Tuesday, December 6, 2011

English village and its implication on teaching

English village and its implication on teaching
李國禎 國中英語領域
A number of English villages have popped up all over the island in only a couple of years, and even more of them are now under way. As a member of the Advisory Group, I was given many opportunities to visit several of them, like the ones in Taoyuan, Mialoi, Yunlin and Kaohsiung. Through their English-speaking environment, I was able to see how they made use of native speakers and all sorts of resources to boost young English learners’ interest to learn the language in a more authentic way.

This article is an extension of my oral presentation at a workshop (http://ceag.tceb.edu.tw/lifetype/post/26/1798), sharing my personal ideas on English teaching in the context of English villages with a group of English teachers. Therefore, this article is not like a research paper, using questionnaires or interviews to collect and analyze data; instead, it’s more like a personal journal based mainly on my first-hand observations with photos and video clips, complete with online media reports, papers and other relevant journals.
To begin with, I’d like to talk about some of the problems that we have encountered as English teachers in public school when it comes to learning English. Then I will give you some background information about the main reason why building English villages is catching on now. Following that, we’re going to have a look at one of the biggest Korean English village, the Paju English village. Why? Because our English villages here in Taiwan were inspired by those Korean ones in the first place. Next, based on some very important features of those English villages, I’d like to establish a simple framework for the readers to have a better idea of how an English village really works. Then, as English teachers, how can we help our students apply what they have learned in the classroom to the real world and really speak some English, making the language a valuable medium of communication? Last but not least, I also would like to bring up several questions for you to reflect upon such as: How do we currently teach English in public schools? How can we come up with some practical ideas on coping with problems and make ourselves become more reflective and holistic English teachers?
A shared problem with Koreans
How do we define a good English teacher in junior school? Well, for most people, he or she has to be able to help students get better grades on tests. Therefore, the memorization of grammatical patterns and vocabulary gradually becomes the one and only primary concern for many English teachers. They firmly believe that successful instruction is based on how well the students can learn as many new English words as possible, and how correctly they can apply the rules taught by their teachers to analyze all the grammatical items on the tests. On top of that, many teachers strictly impose a passing mark and keep those who fail to achieve it after class or school, making them copy the right answers for a couple of times as a punishment. So, are we English teachers teaching our students a language? Or, are we just training them to respond correctly to the items on tests? How come our students still lack basic communication skills or even the courage to talk with a foreigner when he or she has studied the language for so many years?
Now, why is this relevant to our topic? Well, students in Taiwan have studied English since junior high or elementary school, but they still encounter great difficulty when it comes to communicating in English. It is believed that regular English classrooms can contribute little to students’ proficiency of the target language, and this is a shared problem for English learners all around China, Japan, Korea and so on, for we don’t have the environment to apply what we learned in the classroom to real life situations. As a result, by creating an English speaking environment and immersing the students in it, we believe they can naturally learn how to speak the language.
What English villages are for?
Each year, anxious parents in Korea would spend lots of money to send their children abroad to learn English during their summer and winter vacations, mainly to improve their children’s speaking ability. They tended to believe that public education can only teach grammar. Though this would cost them a huge amount of money, they still thought the money was well spent. On the contrary, the Korean government didn’t think this was such a good idea because this caused such a huge drain on the country’s economy that they began to consider building a real English speaking environment and hiring native speakers inside the country. Therefore, Korean students could still practice speaking English without actually going abroad.
In the year 2004, the very first English village began to emerge in Seoul, and since then the Korean government has already built more than 30 English villages all across the country. Most of the English villages are government-funded, so their scale is truly huge. Take the Paju English village for instance. It alone cost 90 million US dollars to build. Over 100 native speakers were hired, and they actually lived and worked there. Basically, the village itself is just like a huge theme park, and there are all kinds of simulations, like a mock post office, bank, supermarket, police station, and air port and customs. The idea is that you’re virtually living and interacting with locals abroad without leaving the country.
The basic assumption of the English village is that by immersing students in a real-life situation with a very strict No Korean policy, students will feel the need to speak English with the foreigners to survive, just like what they have to do when they actually study abroad. Unlike a more traditional language course, where the target language is simply the subject material, language immersion uses the target language as a teaching tool, surrounding students in the second language.
