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Teaching migrant kids their ABCs

AS schools open across China, volunteers from Stepping Stones fan out across six Shanghai districts, teaching English to 6,000 children a week. Sam Riley reports.

While other students are enjoying their school days in big, bright classrooms, pupils at Fenfa school in Minhang District are doubling their efforts to learn English with the help of volunteers from Shanghai-based charity Stepping Stones.

The students from the migrant workers' kids school are part of a program that sees more than 250 volunteers fan out across the city each week to teach the children of migrants in more than 20 schools.

Stepping Stones was founded four years ago by Corrine Hua and has quickly grown from a team of just three volunteers to more than 400 volunteers, 250 of which teach on a regular basis.

Volunteers come from a broad range of backgrounds, from so-called trailing spouses wanting to get involved in charitable projects, to visiting students, corporate team builders and local civic-minded Chinese.

Stepping Stones teaches more than 6,000 students a week across Shanghai in Minhang, Huangpu, Baoshan, Pudong, Songjiang and Putuo districts.

"We stick to teaching English because that is what the schools told us they needed and English is one of the core subjects in the Chinese curriculum," Hua said.

"Math and English are two of the core subjects and English is the subject in which rural kids always fall short, because they have the math teachers but not the English teachers - there is a massive shortage."

Around 400,000 migrant school children attend first to third-grade middle school in Shanghai, according to government estimates.

Stepping Stones focuses mainly on primary school students, with the majority of its students between the grades three and five, but it also teaches students as old as 15.

Hua says the teaching is practically focused, with volunteer teachers teaching to the Chinese English-language curriculum to help students do well in their exams.

"The schools don't just want us to come in and have fun with the kids and teach them some oral English, they want us to do things that correlate to their curriculum and support the curriculum in a very practical and direct way," she says.

Stepping Stones has started surveying students and teachers to measure their impact on education outcomes in the last school term.

They surveyed the English exam results of two classes of students, one of which had a Stepping Stones volunteer for the first time. The class with the volunteer English teacher improved their results by an average of 25 percent compared with a 5-percent improvement for the same grade class without a Stepping Stones teacher.

By improving the basic education of migrant students, it is hoped that they will go on to senior high school and possibly university, which will improve the future prospects for them and their family, says Hua.

Teachers receive a compulsory one-day training and orientation in which volunteers are taught about migrant schools and shown the typical environment in a classroom.

Chinese-language skills are useful but not necessary for volunteers who can be teamed with a Chinese-speaking colleague.

Guy Emerson, 19, was the coordinator of the Fenfa summer school program. The Cambridge University mathematics student was going to travel during his summer holiday but after finding Stepping Stones, he decided to spend his time volunteering.

Emerson says he had little formal teaching experience before starting at Stepping Stones and after his day of training he was in a school teaching to a class of more than 30 students.

"There is nothing like being thrown in the deep end, you pick it up quickly," Emerson says.

During his nine weeks working as volunteer, Emerson has organized a number of teaching programs, including an English learning day modeled on Shanghai Expo.

A team of 21 volunteers organized 13 "pavilions" representing different countries, with each having a particular game designed to improve the student's English. Students could receive a stamp on their passports when they had successfully completed the game and progressed to the next pavilion.

In mid-July students also attended Expo itself as part of the South Africa Pavilion's celebration of Mandela Day.

Emerson has coordinated a team of more than 20 volunteers at the school; their activities also included a visit from Yuting School in Henan Province, which sent 12 students to visit Shanghai.

The students joined in lessons at Fenfa, which focused on how to use English when meeting people for the first time.

Emerson says the experience of volunteering for Stepping Stones has taught him valuable organization and management skills and given him a window into a part of China few visitors to Shanghai see.

"I have learned some Mandarin and I, as coordinator of the Fenfa program, have had to get it going and work with a range of different people," Emerson says.

"Plus I have seen a side of China different from what many people have seen. It is much poorer and that can be quite shocking actually."

Anyone who wants more information on Stepping Stones can visit their website at


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