Winners and other participants celebrate on stage at the Qooco Asia Spelling Cup 2017, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on November 12 (COURTESY OF QOOCO)
English learning remains very popular with Chinese people today, as the country has been increasingly integrated into the globalization process. Most Chinese families, with improving livelihoods, give priority to their children's education, and English learning has been a big part of many families' spending on education.
However, language learning is usually boring for kids. But now, it seems to be a little different.
The Qooco Asia Spelling Cup 2017, Asia's largest spelling contest, concluded on November 12 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with historic first-time victories for China and Thailand. China's first secondary school-level champion was crowned when 13-year-old Zhu Weizheng beat all other students to claim first place, while Jaratpat Akkanimanee, a 10-year-old Thai student, won first place in the primary school-level. China has won the primary-level competition before, but never had a secondary school winner until Zhu's victory this year.
Overall, 56 students from China, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia took part following pre-selection rounds that involved over 200,000 students from across all four countries, who applied via the mobile application Qooco Arena, and a separate China Spelling Cup held in Beijing in September.
"This year, the Qooco Asia Spelling Cup 2017 was even bigger, and every year I am more and more impressed by the standard of English these kids possess," said Qooco CEO David Topolewski, adding that "the pre-selection rounds were much more competitive, with even more kids applying through the Qooco Arena app, and we held province-wide and country-wide pre-selection spelling bees in China in September, so it was incredibly hard fought. It is also great to see such a mix of nations getting to the top three; every single one of the countries involved returned home with a winner."
"Next year will be even bigger still, and we will introduce more countries for the Qooco Asia Spelling Cup 2018," Topolewski said. "We are looking at a few different cities in Asia to host the event, and numerous countries have expressed interest in joining."
A different learning approach
Why are so many Chinese students interested in the spelling bee event? Victoria Mu, co-founder and director of Qooco, offered an explanation.
"Unlike previous generations, kids born after the millennium are able to enjoy a more interactive learning experience with the rapid development of mobile Internet-based technologies. They don't have to be limited to text books and boring video or audio language materials in classroom. They can talk to English native speakers whenever they want with various online education services," Mu told Beijing Review.
"Downloading the Qooco app to a smart phone allows you to enter a wonderful world of English learning," Mu said.
The education company has grown fast since it set up its headquarters in Beijing in 2013, according to Mu. Young Chinese parents today are generally better educated than those of earlier generations, and they have higher demands for children's education services. Parents pay attention to not only school records, but also their children's real abilities.
"So our company designs various products and services based on children's characteristics and preferences," Mu said.
For example, lessons featuring animation are created based on fairy tales. The smart app can also guide children in self-learning at home or in class.
Talking to native speakers online is the most important feature of Qooco, Mu said. And, most families choose to buy Qooco services for this option.
Guan Zhinan, 10, won first place in the medium-level group in the Beijing final on September 24. Her father, Guan Daoheng, told Beijing Review that his daughter started learning English when she entered a bilingual kindergarten in Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning Province.
"My daughter spends an hour every day learning English, including reciting words and talking to English native speakers online. Mostly, she can study by herself via the Qooco app," Guan said.
"The native speaker teacher can correct her pronunciation and improve her spoken English. The effect is obvious," he added.
A big market
Qooco is one of many popular education apps that have rapidly captured parents' attention. Most education service providers in Beijing have introduced customized online products and apps, the number of which is countless. The mobile Internet-based education service sector is already booming.
According to a market report produced by iiMedia Research, an Internet data analysis firm in Guangzhou, the online education market in China is expected to reach over 250 billion yuan ($37.68 billion) this year. Mobile learning will be the future of online education development, the report said.
Mobile learning in China has become extremely popular in recent years, with China expected to overtake the United States this year to become the world's leading mobile learning market, valued at 3.12 billion yuan ($470.5 million), iiMedia Research predicted.
Apart from the huge market potential, mobile learning helps meet the growing demand for education resources for children after school. And, the boom in online and mobile learning is also having an impact on school education.
Hard work, peer pressure
Ruan Huifang, a mother of a 14-year-old teenager, said it's quite normal for school students to attend extracurricular cram schools for a variety of subjects including English, as well as interest-oriented classes such as piano, drawing and dancing.
"Who doesn't want their children to be excellent?" Ruan said, adding that foreign teachers from English-speaking countries in extracurricular English tutoring schools are very important because they are better than any Chinese teachers in terms of oral English. Besides, most of them can make lessons very active and fun, making students more interested in the subject.
Zhang Wen (a pseudonym) is an English language teacher at Beijing National Day School, where she teaches more than 70 students who are divided into three classes. According to Zhang, almost every one of her students has after-school English courses or a family tutor. But she believes that the school curriculum is in fact completely sufficient for students.
As to the reason for the seemingly "unnecessary" extracurricular tutoring, Zhang said it might result from peer pressure among parents. "If parents see that one of their child's classmates attends after-school English lessons, they feel anxious, and this passes on to the child. It's like a virus which eventually spreads through the entire class," she told Beijing Review.
Zhang added that although there is no express stipulation on which English level primary and middle school students should reach at their ages, different parents and students have different requirements. Zhang believes that for those who have a hard time understanding teachers' instructions or even cannot keep up with a majority of their classmates, taking after-school lessons is reasonable, while for those who are above average in their grades, taking extra English classes is unnecessary.
Dong Shasha, an English language teacher from PKUHS Tianjin School, agreed with Zhang, saying that her students usually have more English lessons after school per week, including grammar lessons, writing lessons and reading lessons.
"If they can digest what they've learnt at school and finish all the homework on time, there won't be any problem," Dong said. "But of course, there are always students with good scores who want to work harder to be the best, so they prefer to extra learning after school."
But why do the same lessons lead to different results among students? There are several reasons. Zhang said parents should pay more attention to their children's performance at school, which has a major impact on their education experience. Tutorials after school purchased from education companies should be a supplement, not a substitute.
While teachers believe that school lessons are sufficient for students' English learning, they still think the current situation bodes well for extracurricular English cram schools, as they fulfill a particular need.
"In some ways, after-school classes serve as a pacifier for anxious parents who worry a lot about their children's school work," Zhang said.
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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