Should we force students to speak English in Taiwan’s bilingual classes?

Recently, one of my students asked whether or not they should force their future students to speak English in their bilingual class.

On the surface, this question has a fairly straightforward answer: No, you shouldn’t force your students to use English in your class.

In fact, the Ministry of Education has advised teachers against forcing English in their classes.

But beyond policy, we really shouldn’t be forcing our students to do anything.

I hope I am not being overly semantic, but our job as teachers is not to force our students to do things; it’s to encourage them to do things for their own benefit, even if they don’t necessarily want to.

And more often than not, our students won’t want to speak English.

So, how do we encourage but not force? Put simply, we create a need for English.

A need can be any activity that requires English to complete. An overly simplistic example would be a classroom routine where students say good morning to the teacher to receive the worksheet for the day. Students would know that to get a grade in class, they need the worksheet, and to get the worksheet, they should greet the teacher in English.

But please don’t get me wrong; I am not necessarily recommending this specific activity; I present it as the simplest example of a need to use English.

Now, the natural follow-up question may be, well, what if students still don’t respond? Should I just give up? Or should I force them?

Neither is particularly ideal.

What I would recommend instead is to reflect on why a student isn’t responding to the need you have set up.

Jacquelynn Eccles developed the expectancy-value theory, which I believe can help with this reflection.

In its simplest form, expectancy means a student’s expectations for success, or in other words, when the student views the activity as something they can be successful with. If the student does not believe they can be successful, then they are likely to reject that activity.

However, even if they believe they can be successful, students may not engage unless they also see value. Value can mean a host of things, such as seeing the activity as useful or enjoyable.

But, more often in school settings, value comes from the student’s belief in the importance of doing well in school, which can be supported or hindered by many factors, including peer relationships, teacher-student relationships, attitudes toward the subject matter, or other past experiences in life and school.

Going into more detail on expectancy-value theory and how it relates to student behavior in school would take us far outside the scope of this video.

But as it relates to today’s question, my point is this.

If a bilingual teacher creates a need, that is, activity where English is needed, and the students can successfully achieve that activity, alongside a reasonable drive to want to succeed in the class, then there should never be any need to force students.

I think new bilingual teachers often miss the target with expectancy. They create a need, but not necessarily one where students feel they can be successful.

Toward this end, I have three concluding recommendations. Teachers need to be knowledgeable about the developmental path of foreign languages, know where their students are on that developmental path, and develop bilingual activities with student expectancy and value in mind. If you do those things, you’ll put yourself in a better position to encourage students to use English rather than have to force them to do so.

Flexibility in Taiwan’s Bilingual Education

Recently, one of my students asked me about the following situation:

I’ve heard some school teachers say they just use classroom English to teach bilingual class. When it comes to the subject content, they only use Chinese to teach it. Can this arrangement be classified as a bilingual class?

To answer the question directly, no, I do not consider only using classroom English as a bilingual class.

A true bilingual class in my mind is one where students engage in learning subject content in both languages, Mandarin and English.

It’s worth emphasizing, though, that the opposite scenario of what the student asked, where a teacher teaches content only in English, and uses Chinese for classroom language, also would not be a bilingual class in my mind.

But this video isn’t actually about what is and is not bilingual education. This video is about flexibility when establishing a bilingual education program in a school.

It is very unlikely that most schools will be able to implement a bilingual class as I strictly defined it when they first begin their bilingual education program.

There are several barriers to realizing such a bilingual class such as student English proficiency, teacher readiness, among other things.

This is why my colleague Professor Tzu-Bin Lin promotes his FERTILE model for bilingual schools. The first letter of this model stands for Flexibility, encouraging schools to be flexible in how they define a bilingual class in their context.

In other words, schools must acknowledge their current circumstances and practice bilingual teaching in response to those circumstances rather than trying to force a bilingual educational model that may be incompatible with the context.

Viewed through the lens of the F in FERTILE, there is nothing wrong with a teacher simply using English for classroom language and using Mandarin for content instruction if that is what’s most appropriate for the context at that time.

Flexibility means not blindly accepting a definition, such as the one I provided, of what should or shouldn’t happen in a bilingual class. Instead, schools must be responsive to the needs of their community.

