Free Resources for Students and Teachers of English as a Foreign Language in China - by Paul Sparks

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Paul Sparks - Online English Lesson Plans, Lesson Material and Ideas for "Culture of English Speaking Countries Lessons" for Xiangtan Normal University...




American Education Systems


  • The structure of U.S. education includes 12 years of regular school.

  • Duration of school lasts 12 years, until around age 18 (depending on the age at entry). Each of the school years is called a grade, so that 12th grade corresponds to the 12th year, etc.

  • Infant school, pre-school, and the first or second year of formal schooling are collectively termed Early Childhood Education in the United States. Formal primary education is called Elementary Education and ranges from first grade through grade 4, 5, or 6, depending on state and district regulations. The upper level of primary education is often organized separately into a unit called Middle School, which begins at grade 4, 5, or 6 and ends at grade 6, 7, or 8. Likewise, the lower grades of secondary education (years 7, 8, or 9 depending on state and district regulations) are sometimes organized separately into what is called Junior High School. Regular (including upper) secondary education is called High School, beginning in grade 8, 9, or 10 and ending at grade 12, again depending on state and district regulations.

  • Compulsory schooling ends by law at age 16 in 30 states, at age 17 in 9 states, and at age 18 in 11 states plus the District of Columbia. Students may drop out of school if they have reached the age set in their state's law for the end of compulsory schooling, but dropouts are not considered to have completed school and no certificate or award is issued at this stage. The U.S. dropout rate is just over 11 percent of secondary-level students age 16 and older.

  • Two basic school leaving certificates are awarded for completing school, the High School Diploma, awarded to graduates of secondary school, and the GED (General Educational Development) Certificate, awarded to adults who left school but then complete a special supervised study and examination program. High School Diplomas represent a variety of different curricula and standards.

  • No national education system or national curriculum exists in the United States. The federal government does not operate schools. 

  • Each of the 50 states has its own Department of Education which sets guidelines for the schools of that state. Public colleges and universities receive funding from the state in which they are located.

  • Most of the control of American schools lies in the hands of each local school district. Each school district is governed by a school board, a small committee of people elected by the local community. The school board sets general policies for the school district. Students do not pay tuition for schools (under the age of 16).

  • High school students take a wide range of courses. All students are required to take English, math, science, and social studies courses. They also might be required to take a foreign language and/or physical education. A course can be one semester or two semesters long. 

  • Usually, a student graduates after he or she has successfully passed all of the required courses. Grades are given to students for each course at the end of every semester or term. Grades are: A = Excellent B = Above Average C = Average D = Below Average F = Failure

  • Admission to a College/University - A studentís high school grade point average (GPA) is also considered. A GPA is a quantitative figure representing a studentís accumulated grades. Each letter grade is assigned a number of points: A=4 points, B=3, C=2 , D=1, and F= 0 points. A GPA is calculated by adding all of the points earned for each course grade and dividing the total points by the total number of courses taken. For example, a GPA of 3.0 means a ďBĒ average for all of the courses taken. 

  • Most colleges and universities set a minimum SAT score that a student must achieve in order to gain admission. The SAT is the Scholastic Aptitude Test, a standardized quantitative examination taken by high school students throughout the United States. Each college or university decides the minimum SAT score it will accept. 

  • Higher Education: After finishing high school (twelfth grade), U.S. students may go on to college or university. College or university study is known as "higher education."

  • Study at a college or university leading to the Bachelor's Degree is known as "undergraduate" education. Study beyond the Bachelor's Degree is known as "graduate" school, or "postgraduate" education. Advanced or graduate degrees include law, medicine, the M.B.A., and the Ph.D. (doctorate). 

  • Church-related School: Many U.S. colleges and universities were founded by religious groups. The relationship, however, between the school and the religious organization may be very flexible. Sometimes, these schools prefer to admit students who are members of the sponsoring religious group. Nearly all these schools welcome students of all religions and beliefs. 


  • PRESCHOOL (or nursery schools) these specialize in teaching very young children (ages 3-5) to adjust to groups outside home and family and prepare them for the routine of formal schooling.

  • There are basically two levels of education. The elementary level begins with the first grade when the child is about six. This level extends to the eighth grade when the child is about thirteen. The secondary level begins with the ninth grade when the child is about 14 and continues to the twelfth grade when the child is about eighteen.

