Teacher EFL in University in Taiwan: Five Problems and Solutions
This paper is based primarily on my experiences of teaching English major students in Fresher, Sophomore and Junior level at Chinese Culture University. I have taught courses in Speaking, Listening and in Composition at these levels. These experiences have shaped the content of this short personal view of the problems faced by students studying English in Chinese Culture University’s English Department. Despite these obvious limitations and also constraints of time, it is a good vehicle to raise some of the issues that I face in my classes. First, I will set the background of these typical classes. Then I will attempt to examine five areas that, in my opinion, pose problems for student learners of English. I will also try to offer some ideas about how to overcome the problem.
Student Expectations & Experience
When students come to university, they frequently look at this opportunity as a reward for all their hard work in the JCEE competition and/or as a step to getting a good job with a big salary. These views have often been expressed in my classes, and it comes as a shock to many that students can be and are flunked from university. In fact, students seldom see university in other terms, such as a place for personal, intellectual and spiritual development growth. I often have to remind students that University is what they make of it and that much can be learned here that will help shape their development and their future. More of a problem, though, is the way students are selected for university in Taiwan: frequently, students will find themselves studying a major that they have no personal interest in, and no intention of developing afterwards. Also, as a result of the traditional methodologies used in high school, many students find themselves in an unenviable position when it comes to less traditional means of education such as Listening/Speaking Classes offer. Suddenly they are put in a situation where most input is in a foreign language, and little Chinese is used to explain or clarify what is going on. (Of course, I resort to Chinese where necessary) This is quite a challenge to them. Also, because of the focus on communicative competence, many students find the methods quite unfamiliar to them; it takes a little time for them to adjust to pairwork and groupwork, but they do adapt and some adapt very well to this new environment.
So when students come to our classes with so much baggage, it’s not surprising that some of them face problems and become quite disillusioned with their education and career, the education system and even their future. It is our responsibility to adapt our teaching to, and increase our awareness of, our students’ needs as we believe them to be.
Problem #1: Motivation
One of the problems that students face when they come to university is a serious lack of motivation. Whilst this is not true of all students in my classes, it is pervasive enough to warrant my concern. The cause of the problem undoubtedly lies in the methods that were used in high school and cram school to prepare the students to sit the Junior College Entrance Exam. These methods can by characterized as rote learning, extensive and frequent testing, teacher-centered classrooms, lack of student input/questions into the class and their own learning, and lack of accepting/taking responsibility for their own learning. In a real sense, these methods prepare students quite well for JCEE, but very poorly for classes where alternatives methods are extensively used, such as university level classes.
In many classes, these methods lead to a high degree of passivity in the class, and even attempts at elicitation can fail to help students express their ideas. Passivity may also adversely affect students’ level of motivation. Students are unwilling, perhaps even unable, to express their ideas about texts (literature class), opinions (fluency class), and so on; and yet, when class is over, the class is filled with chatter in Chinese.
Solution #1: Motivation
Clearly it is not easy to increase levels of motivation though it can be done, I believe. However, results take time to achieve and need a coherent approach in order to succeed. Firstly, students must be encouraged to take responsible for their own learning across the curriculum. This can be achieved in several ways: the use of the student contract, better needs analysis and consultation with the student, and more coherent academic counseling of students, especially in first year when students are most likely to go adrift without the benefits of family intervention or peer support. Secondly, with better needs analysis of the student body, we could plan classes that start from where students actually are in their academic development rather than where we would like them to be. These students are good students, but their situation is quite different from those of National Taiwan University or indeed other student bodies. Of course, this situation is more relevant for language development classes, such as Listening/Speaking, but the influence of such an approach would also be felt on students in the other classes. Thirdly, the teachers could take many different strategies to encourage students to take part in class: giving responsibility to students to decide what to learn (a very bold step), developing cooperative teaching strategies where students can build up motivation and confidence through group work, perhaps even by changing our manner of correcting students, appreciating them for trying (even though their answer is wide of the mark, and even by placing value on the processes that go into particular answers, rather than focusing on the result. By including students much more in the what and how of teaching, students will inevitably become more aware of the why of learning.
