Statistics released last month on the results of this year's college entrance examination sent a shock wave through the education community, with the sharp increase in the number of students who scored zero in English composition.
The figures, published by the College Entrance Examination Center, showed that the number of examinees who scored zero in the guided writing section hit a five-year high of 22,462, out of a total of 141,858 test-takers. This compares with 16,168 examinees who netted a zero last year.
The number of students who scored zero in the English translation section also rose sharply from 15,660 last year to 22,179 this year.
The percentage of students who performed poorly in the writing section was closely in line with the findings of Hugo Tseng (曾泰元), a professor of English language and literature at Soochow University who graded about 2,000 of the English compositions in the entrance examination this year.
“There was obviously a decline in students' English writing proficiency ... the most surprising decline was in spelling,” said Tseng, who has worked with the center to grade college entrance examination papers over the past decade. “Spelling is the most basic facet of a language. Without this building block, a person would never be proficient — let alone be able to write a simple sentence.”
Very few examinees — less than 10 percent — were able to write a well-structured English composition, Tseng said.
“The majority of the compositions [I graded] did not have any structure,” he said.
The sharp increase in the number of examinees who failed in the writing section could have been a result of a more complicated and difficult writing topic, as this was the first time examinees were given a static picture instead of a comic strip.
Students were required to describe and elaborate on a picture with a person standing in front of a pile of debris — a test Tseng said involved students' cognition ability.
“Describing a picture is much more difficult because students have to use logic and analysis, while a comic strip already has a storyline,” said Chen Chao-ming (陳超明), a professor of English at National Chengchi University (NCCU).
Although the writing test was admittedly more difficult, it also highlighted several key problems.
“Our high school graduates lack analytical skills. They lack training,” Chen said, adding that the examinees were unable to describe the scene because of their limited vocabulary.
“They did not know the word 'collapse.' They could not even use the word 'fall' [to describe the debris] even if they had learned this word in junior high school,” Chen said.
Even his undergraduate students at NCCU had difficulty reciting the whole alphabet or giving the spelling of the 12 months, he said.
The decline in spelling ability could be the result of teachers' excessive emphasis on “input” to students.
Teachers spend too much time teaching students materials from textbooks but fail to demand a corresponding “output” from students, Chen said.
The decline in students' English writing ability also stands in sharp contrast with the government's increasing emphasis on English learning.
Asked what he thought was wrong with the system, Tseng said: “I wonder if our high schools reserve special sessions to teach English writing.”
The truth is they are not required to do so. English writing classes are optional rather than mandatory.
Current high school curriculum guidelines require schools to reserve four sessions — approximately 200 minutes — per week for English classes, but they do not necessarily have to provide English writing classes.
Even if schools would like to offer English writing lessons, school authorities could only do so after the schools' English teaching staff win over teachers of other subjects in a vote for teaching hours at the beginning of every semester.
“If we fail to obtain any [elective] teaching hours at the vote, we can't schedule any [writing] classes that semester,” a high school English teacher surnamed Hsieh (謝) said in Taichung.
Despite the lack of official writing classes, the curriculum guidelines still set goals for high school students' English writing proficiency.
The guidelines state that high school graduates should be able to “correctly distinguish a capital letter from a small letter and use punctuation marks.”
Graduates should have the ability to “correctly merge and paraphrase sentences” and make correct sentences by using appropriate phrases or sentence patterns.
Students should be able to write a smooth and clear paragraph by the time they finish high school, the guidelines say.
But the harsh reality is that with only four English sessions per week, teachers may not have enough time to teach students how to write properly.
“I distribute work sheets to freshmen and mention some writing concepts when teaching the materials readings in the textbook. That's all I can do,” Hsieh said.
Gary Chi (紀昇助), an English teacher at Taipei's Huajiang Senior High School, said he could only assign students weekly translation practice.
“I've found that it would be too much to ask them to write a passage before they could construct a grammatical sentence. And really, they can't write grammatical sentences,” Chi said.
Chi said he tried to introduce basic writing concepts to his students, but “writing is almost as difficult as calculus” to the students.
Chi said although he wanted to spend extra time helping students polish their writing, he was exhausted after spending every week grading the compositions of his 88 students.
Doing so also seriously put him behind his regular teaching schedule, Chi said, acknowledging the difficulty for teachers to help individual student with their writing in a large class.
“What we are doing now is wrong. Classes should be downsized to 15 students, starting from primary school,” he said.
Chen also emphasized the importance of teachers changing their methodology from explaining grammar to allowing students to actually use language.
“We will never make it if we still teach the English language as an academic subject,” he said.
Tseng said learning how to write in English should begin in junior high school with sentence-making and gradually evolve to writing in paragraphs in senior high school.
Another problem at the policy level, he said, was that the Ministry of Education should stop measuring every student's writing proficiency with the curriculum guidelines.
“This is like measuring the ability of students with different levels of proficiency using the same criterion. This is impractical,” he said. “Everyone has a different problem. There should be an approach catering to everyone's needs.”
TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT: A US Air Force KC-135 tanker came less than 1,000 feet of an EVA plane and was warned off by a Taipei air traffic controller, a report said A US aerial refueling aircraft came very close to an EVA Airways jet in the airspace over southern Taiwan, a military aviation news Web site said. A report published by Alert 5 on Tuesday said that automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast (ADS-B) data captured by planfinder.net on Wednesday last week showed a US Air Force KC-135 tanker “coming less than 1,000 feet [305m] vertically with EVA Air flight BR225 as both aircraft crossed path south of Taiwan” that morning. The report included an audio recording of a female controller from the Taipei air traffic control center telling the unidentified aircraft that it was
A US aircraft carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt has entered the South China Sea to promote “freedom of the seas,” the US military said yesterday, as tensions between China and Taiwan raise concerns in Washington. US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that the strike group entered the South China Sea on Saturday, the same day Taiwan reported a large incursion of Chinese bombers and fighter jets into its air defense identification zone near the Pratas Islands (Dongsha Islands, 東沙群島). The US military said the carrier strike group was in the South China Sea, a large part of which
STRATEGIC MISTAKE: Beijing’s deployment of aircraft near Taiwan proves the ‘China threat theory’ that sees it attempting to destabilize the region, an analyst said China on Saturday and yesterday sent a record number of military aircraft into the nation’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), in what analysts said was an attempt to flex its military might for US President Joe Biden. Thirteen Chinese warplanes flew into Taiwan’s southwestern ADIZ on Saturday and 15 entered yesterday, the highest number observed in a single day this year, the Ministry of National Defense said. On Saturday, eight Xian H-6K bombers, four Shenyang J-16 fighters and a Y-8 anti-submarine aircraft, entered the ADIZ, while yesterday there were two Y-8s, two Su-30s, four J-16s, six J-10 fighters and a Y-8 reconnaissance
DISPOSING MYTHS: A new constitution would better reflect reality, as the current one was drafted ‘in and for China,’ without the consent of Taiwanese, advocates said Independence advocates yesterday launched the Taiwan New Constitution Alliance to promote drafting a new, localized constitution. “This is a historic moment for Taiwan. Drafting a new constitution is the most important task Taiwanese face,” veteran independence advocate Koo Kwang-ming (辜寬敏) said at the inaugural event in Taipei. “Although the Democratic Progressive Party is in power, its authority is based on the Republic of China [ROC] Constitution, which has no connection to Taiwan,” said the 95-year-old Koo, a former presidential adviser. “The historic task of drafting a new constitution depends on efforts by all Taiwanese,” Koo said. “A constitution for a sovereign, independent Taiwan