A Response to “Tsai Mulling English Test Update for Entrance Exams”

On Monday, November 1, 2021, the Taipei Times reported in an article titled “Tsai Mulling English Test Update for Entrance Exams” that President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)  suggested replacing the English part of university entrance exams with proficiency tests.

I am cautiously in favor of such a change.

On the surface, separating English classes from the entrance exam could potentially allow a move toward communicative teaching methods in Taiwan’s public school English classrooms, a change that has been discussed for more than two decades.

The exam washback effect is a strong force in Taiwan, and English teachers (as well as teachers of other tested subjects) have long felt pressure to teach to the exam. The removal of English from the entrance exam would likely be welcomed by many English teachers who are interested in moving beyond traditional teaching to the test.

However, I have concerns about the proposed alternative as well.

In his book on bilingual education in Taiwan, my colleague Dr. Tzu-Bin Lin, professor in the Department of Education at National Taiwan Normal University,  discusses the question of whether every Taiwanese person needs to have a high English proficiency. Allow me to take this question one step further—does every Taiwanese college student need a high English proficiency?

While I wouldn’t say no, I wouldn’t emphatically say yes, either.

My concern is that these proficiency tests will become a gatekeeper to higher education much in the way they have in other parts of the world. Take this example from Khalifa et al. (2016)  from Qatar:

“I did my portfolio and studied IELTS. I tried many times to obtain the grade that they want. When I first gave them my papers, they did not accept me because of IELTS.” (Khalifa et al., 2016, p. 8).

Assuming that everything in the portfolio met academic entrance requirements, I feel uncomfortable that English was the only barrier for this student to receive a higher education in Qatar. Here is another example:

“The big problem was how to pass the IELTS. I sat for the exam 15 times, and I even went to Bahrain to obtain it but in vain” (Khalifa et al., 2016, p. 8)

If the change from English on the entrance exam to English proficiency exams provides greater opportunities for students to actually learn to communicate in English, then I am all for it. Developing bilingualism is always a positive thing.

But, if the policy leads to the exclusion of otherwise very talented students from a university education, that would be a very unfortunate development for Taiwan, one which I believe would be detrimental to society.

Reference

Khalifa, B., Nasser, R., Ikhlef, I., Walker, J. S., & Amali, S. (2016). A qualitative study of student attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, outlook, and context in Qatar: Persistence in higher education. Near & Middle Eastern Journal of Research in Education, 2, 1–22.

SFL Genre Pedagogy: The Key to Integrating Language and Content

When I conduct bilingual education training for teachers in Taiwan, I usually have the participants discuss their feelings about this statement: It is the job of the bilingual teacher to teach the English language.

Since my audience is typically content teachers, most disagree. When asked why they disagree, they answer, “That’s the English teacher’s job!”

In contrast with these participants, I agree with the statement. I believe it IS the job of the bilingual teacher to teach the English language—the English language of their subject.

I take this position based on the principles of systemic functional linguistics (SFL).

 

The TESOL Teacher Educator Interest Section (TEIS) hosted a webinar with Dr. Maria Estela Brisk titled SFL Genre Pedagogy: Teaching Writing to Students of all Ages. While she focused on writing specifically, I think the content applies to all types of language production, and I believe the concepts she discussed in regard to SFL are critical knowledge for bilingual teachers.

I want to specifically highlight two points from the video to illustrate why I believe bilingual education teachers should know about and teach the English language.

Every subject has it’s own language

Maria Estela Brisk explaining SFL in a TESOL webinar.

SFL puts the text as the focal point for understanding language (as seen in the picture above). The characteristics of the text are determined by the context of culture. In bilingual education, we can interpret culture as the subject or academic discipline.

Every academic discipline has their own ways of organizing text about their subject, be it oral texts or written texts. This organization is called genre in SFL.

English teachers focus on general language use. They do not have the time to teach the genres of every subject. If bilingual teachers do not teach the subject-specific ways of creating oral or written texts for communication in the subject area, no one will. Which brings us to the second point…

Students have to be taught to produce language, not just told

Maria Estela Brisk explaining the teaching cycle.

Participants in bilingual education workshops are often concerned that Taiwanese students do not have enough English ability to communicate in a bilingual classroom—they don’t. Yet, at the same time, they say it is not their job to teach language.

There is a disconnect between these two ideas.

If the goal is for students to be able to use English in the content classroom, we have to teach them how, not just tell them to. Students will not just magically one day be able to use English without being taught, just like students will not magically know how to do chemistry. Explicit teaching matters!

However, this isn’t to say that bilingual teachers will teach like English teachers—they shouldn’t—but it also doesn’t mean they shouldn’t teach language. They must teach language in subject-specific ways that are aligned with the purpose of communicating about the subject, an idea that SFL brings to the forefront.

Teacher educators’ role in teacher SFL genre pedagogy

It is not good enough for a bilingual education teacher to simply be a user of language. Teacher educators must guide bilingual education teachers to also be analyzers of language and teachers of language. Teachers must be able to analyze the subject-specific ways language is used in their disciplines using the principles of SFL. Once teachers become language-aware, they can then teach language to their students using SFL genre pedagogy in a way that integrates content and language.

Dr. Maria Estela Brisk gives a brilliant introduction to these concepts and provides a good starting point for teacher educators to begin to consider how they can convince bilingual education teachers that they ARE teachers of language—the language of their subject.

A Response to “Tips for Making Taiwan Bilingual”

On October, 10, 2021, the Taipei Times printed an opinion piece by Michael Riches titled “Tips for Making Taiwan Bilingual.”

I would like to provide my response to some statements in the article.