Problem #2: Textbooks
By involving students in some of the decision making, perhaps we could avoid using many of the textbooks that are available for use in language classrooms which are far from inspiring. As a result, they typically turn off what little motivation students have. Typical problems include: poor presentation, irrelevant grammar, unbalanced exercises, repetitive material, uninspiring dialogues and audio materials, activities that are more suitable for children’s classrooms, unmotivating and unchallenging content, lack of video real elements, characters in the stories that no one cares about, and controversial issues that aren’t even worth discussing. Most books are published with certain criteria regarding the ‘typical’ student who will use them and are designed for regions particular national markets or niches. Local conditions may vary widely from the perceived target market of the book chosen. Good examples of books which fail are: New Wave 3, High Impact, and even New Interchange 2. These books fail in most of the areas mentioned. More importantly, though, many of the books that we can see in Caves Bookstore and countless other bookstores worldwide focus on the linguistic needs of students, and in my opinion, totally miss the bigger picture: the emotional spiritual and intellectual needs of these selfsame students. Most students come to the English Department of Chinese Culture University with a fair degree of competence already established (it may vary from student to student), and they are presented with New Wave 3 or High Impact. Most of the language work in these books is basic and the thematic issues are not particularly inspiring because they do not challenge students to examine themselves, their own values or ideas and to discuss them with their friends and classmates. This has to be one of the biggest problems of class. In addition, students have a lot of emotional baggage that relates to textbooks from high school days, of being forced to study them for hours on end, of memorizing the entire contents, of not being allowed to read outside those books (some students have reported exactly this experience to me), and of gradually but surely losing interest in these books and in the general subject matter.
Solution #2: Textbooks
There is no easy answer to this issue of textbooks, especially as substituting other media for books, seems (anecdotally) to produce the same kind of mind numbing effects on students. Any successful solution to this partly relates to students’ motivation levels and understanding of their needs’ analysis. First of all, in the language classroom, the teacher has to understand that the book is merely present to support the goals of the course, and is by itself not a goal. Interestingly, in my class, I often find myself reminding students to close their books! I think this does have the effect of helping students focus on the communication that is being created. Secondly, we must clearly understand what subjects our students care about, this can be guessed at by knowledge of students’ background, needs analysis, familiarity with their other course content, and so on. This helps us to understand exactly which buttons need to be pressed and how even apparently unrelated issues can be brought home to students, in a way they understand and relate. Thirdly, in the language classroom, where communication is key, the non-selection of a textbook may be an appropriate choice where teachers can supply a wide range of audio/video material that enhances the students’ linguistic abilities. Students nowadays are visually literate in ways that were unimaginable even 10 years ago: video, internet, interactivity, software, computers, TV, etc., all have a role in our students’ lives that to some extent supplants the role of the written word. As their teachers, we surely cannot deny the existence of the written word, nor can we deny the world that our students live in by simply saying “Let’s open our books at page 25.”
Problem #3: Class Content & Teaching Style
What goes on in the classroom? Is it the ‘chalk and talk’ method? Or do students actively participate in the knowledge-sharing and communication that is taking place?
Too often our students come into the classroom with their bags, sit down, open their books, pencil boxes and ears, but close their brains. I am sure most teachers are familiar with students like this. In other words, they are not participating or even relating to what’s going on in the class. Their only purpose in being there is to make sure their attendance is recorded on the attendance sheet.
This problem is often exacerbated by the inconsiderate choice of textbook and inappropriate sense of students’ expectations for the class. A typical list of contents from popular textbook includes: meeting people, comparing ideas, daily routines, everyday machines, current activities, places, etc. (First Impact, Longman 1996). Given the way that each lesson treats each topic, it is not surprising that students turn off to the topic of the day. It takes an inspired teacher to bring the material alive for the students. First Impact itself is one of the more progressive textbooks available, more traditional books follow a grammatical syllabus that offers little or nothing in the way of real communication. Is it any wonder that our student then react in the way described? The topics are dictated by the writer of the book, arranged in some predetermined pattern, that suits the linguistic needs of his or her target audience. The teacher often slavishly copies down the order of the book’s contents and arranges it into the requisite number of classes for the semester. Moreover, the contents of each chapter are hardly challenging to the learner, either conceptually or linguistically. The typical list of topics we are given to teach hardly inspire some of the higher level functions of critical thinking, self-reflection, or values development: it’s difficult when your course presents topics like recipes or daily routines!
