Showing posts with label tesol. Show all posts
Showing posts with label tesol. Show all posts

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Taiwanese teens know that their English classes are terrible


As an English teacher who believes in the power of authentic communication in language learning -after all, that's how I learned Mandarin - I've been following the work of Taipei Teen Tribune with interest. It's an English-language 'new media' website with articles written by Taiwanese teenagers, with a lot of really great content (and a useful site to follow if you want to know what Taiwanese youth are thinking). And as a professional, I'm interested in how it has helped Taiwanese youth to develop their English language proficiency.

Recently, 12th grader Irene Lin wrote this insightful piece about what it's like to learn English in Taiwanese schools. It goes something like this: 

Many students, who are able to get high grades on tests, are incapable of having an actual English conversation nor write an 

essay on their own. Lessons are designed for students to be able to answer grammar questions and fill vocabulary into sentences rather than practical usage.

Treating English like a math problem is the major flaw in Taiwan’s English education. Students are taught to look at a sentence by breaking them down into pieces based on parts of speech. Overemphasizing grammar and neglecting content causes students to misuse vocabulary and leads to a lack of ability to comprehend meaning.

Lin suggests a solution that pretty much every professional educator with solid training can get behind:

The amount of reading, writing, and speaking needs to increase to solve the problem. However, we not only need to increase the amount but also its difficulty. Students learn more vocabulary through a novel compared to a five paragraph text; learning to write an essay provides the opportunity to learn critical thinking, an ability that Taiwanese education has never taught.

The analysis itself could go deeper, but what is said is spot-on. I'd bend over and do backflips to have a student like this in my classes, and I don't even teach teenagers (I work with adults). Essentially, she's spot on that macroskills work needs to be increased by a massive amount, with an eye to creating users, not learners of the language. Taiwan's secondary school language curriculum currently focuses on passing the various national exams, which in turn are focused on a grammar-structure-heavy view of language.

It's a classic example of negative washback, and the effects are already well-known: while many Taiwanese English teachers are open to more communicative-competence oriented language teaching, only elementary school Taiwanese teachers of English feel they're able to actually incorporate this into their teaching. This is true even in Tainan, where "English as a second official language" has been a policy for a few years now: elementary school teachers are overall more enthusiastic than junior high school ones, almost certainly due to the pressure of preparing learners for national exams.

At the secondary level, teachers repeatedly say that the pressure to prepare learners for exams (which do not focus on communicative competence at all) keeps them from meaningfully incorporating learning approaches that are shown to produce competent users, not just test-takers.

There is just no way to incorporate anything like communicative teaching, task-based learning, a lexical approach or the Big Mama of bilingual education - CLIL, or Content Language Integrated Learning - at a national level as long as the teachers are still pinned to the wall vis-a-vis the national exams.

The exams themselves need to either be scrapped (at least the foreign language sections, though I'm of a mind to say the whole thing should go, with more proficiency-oriented assessment methods taking their place), or revamped so completely that they look nothing like what learners do now. There is just no place in modern language learning for pages and pages of grammar analysis without any nods to practical usage or even meaning in context.

There's just no other reasonable way to teach English for proficiency - you can't expect teachers to do that and to produce test-takers who can handle a grammar-heavy sit-down exam at the same time. The tests have got to go - but good luck convincing parents, some old-school teachers, and more conservative officials in the Ministry of Education that.

Certainly, meaningful skills and systems practice should be a part of any meaningful language-learning curriculum, but it's not enough to say "increase the difficulty."  As other professional educators in Taiwan have noted when reading this, another big issue is that the ways in which language classes in Taiwanese schools are already difficult are not the ways that will produce proficient users of English.

For example, as a knowledgeable friend pointed out, there's a glut of vocabulary in the current curriculum - far too much to absorb in any real way. If the target language for each class is 4-5 new words at most - but those words are truly used in terms of collocation, colligation, common usage, presence in idiomatic speech and more, and strongly contextually presented, by the end of a typical Taiwanese student's education, they will have still learned thousands of words - more than enough to be proficient, if they can use them across several collocations and phrases.  The difference is that they'll be more likely to actually remember what they learned, rather than trying to cram five times that many lexical items into their brains, vomiting it all up on tests, and then forgetting most of it soon after.

That Lin and her peers already know they're receiving a sub-standard language education is a start. That Lin is able to say clearly that her education does not teach her to think critically is, ironically, a sign of critical thinking ability. It gives me faith in the new generation, so I'll kindly thank you to stop calling them strawberries and mindless phone drones.

