Taiwanese students often test well in English—our scores in the IELTS and TOEFL written test are fifth overall in Asia, ahead of Japan, South Korea, and China—but do not do very well when it comes to actually speaking English. They tend to be hesitant and unconfident when it comes to communicating in English especially in unfamiliar settings. Analysis has shown that students in Taiwan tend to spend a lot of time memorizing esoteric grammatical rules, which may not even be commonly used by native English speakers, and end up neglecting the most basic function of languages: conversation. 

Experts have also noted that, since English is a tool for communication, the objective of learning English should be to obtain greater understanding and knowledge, instead of simply to achieve higher test scores in a classroom. It would be better for elementary school students to learn English as a means of communication, instead of simply memorizing English linguistic rules. This way, students will have the confidence to actually use English when the situation calls for it.

Teachers Can Find Ways to Help Students Love English

Sunny Wu, English instructor at the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University and former Visiting Scholar at the University of Florida, believes that, “The first thing to remember is that listening, speaking, reading, and writing must not be split up.” Instead, children must listen to a lot of English if they want to improve their speaking, and must read a lot of English if they want to improve their writing. Therefore, these four skills should be taught together instead of individually.

Sunny Wu conducts her own English classes entirely in English, and creates real-life scenarios for her students. “When you create a scenario, students will be able to absorb the information more easily (through listening and reading), and then re-express it after integrating their own knowledge and experiences (through speaking and writing). This creates a complete cycle of learning, so that students can fully assimilate and understand what they’ve learned.”

 “English classes used to work like a production line. Teachers would impart knowledge, and students would sit there listening. But English classes should be more interactive, like a cooking class, where the teacher guides the students, and the students can get hands-on practice and add their own special touches.” 

-Sunny Wu, English instructor at the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University

Rachael Sargent, Senior Teacher of English for Young Learners at the British Council Taiwan, has over fifteen years of experience in teaching English in Taiwan. She raised an example of an activity she once had in her class, called “Going Grocery Shopping with Mom.” Students would put on short skits depicting this theme, with different students serving as directors, scriptwriters, actors, etc. The entire collaborative process allowed students to constantly hear, speak, read, and write English, which helped the children internalize the language in a fun way. 

An English Class with No Grades, Judgement, or Pressure

One of the most impressive English classes offered by Sunny Wu is one where chemistry experiments are conducted in class. The point of the class is not the chemistry concepts, and the students are not expected to be able to explain the chemical reactions in English. Instead, the point is to create an interactive and hands-on scenario in English. Over the course of the experiments, the students must study the chemicals and write a record of the experiment, in English throughout. It becomes a necessity to use English in such a situation, so students feel quite natural and at ease when they speak English to each other during the experiment. 

 “Many students aren’t unwilling to speak English, instead they’re afraid of embarrassing themselves. That’s why it’s important to create an environment where they can feel safe, and can speak without fear.”

-Sunny Wu, English instructor at the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University

Wen-Chin Lu, English instructor at Yung-Feng High School in Taoyuan City, noticed that when he divides his class into groups of two or three to conduct discussions on a topic in English, with some groups being called on-stage to present or demonstrate their conclusions, students immediately stopped dozing off in class. “They were motivated by the requirement to go on stage and present, which means they would be more driven to actively learn, instead of simply learning passively.” 

Happiness and Being Proactive Drives Students to Learn English

Rachael Sargent believes that, “The key to elementary school English class is to integrate education into everyday life. Instead of the rote memorization of textbooks, it would be better to take a walk with students, and given them scenarios in English along the way. For example, ask the child, ‘How do I get from our house to the hospital?’ Then, you let them answer in English.” 

Furthermore, Rachael Sargent also noted that some students tend to be a bit more reticent, which makes them feel shy or awkward about speaking in a language other than their mother tongue. However, by actively searching for topics and interacting with these students, often with background music, it becomes possible to reduce the stress on these students. What’s more, it’s important to constantly remind these students that there’s no need to be afraid of making mistakes, and they’ll gradually learn to enjoy the process of learning. 

According to Rachael Sargent, English classes should be learner-centered, and should take place in an environment that’s casual and relaxed. Children must feel the importance of learning the language personally, which will arouse their interest and curiosity. That way, they’ll actively want to know more and maximize their learning potential. 

By strengthening children’s motivation to learn English, they will become more proactive in their language acquisition, which in turn will guide them towards continuous learning. This way, English becomes more than just a subject to learn in class and be tested on; it will become integrated in everyday life, inspire their imagination, and enhance their language absorption and acquisition. 

 (This article also appears on United Daily News)

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