuan Earthquake the day after it happened. It would certainly be fresh in the students’ minds but a great deal of sensitivity would be in order.
Lots to talk about in terms of food and music.
Just make sure you bring plenty of examples for the students to listen to for music or look at it for food topics.
A great topic to talk about is your life story.
Bring lots of pictures and you can captivate the entire room for at least an hour as you show photographs of you as a little kid or teenager.
The students are especially interested in life outside of China and what it is like.
How to Prepare English Corner?
If you have been given a topic, then that is half the battle.
If not, then you have to start looking at sources of inspiration.
A good place to start is your own life. What are your hobbies? Your interests?
For example, maybe you are a keen runner. That would be a great topic to talk about.
You could begin by describing the clothes that runners wear — the running shoes, the shorts, vest. Then you can talk about the exercises runners do to warm up — stretching and so on.
Other things to talk about could be places to go running, diet and food, running clubs.
You will find that you easily have enough material for the whole English Corner session.
Another good idea is to ask the other teachers what they have done in their English Corner.
Find out what they have talked about — and then avoid those topics like the plague.
The students don’t want to have one session after another on the same topic. They are not there for you to bore the living daylights out of them. They want to be interested in what you are talking about so make it interesting.
Therefore you need to have other media to help you. Pictures, audio, video.
I did an entire English Corner on topics like Stonehenge and Miles Davis. No, not at the same time.
I had tons of pictures of both Stonehenge and Miles Davis.
A load of Miles Davis tracks so I could give the students examples of his amazing music career.
Did I encourage any of them to pack their bags and fly off to England and visit Stonehenge?
No, of course not.
I doubt if I converted any of them to the genius of Miles Davis either, but they left the room having been engaged in what I was talking about.
Make an Outline
I think the best way to create your English Corner is to treat it like any other English lesson.
I have met many teachers that just roll into the English Corner room and expect the students to have a thousand questions to ask.
You have to prepare a topic and you have to have a plan.
The good thing about this is that you can create an entire folder of English Corner topic plans you can use over and over.
So it’s worth doing.
Treat it like a lecture or a seminar where the teacher introduces a subject for some time and the students ask questions at the end.
If I were to do my Stonehenge English Corner again, it might go something like this:
- Introduction – What is Stonehenge?
- A picture of Stonehenge.
- It’s location in Wiltshire, England.
- A brief concept of what modern-day scientists believe it to be — a calendar, a clock, etc.
- The History of Stonehenge.
- How old is it?
- Where did the stones come from?
- How did they get there?
- Go through all the historical phases of the monument up to modern day.
- How it became a tourist site.
- Now they build a protective wall around the stones so people cannot touch it.
- Modern-day Druids using it for Summer Solstice.
I think you get the idea.
Just outline all the points you want to talk about, make sure all your research notes are handy and you should have no trouble talking for one hour.
Nothing is worse than drying-up in front of a crowd of students and you still have fifteen minutes to go before the bell.
Is English Corner Useful for Students?
I think for more advanced and intermediate students it can.
For beginner students, they may get lost as they cannot follow what is being said. Some schools and places have English Corner for beginners which is a great idea. Just giving them lots of vocabulary.
If the English Corner is held by a teacher who puts no effort into it then what can the students possibly gain?
The teacher must be engaged with the topic and must have some energy. Or the students will just nod off and fall asleep.
The teacher must also prepare well. Have a topic to talk about and make sure you know what you are going to say.
But equally, the students need to make some effort too.
I have encountered many students who simply attend English Corner glancing up at the teacher between checking messages on their phone and staring into space.
If the students don’t concentrate and follow what is going on in the English Corner, they will get very little from it.
Sitting there soaking up all the Englishness in the room by osmosis is no way to learn.
But I believe that on a cultural level English Corner provides value.
It is an exchange of ideas of places, music, food, customs — that is something that the students may not learn in other classes so much.
English Corner is here to stay.
It’s been around for about 30 years so I can’t see it disappearing anytime soon.
Providing you prepare and do adequate research your English Corner sessions should go very smoothly.
And like I said before, keep a file of all your English Corner sessions. Add to them and you can use them again and again.
Do not be that boring old teacher who shuffles into the room with a hangover and nothing to say.
The students can’t stand that guy and he has no desire to be there anyway.
There will be days when you really do not want to do English Corner. You have to put on a bit of a show and it can be draining and tiresome.
But if you have a backlog of prepared English Corner topics, you will be fine.