All of this leads right back to issues with making English a "second official language" in Taiwan

The idea itself isn't a bad one, and the stated goals of the program are actually quite reasonable. The goal isn't to make everyone a fluent speaker, or even necessarily a fully proficient one. They're to make Taiwan a more navigable, understandable destination for foreign visitors and businesspeople - essentially, to internationalize. They're to make English less 'scary' (so, for example, maybe shop assistants won't run away when they see me because they're afraid to speak English; nevermind that I speak Mandarin), and to improve the English curriculum that Taiwan already has. The timeline is reasonable as well.

That said, the fact that Taiwanese youth already go through about a decade of English classes in school, and most who don't come out speaking English in any meaningful way (those who do have almost always taken additional after-school language classes) is a massive problem. Simply having more classes won't help if the curriculum is ineffective. But if the curriculum doesn't work because it's preparing learners for exams rather than teaching them to use a language, it can't be changed unless the exams change.

Tainan is already doing a good job with this on the tourist end, with improvements such as English audioguides now available for major temples, so that any visitor can take a self-guided English-language tour of a number of Tainan temples, and by all accounts the work is quality.

When it comes to improving actual education and proficiency, however, my big worry is that there's simply no way to know if it's working. There seems to be no assessment mechanism built into Tainan's program, which is a yellow (if not a red) flag itself. Even if there were, it's so new that we'd have no idea if it were working by how anyhow; it's too early to know. That Lai has announced the initiative at a national level now is pure politics.

These issues aside, the problem that Lin dances around in her piece is exactly the thing that I fear will torpedo the program: we have no idea whether the continued existence of the national exams in Tainan is having an effect on the "English as a second language" program there, because there's not only no data, but no mechanism that I know of to collect it. Now, imagine that problem on a national level. I just don't see how this is going to work unless we kill the test-heavy way languages are taught in Taiwan now.

That itself is hard to do unless we clean house in terms of the teachers and Ministry of Education officials who will fight such changes, and not just hire "more teachers", but implement improved training for those teachers (both foreign and local - the time is here when it comes to no longer allowing uncredentialed 'native speakers' to be hired as English teachers in Taiwan, with little or no institutional support or meaningful training once employed. Although that's how I got my start, the system simply has to change.) For foreign English teachers, insisting on an internationally-recognized certification - especially now that one will soon be available in Taiwan - and setting parameters for which certification programs are accepted is just a first step.

On top of that, an entirely new curriculum will have to be written, which challenges learners in appropriate ways. What it means to assess learning will have to be entirely re-vamped. Only through consulting with experienced, trained teachers can we ever hope to do this well. 

Until that happens, we might be told that English education in Taiwan is going to change, but teachers will continue to prepare for the ludicrous national exams, and students like Irene Lin aren't going to see their language education get any better.

I'm not holding my breath. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Doing a part-time Master's from Taiwan

I'm having trouble reading this - 朝山?潮汕?Is that a radical or a design element?

So, my first full term at Exeter is finished, grades are in, and I'll just say I'm quite happy.

It's important to me to write about professional development - after all, I'm interested in Taiwan for personal reasons, but my actual profession isn't related to Taiwan Studies, affairs, policy, any of it, and although I know there are others here who take TESOL seriously, it's hard to see that just looking online. Besides, people have asked. There aren't a lot of professional development opportunities locally, so for those who are actually serious about the profession I figure it'd be good to talk about what I've been up to.

I have less to say about this than I did about doing a CELTA (taking over a month away from Taiwan) and a modular Delta locally. I'm in the groove now - I know what I need to do and how to go about it, and there's less initial confusion and stress. So, it just feels like "life" rather than "something worth writing about".

But, there are a few things worth saying:

A bit about my program

I'm enrolled in the MEd Summer Intensive TESOL program at Exeter: it's the only highly-ranked school I could find that had a program quite like this - I've written about this issue before. It's not a "distance learning" program: you take your classes face-to-face over the summer, and then go back to wherever you live to write your papers. This is enough for it to be considered fully face-to-face.

The same program is offered full-time, and the summer program tends to be attended by people like me: working professionals in the field looking to level up (I have heard that the full-time program skews quite a bit younger.) Most of my classmates are non-native speakers, which I appreciate, and the entry requirements are stringent enough (though, to be honest, I did not fear that I'd be rejected.)

The main issue was finding relevant literature - in general:

There is just not a lot of TESOL literature available in Taiwan. Caves has a modest selection, I haven't yet figured out if I can use an interlibrary loan system here and, given that the best university doesn't offer my program, I'm not sure it would be fruitful to try. I can get most journal publications electronically, but it can be hard to access books, as many relevant titles aren't available in digital copies (when one is available, it's usually offered in a read-online format through the Exeter library).

