New Concept English is an English language curriculum created by Louis George Alexander, and first published in 1967. This English language curriculum revolutionized the way English was previously taught by incorporating storytelling, conversation and cultural topics rather than focusing merely on rote repetition and memorization.

The Importance of New Concept English and its Continued Relevance in ESL Curricula

Louis George Alexander was a British linguistic pioneer who, having written numerous pedagogical coursebooks and theories in the mid 20th century, greatly inspired the English learning experience in the Chinese classroom. He set the precedent of English learning throughout the country and established principles, methodologies, and approaches we still practice today- particularly his four-part, ground-breaking textbook series, New Concept English. NCE is an abbreviation we are all too familiar with, being that we still teach these courses on our very own online platform. This pedagogic formulation is considered to be the code cracker for Chinese to English studies and has been in circulation with many reprints since its initial publication in 1967.1 But how did this fundamental, engaging, and well-respected coursework come to prominence? Alexander’s New Concept English combined conversational, cultural and grammatical/vocabularic skill with funny and charming stories and lessons, which simply made learning English for kids fun, thus, endearing.

Original Chinese to English textbooks tended to be politically charged and laced with ideological agendas. However, with the mid-20th-century global market economy rising to encompass many multi-national corporations under the common English tongue, the demand for English fluency, beginning at a very early age, flourished. Today, it is a well-known fact that learning English is an imperatively important facet of education, especially at an early age, being that it is becoming the primary global mode of communication. Bilingual fluency is an increased assurance of financial and career-oriented success. Therefore, it is not uncommon for parents to begin enrolling their pre-school aged children in English lessons. This development proved to be so widespread, particularly in larger cities, that English comprehension and literacy has found its way onto national Chinese academic exams and college entry requirements. Enter New Concept English. According to longtime English teacher Yu Zilong, “NCE has a complete and well-tried system for learning English as a foreign language, enabling students to reach their maximum potential in the four primary skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.”2

Content and Skills Dual Syllabi

To best combine these four integral elements and most reputable of Alexander’s coursebooks are the integrations of cross-cultural significances. According to his wife, Julia Alexander, Louis was “concerned with motivation. Did the learners like English speakers enough to want to learn their language?”3 A principle aspect of learning any new language is the ability to connect with the culture behind the particular lexicon. Otherwise, what relevance, motivation, or interest can truly be piqued to inspire long term commitment to its learning? What is most profound of Alexander’s ‘complete and well-tried’ series was the incorporation of cultural studies into the structural composition of the curriculums. He knew cultural connectivity to be a guiding motivator for new English learners. Therefore, he developed his New Concept English lessons around two distinct syllabi- the “Content” syllabus and the “Skills” syllabus. These two curriculums were mean to work synchronously to best foster a multi-dimensional, layered learning experience- each particular mode possessing qualities that are fundamentally necessary all while enhancing one other.

The Content syllabus was used primarily in instructing literacy frameworks, grammatical concepts, and vocabularic structures. This syllabus dealt mainly with teaching the linguistic aspect of how, exactly, to speak English. This coursework dealt with verbal and written practicums which would develop the student’s ability to cognitively recognize the characters and phrases necessary for appropriate English communication. Basically, how to read, write, and speak the actual language.

The Skills syllabus, according to modern-day retrospect, was the driving force behind the uniqueness and originality of Alexander’s NCE. This syllabus centered around application. It was emphatic on educating students on the cultural and everyday living of English speakers. By teaching the cultural standard and values of foreign language speakers, suddenly those speakers no longer seem so foreign. The Skills syllabus inspired the why and how to learn English. Rather than regurgitate words, phrases, and tenses that hold no relevance to the students or their everyday lives, students were now able to better grasp the conversational importance of communication through associative similarities- especially given the modern global interconnectedness in which lays great prosperity.

This NCE dual syllabi approach was a “pedagogical tool… each lesson a process of synthesizing content and skill”4 all meant to seal the gap between learning and language in favor of a compelling and memorable experience. By motivating students to learn English through conversation regarding cultural differences and similarities, the process was no longer a tedious foreign language requirement, dislocated from any sort of relevant association. It was now an engaging discourse which promoted intercultural understanding.

