Sat, Apr 28, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Lessening inequality in English learning

By Lee Chia-tung 李家同

The recent suggestion that English listening comprehension should be part of school exams has caused controversy. It is acknowledged that the English-language abilities of students from underprivileged families lag far behind that of students from better-off families. Testing English listening comprehension would therefore result in disadvantaged students falling even further behind.

Some schools lack the necessary audio equipment for listening comprehension. Some say such equipment is not needed to improve listening because the same results can be achieved by using language-learning Web sites. However, this presupposes that every household has Internet access and knows how to use it, when many underprivileged students do not have a computer or Internet access at home. The key to good English listening comprehension is not the ability to hear new words, but to learn new vocabulary.

Children at Boyo Social Welfare Foundation (博幼社會福利基金會) in Nantou County’s Puli Township (埔里) recently took part in listening comprehension contests. Their results were passable, but they were at a disadvantage because they were not very computer literate.

This is a situation found in urban as well as rural areas. In Greater Taichung, police recently found a child doing his homework in an Internet cafe. The homework required that students go online, but the boy was too embarrassed to tell the teacher his family did not own a computer. Even after someone gave the family a computer, they still could not afford an Internet connection.

I wish every government official would hang the phrase “We must remember that there are poor people in Taiwan” in their office to avoid repeating past mistakes and viewing the nation solely from a Taipei perspective.

Unfortunately, there are not enough English teachers in disadvantaged areas, only a few English classes a week and no cram schools. Even if there were, the parents of these students would not be able to afford them. How are these children expected to compete with those from better-off families?

I am glad the government understands the importance of improving students’ English skills, but it also needs to recognize that the main problem is the disparity in the English teaching received by privileged and underprivileged children.

Many children from better-off families learn English at kindergarten and enjoy bilingual education in elementary school. Many junior-high school students can read English novels, but some of their peers cannot spell even the most basic words. The most urgent task is to help these students, not to increase the gap.

I am not opposed to an exam designed to test the basic abilities of students, but current tests are used as reference data for school admissions and the addition of English listening comprehension tests is intended to increase the ability to distinguish between students. Such an approach favors children from better-off families, which I do not believe was the Ministry of Education’s intent.

Many educational reform proposals have been made over the years. Not one of them intended to favor privileged students, but because decisionmakers have a blinkered Taipei viewpoint, it is always these students who benefit.

The admissions system is a case in point. It was introduced to facilitate entry for underprivileged students, but has the opposite effect because students from poor families cannot afford the required fees, and are often incapable of highlighting their strong points in an interview setting.

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