I lucked out in terms of having access to a large library of relevant titles through a helpful classmate, but if I hadn't made that connection, I might have spent thousands more just on books.

...and relevant to my context

Because this is a Master of Education program, and not a Master of Arts, it is very much tied to one's teaching context. You can't write abstractly: you have to find real teaching situations, evaluate them, and often propose your own output or adaptations for use in these real-world contexts. I appreciate that - it's relevant, not too up-in-the-clouds - but to ground your ideas in principled pedagogy and relevant literature, you need such literature about said contexts. And there just...isn't a lot. There are TESOL and AppLing researchers publishing research from Taiwan, some of which is crap and some of which is fine - but there's just not enough of it. In the field, Taiwan simply does not represent very well.

It can be a bit lonely

I did Delta with Brendan - we had each other to talk through the hard parts, read each others' work, make each other dinner and talk each other down from stressful moments. I also had a local tutor for the most difficult module, which helped a lot.

On the Master's, although one of my classmates is Taiwanese and we've become good friends, I don't see her often as she lives in Hsinchu. Otherwise, it's just me...going it alone. I'm quite extroverted so all that time stuck in books or behind a computer screen, without other people doing the same thing, got a little lonely. I started feeling a bit like a slug - not enough exercise. I felt trapped indoors on beautiful days. Finding friends working on their own stuff to be around and choosing outdoor cafes on occasion helped, but frankly, you're sort of on your own.

There's not a lot of local support

To be blunt, Taiwan does not seem to value qualified English teachers. It can feel sometimes like nobody cares. I quit one of my (many) jobs in part over frustration with what I saw as academically-underqualified management, feeling as though, if I wasn't going to get support at work, where my degree would be immediately relevant, I would at least need time to finish my papers. My other workplaces were highly accommodating of my time needs and I'm thankful for that - those papers, man - but weren't resources in terms of discussing module content and writing.

I'd worked with highly qualified academic managers in the past, whom I would have happily gone to with questions or for advice, but that dried up. I got some very helpful support from the person I consider as a kind of mentor (thanks, yo), but he's busy with other things too.

I know there are other qualified people in Taiwan I could talk to, but I have found once you get to this level, you tend to be horribly busy (as I have been), and I feel as though there's no such thing as a truly helpful workplace in Taiwan. Not even necessarily the universities. I have to hope I'm wrong.

Yet I can't help but feel as though English teaching here suffers from the same blight as journalism: professionalism is just not valued. It's depressing. Come on, Taiwan.

The best part is the travel - the papers are...papers

Seriously - the classes are lectures, a bit long (three hours) but fun to attend. Otherwise, you are free to ramble about Exeter, although many students will spend time in the library looking through the physical collection to take notes, get ideas on what they might need, or scan relevant passages. First year students have to write a fairly simple formative essay and take study skills seminars - we'll see what it's like for second years - but otherwise, we could enjoy the town (quiet as it is). There was never a point when we were too busy to go to the pub or out for dinner, or to enjoy theater and other performances with our student discounts. In fact, people commented on my constant social media posts having fun with my classmates asking if I was actually doing any work (some).

And, of course, if you're already in England, you may as well poke about Europe...last year I went to Georgia, Armenia, Greece, Czechia, Hungary and Austria. This year I'll go to Portugal, Wales and Italy (and there is talk of a weekend trip to Spain.)

Then, the papers came. They're not easy - I mean, it's Master's level at a fairly prestigious university. I did very well but I had to work for it, and I felt like I spent most of January, February and March deep in a hole with only my computer screen for company.

There are no exams (yay!)

I always found this a bit odd about my friends' Master's programs. I thought exams were for college classes where you could assume the average to...let's say "differently motivated"... students couldn't write a decent paper (sorry if that sounds mean, but...) and if you were in a Master's program, especially in any kind of liberal arts or humanities field, you would certainly do away with the nonsense of timed exams and express your literature-grounded, principled and justified ideas in writing. Apparently - according to people I know - that's not always the case.

My program, however, has lots of paper writing but no exams. As, frankly, it should be.

Time can be an issue

I was lucky - as above, my various employers were very accommodating. I also took on a new teacher training role during this time, which I've been really getting into. It was a steep learning curve, though, so I found myself teaching my first teacher training course while finishing up my first paper, and not sleeping much at all. But, the job presented itself and I jumped on it, as I'd always wanted to do teacher training.

