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Reflections on Teaching English to Young Learners in Taiwan

Reflections on Teaching English to Young Learners in Taiwan

Georgina Ma
17 March 2010

This article is the first in a series of four articles on our experiences of living and teaching abroad. In this article I will reflect on my experience of working as a young learner teacher in Taipei, Taiwan. 

The School

My first English language teaching position abroad was at HESS Educational Organisation, a private language school in Taipei, Taiwan. HESS was established in 1983 and is the largest private English educational organisation in Taiwan, with schools island-wide. The organisation offers three major language services: a kindergarten program, general English program for primary and senior school students, referred to as ‘bushiban’ (a Mandarin term for ‘cram school’) as well as a general English program for adults. I worked at the HESS San Chong and Hsien Tien branches from early 2000 to the end of 2001.

Most of my classes were at the San Chong branch which was situated in a busy residential area across the river from central Taipei. The school was self-contained in a multi-storey building with floors dedicated to administration, kindergarten facilities, and bushiban classrooms. The school and teaching facilities were generally very good. The staff was friendly and helpful and included local Taiwanese support staff and teachers as well as foreign English teachers from New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the United States of America and South Africa.

The contract I signed involved teaching kindergarten and bushiban classes, where I was required to teach a range of young learners from 4 to 15 years old. I taught my kindergarten classes from 9 – 1 Monday to Friday and the bushiban classes were run most afternoons, and evenings during the week and on Saturdays. The schedule was very busy, but as a young, energetic teacher keen to make some money, the more I worked, the more money I could make.

Teaching Young Learners

Teaching on the kindergarten program was by far my favourite. I was assigned to a small class of 4 year old learners in the second level of kindergarten at the San Chong branch. When I first started, the students knew some general words such as some days of the week, numbers, adjectives and phrases like ‘Hello. How are you? – I’m fine thank you and you?’. Taiwanese parents start their children on their English language learning careers very young and there is a plethora of English language CDs, VCDs, DVDs, books and computer programs available for young learners to be exposed to English at home. The English words and phrases my students knew had been acquired through their exposure to such learning materials or by attending kindergarten classes where they were taught English. I learnt quickly how dedicated the Taiwanese parents were to ensuring their children’s success and also how much pressure was placed on the children to succeed from such a young age. My Taiwanese colleagues explained that this was due to the competition for places in good schools and universities, the fact that many Taiwanese children would later pursue studies abroad as well as the growing realisation of the cultural capital that English has globally.

I was initially overwhelmed by the thought of having to teach such young learners, and the daunting task of getting through all the language outcomes of the course seemed unattainable at first. Having to use and teach American English didn’t make the task any easier. I could pull off the American accent for the first two drills of a word, but in the end the South African pronunciation won and my ‘tomahtos’ sounded more like ‘tomatoes’. The excellent structure of the kindergarten program, on-going in-service teacher training and high-quality learning and teaching materials provided the support that I needed which made my job so much easier and I soon found my feet.

HESS subscribes to a teaching approach which aims to ‘educate the whole child’. Courses were designed to teach more than just English - kindergarten students were exposed to other content in English such as maths, science, biology, art and crafts, music, sport and computers. Through the use of songs and music, movement, drama, games, art and storytelling, the teaching and learning of English aimed to be fun and to engage the learners. I must admit that, although the teaching was lots of fun, interacting with young learners requires lots of energy and I would often be asleep even before my head had hit the pillow after a busy day.

Teaching young learners is an immensely rewarding career. I was fortunate enough to teach the same group of learners for the two years that I was at HESS. I saw them develop from typical 4 year old children – interested in playing, not fond of sharing with limited knowledge of English, into little people prepared and eager to start their first day of ‘big school’. Their English had grown from a smattering of words and phrases to a solid foundation of vocabulary, grammar and skills that would stand them in good stead for their future English language learning. I had grown very fond of my kindergarten students and was very sad to say goodbye to them on their last day of kindergarten.

Living in Taiwan

Taiwan is a great mix of the traditional and modern, western and asian. As a foreigner living in Taipei, I was able to live very comfortably without having to go too much out of my comfort zone. As this was my first experience of living in a different country, I did appreciate the fact that I could be immersed in a new culture, while also having access to ‘western comforts’. A typical Saturday evening could be spent in a number of ways. Armed with a pair of chopsticks, we could tuck into stir fried noodles and pearl milk tea at a table set up by a street vendour, while watching the world whizz by on their scooters; or take a stroll around the local night market browsing the stalls while snacking on octopus kebabs or corn on a stick. If we were after something a little more western, we could arrange a braai at our friends’ house (provided they had decent sized balcony) and end the evening with some dancing at a night club or we could enjoy a meal at one of the many amazing restaurants in Taipei followed by an English movie at the Warner Village cinema complex.  Getting around Taiwan was relatively easy as the public transport system was reliable and, provided that you knew where you were going, was simple enough. I didn’t have as much luck using taxis as my Chinese was generally unintelligible to the drivers – I quickly learnt to get written addresses or business cards to show the driver the address in Chinese. As with most accommodation, what you pay for is what you get. Luckily, my American flatmate, Heidi and I found a great apartment to rent for a relatively good price in a new building in walking distance to work.

Although there were many things I had to get used to, such as the strange smells of stinky tofu, beetlenut chewing and spitting fellow citizens, the heat and humidity which comes with living in a tropical climate, as well as typhoons and earthquakes, I will always look back and remember my time spent in Taiwan with fondness.

Teaching young learners in Taiwan

Our next article will cover my experiences of living and working in two cities in China. Look out for this article on the Wits Language School website or in the next LTE newsletter.

Useful links:
Taiwan General Information: http://wikitravel.org/en/Taiwan
Taiwan Tourism: http://www.taiwantourism.org
Taiwan Newspapers: http://www.chinapost.com.tw
Teaching English in Taiwan Guide: http://www.englishintaiwan.com
HESS Educational Organisation: http://www.hess.com.tw