A recent opinion poll showed that more than 60 percent of parents send their children to cram schools to learn English, and 70 percent of those hope that kids can develop an interest in English while at the schools. They also gave the nation's English education a failing grade of 57 out of 100. Those findings highlight some key issues for English education in Taiwan.
First, the so-called "twin peaks" phenomenon is likely to worsen, as students either do very well or very poorly in acquiring English. For the 40 percent of parents who cannot afford to send their children to cram schools, their kids are at a disadvantage from the get-go. As a result, they often give up the subject completely.
To resolve this, schools should adopt an "ability-grouping system" and place students into different levels of classes. According to Lin Chun-chung (林春仲), a leading professor in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), mixing students of all levels is just like "chickens talking to ducks," as the Chinese idiom goes. It is a nightmare for both language teachers and students, and those with low proficiency become severely frustrated.
The quality of Taiwan's English education must also be raised. For elementary schools, the Ministry of Education has recommended that teachers do not test their students' English proficiency, to avoid putting too much pressure on them. But I believe that simple quizzes and assessments are needed to motivate students to learn. In high schools, in addition to grammar drills, real-life tasks and materials should be used. In colleges or universities, the current one-year freshman English course should be extended to two or more years.
The poll results show that most parents hope their children can develop an interest in English in a cheerful atmosphere at cram schools. This proves that the lively teaching style in many language centers is much more attractive to them.
But it is certainly possible to also create a fun, motivating environment in a traditional school setting. To achieve this, teachers can try different methods and activities to get students to actively participate. This can also be done outside the classroom to promote self-tutoring.
For example, in my English writing class, I usually require students to write weekly journals. Many say that they feel great about actually using the language in their daily lives, and writing English journals becomes a habit after the course is over.
Meanwhile, a colleague of mine is teaching English reading with some popular novels, including The Da Vinci Code. This stimulates enthusiastic discussion and debate among her students. Some say that her reading class is even more fun than those in cram schools. Thus, teaching and learning English is more than just drills and tests.
The government should cease making empty promises. It has vowed to make English Taiwan's "semi-official language." Putting aside that goal's feasibility, the education authorities have never proposed any concrete plan or measures to achieve it.
Some of the ministry's goals are also unrealistic and unnecessary. For instance, it requires vocational junior college students to pass the beginning-level General English Proficiency Test (GEPT). However, in many schools, less than 10 percent of students are capable of passing the test, while many question the necessity of requiring students of all majors to take it.