However, it's less clear that others doing this program would be so fortunate: I remember being dependent on an employer for a work visa, and I remember not having the power or resources to tell an employer to buzz off if they weren't accommodating. Most employers in Taiwan don't respect teachers' time - you're scheduled without being asked, pressured to work weekends or take classes you don't want, corralled into doing extra unpaid work (judging [ridiculous] speech contests, pointless paperwork, 'English corner' or whatever) and aren't even paid particularly well for the honor.

I could easily imagine someone without my resources - the experience of having done a Delta, the course exemptions from that Delta, accommodating employment, permanent residency, a persuasive resting bitch face* and a supportive husband - struggling to get all of the papers written.

Even I - a fully-resourced person - gave up my Lunar New Year to spend 6 straight days writing a paper on testing and assessment, with a cold so bad it bordered on the flu. I didn't have the time otherwise.

It's caused me to re-think similar programs in Taiwan.

Looking from the perspective of someone who had done a Delta, MA TESOL programs available in Taiwan didn't look particularly impressive. I didn't see how they actually trained one to be a good teacher (and I have been told that the MA Teaching Chinese programs tended to focus on the linguistics of Chinese rather than how to teach it).

But, I'm finding that's true with pretty much any Master's program. You get a lot of background in the field and a deeper theoretical and academic knowledge of it, but if you are looking to get better at classroom practice, they aren't going to do that. Period. No matter where you are. The academic knowledge is worthwhile, but it's best to know what you are signing up for. 

It's still absolutely worth it

Seriously, I'm lovin' it! I feel like I've found my superpower - a great hidden talent - writing academic papers that keep getting high marks. When you enter the field as an inexperienced nobody, as I did, and continue to work in it despite it being dismissed as "not a real job" by so many other expats (which I want to say is not fair, but so many "teachers" treat it as "not a real job" that I can't even blame the haters too much), there's always this desire to do something to set yourself apart as a real professional. Besides, although I don't write about it much, I do care about the field. I've toyed with starting an TEFL blog but Lao Ren Cha is enough for me, I'd rather write as a hobby and leave the work at work. Besides, it is interesting (to me) - I enjoy knowing enough about second language acquisition that I can shrug off all of the folk theories and pontificating. Leading TESOL training and developing future language teachers simultaneously really drives home that I do have a body of professional knowledge worth sharing. It's great.

I mean the papers can be torture, but also, it's great.

*no, seriously, sometimes you just gotta don the face and tell people how it's gonna be

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Master Hunt

If you've noticed that in the later half of this year I haven't been the most consistent blogger in terms of frequency of updates, it's because I actually have some exciting news!

First, I've been published! This isn't my first publication (I worked for a regional newspaper before I started college, and more relevantly have a story relating one of my experiences in Taiwan published here) but it is my first academic publication. It's not even all that academic, because I don't work at a university, don't have academically-based postgraduate education (my Delta is technically equivalent to a Master's but is more of a professional degree than an academic one), don't have a research budget and, thus, can't really do hard research. But, I did enjoy writing it, and hope you check it out - first link in this paragraph. I explore teaching note management skills as a method of introducing learner autonomy into the classroom, with an exploration of my own note-management teaching strategy.

Second, I've been accepted to grad school! I'll be starting at this program at the University of Exeter in July 2017. It's a program with a special schedule made for people like me who can't just up and move to England, or somewhere else, for postgraduate study but don't have a lot of options where they live. I applied quite early, but I was ready to and the platform was open, so I don't feel too weird about that. I would have gone this year if I'd had the money. That's what took away my blogging time, to be honest.

Anyway, I have a few thoughts on my process of researching, choosing and applying for Master's programs as an American in Taiwan. I am sorry to say that while there are some good things, it's mostly bad news. That is unfortunate not only for Taiwan, but also the USA.

A dearth of options in Taiwan

My biggest hurdle was finding a good program - I started in Taiwan but just couldn't find one that quite met my needs. I may not be in Taiwan forever, so I did need something from a school that is highly regarded internationally. I'm sorry to say that nothing on offer in Taiwan fits the bill. NTU is the only university of international repute, and doesn't offer my desired program. That doesn't mean other universities are necessarily "bad". They are not, however, universities whose degrees will get you noticed abroad.

There are MA TESOL and MA Applied Linguistics/Applied Foreign Languages programs in Taiwan: Shi-da, National Taiwan University of Technology and other schools offer them. Many are taught in English. They would not, however, help much internationally. Also, testimony of what one actually learns on these programs from a friend who did one in teaching Chinese turned me off to the idea of studying in Taiwan. He was, shall we say, less than impressed.

I have heard that there's a Master of Education program available through a small university in the US that allows you to take classes here, but that was something someone told me - I haven't found any evidence of its existence in my research. Anyone?

