There has been much discussion recently about reducing the weight of English in China's high-stake tests such as the national college entrance examination. It is argued by some applauding the recent change to reduce the importance of English in tests that it will lead students to focus more on learning Chinese. The TV program Writing in Chinese has exposed the problem that students and the general public cannot write in Chinese as they used to do.
Some blame the design of the curriculum for giving English an equal or greater amount of emphasis, which might have contributed to the failure in teaching Chinese. But this is probably not a fair accusation since children in English speaking countries cannot spell either, largely due to the spell check and auto correct functions of word processing applications.
Students in Wuhan, Hubei province, take a mock English test before the college entrance exam, June 3, 2013. [Photo / CFP]
I doubt that studying English per se hurts the study of Chinese. In fact, high achievers in English or another foreign language are more likely to be high achievers in Chinese. It has been proved many times in recent Chinese history that those capable of using a foreign language are also masters in their mother tongue. Qian Zhongshu, Lu Xun and Lin Yutang are just a few examples.
Another trend of thought for curriculum reform is related to the perception of "worth". It is true that English is one of the subjects that students do spend too much time on, with pitiful results. This makes some doubt if it is worth giving it priority. But this is not a sound argument either as students still need to study things that matter more to their future in spite of challenges learning English presents to them.
Improvements in Chinese language education should not be achieved by sacrificing another important subject. There should be a robust foreign language education program, as a foreign language improves a student's future job prospects. Bashing English education as a waste of time or using it as a scapegoat for failures in Chinese education are both harmful tendencies.
To be constructive, we ought to start a dialogue on ways to make improvements in learning outcomes so that students' time learning English is spent more effectively. For instance, here are a few things that could improve English education:
Assessment design: Students tend to study what is on the test. Courses and programs should be designed with the end in mind, so that assessment methods communicate how language should be learned and used. For decades, English tests in China are heavily focused on standardized tests. Such assessment designs create gaps between language learning and language usage. There should be more authentic assessments included in the curriculum to guide students to use English while learning it.
Learner motivation: Many students complain that learning a foreign language is boring or overtly difficult as they spend a lot of time studying it and they still do not master the language. Educators should research approaches to gain student attention, boost their confidence, and make the learning relevant to them. With abundant learning resources, thanks to the Internet and globalization, teachers should not just focus on passing on their knowledge to students, it is more helpful to kindle students' interest so that they become self-directed learners while teachers function as a guide on the side.
Teaching style: Students now have access to TED talks, TV dramas from English-speaking countries, as well as open online courses from some of the best teachers in the world. Such resources create competition for teachers as they used to be gatekeepers of knowledge, but these external resources also create opportunities for innovation in classroom teaching. Some of them can be used directly as study materials if teaching includes activities for students to conduct a "treasure hunt" of such resources.
There are also ways to change teaching styles for better student engagement. For instance, instead of paraphrasing a paragraph, sentence by sentence, and boring students to tears, interactive activities and group work can be used, which are more likely to engage them. And since computers and smartphones are widely used in China, teachers should take advantage of such devices.
I am sure there are many other areas where changes can greatly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of English learning. The public discourse at present is a little oversimplified. People are arguing for or against English having less weight in major tests, when the dialogue should be taken a step further, to the improvement of learning or teaching methods that may benefit the teaching of other subjects as well, Chinese included.
This wider discourse about learning or instructional strategies should be based on evidence and data, rather than the whims of the few with the necessary clout to make changes. The current changes in the weighting of English in tests has caused quite a controversy, but this is mostly because the policies have been formulated on the basis of conventional wisdom. Learning is too important to be left to arbitrary decisions.
The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.