The English village surely offers a wide range of different programs, trying to take care of every individual’s needs. For example, it has one day, one week or one month programs, which are carefully designed for students from elementary schools, junior high schools and all the way to college. It also has customized programs for working people who want to promote their speaking skills in order to get a job promotion. They even have English Teacher Training Program, which is a six-month program designed to help English teachers develop the general English skills to teach English in English. (http://www.english-village.or.kr/eng/engprogram/engettp/engettp.cms)
But, those English villages didn’t prosper as they were expected, and there were many doubts and criticism about extremely expensive amenities from the general public in Korea. First of all, they wondered if the money was really worth spending. Is the English village really an effective way to help students speak English? Korean politicians seemed to think so. They liked to promise the establishment of English villages during their campaigns and built one after another without much thought. However, though there are lots of research papers, journals and media reports about them, the answers still remain unknown. In fact, the effectiveness of those English villages is under question, and people are beginning to wonder whether it is necessary for the government to build more, especially when many of them are in debt.
Three different types
I was lucky to be able to participate in many English village field trips hosted by the English Advisory Group, including the Happy English village and Wun-Chang English village in Taoyuan, Dongren English Village in Yunlin, I-Shou International High School in Kaohsiung and the Mobile English Village in Miaoli. In my opinion, those villages can be divided into three categories: fixed, mobile and total immersion, according to how they are operated.
Happy English Village is very typical of the first type, which is usually located inside a real school, featuring many simulation rooms sponsored by the local government and enterprises. Students from Taoyuan County get to go on a study tour and have a chance to practice speaking English with some native speakers. This village provides an English science class full of hands-on activities, where students have to understand the teacher’s instructions and perform interesting tasks. Students can learn about a specific topic in each room and get to earn points by completing the required dialogue and assignment appointed by the teacher.
Mobile English Village means all the props, and even the teachers, can be mobilized and packed in a bus to meet the needs of remote schools scattered around the mountainous Miaoli County if schools submit an application. Having a very limited budget, those props are mainly big boards with pictures of foreign landscapes, post offices and convenient stores superimposed on them. This kind of village tries to create an environment for students to interact with the teachers in English. According to the headmaster of this program, most of the students had never actually met a foreigner before. Therefore, the experience is intended to arouse students’ interest of learning English by actually talking to a foreigner.
I-Shou International High School is a highly resourceful school where English is the medium of instruction in every subject, and students are fully immersed in an English-speaking environment anytime, anywhere. They virtually live and study abroad because every thing, from learning math to chatting with their teachers, is in English. While talking with a foreign teacher there, I asked if I could just grab any student walking by and have a chat with him or her in English. The teacher confidently said ‘Yes’. Compared with ordinary students in public schools, their English is unusually excellent. According to the principal, the tuition is also incredibly high because parents have to pay up to two hundred thousand New Taiwan dollars (TWD 200,000) a semester.
How do they work?
In this section, I will establish a simple framework of those English villages  in order to have a better understanding of how they work in terms of their finances, staff, curriculum and evaluation.
Most of the simulation rooms are subsidized by the local government, and some major corporations, like EVA Airline, donated their old and disused pieces of equipment like cabins, trolleys and even some passports to help build a simulation room. Students can actually experience how going abroad is like by going through a passport check, customs and security. Students are also required to fill out an application form in a post office or police station to perform some tasks.
The budget largely depends on which English village you attend. I-Shou International High School, which is a private school, can provide some fancy amenities, whereas other English villages that are government-funded have to use their money very carefully.
As for the staff, native speakers are all recruited under the supervision of the Minister of Education, who requires them to have a degree in teaching English as a second language. Of course, there are also Taiwanese English teachers, who will help translate only when it is really necessary. Furthermore, there are draftees with educational background in English from the alternative military service helping out, too.
Regarding the curriculum, local English teachers and the native speakers work together to create their own learning materials, which are intended to incorporate the local culture into their lesson plans. They would usually post the curriculum online, and those who want to learn English there have to download and practice it first before going to the English village.
 Unlike regular public English education, written tests are unimportant because the idea is to promote students’ interest in speaking English through dialogues and activities in the village, not to put them under the extra pressure of tests.
Some important features
Now, I will point out the advantages of English villages by comparing their hands-on activities with regular English learning classrooms. First, most of the activities in English villages are task-based, meaning students have to understand the teacher’s instructions and perform some sort of task, like completing a dialogue, or buying some items on the list, or asking for directions. In contrast, students in a classroom usually just have to sit silently and listen to their teacher do all the talking.
Second, those villages use many simulation rooms for students to apply what they learned in the classroom to real-life situations. Compared with Korean ones, the scale is much smaller, but they do offer an opportunity that students usually don’t have in their regular English classes which is to experience how English is really used in real life conversation. In regular classrooms, students can only repeat after their teacher and the CD player or do repetitive drills in the textbook.
Third, English village students learn to use the language in a more authentic way by experiencing shopping, passing through customs, filling out forms, ordering food and so on. Students have far more opportunities to listen to fluent and authentic English in English villages. Dissimilarly, students in a classroom have to memorize lots of vocabulary and grammatical rules to pass tests.
