Three years after Taipei City's elementary schools extended English teaching programs to the first grade, English education is still test-oriented, language experts said.
Primary schools should focus English programs on enhancing children's literacy and stimulate their interest as preparation for more sophisticated English learning in the future, they said.
"Primary schools in the US encourage children to read starting in the first grade. Teachers would ask students to write stories in the third or fourth grade to enhance their descriptive skills," said David Dai (戴維揚), president of the English Teacher's Association.
In Taiwan, Dai said, English programs in primary schools stress the importance of listening, and so writing and reading abilities are often ignored.
During a meeting to review English teaching programs in Taipei municipal primary schools since it was extended to the first grade in 2002, school principals said that they have been putting great efforts to improving the quality of English teaching and learning efficiency.
The briefing was presented by Huang San-ji (黃三吉), the principal of Taipei Municipal Wenhua Primary School, and showed that 97 percent of English teachers in the city's primary schools are certified, and that the English book collection at all schools combined reached 136,970 last year.
About 90 percent of second graders, 89 percent fourth graders and 84 percent of sixth graders passed their school's English proficiency tests last year.
Language experts, however, were not impressed by the high percentage and what school principals described as a "great performance by students" that seems to be indicated by the figures.
Instead, they questioned the necessity of evaluating children's English proficiency by giving tests, if the purpose of extending the English program to the first grade was simply to lay a foundation and stimulating the students' interest in learning English.
"Grades alone do not reveal the students' level of English proficiency. Primary school English programs should focus on increasing student's interest, instead of stressing them out with formal tests," said Lin Wen-chi (林文淇), an associate professor in the English Department at National Central University.
Lin suggested that teachers use creative learning tools, such as English learning programs on TV, radio, or interactive teaching tools on the Web as their teaching resources.
Chang Wu-chang (張武昌), an English professor at National Taiwan Normal University, suggested that primary schools should learn students' reading preferences before buying books, take the students to a library to read, and take advantage of "talking" books to make English reading more interesting.
"I also think that the promotion of English reading and writing should be extended to secondary schools, so that our efforts to build up children's reading and writing ability won't be in vain," he added.
While the English programs regulated by the Ministry of Education in primary schools are only offered to third-grade students and above, reports from the ministry showed that at least 17 of the nation's 25 cities and counties have begun English education for first graders, because the high demand for students to learn English as early as possible has propelled local school authorities to begin their English education programs in grade one or even in kindergarten.
Currently, the city's primary schools offer two English classes per week. Director of Taipei City Bureau of Education Wu Ching-chi (吳清基) said that the aim of introducing an English program to first graders is to stimulate the students' interest in learning English, but not to add to their courseload or deprive them of a Chinese-language education.
After listening to the briefing and comments, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) agreed that schools should not stress children out with tests, and suggested that schools encourage teachers and parents to read English books with students.
He also worried that many children who enjoyed learning English give it up later in secondary schools because of test-oriented English teaching.
To better understand possible English learning and teaching discrepancies between primary schools and secondary schools, another education meeting will be held in six months.
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