In English classrooms in Taiwan, reading is an ever elusive goal. From the time a six-year-old starts to learn English at school to the time he or she graduates from high school, most of his or her English classes are devoted to "studying English."
The students take time to pronounce new words, study sentences where the words are used, work on grammar and translate every single sentence in the text that dwells on a certain topic said to have something to do with real-life communication. The more creative teachers design fun activities to get their jobs done.
A small part of the class time may also be spent on listening and speaking activities and, occasionally, writing compositions in senior high. But little or no amount of reading is done for the needs or interest of the students. No English teacher from Taiwan would bluntly dismiss the importance of having students read in the language, but it's a goal that exists more in theory than in practice.
Studying English for the sake of passing tests of all kinds, from vocabulary quizzes in class to the college entrance examination, has become the paramount -- if not the only -- goal for students as well as teachers.
Reading in English for information and for pleasure is somehow conspiratorially postponed until college, where a large amount of reading in English is "suddenly" the norm across the majority of majors, throwing freshmen and possibly sophomores into great confusion.
They are forced to dive into an "ocean of words" without adequate training, leaving them wondering if their passing grades in high school were of any use at all.
The truth is there are only a few who could truly detach themselves from the strange, if not ridiculous, mode of studying English without reading in it. Most students don't read anything in English for themselves outside of the immediate need of preparing for tests, and are therefore not reading much for and by themselves. It's rare for them to read stories, newspapers, magazines, Web sites, blogs, papers or books of any kind in English on their own.
It's not surprising that people who never form the habit of reading in English for their own gain or pleasure do not pick up English printed matter to read later in life, unless they are forced to, and by then, they are not any good at it. Thus it's not hard to understand where the generally dubious English reading abilities and resulting weak writing abilities of our undergraduate and graduate students come from.
Whether my essay here serves as a wake-up call for English teachers and students depends on them, along with the administrators, who will decide whether reading a lot in English should be encouraged and practiced in the light of cultivating lifelong reading ability. The development of reading skills definitely has a bearing on staying competitive in a world where English is the lingua franca, the international language, and where a large number of well-paid occupations require reading in English as a core ability.
Nick Tsou is an English teacher at National Chung-Ho Senior High School.