Sun, Mar 15, 2009 - Page 2 News List

FEATURE: Teachers lament poor scores in English

CHALLENGES Teachers said a poor learning environment and an ineffective education policy contributed to the sharp rise in the number of students who failed in the exams

By Flora Wang  /  STAFF REPORTER

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.

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