Student-Centric Relevance

Importantly, Alexander chose to relate the cultural significance of English-speaking cultures not through dry socio-historical analysis, but through fun and engaging characters who tell interesting, creative and- most importantly- captivating stories. Remember, these lessons were geared towards children. To best capture their attention with a study that even many adults perceive to be hard and tedious (that is learning a foreign language), Alexander decided to center his pedagogical methodology around the universal appeal of storytelling. He knew “people are motivated by what makes them happy. Everyone enjoys a good story. A good story engages our curiosity, our surprise, our feelings. It engages us through our shared humanity.”5 His simple designs were well received by students, being that they were “funny, fallible, kind, polite, innocent at heart— never unkind or immoral, or rude. Louis’ learners have always loved the author’s voice.”6 Indeed, this author’s voice has been echoing in English classrooms ever since.

Now, we have a multi-faceted pedagogical approach. No longer was the redundantly repetitious recitation of vocabulary and regurgitative grammar the norm for English learners. Instead, school children were inspired to connect on a more personal level with the characters and their stories, all while interjecting history, arts, and culture into the conversation, animating the experience all the more. Really, this was English learning disguised as games and story time. Despite the overwhelming support in instituting the NCE curriculum in ESL classrooms, New Concept English has not aged without its controversies.

Aside from certain grammatical concepts slowly, but surely, finding themselves becoming outdated, contemporary Western instructors would likely cringe at the depiction of tobacco use while finding nowhere the warnings of its danger. Being that NCE was developed in the mid-1960s, tobacco was not viewed with the same taboo mentality we associate it with today. In fact, it is quite normal to speak of smoking colloquially in Chinese culture. China is annually ranked number one in terms of cigarette consumption. Tobacco normalization in China coupled with the 1960s English curriculum that depicts the acts as non-controversial (quite casually, in fact), has yet to inspire amendments to the curriculum. However lax NCE may be in advocating against cigarette consumption, it would never hurt for an instructor to ad-lib a warning of negative consequences. Regardless of smoking depictions, NCE has not slowed down in popularity- rather, it has increased exponentially because of current reprints.

Children studying English in China
Chinese students learning English

“In the last 30 years, millions of Chinese learners” have studied NCE, and the numbers do not show signs of stopping. Having been reprinted in 1997, in conjunction with both Pearson Publications and many academic journals, as New Concept English, New Edition, even more millions of 21st-century students are being exposed to Alexander’s groundbreaking curriculums.7 Unsurprisingly, these lessons soon translated, and very well I may add, to the online learning platform and shape some of the very lessons we teach with ALO7.

Just today, I had a string of classes that abided by the NCE approach. Topics of conversation included recollections of our first train rides (a fun way to practice speaking in the past tense), description of the contents of our living rooms (an engaging example of incorporating descriptive adjectives when chronicling what we see), and in which instances we would need a passport (pure conversational practice which includes diverse cultural understanding. For example, one student claimed to have a passport because of their travels to England. What followed was a conversation surrounding what they did while in London- taking into account foods, attractions, and experiences. Simple, yet essential lessons like these are most effective and holistic when it is student-centered. This Alexandrian approach has been a proven and highly popular opportunity to practice fundamental, conversational and cultural English through a child-friendly and focused learning environment.

What are your favorite aspects of the New Concept English curriculum? Comment down below and share your thoughts!

Citations:
2, 3, 4, 5: “L.G. Alexander: A Statue in Beijing, A Chinese Tribute to Louis Alexander.” English Today 78, vol. 20, no. 2, Cambridge.org, (April 2004): 20-25. Accessed February 27, 2019. https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/563AC3A857A719D6C98C89FEA2B4922E/S0266078404002044a.pdf/l_g_alexander_a_statue_in_beijing.pdf

1, 6, 7: Ying, Wang. “Results of English Learning Speak For Themselves.” China Daily, August 5, 2008. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2008-08/05/content_6904353.htm

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Brandi Graham

Great article James! I enjoy teaching NCE classes because they do allow you to explore language, and build on the content. The stories are hilarious and short, so I always use that as an opportunity to add to the content and allow the students to create alternative endings.

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