Columbia University Teacher's College Tokyo would have been an option, but they are apparently closing the campus - at least, a friend of mine went there so I know it's a real thing, she says it's closing, and I can't even find a reference to it existing online. Not that it matters: the tuition was similar to that in the US, and I can't afford US tuition. So, studying in a fully face-to-face program from Taiwan was quickly dismissed as 'not an option' for me.

Distance programs aren't great options

There are a number of distance programs: Nottingham, University of Southampton with the British Council and more in the UK (many, many more - I couldn't possibly link to them all), USC and Anaheim in the US (these were the only two distance programs I could find) - but I didn't want to do a distance Master's.

Why? The first reason is that, rightly or wrongly - and I happen to think wrongly - distance-learning postgraduate degrees tend to get the side-eye from academic institutions looking to hire, even if they are from reputable institutions (they also run the risk of not being recognized in Taiwan). The second is that I did distance learning for my Delta. It was fine, but I want something different. I want to actually meet people in person and have real-time discussions using my actual voice.

...neither was going abroad

So, I looked into what it would take for me to do a face-to-face Master's outside of Taiwan. Brendan and I are super-solid, I knew we could weather this, though I didn't particularly want to be apart for a year or two. I looked at King's College, Durham, University College London and more in the UK (not even going to bother with links, you can Google those yourself) and very few choices in the USA, because I honestly could not afford US tuition. I also looked at York University in Canada, but couldn't have afforded to live there and pay tuition. The same is true for the universities of Melbourne, Brisbane and Queensland, which I also researched. I looked at Germany, as well, but most schools (at least the ones I looked at, including Bonn) want you to pass a German proficiency test even if you are taking a program in English. I doubt I'd have the time to learn German at that level,

My country of origin is not affordable

In fact, I only looked at two face-to-face programs in the US: Columbia (because if I'm going to commit I may as well aim high - also I wouldn't need a car in New York and it's close to family) and SUNY Albany, one of the bigger campuses of my state university system and the only one to offer an MA TESOL. State university tuition would have been "cheaper" (cheaper than Satan's own private university pricing, so that's hardly a consolation) and at the time I was thinking I could live with my grandfather. He's since moved and that is no longer an option.

This is where I throw a lot of shade on the USA.

Total tuition for the programs noted above that are based in the USA:

USC Rossier School of Education (online) - approximately $50,000. They bill it as being the same as face-to-face: you videoconference the classes and they treat you as though you are 'there'. You're not residing there, though, so I do wonder why the tuition has to be as high. They don't need to worry about space, maintenance, grounds, utilities or security during my residency because there isn't one.

Anaheim University (online): A little over $20,000, including inexplicable fees such as a "graduation fee" and a "thesis fee" (which is apparently to print and bind your thesis, but $450? Are they binding it in unicorn leather? What the hell?) I appreciate that they are trying to break down exactly what your $20,000 is paying for, and I appreciate that their tuition is more similar to what UK schools charge. But the breakdown doesn't make them look good. My 'graduation fee' is all the fucking money I pay for my fucking degree, not some $300 you tack on. No. Not Okay. Also, I have some serious side-eye for charging for an online degree what UK schools charge for a face-to-face degree. Why exactly does it have to be that high?

SUNY Albany MA TESOL without state certification (which I don't need) - face-to-face: $12,000 and change, per year, 2 year program so $24,000 total. For in-state tuition.

Columbia University - face-to-face: fuck that I'm not even going to bother, what the fuck makes them think a fucking English teacher can afford to pay that shit back, fuck you, a fucking pox on your house!

In comparison, the distance programs in the UK cost about 7,000 pounds, and face-to-face cost about 15,000 and change - for the whole program. This is for international students - don't forget that. What that translates into in US dollars is changing by the day, but suffice it to say the total tuition for an international student (did I mention international), not in-state or even a citizen, is cheaper than going to my own state university in the US which is supposed to be the affordable option.

My program at Exeter is quite a bit less than that, and I'm an international student.

English teaching isn't a particularly highly-paid profession - I could never have afforded to pay back US tuition. It's just not feasible.

It is really sad that my own country couldn't make it possible for someone whose career requires postgraduate education, and who would certainly do well in it, to actually get it.

This is a prime reason why I do not intend to return. Why should I give "back" something to society through teaching and education that society doesn't see fit to give me? I appreciate my basically okay public education through secondary school but the US tertiary and postgraduate system is completely, and utterly, fucked. I want nothing to do with it.

But thanks, UK!

To end on a high note: when I got my offer letter I walked down the street alternating between feeling like this, and like this.