Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Writing - Some Observations from China

   I have not posted anything for a while because I have been traveling in China - serving as a U.S. representative on a delegation for the International Reading Association.  The purpose of the delegation was to foster goodwill and the exchange of ideas between the Chinese educators and our own – 22 educators from all over the U.S.  This was planned to fall several weeks prior to Obama’s visit.
   The tour began in Beijing, moved to X’ian, and ended in Shanghai.  The delegation visited schools, met with educators in various roles, and exchanged ideas with teachers.
   As we visited educators, everyone of them asked us how to teach English.  Their biggest concern was their students' inability to listen and comprehend, write and reflect, and/or speak the language.  Their strengths were: writing using the correct format and reading/translating.
   The Chinese schools we visited, began teaching English in kindergarten - to children who are 3 years old. The standard format for teaching English in all of these schools is basically rote with a heavy dose of grammar.  Many of the students spent long hours reciting and completing workbook pages.

   At one of the schools we visited - a high school for students gifted with the ability to learn languages - the director explained to us that a controversy regarding how to teach language, was raging among teachers in China. There were two camps.  1.  Language should be taught through memorization and grammar.  2.  Students should understand the culture that produced the language and immerse themselves in it - exploring all of its issues, modes of communication, registers of language.
   This resonated with me.  As progressive as I like to think our education is, I feel we are still debating this issue in our own country - only it is a debate that involves teaching our native tongue.  I still walk into many classrooms where teachers consider teaching English as synonymous with teaching grammar.  Interestingly enough, most of the teaching still comes out of the Warner handbook.  This was originally written back in the early 30's when we had many immigrants entering our country and the publishers were looking for a way to educate second language students. This raises many questions for us. 

The most crucial question :

   Is language an extension of ourselves and as such should it be meaning based?
I think China's experience has a great many implications for us.  What do you think?  Please comment.


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