Wall Street English teaches English through the exploits of a ‘loveable rogue’

Effective, engaging and entertaining

Hugo Peter
Hugo Peters, the loveable rogue

Hugo Peters is a loveable rogue. He’s always in trouble over some shenanigan or another. He quarrels with his neighbours. And he’s constantly at odds with his daughter over issues real or imagined.

Yet this fictional character has become an unlikely folk hero to thousands of students learning English in China — and he’s helping Pearson set new standards for English-language training around the globe, as an engaging part of a rigorous course that tracks students to ensure they make progress in improving their English.

Hugo Peters is featured in dozens of hours of popular videos used by students at Wall Street English, Pearson’s global English-language chain that now spans 450 language centres in 27 countries, serving nearly 200,000 students.

“I love this guy Hugo Peters,” says Wei Fu, age 29, a nurse who is enrolled at Wall Street English (WSE) in Beijing, at a centre not far from the Forbidden City. “The story is always a lot of fun.” Ms. Wei works at Peking University Medical Centre, and seeks to improve her English in order to work at a nurse abroad.

Teaching language through context

Efficacy is a central part of the Wall Street English approach, making certain that students rapidly acquire the English skills they will require to advance in their lives and careers. In 2011, average grade levels achieved by Wall Street English students improved by 11%.

Yet the Hugo Peters videos show how an effective programme can draw on entertaining content in order to engage readers.

The soap opera featuring Hugo Peters – whose get-rich-quick schemes run from dodgy antique dealing to urging his son to marry the daughter of a Mexican zillionaire – is of course all a joke, but his escapades entrance WSE students and help inspire them to improve their English. Students at a WSE centre in Guangzhou recently held a Trinidad Day, focusing on the culture and sites of that Caribbean island, because Trinidad is the setting for some of Hugo’s misadventures.

“You teach language through context,” says Paul Angell, area service director for WSE in Beijing. “If you do that, it makes it more interesting and more effective.”

Two sets of actors were hired to produce the Hugo Peters videos: one set for the physical acting, including the often-exaggerated facial expressions of Hugo and his sidekicks, and the others for voices, including 40 different English accents to reflect the rich variety of spoken English around the world.

Learning through a blend of resources

Wei Fu, a student at WSE

The Hugo Peters videos are only one element of the Wall Street English approach to English-language learning, which includes a blend of classroom, self-study and real-life situations.

Televisions dotted around WSE centres are typically set at low volume to English-language business-news channels like CNBC or Bloomberg. Most people live their lives surrounded by some sort of background noise, not pristine silence, so that’s a more realistic atmosphere in which to learn English.

In addition, WSE students at the 57 centres now operating in China and in hundreds of other WSE centres around the world get access to other Pearson resources in order to broaden their knowledge in other areas.

Students can access the Financial Times newspaper through a free subscription to FT.com, and a new offering called ForToday provides learning exercises developed from Financial Times articles, with varying degrees of difficulty. In addition, students get free online access to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and receive a discount on Penguin books bought online. The home page of computer screens in WSE centres provide quick links to these Pearson resources.

‘Wall Street English’ is now the global brand

A two-year course at WSE in China costs 40,000 renmimbi, or about $5,000, an investment that typically repays itself very quickly because people in many professions in China can double their salaries if they have English proficiency. WSE centres in China are open 365 days a year, 12 hours a day, and are busiest in the evenings as students practice their English at computer terminals or in small group conversations after work.

Pearson acquired Wall Street English in 2009, when it taught 35,000 students in 39 centres. Since then, Pearson acquired Wall Street Institute, which provides English-language training in hundreds of centres in more than two dozen countries.

In February, a decision was taken to rebrand all Wall Street Institute centres around the world as Wall Street English, so WSE will become the operating name globally after a phased rollout of the rebrand.

China a ‘centre of excellence’ for Pearson

For Pearson, Wall Street English in China has become a centre of expertise for English-language education around the world, setting a model since followed by other Pearson businesses.

In 2010, Pearson acquired the school systems business of Sistema Educational Brasieiro (SEB) in Brazil, which has become Pearson’s flagship operation for the provision of “sistemas,” or integrated school systems spanning curriculum, software, teacher training and other services. Also in 2010, Pearson acquired a 75% stake in CTI Education Group of South Africa, marking Pearson’s first move into the direct provision of university education.

“China really is a centre of excellence for Pearson in terms of English-language learning,” says David Kedwards, CEO of Wall Street English, who is based in Hong Kong.

“Because of our scale, we have the ability to do things other companies can’t do, and because of China’s scale, we have the opportunity here in China to be the pathfinder and to refine new ideas for use in the WSE network around the world.”

‘The whole story is interesting’

In Hugo Peters’s world, one episode features him receiving a letter from his daughter, which he can’t bear to read so he asks a friend to read it aloud.

“Dear daddy,” she says. “I’ve finally decided to do the right thing and to live the life that’s right for me.”

“She’s walked out!” Hugo recoils in mock shock, but it’s a journey that WSE students took in stride.

“She wants to have her own life, not his, and to earn her own money,” says Wei Yu, the Beijing nurse. “I think the whole story is interesting.”