In addition, we also have to consider many of the more traditional teacher centered methods that predominate in the classrooms of the world; these all have a particular role to play in creating and enhancing passivity in the classroom. The typical methodology that students get is the ‘chalk and talk’ experience in their language classroom, most readers will be familiar with this type of education. Simultaneously, it fills up the classroom with teacher talk, provides ‘content’ and, at least superficially, can be called ‘education.’ And yet, it also creates the ultimate backwash in learning: lack of student self-fulfillment, lowered motivation in the course subject, and passivity among our students.
Given these circumstances, it’s a miracle that any real learning takes place at all: it’s a testament to the spirit of human beings. And yet, shouldn’t this experience be available to all of our students?
Solution#3: Class Content & Methodology
The problems mentioned in the above paragraphs, I believe, are not insurmountable. Indeed, a variety of content is available for teachers to use in class, however I would outline nine separate criteria for teachers to consider when choosing content for any particular course. These criteria could be applied either to books that are available or to teachers’ own privately developed materials.
Criteria for Good Content:
1. It should take into account the students’ situation and needs;
2. It should respect students’ ability and aspirations in the target language;
3. It should respect students’ level of intellectual and emotional development;
4. It should reflect students’ and teachers’ perceptions of where the students’ need to be in their language development;
5. It should challenge students to think about their values and ideas about the world in a responsible way;
6. It should provide audio/visual/textual material that inspires students both to use English and to examine themselves;
7. It should seek to help students express themselves by providing ample and suitable situations/roles and appropriate language for the students to have a reasonable chance of success;
8. It should highlight and accentuate students’ fluency and confidence in the particular focus area of the course, e.g.. speaking, writing, etc.;
9. It should be visually attractive and well-presented for students to use.
Following these criteria will not ensure a successful and active class, though. We also need to consider the teaching style that is used. When these two are combined students will no longer feel that the class is just an event that is happening without reference to themselves.
The classroom atmosphere is largely the result of the teacher’s personality, teaching style and the interaction of the class with the teacher. As a result, the teacher plays a tremendous role in setting up what happens in the class and whether students can become more active learners. Apart from consideration of students’ needs, via surveys, and informal discussions, we need to be open to allowing students more opportunities to interact with each other in the class. We need to be able to adapt our style of teaching to allow students the opportunity to express themselves in their class. In addition, we need to allow that interaction to take place, by making sufficient time for group discussion. We also need to focus more on the process of what is going on rather than the end result. And our form of assessment should also recognize this fact so we should avoid some of the testing styles that hark back to the more traditional testing styles. In addition, we need to create an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect: students-teacher and student-student. By moving away from the position of ‘Teacher knows best’ to a more amenable position where we listen to our students and what they are saying, we will be able to create more productive and harmonious classroom.
Increasingly, I am of the opinion that by focusing more on communication, and the content of that communication, and by creating an environment that allows the communication to take place, we will create a much more enjoyable experience for our students where learning takes place.
One way to achieve this is to focus more on content than on the means of communication (as defined by grammar, pronunciation, etc.). Students will become absorbed by the message, gaining mastery of the subject, thinking about it, reacting to it and being able to share that reaction with their classmates. Video satisfies this process very well indeed; other kinds of media have also succeeded, most notably, the experience at City College of the City University of New York, from 1987, which was based on Whole Language approaches, showed the fruit of such an approach and is well supported by both linguists and learning theorists. However, adopting such a system at Chinese Culture University would entail significant problems with class arrangements.
Problem #4: Class Arrangements
The arrangement of the classes presents a number of distinct problems for teachers: class size, timetabling, class length, etc. Class size is one of the most challenging aspects of the environment. Typical class sizes range from 30 to over 40 in my classes. My colleagues’ classes and General English classes are even bigger. The result is that students rarely get personal attention even when they get into Junior or Senior years. Outside class hours, there is little interchange between students and professors: a vital aspect of the learning process is being omitted here, the tutorial. Class timetabling presents a number of problems: class length, frequency and scheduling all present problems for students. Often the typical class length of 2 sessions of 50 minutes is rarely adequate to do more in depth activities such as debates or class discussions. Also, frequency of class times can be quite inadequate: once a week is quite insufficient for more in-depth activities, such as discussions; too much time elapses between the first and second class destroying the continuity of the lessons. As a result, I often teach whole lessons within one class to avoid discontinuity. Again this impacts the first problem. Lastly, with typical freshers having heavy schedules, i.e. more than 24 hours a week, it is difficult for teachers to arrange extra curricular activities related to their classes, and students have little time for personal study outside the class.