As Taiwan moves toward English-only instruction in 60 percent of elementary and high schools by 2024, with the goal of having a bilingual generation by 2030, the Ministry of Education is looking to ramp up the influx of foreign teachers. Hopefully the plans go beyond this simplistic road map, because some thorny matters need to be addressed. (para. 1)

I can assure you the plan goes beyond “ramp[ing] up the influx of foreign teachers.”

On teacher training alone, the Ministry of Education has implemented several programs to train and empower local teachers for bilingual education, including in-service teacher programs at 12 universities (NTNU is one), a preservice teacher program at 14 universities (I teach in the one at NTNU), and a scholarship program for bilingual education preservice teachers (we have 10 bilingual scholarship students at NTNU). Cities are also holding their own professional development programs, for example, the New Taipei City bilingual education teacher workshop series where I was a speaker last week.

There is a lot of activity surrounding bilingual education in Taiwan at the moment. Foreign teachers are only a small fraction of the plan.

With few options for students to practice their language skills outside the classroom, teachers in these countries sometimes wonder if the governments should just declare English a national language, as it is in Singapore, and aim to have it spoken all across society, from retail transactions to government services.

However, imposing a national language on a culture that does not need it is not realistic. Singapore requires a lingua franca to facilitate business and social relations across a variety of cultures. Taiwan, like Japan and South Korea, is not in that situation. (para. 3 and 4)

Yes, that’s a terrible idea; I am glad we are in agreement on that. Not only is it unrealistic, but it also is not needed and would cause more harm than good.

Language is more than just a communication tool: it is culture, history, knowledge,  identity, to name a few. According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Taiwan has already lost 9 languages between 1950 and 2010. Several more are heading in that direction. Much would be lost if Taiwan adopted English in the way Singapore did (more on that below).

Outside of the French-speaking province of Quebec, most schools start teaching the language around grade 6, or age 11, when the language acquisition abilities of children start to decline. (para 6)

This is a misinterpretation of the research and a widespread myth. Francois Grosjean explains this in his article “How Early a Second Language? Misconceptions about age and second language acquisition.” The age factor should not be a concern for Taiwan, though there are many factors that are, one main factor being …

The government would also do well to consider the hardship caused by an overemphasis on standardized test scores. Exams are a constant source of misery for students and instructors alike. Teachers must often overlook practical instruction in favor of test-oriented content, and students come to regard English as another dreaded subject that must be studied rather than can be enjoyed.

Many students are able to master standardized tests without acquiring any meaningful English fluency, while others struggle with the exacting standards of the tests, despite having a high degree of real-world communicative competence. These exams have some value, but are not universal barometers of language ability. (para. 16 and 17).

Exactly! The current high-stakes testing system is not compatible with bilingual education.

Teachers feel pressure to complete a “coverage curriculum” rather than teach a results-based one in order to help students pass their tests. I see this as being one of the main barriers to a successful bilingual education policy. In fact, that’s where Singapore went wrong…

In Singapore, I learned that cultures are not always diminished by the introduction of a new language. Damage is certainly caused when languages are suppressed by decree, as happened in Taiwan during authoritarian rule.

Singapore has done the opposite, as it encouraged the use mother tongues at home and in some parts of the school system

No, Singapore is a terrible example and one Taiwan should absolutely not follow. Lee and Hua (2021), in their article titled “Examinations in Singapore’s Bilingual Policy: Effects on Chinese Language Education,” showed that Singapore’s policy actually turned into a monolingual one (though that was not the plan).

In Singapore, there has been a rise of English in the home since 1980 to the point that English is now spoken more than Mandarin Chinese in ethnic-Chinese homes.

Why? Singapore’s standardized testing system (see point above).

Is that the bilingual nation Taiwan wants to become? An English-dominant one?

Creating a bilingual society has to cut through … politics. There are no easy solutions to the problems that could crop up in this difficult task, but any consideration toward addressing these issues would be worth the effort. (para. 32 and 33)

Creating a bilingual education system is complex. It has failed in many parts of the world due to monolingual ideologies, and there certainly is no shortage of similarly inspired politics in many of the ideas being put forth in Taiwan

The author is correct—”no easy solutions” and a very “difficult task”—but I believe it is possible.  In education, anything is possible.

The Importance of Teaching Morphemic Awareness

A morpheme is a meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided (Google’s English dictionary via Oxford Languages). For example, the English word incoming has three morphemes: in, come, ing.

In the above webinar, Dr. Michelle Benegas discusses the idea that ALL teachers (not just language teachers) must be aware of and provide instruction in morphemes.

Why?

She cites Nagy and Anderson’s (1984) findings that 60% of words students encounter in third through ninth grade can be predicted by their morphemes.

That makes morphemes a powerful tool for bilingual students in their content courses.

I’d like to highlight two points in the webinar for bilingual teacher educators and content teachers.

For bilingual teacher educators, building teachers’ language awareness should be a key component of any bilingual education teacher preparation program.

Dr. Benegas provides an excellent exercise to help teachers become aware of morphemes (~8:06 in the video). The exercise asks teachers to examine a list of medical words using lists of common prefixes, suffixes, and roots. The lists she used in the webinar came from the University of Minnesota’s College of Biological Science website.

In a teacher preparation class, teacher educators could take their teachers through a similar exercise. Alternatively, the teachers could be asked to examine words they may teach in their classes. This will help the teachers become aware of how they may leverage morphemic awareness in their future classrooms.

For bilingual teachers, the word dissection exercise (21:09 in the video) may be useful when learning academic vocabulary in the content classroom. The activity asks students to cut words into pieces and define each of the morphemes using a graphic organizer.

Because this exercise is simple with low prep, I could see it being easily implemented into any content classroom. Further, if implemented across the curriculum, students will quickly build their morphemic awareness and be able to utilize it in all academic areas, thus enhancing their academic literacy development.