  • The traditional division is:

    • Elementary school = grades 1 to 3/4 
      Middle school = grades 4 to 6/7
      Junior high school = grades 6/7 to 8/9 
      Senior high school = grades 9/10 to 12

  • PUBLIC SCHOOLS (government supported). They provide tax-supported schooling free of charge to students beginning with kindergarten at age 5 and continuing from 1st to 12th grades, when students receive a high-school diploma.

  • Different schools divide the 12 years into various stages. Most common are the 6-3-3, consisting of 6 years of elementary school, 3 years of junior high, and 3 of high school; and the 6-2-4, consisting of 2 years of junior high and 4 years of high school. These years are referred to as freshman (9th), sophomore (10th) , junior (11th), and senior (12th). There is no division into academic or vocational A streams. Instead, junior and senior high schools offer a wide variety of courses, some of which are required of all students, the others elective (elected by the student).

  • PRIVATE SCHOOLS. They do not receive tax monies and therefore charge tuition fees. These schools provide for a number of special needs not always met adequately in the public schools. For instance, many private schools are supported by churches or synagogues and provide religious education as opposed to the secular education provided by public schools. The Catholic Church operates the largest number of schools outside the public school system. These parochial schools are open to children of all faiths, but they give preference to Catholics. There are also schools associated with various Protestant churches, Seventh-Day Adventists and Society of Friends (Quakers), as well as schools serving those of the Jewish and Muslim faiths.


  • Degree-granting institutions in the United States can be called by any of these terms, and colleges and institutes are in no way inferior to universities. As a general rule, colleges tend to be smaller and usually offer only undergraduate degrees, while a university also offers graduate degrees. An institute usually specializes in degree programs in a group of closely related subject areas, so you will also come across degree programs offered at institutes of technology, institutes of fashion, institutes of art and design, and so on. 

  • Within each college or university you will find schools, such as the school of arts and sciences or the school of business. Each school is responsible for the degree programs offered by the college or university in that area of study.

  • One of the most attractive features of the bachelor's degree program in the United States is that it is highly flexible. You can usually choose from a wide variety of courses and create your own unique program of study. The degree is awarded after you complete a specified number of credits.

  • The bachelor's degree typically takes four years to complete. The associate degree usually takes two years to complete. Associate degree programs may be "terminal" programs, which lead into specific careers upon graduation, or "transfer" programs, which correspond to the first two years of a bachelor's degree and tend to be more liberal arts based. Associate degree programs are offered at two-year colleges known as junior or community colleges. Four-year colleges and universities offer bachelor's degree programs, with a small number also offering associate degree programs. 

  • Liberal arts is a shortened form of the term "liberal arts and sciences," and the liberal arts philosophy is a unique feature of the U.S. higher education system. U.S. undergraduate education is based on this concept, which believes in providing a well-rounded academic education that develops the student's verbal, written, and reasoning skills. Students at a liberal arts college, or at a university with a strong liberal arts program, begin their degree study by taking classes in a wide variety of courses in the arts, humanities, languages, and the social and physical sciences. They then choose a subject in which to specialize (called a major) and take about 25 to 50 percent of their classes in the major area.

  • Professional (that is, career-oriented) education is included within the U.S. university system. Large universities tend to be comprised of a college of arts and sciences and several professional schools - usually business, agriculture, medicine, law, and journalism.

  • There are four types of degrees: 

    • Associateís (completion of a program in a specific career field),
      Bachelorís (conferred after completion of an undergraduate program),
      Masterís (first graduate degree)
      Doctorate (second graduate degree and final degree). 

  • State College or University: A state school is supported and run by a state or local government. Each of the 50 U.S. states operates at least one state university and possibly several state colleges. Some state schools have the word "State" in their names. 

  • Private College or University: These schools are operated privately, not by a branch of the government. Tuition will usually be higher than at state schools. Often, private colleges and universities are smaller in size than state schools. 

  • Two-Year College: A two-year college admits high school graduates and awards an Associate's Degree. Some two-year colleges are state-supported, or public; others are private. Two-year college or "junior" college graduates usually transfer to four-year colleges or universities, where they complete the Bachelor's Degree in two or more additional years. 

  • Community College: This is a two-year state, or public college. Community colleges serve a local community, usually a city or county. Many of the students are commuters who live at home, or evening students who work during the day. Often, community colleges welcome international students.

