The Educational Testing Service (ETS) released its report on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) last month. A total of 264,563 Taiwanese took the proficiency test last year, and almost 85 percent of them had a bachelor’s degree or above. The report shows that English proficiency among Taiwanese is falling further behind many Asian countries, as the average score dropped from 542 to 539 points, the lowest in recent years.
The score is far lower than China’s 747, Malaysia’s 688, the Philippines’ 678 and South Korea’s 628, and the gap has drawn a lot of criticism.
The gap can be attributed in part to the different test-taking populations. In China, for example, many of the test takers are outstanding graduates from top universities who want to enter international enterprises, and their English proficiency is far above average.
However, an increasing number of firms and schools in Taiwan use it as a recruitment or graduation threshold, so it is a bit unfair for the media to criticize the national average, which is more than 200 points lower than China in the 990-point test.
Still, the report shows that the average score for Taiwan’s high-school students was 582, which was higher than the score of 504 for college students. This means that most students’ English proficiency peaks when they prepare for the joint college entrance exam, and then declines during their college years. No wonder their English is poor when they enter the workplace.
To improve this, schools, students and industry should take action. Universities must increase class hours for English, adjust their curriculum by adding useful business-related materials and employ more flexible teaching methods to stimulate learning.
Students should be aware of the importance of foreign languages in the globalized workplace and take an active role in language learning. Perhaps the best way would be to create an English-language environment around them, connect learning to their personal interests and keep practicing constantly.
Companies could perhaps raise the recruitment threshold from 550 to 650 points in order to recruit better graduates while encouraging applicants to learn English well. They could also provide training programs or even incentive payments to those who passed foreign language proficiency tests.
As for those who failed to reach the average score, they could benefit from some tips. First, test-takers should be familiar with the test format. The TOEIC Listening Test is a 45-minute multiple-choice assessment with 100 questions in four sections: photographs, question-response, conversations and short talks. Test-takers listen to some questions and conversations recorded in English — such as speeches, introductions, reports, telephone messages, or radio announcements — and answer questions based on what they have heard. The first section is related to actions and places, such as an office, a classroom and an airport. For other sections, questions related to the 5Ws and 1H (who, what, when, where, why, how) are often tested, and the purpose of each conversation is the key.
Many students complain that the listening test is extremely difficult due to the speakers’ strong accents. Since a variety of accents are featured in addition to an American accent, they can listen to BBC World News on the radio or the Internet to gradually get used to the British and other accents.
Second, the TOEIC Reading Test is a 75-minute multiple-choice assessment with 100 questions in three sections: incomplete sentences, error recognition or text completion, and reading comprehension. Test-takers read a variety of materials, and respond at their own pace. For this part, they should actively expand their vocabulary, be familiar with sentence structures and the use of conjunctions, and increase reading speed through extensive reading.
Moreover, they should be familiar with various formats of reading materials — such as news/business reports, advertisements, announcements, instructions, charts, letters, e-mail, agendas, and memos — which frequently appear in the reading test.
Of course, Taiwan’s low TOEIC score does not necessarily equal a low degree of internationalization, but it indicates that many Taiwanese have difficulty communicating with the rest of the world in English, and this deserves greater attention.
Chang Sheng-en is an assistant professor of English at Shih Hsin University.