Also, the physical arrangements of some classrooms, such as Language Labs, are often not designed with other methods in mind. It is difficult to organize groups of students to sit together because tables are securely fixed to the floor. Students have to reach across tables to talk to each other. This hinders communication and interaction because students are physically restricted from moving around by the limits of the space or design.
Solution #4: Class Arrangements
It is very difficult to solve the problems caused by class scheduling. These issues are often decided by university administration who have to balance the interests of many different departments, students, teachers and the education department. Some of the problems can be mediated by inventive teaching and/or by use of other opportunities that may become available. However, we all have to work within limits. Each teacher will try to develop his or her own workarounds to solve some of the limitations mentioned above. A better solution might be if we can work together with the University to raise some of these issues and highlight some of the problems we face and how we believe some changes could overcome the problem and help provide our students with an improved learning environment.
Problem #5: Limited Opportunities for use of English
Opportunities are somewhat limited for students to use English in University. My students have frequently told me that they had only a few hours a week in which to practice their speaking in class time. In addition, classes are often conducted primarily in Chinese, even though the texts and materials being used as the focus of the class are printed in English and the students are ostensibly learning English. In my opinion, this is a significant opportunity for comprehensible language input being wasted, and students are aware of the absurdity of the situation. Outside classes, there are few opportunities for students to interact with other students in English.
Providing opportunities for students to practice their English is essential if students are to improve their fluency skills at all. However, it seems to me that students often don’t take advantage of the opportunities that are available to them. So I don’t know if this problem is quite as severe as students would believe. Perhaps where we are failing as teachers both to make these opportunities better known to our students, such as cable TV, chatting times, etc., and to provide our students with the means to be able to appreciate them!
Solution#5: Limited Opportunities for use of English
Actually, there is a tremendously wide range of opportunities now available to the average student where they can be exposed to English in either spoken or aural forms. As teachers, we should be encouraging and helping our students to take advantage of these resources, because of their prominence. The opportunities available to students can be grouped as follows:
1. Class time: Most importantly of all, we should strive to ensure that, within the University, as many of the students’ classes as possible are given in English; and that students are expected to express their views in English during class time. This is really too good an opportunity to miss!
2. English Department activities: each year, a wide range of activities takes place within the English Department all of which require student participation in some form or another. A brief list includes: Chatting Time, Intercom Magazine, Coffee Times Newsletter, revived Drama Production; and so on. There are also some student clubs which try to encourage students to improve their language abilities.
3. Media: most students have access to a wide range of media, all of which have some kind of language connection. Movies are available in so many formats today: movie theaters, video, and cable TV. Cable TV has a number of English language channels, with and without subtitles, that students could easily watch. Magazines and books are available all over Taipei at bookstores, city and university libraries and cover an impressive array of subjects. CDs and lyrics can be widely bought. Even the Internet offers a huge array of opportunities for students to interact in English with others from around the world.
4. Outside Clubs/Events: Each year there are a variety of organizations throughout Taipei that meet, such as Toastmasters International, Amnesty International, etc. Many of them use English as the means of communication and are an excellent environment for students to get involved with. Most are regularly published in the China Post, Taiwan News and other English language publications in and around Taipei.
By helping our students to be aware of appreciate some of these other opportunities, we are giving our students something more: we are encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning. That is surely a goal worth pursuing.
While some of these problems are quite serious, and others require creativity and inspiration to solve, by facing up to these problems within our own classes and trying to solve them as best we can, we are helping to ensure that students are not just learning but that they are taking on the responsibility for their own learning.
One idea that keeps coming up throughout this paper is: being familiar with student needs. We can see how this thread twists its way through almost every aspect of the paper: Motivation; Textbooks; Content & Methodology; Limited Opportunities; and even Class Arrangements. Each time we hear the same call: “Find out what your students’ need.” If we are to consider such a question as the problems of students studying English, perhaps one of the first actions we should take is to consult representative groups of each year and major in the English Department. We should interview them carefully and listen to what they say, not what we want them to say. We might be surprised by what they want to tell us and what we find out. Once this is done, we will be in a much stronger position to decide what, if any, changes we need to make.