  • Professional School: A professional school trains students in fields such as art, music, engineering, business, and other professions. Some are part of universities. Others are separate schools. Some offer graduate degrees. 

  • Institute of Technology: This is a school which offers at least four years of study in science and technology. Some institutes of technology have graduate programs. Others offer shorter courses. 

  • Technical Institute: A technical institute trains students in fields such as medical technology or industrial engineering. Although the course may prepare you for the career you want, the degree may or may not be equivalent to a college or university degree. Some colleges and universities do not accept credits from students who have attended technical institutes and want to transfer. If you are considering a technical institute, find out if your government, and U.S. colleges and universities, accept the school's degree.

  • Distance education is an increasingly popular way to study for everything from a short professional course to a graduate degree in the United States, and there are numerous institutions offering undergraduate degree programs using distance education teaching methods. Under the distance education model, students no longer attend classes in a classroom on a campus; instead, classes are delivered "from a distance" through the use of technologies such as the Internet, satellite television, video conferencing, and other means of electronic delivery.

  • U.S. students usually study a wide variety of subjects while in college. Many students do not specialize exclusively in one field until graduate school.  Students in the first year are called "freshmen," and they are "sophomores" in the second year. Some schools require freshmen and sophomores to take courses in different areas of learning: literature, science, the social sciences, the arts, history, and so forth. Freshmen and sophomores are known as "underclassmen." 

  • The "junior" and "senior," or third and fourth years, are the "upper classes." Students in these years are known as "juniors" and "seniors"- "upperclassmen." When they enter their junior year, they must choose a "major" field of study. They must take a certain number of courses in this department, or field. In some schools, students also choose a "minor" field. There is usually time for students to choose several other "elective" (extra) courses in other subjects. 

  • Classes range from large lectures for several hundred students to smaller classes and "seminars" (discussion classes) with only a few students. Students enrolled in lecture courses are often divided into smaller groups, or "sections." The sections meet separately to discuss the lecture topics and other material. 

  • Professors usually assign textbook and other readings each week. They also require several written reports each semester (term). You will be expected to keep up to date with the required readings in order to join in class discussions and to understand the lectures. Science students are also expected to spend time in the laboratory. 

  • The school calendar usually begins in August or September and continues through May or June.

  • The academic year at many schools is composed of two terms or semesters. Other schools use a three-term calendar known as the "trimester" system. Still others divide the year into the "quarter" system of four terms, including a summer session which is optional. 

  • Credits: Each course is considered to be worth a number of "credits" or "credit hours." This number is roughly the same as the number of hours a student spends in class for that course each week. A course is typically worth three to five credits. 

  • Transfers: If a student enrolls in a new university before finishing a degree, usually most credits earned at the first school can be used to complete a degree at the new university. This means a student can transfer to another university and still graduate within a reasonable time. 

  • Professors give each student a mark or "grade" for each course. The marks are based upon: 

  • Classroom participation: Discussion, questions, conversation; Students are expected to participate in class discussions, especially in seminar classes. This is often a very important factor in determining a student's grade. 

  • A midterm examination: Usually given during class time. 

  • One or more research or term papers, or laboratory reports. 

  • Possible short exams or "quizzes.": Sometimes the professor will give an unannounced "surprise quiz." This doesn't count heavily toward the grade but is intended to inspire students to keep up with their assignments and attendance. 

  • Final examination: Held some time after the final class meeting. 

  • Most universities will also offer some sort of honors degree. To qualify for an honors degree, you must fulfill additional credits or write an honors thesis; precise details depend upon the university and/or academic department. 

  • The individual courses that make up the degree program can be divided into the following types:

  • ∑ Core courses: These provide the foundation of the degree program and are required of all students. Students take a variety of courses in mathematics, English, humanities, physical sciences, and social sciences. Some colleges require students to take many core courses, while other schools require only a few.

  • ∑ Major courses: A major is the subject in which a student chooses to concentrate. Most students major in one subject; however, some colleges offer the option of pursuing a double major with a related subject. Your major courses represent one-quarter to one-half of the total number of courses required to complete a degree.

  • ∑ Minor courses: A minor is a subject in which a student may choose to take the second greatest concentration of courses. The number of courses required for a minor tends to be half the number of major courses.