In fact, despite believing a bilingual class should be defined as teaching content in both languages, I generally do not encourage new bilingual schools to do that. Instead, I recommend the following progression when a school is new to bilingual education.

First, simply begin with everyday language, such as greetings. Then, when ready, proceed to add general classroom language such as simple directions. For example, open to page 5, and then transition toward more specific classroom language such as content-based directions or procedures, for example, in a home economics class, how to dice a tomato.

Only once the teacher and students become comfortable with this everyday and classroom English do I advise beginning some content teaching through English, beginning with simple concept checking questions and then moving toward describing or explaining academic concepts.

It’s very important that teachers and schools exercise this flexibility when implementing bilingual education so that content learning isn’t sacrificed. While I believe bilingual education has its benefits, we cannot allow it to impact student learning outcomes in Taiwan.

If we find that our bilingual education implementation is negatively affecting student learning, we must stop because that’s an indication that the teacher or students are not ready for that type of arrangement.

Returning to the students’ question, while I wouldn’t call only classroom English use a true bilingual class, it is an important stage for establishing bilingual education in a school, and, in my mind, the teacher seems to be exercising appropriate flexibility and responding to the needs of the students.

My hope is that after a period of time, when the students and teacher become comfortable with classroom language, the class will progress toward incorporating English alongside Mandarin in instruction and learning, but only when the time is right.

Should Taiwan’s Bilingual Teachers Assess English?

Today’s question is about assessing English in Taiwanese bilingual classes.

The teacher asks: Am I supposed to assess my students’ English abilities or just content learning?

This is a very important question because misunderstandings around assessment in English have caused a lot of controversy in Taiwan’s bilingual education.

Broadly speaking, assessment in Taiwan’s bilingual classrooms should focus on content learning, not English.

In an official letter sent by the K-12 Administration of the Ministry of Education to city governments on May 19, 2023, the administration was very explicit that the focus of a bilingual class is on the subject content and that students should not be forced to be assessed in English.

With that in mind, a reasonable interpretation would be that any time a bilingual teacher does an assessment, it should be done in Mandarin Chinese.

That would be the safe approach and would avoid any unintended negative effects on students’ content learning.

 But I don’t necessarily think this would be the best approach.

As I view it, the problem with a blanket statement about assessment is that it ignores the fact that assessment comes in different forms and serves different purposes.

 Although scholars classify assessment in different ways, let’s just work with the most common classification system: formative assessment and summative assessment.

Briefly, the purpose of formative assessment is for the teacher to evaluate the current status of student learning and use that information to decide how to proceed with instruction.

It can happen informally by asking select students questions, or it can be done formally where teachers collect responses from the entire class, for example, through a worksheet.

I generally don’t recommend using formative assessments to calculate grades. Instead, I promote the idea that formative assessments are opportunities for students to practice concepts and for the teacher to gather information about student learning.

With that in mind, I encourage bilingual teachers to use both Mandarin Chinese and English in their formative assessments in the bilingual classroom.

By doing so, teachers can provide valuable meaning-focused opportunities for students to use both languages without impacting grades while at the same time collecting information about students’ bilingual development.

And in fact, that same official document I referenced earlier, emphasized the importance of understanding students’ English abilities before class in order to design appropriate lessons, and I believe formative assessment is perfectly positioned to serve as an ongoing evaluation for these purposes.

However, I want to reemphasize that these formative assessments should come in the form of activities or tasks and should NOT be graded.

I believe grades should be exclusively used in summative assessments. The purpose of summative assessments is to report on learning, and traditionally we do this through grades.

When it comes to summative assessments in Taiwan’s bilingual classrooms, my general advice is that only Mandarin Chinese should be used.

The focus of summative assessment should be solely on the subject content, and performance and grades should not be impacted by language.

Put another way, if I look at a student’s grade on a summative assessment and see a B, that letter grade should solely reflect the student’s knowledge and skills, not their English proficiency.

Ultimately, my answer to the question about using English in assessment depends on what type of assessment you are doing.

If the assessment is summative and a grade is involved, then Mandarin Chinese only. If the assessment is formative and used for learning and teaching without grades, then bilingual teachers should use both Mandarin Chinese and English.