Teach English in Xinjichuan Zhen - Baoji Shi

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English language learners at the high school and college levels in Mongolia face a variety of structural and cultural difficulties that, without a great deal of supplemental and self-directed effort and learning, often prevent them from moving beyond an intermediate-high or advanced-low level in spoken and written English. This essay will look at a few the core issues and examine some of the ways to help improve the type of instruction provided in Mongolia that could prove useful in addressing this issue. For despite the fact that these obstacles exist, there are a number of ways that, even with only non-native English speaking instruction, the overall quality of TEFL instruction can be significantly improved in Mongolia. First and foremost, teacher training in areas like lesson-planning, teacher- and student-talk time, impromptu speaking and writing activities, and classroom management needs to be improved. This problem stems directly from the outdated and completely unsuitable Soviet-style teaching methods still employed by many schools and universities in Mongolia through which students passively sits silently and listen to the lecture provided by teachers. However, at the core of what must be changed to see improvement across the country, should be a comprehensive, multi-sectoral review and revision of existing standard English teaching curricula. To understand the current situation with TEFL in Mongolia, however, it behooves an observer to understand how English language teaching was launched in Mongolia. One of the first reforms made in the newly democratic Mongolian nation in the early 1990s, as the nation sought to align itself more with the United States, Japan, and the nations of western Europe, was the official transition to English, and away from Russian, as the primary foreign language taught in all secondary schools and institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, as with most things done during that hectic era, this shift in foreign language instruction was conducted in a rushed manner, without a longer-term planning perspective, and without the proper resources to ensure success. Basically, teachers of Russian were told by the Ministry of Education that would now be required to either teach English in addition to Russian or to only teach English, and that through a short 8-week certification class, they could easily make this switch. This hasty and haphazard approach was not effective. Many of the teachers, some still teaching today, never mastered even the basics of spoken or written English, and the students were in even worse shape. Lessons consisted of rote memorization of vocabulary, often mispronounced through thick Russian accents by uninterested teachers, construction of sentences in the simple grammatical tenses (i.e. present simple, past simple, etc.), basic and standard greetings with no room for any variation, and with little to no reading or actual creative conversation. To be fair, this was also the way Russian was taught, with the exception of those attending university level courses where the instructors – most of whom had been trained extensively in the Soviet Union for many years – went into more depth and also assigned essay writing; although, even in such essays no creative or independent thinking was encouraged. That also, however, is one of the core problems with TEFL instruction in Mongolia: the concept of an interactive classroom that promotes student participation, creative thinking, the expression of independent ideas – and an appeal to students interests – is so far from the still-somewhat-entrenched Soviet model of a teacher lecturing to a silent and fearful room of students, that even with the best resources at hand, such a classroom fails to cultivate actual learning of English (or any language). During the immediate post-Soviet era, there were also no standard TEFL texts in existence in Mongolia. So not only were teachers unprepared, under-trained, and less than enthusiastic about teaching TEFL, they also had no resources available and little idea of how to teach a living language (any language) in a classroom, even if they had been motivated to do so. Things have improved over the last 20-odd years, and in a significant degree to the influx of foreign TEFL instructors during that interim, but there is still much room for improvement. In modern Mongolia many young people do speak and write in English, but that has little to do with the classroom learning provided in that language and more to do with the availability of English language content on the Internet; and is not a phenomenon that reaches too far beyond the capital city. The problem with this phenomenon, however, of the students learning English from movies, television programs, and social media content is that it is overwhelmingly informal and riddled with vulgarity and imperfection. This also puts the teachers in the awkward position of feeling less confident of their mastery of the language – based on their own limited formal education in English – than their much younger students. In short, teacher training in TEFL must be improved. This can be facilitated by a focus on the Engage-Study-Activate (ESA) structure of a lesson through which a given student group first has their interest in the topic of the lesson peaked by the teacher, then is taught the core material (i.e. grammar point, lesson vocabulary, usage, etc.) in a straightforward manner, and the allowed to make use of the material learned through pair-activities, group-activities, or independent student activities – depending on the class size and subject of the lesson – that emphasize fluency, accuracy, and interactive communication. The ESA model emphasizes a balance between student-talk-time and teacher-talk-time, with a focus non allowing students as much time as possible to express themselves verbally in English, advanced and proper lesson-planning so time is not wasted during lessons with the teacher – back-turned to the students – writing on the board or overhead projector, and on having visual and eye-catching (but easily understandable) materials to appeal to students from a variety of different learning styles. ESA also strongly emphasizes effective communication between instructor and students, partially through the building a friendly and comfortable rapport. None of these elements really exists, or are formally taught in present day Mongolian teachers TEFL courses, and to make such a change, that would incorporate the ESA model for all language learners, would involve a frank and objective review of all current teacher-training for TEFL conducted in Mongolia, especially at the main and branch schools of the University of Education (formerly called Teachers College). You currently have students of education at the University of Education who are majoring in TEFL, who in their third or fourth year of study, still have great difficulty even verbally introducing themselves in English. The culture of TEFL learning needs to change, but this cannot be achieved without high quality and rigorous curricula. TEFL curriculum in today’s Mongolia is a hodge-podge or Ministry-approved, but poorly written/produced texts for various levels (of which there are never enough) that are filled with high levels of amateurish mistakes (i.e. providing incorrect information on the number and names of U.S. states, etc.), and materials assembled by short-term, foreign instructors, and/or the rare dogged and determined local instructor who has learned enough to desire better for his/her students. This means that there is no real and accepted, high-quality standard text for any of the levels of language learners in Mongolia – and no standardization across the different levels of TEFL learners in the country. One shocking example that recently came to light of a poorly produced TEFL text was the use of standard text at the University of Education for graduate students that was almost entirely – and very obviously – plagiarized from various other unrelated, but reputable TEFL sources. Not only was this book and obvious “copy-and-paste job,” thereby discrediting the very idea of independent thought and writing to a group of students who hoped to obtain higher level graduate degrees in TEFL, it also little internal coherence as the subject matter jumped around from one discrete topic to the next with almost no logical progression between them. Basically, the book is useless and a shameful example of exactly what graduate TEFL students should not be doing. A complete and objective, possibly Ministry of Education-led, effort to review all TEFL instruction texts needs to be undertaken, and this should be done over an extended length of time and in partnership with reputable international TEFL accreditation and/or curriculum development experts and the local English Language Teachers Association of Mongolia (ELTAM), an organization that seeks to bring together English language instructors of all levels, from all parts of Mongolia, to share best practice and effective methodologies inn the teaching of English as a foreign language in Mongolia. The type of effort described above would be immense, and without the support of the Ministry of Education, as well as a significant portion of teachers and their administrators, the current situation with regard to poor quality curriculum simply will not change. All is not lost, and as Mongolia becomes more integrated into the regional East Asian, and global, economies people are waking up to the fact that the actual and functional mastery of English (rather than a passing score on a grade report) is what is needed for the nation to effectively participate on the international stage – and the young people, teachers and students, are driven and creative. If anything, it may well be these young language learners who drive the change towards more effective teaching styles (including the use of ESA), improved curriculum, and a cultural change in TEFL teaching and learning and Mongolia. The food news is also that there are many native English language speakers in Mongolia who are informing the conversation on effective TEFL teaching and learning, either on a paid or volunteer basis (i.e. 75% of American Peace Corps Volunteers are TEFL instructors and there are Fulbright Scholars of TEFL actively working on improved curriculum development for various universities), and teachers – especially younger ones, and those who are members of ELTAM – are demanding improved coursework and curricula development for themselves and their students. In short, despite some very serious and entrenched cultural roadblocks that are mainly holdovers from Soviet teaching and learning models, change has begun and will most likely continue apace with regard to improvement of TEFL instruction in Mongolia.