Fourth, games and hands-on activities can arouse more interest in learning while students in a classroom tend to think of English as nothing more than a very demanding subject which requires them to take endless tests and hand in mountains of homework. In addition to that, many teachers are afraid that their students will easily fall behind others if they just learn from the textbooks, so outside reading materials are also introduced and put on tests.
Last, some English villages, like Dongren and Miaoli, even incorporate local culture and customs into their curriculum and have students introduce the beauty of their hometowns in English. On the contrary, the dialogues and readings in textbooks are rather boring because they are all carefully organized just to introduce new words and grammatical patterns, though the publishers usually claim they adopt the Communicative Language Teaching approach.
Pros and cons
It seems that English village is the exact solution to all the problems of traditional English teaching in the classroom, doesn’t it? So, let’s talk about the pros and cons. Of course, it is obvious that students would think learning English is much more fun and interesting through interaction with the native speakers and all kinds of interesting activities which intrigue students in a way that regular English classroom is unable to compare with. Without a doubt, the learning materials of English villages are much more authentic than regular textbooks. Though the Basic Competence Test has already been focusing on real life English for so many years, teachers still teach English in a very conventional way, revolving most of their instruction around the mechanical memorization of grammar. Most important of all, being exposed to such an English-speaking environment, students have so many opportunities to hear and practice a lot of authentic English, and on top of that, they will really feel that being able to speak English is useful and necessary because it is the only language they can use to communicate with those native speakers. This is something which we non-native speakers cannot provide for our students. In addition, students are also provided with opportunities to learn and appreciate the culture of the target language, like the animals in Australia or the landscapes in Canada.
Of course, there is no such a thing as a perfect solution, so those English villages also have some weaknesses, too. First, it may seem that the students are interacting with the native speaker, but in fact I found that many of the students were just repeating the sentences from their handout. No matter what the teacher says, students’ responses are also pretty much the same. I asked one of the teachers there,if he gets bored repeating the same sentences to the students everyday. He said yes, but that is also a part of his job description. Those foreigners are also human beings, not some tape recorders that just can play the same CD again and again. And surely, with so many students participating at the same time, it is almost impossible to give them any individual guidance. But who can blame them? Due to the size of our classes, regular Taiwanese teachers also lack ample time to satisfy every student’s needs. In many cases where a student’s English level falls behind his classmates, the students with a higher English proficiency do most the talking. Last, time is never enough. We really cannot expect too much from the students in such a short time to make significant progress. Learning English in the English village can only be a glimpse of a different learning perspective, allowing students to feel what is like to use the language in an authentic situation.
As English teachers in junior high schools, what can we learn from the lesson? Well, it’s not quite possible for us to create simulation classrooms like they do in the English village, but I think there is still something we can do to help create a more English speaking environment in the classroom. For example, we can use as much classroom English as we can when giving them homework, conducting activities, calling on students to answer our questions, or performing tasks. Furthermore, when giving students extra supplements, why don’t we give them something more authentic and interesting? Something they can use to describe what’s really happening around the real world?
Also, instead of working on repetitive drills in textbooks just for tests, I personally recommend two useful teaching techniques to create a need for students to really talk. First is Show and Tell. When students are divided into groups and asked to introduce something they really love in English, such as comics, pop stars or video games, they are highly motivated and more willing to speak. This technique can also integrate both output skills, writing and speaking, together. Second, try Readers Theater. Students are also divided with mixed levels and assigned different tasks, such as rewriting scripts or preparing props. They work as a team to share a story with the whole class. Students can really enjoy English from a fresh perspective by participating in such dynamic activities.
More importantly, we need to fundamentally change our perspective and attitude towards teaching and assessment now. For a very long time, teachers have had to spend most of the time helping students do better on tests, leaving so little allowance for other important things, like enhancing students’ listening comprehension or speaking skills. We rely so much on written tests because they’re convenient and easy to use, regardless of the individuality of each student. As a result, students are well trained to memorize all sort of rules and structures in order to get good grades, despite the fact that most of them still can’t speak English even if they can ace the tests. What’s worse, overwhelmed by endless quizzes and tests, students are getting more and more unmotivated, and there are more and more underachievers who decide to give up on themselves at a very early stage.
Through the comparison between English villages and regular English classrooms, we English teachers can gain many inspirational ideas on what the current teaching setbacks and potential solutions are. We need to reexamine the purpose of learning the language, change the way we assess our students and make some adjustments to the ongoing test-driven teaching paradigm. On top of that, teachers should never stop learning to be more holistic ones by improving our professional knowledge and skills about the language and all kinds of teaching techniques. Attending workshops hosted by the Advisory Group, working on innovative lesson plans or polishing our English skills would be a very good start.

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