  • ∑ Elective courses: These courses may be chosen from any department. They offer opportunities to explore other topics or subjects you may be interested in and help make up the total number of credits required to graduate.

  • An important indicator of the quality of any U.S. college or university is its accreditation status. Unlike many other countries, the United States does not have a central government office that approves educational institutions. Instead, it relies on a system of voluntary accreditation carried out by non-governmental accrediting bodies to ensure that schools meet standards. 

  • Most U.S. colleges offer students a variety of social, cultural, and sports activities in addition to their academic programs. The level to which each is emphasized will determine the social environment you will find on your campus. You should also consider whether the majority of the students live on or off a university campus. At colleges referred to as commuter schools, most students live off campus and commute to classes.

  • A unique feature of U.S. campus life is the Greek system, which offers students the choice of joining a fraternity or sorority. (The term "Greek" is used because the names of fraternities and sororities are composed of two or three Greek letters.) Fraternities (male) and sororities (female) can be the focus of undergraduate social life on many U.S. campuses. However, as well as holding parties, fraternities and sororities often sponsor activities.

  • U.S. universities offer many opportunities for students to develop skills through extracurricular activities such as sports teams, academic clubs, university newspapers, drama productions, and other rewarding programs.

  • Rankings - There is no official list of the top 10, 20, 50, or even 100 universities in the United States. The U.S. government does not rank universities. Rankings that you come across are usually produced by journalists and are likely to be subjective.

  • Internship or Overseas Study Programs - Many U.S. universities have incorporated into their curriculum internship (voluntary or paid work placements) or overseas study ("study abroad") programs.

  • Master's Degree: This degree is usually required in fields such as library science, engineering, or social work. The M.B.A., or Master of Business Administration, is an extremely popular degree that usually takes two years. Some Master's programs, such as journalism, only take one year. 

  • Doctorate (Ph.D.): Many graduate schools consider the Master's Degree as the first step towards attaining the Ph.D. (doctorate). But at other schools, students may prepare directly for the doctorate without also earning a Master's Degree. It may take three years or more to earn the Ph.D. Degree.

  • For the first two years, most doctoral candidates enroll in classes and seminars. For at least another year, students will conduct firsthand research and write a thesis or dissertation. This paper must contain views, designs, or research that have not been previously published. 

Class Format:

  • The Lecture - This is perhaps the most common university class format.  In a lecture class, the professor usually teaches according to a prepared outline (syllabus).  During the lecture, which may be supplemented by films or other visual materials, it is important for you to take notes and write down the information emphasized by the professor.  This information will most likely be included on the course examination.  Since lecture classes are usually large (ranging in size from 25-50 or more students), any questions you ask should be directly related to the content being discussed.

  • The Independent Study - This type of course is usually available to upper-classmen or graduate-level students.  You decide what you want to study and design a plan with a faculty member.  You must find a faculty member to supervise and evaluate your activity.  The requirements of the independent study most often include extensive reading, research or experimentation on a specific subject which will lead to a written report at the end of the semester.  This, however, is an individual decision between you and a faculty member.

  • The Lecture/Discussion - Many large lecture courses offer you smaller once-a-week discussion groups which provide you with the opportunity to ask more detailed questions and to discuss the topics being covered in class.  This discussion group is usually led by the professor or a graduate assistant and is designed to help you understand the material covered in the lecture.

  • The Lab - The laboratory (lab) classes are important part of many science and computer courses.  The lab is used to apply the theories learned in the classroom to practical problems.  A lab usually meets once a week for several hours during which time you work on various projects and experiments.  Since the lab is conducted in addition to the regular class, you usually receive one extra academic credit for this work.  The lab is usually kept separate for registration, testing and grading process.

  • The Seminar - A Seminar consists of a small group of students (usually fewer than 20) and is primarily designed for upper-division and graduate-level courses.  This type of class involves open discussions and you are often required to prepare presentations for the seminar based on your independent study or research.  Another type of seminar is one which involves listening to a speaker and is for personal enrichment.  In this instance, all that is required is your attendance.

  • Grades

  • A-    Superior 
    B-    Above average 
    C-    Average 
    D-    Passing but below average 
    F-     Failure-no credit give 

  • Regular class attendance is required by the University.  You are responsible for class attendance and any work you miss due to absence.

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