In nearly two decades in Taiwan reading the local English papers almost daily, I have never read a positive article or letter on the state of English learning or teaching here. Never. Not once. It could be a sampling error, but it is telling nevertheless.
I am writing now to describe something positive. It concerns extensive reading and is prompted by recent letters and an article on this topic that have appeared in this newspaper (Stephen Krashen and Peter Nelson, Oct. 21; Ken-hung Pong, Oct. 24; Nick Tsou, Nov. 19, page 8).
Krashen notes the value of extensive reading, and Nelson, Pong and Tsou concur, yet write to bemoan the lack of reading in the English learning experience of students. They lay the blame with the exam-oriented system (Nelson), the teachers' failure to require reading (Tsou) or students' failure to read on their own outside of class (Pong).
I would like to add to this discussion the fact that Taiwan has created one of the most impressive experiments in promoting extensive foreign language reading I know of.
Twice a year for the past five years, a group of professors and high-school English teachers have run the IWiLL Reading Challenge (www.iwillnow.org). The program was originally supported by Taipei City's Education Bureau for students in Taipei. Then, by popular demand, it was opened to schools nationwide with the support of the Ministry of Education. Last summer more than 13,000 students participated, most of them of high-school age.
For each Challenge, nine books are selected (three basic level books, three intermediate and three advanced), mostly novels. A randomly generated online comprehension check for each book enables students to show which books they have read. An online discussion board for each novel allows students to share their enthusiasm in English with kindred spirits, and an optional creative writing challenge is available for each book.
Thousands of students participate in each Challenge. Hundreds take up the creative writing challenges. We have stories of numerous students who had always considered English a detestable subject until they read their first basic novel for the Reading Challenge thanks to a teacher's encouragement and became both enchanted by reading and confident in doing it. We receive e-mails from university students thanking IWiLL for enriching their high school years with the Challenge.
IWiLL's core teachers have given presentations on the Reading Challenge to educators from around the world. I have reported on the event to audiences of language educators elsewhere in Asia and in the EU. The overwhelming response of the international audiences is admiration for these English teachers who collaborate so well and devote so much energy to their students for such a refreshing approach to English, all in the face of an exam-driven curriculum. One university administrator from Hong Kong sent me an e-mail after hearing a group of IWiLL teachers give presentations. His reaction sums up my thoughts exactly: "Those teachers are an inspiration."
Language Center director,
National Central University
Nick Tsou asks "Why is there no reading in English classrooms"? The answer: Both students and teachers feel that reading won't help them prepare for the all-important examinations most students face.