Tuesday, February 27, 2007

High School Students Bomb English, Chinese Exams

The China Post reports on the 150,000 students taking the college entrance exam:

More than 13,000 senior students at senior high schools got a zero score for the English-language composition in the scholastic ability test while over 2,100 of them failed to get any score for Chinese composition.

A total of over 150,000 senior high school students who are slated for graduation in June took the nationwide examination.

Both English language and Chinese literature were required subjects for the mandatory test for those who plan to apply for admission into colleges and universities for the coming summer.

Writing short compositions were among the major components in the language exams.

Only one student got the full score of 27 for composition while as many as 2,104 failed to win any single score for their incomprehensible writing in their mother tongue, Chinese.

The students' average performance in English, the primary foreign language in Taiwan schools, was even worse since 13,040 got the zero score for their gibberish.

Only one student obtained the full score of 20 in English composition.

For the translation section in the English-language test, there was an even higher number of 16,465 students receiving a zero score.

One teacher who supervised the examinations shook her head in disbelief about the unusually high numbers of students getting zero scores after studying both Chinese languages for almost 12 years and English for around 10 years.

To those of us who have seen the way teaching is undertaken in the junior high and high schools, this is not surprising. At my university student after student has reported receiving no training at all, in any language, in the organization of writing. In other words, my experience as a teacher of English composition consists of teaching the idea of organization itself, not simply saying, "oh, in Chinese you do X but in English we do Y. See how that works?" Most of the students I have taught have never encountered the idea that writing has to be organized in order to work.

The problems, I suspect, begin in elementary school where teachers focus on what is easily understood and corrected -- production of pretty characters -- and extend upward to junior high and high school where in both English and Chinese the emphasis is on grammar rather than organization. Essays are in highly simplistic format covering profoundly stupid ideas such as "My Worst Day" or "How I feel about my mother" that give students the chance to indulge in subjective and disjointed writing, since such essays typically do not have an obvious organization. Frequently none of the students in my first or second year writing class has ever produced an essay on a historical, political, or scientific topic during their high school years, judging from the comments they make. Too, copying is widespread and must be chronic at the high school level where undertrained teachers freqently cannot tell the difference between a copied essay and a student essay.

1 comment:

STOP Ma said...

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Interesting to hear your thoughts on this, Michael.

Throughout my years in Taiwan I helped students in English, and I reviewed a Master's thesis from a friend of mine last year. The lack of structure and organization with their writing was always striking. The Master's thesis I read actually drew a hypothesis which was completely disconnected from the research that she was about to do. Luckily, I wasn't shy and I explained to her what changes she needed to make. (She got her Master's, btw)

I always thought that this problem was a cultural one, though. I thought, perhaps, that it was simply the style of Asian writing -- more "poetic", to put it nicely. It's interesting to hear that this "style" is not acceptable in Chinese, either. It's an overall failure in the education system, in other words.
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