Fri, Mar 07, 2003 - Page 8 News List

Letter:

A better teaching system

It is disheartening to note the chaotic confusion in the Ministry of Education concerning the teaching of English. A host of disparate problems (cultural, financial, political and pedagogical) are all lumped together, with a single solution -- hiring foreign teachers. As a foreign professor teaching future teachers in Taiwan, with 21 years of experience, I would like to clarify some of the issues.

The first problem is testing, which is so dear to the Chinese heart. All the students and teachers in this country have been tested ad nauseum over the years. Yet, Taiwan scores near the bottom (just ahead of Japan) in international scoring of English proficiency. Who is to blame? Everybody!

Let's begin with the teachers. Can our own teachers do the job? The answer to the question is no. Is it a question of competency? Sadly, after all the testing, we don't know, as the tests are divorced from reality (practical applications).

In Hong Kong, English teachers are examined in specific skill areas. The key to effective assessment is particular competency. Let us divide these skills into four areas: 1) basic competency -- to teach the rudiments of English, generalists who can teach some vocabulary, sentence patterns and pronunciation, for the lower grades; 2) oral skills -- focusing on pronunciation and conversation; 3) grammar/writing and 4) reading/literature.

All four categories would be subdivided into a) competent, b) advanced, c) expert. Proficiency tests will determine which category(or categories) each teacher falls into. A graduated pay scale would reflect teacher's skills and encourage teachers to upgrade their skills.

If Taiwan truly wants to improve the levels of English proficiency, it must take some immediate steps:

One, impose a maximum of 20 to 25 students in English classes.

Two, English instruction should begin in grade one.

Three, place greater emphasis on reading and literature (which lead to self-learning).

Four, there must be proper evaluation and placement of teachers (bonuses for relocation to remote areas).

Five, a series of experimental programs run by teachers colleges or universities should be used to determine which pedagogical approaches work best for Taiwanese students, so these programs can be disseminated nationwide.

Six, focus on teacher training to match required teaching skills.

Seven, open a few public English-language schools, where most of the material is taught in English, to prepare future teachers.

Eight, provide auxiliary activities: English clubs, English resource rooms, penpals, English-language music and movies, drama, debating/public speaking, etc to make learning English more pleasurable (perhaps the large number of foreign teachers in cram schools can be tapped for appropriate candidates).

Nine, make mastering English a social priority: music events, plays, etc for the general population.

Ten, incorporate cram schools into afterschool activities for students and adults.

Eleven, forget about making English a quasi-official language -- make it an official one or leave things as they are. Twelve, forget about hiring hundreds of foreign teachers from abroad and concentrate instead on teacher training and improving Taiwanese teachers' skills. You will never find a cadre of foreign teachers who are ready,willing and able to come to Taiwan (with Chinese-language abilities and TESL certification).

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