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Letter to Editor: Hermione Lee exemplifies ideal English education in Taiwan

Taiwan’s English education system should focus on language acquisition through reading rather than textbooks and exams

Taiwanese teenager Hermione Lee is a published English novelist in the U.S. (Hermione Lee photo)

Taiwanese teenager Hermione Lee is a published English novelist in the U.S. (Hermione Lee photo)

It was a real joy to read Stephanie Chiang’s Oct. 25 article titled “Taiwanese teenager publishes English fantasy novel in US, becomes bestseller.”

Over my 20-plus years in Taiwan, two things have remained consistent in my own research and teaching: the advocacy for reading and the teaching of writing. Let’s just say I tend to do things a little bit differently than the typical English language teacher, and I find this remarkably consistent with what the article tells us of Hermione Lee.

Hermione Lee touches on the importance of literature that her parents instilled in her by reading to their daughter from a very young age. Hermione also gives credit to series such as "Magic Tree House," while the author of this article tells us that Hermione’s English proficiency is now far better than her peers.

Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Acquisition has been a driving force in my teaching of English since I first met him in person at the English Teachers Association Republic of China (ETA-ROC) annual conference in Taipei in 2003. Dr. Krashen is professor emeritus from the University of Southern California and a world-renowned expert in second and foreign language acquisition.

Dr. Krashen distinguishes between acquisition and learning, where acquisition is language we “pick up” subconsciously and learning is what we typically do in school. Acquisition is long-lasting, while learning tends to fade. In fact, learning may be gone immediately after cramming for a test — something Taiwan’s education system and still test-centric attitudes toward education should continue to modify.

Of crucial importance and particular interest to Taiwan’s English education system and 2030 Bilingual Education Policy are Dr. Krashen’s hypotheses: reading and listening are what cause language acquisition, and affective variables like anxiety, lack of confidence, and stress negatively impact language acquisition. Additionally, in his Conduit Hypothesis, Krashen provides three stages for language acquisition.

In stage one, the focus is on “Read-Alouds” and Story-Listening. “Read-Alouds” are when parents and teachers read stories aloud to their children or students. Students are asked to listen and enjoy the stories.

Stage two consists of massive amounts of self-selected reading, in which the teacher first brings appropriate level-graded readers and eventually young adult fiction to the classroom with the goal for students to understand and enjoy the story. In the second part of stage two, students engage in “narrow reading,” meaning reading the same author or genre.

Hermione Lee reading "The Magic Tree House Series" by Mary Pope Osbourne is one example of narrow reading. Other types of narrow reading might be reading all seven "Harry Potter" books, Agatha Christie’s "Hercule Poirot Series," or Sue Grafton’s "Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series," which has one detective story for each letter of the alphabet except for “Z” (sadly, the author passed away before the last book was written).

Stage three consists of “narrow academic reading,” which involves reading in an area that is highly interesting to the student. I would also encourage Taiwan’s English education system to offer Narrow Academic Listening at this stage.

Hermione’s writing experiences also mirror my own teaching experiences. Since 2004, in addition to mandated curriculum requirements, I have been asking my 18-year-old 4th-year junior college English majors to write their very own “novel.”

When recently discovering this, a chagrined administrator within my department told me, “While I like what you are trying to do, our students can’t do that!” Showing her copies from the previous year, I told her, "Oh yes they can."

My writing students are taken through a four-stage process of pre-writing: 1st draft, peer editing, and final draft with this “novel” writing project over one academic year. Each stage of the project replaces midterm and final exams, another idea in line with what Hermione Lee seems to be encouraging us to do — reform education by reducing the focus on testing. Students instead share where they are in the process of writing their “novels.”

Taiwan’s English educational system could make great improvements at much less expense by looking carefully at Krashen’s work. Investing in teacher training and well-stocked libraries that are accessible to teachers and students would be much more effective and cost much less than Taiwan’s current English educational system plans.

I am a university English language-teaching faculty member who hopes that someday soon, students will come to university without concern of “learning” the English language. Hermione Lee is a prime example of what can happen when a different educational path is offered.

Hermione Lee, your story inspires me. I’ll not only be sharing it with my writing students, but I’ll also be buying your best-selling debut novel "In the Name of the Otherworld."

Ken Smith (石明康) is a lecturer in the English Department at Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Ken’s research interests include second language vocabulary acquisition through Story Listening (SL) and Guided Self-Selected Reading (GSSR), case studies, corpus linguistics, and curriculum reform. He has presented papers at conferences all over the world.

Updated : 2022-05-20 13:25 GMT+08:00