Why ‘Gaokao’ Students Score Full Marks for Bad English
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2017-06-14 07:43:15

When I first came to China three years ago, I knew nothing about the gaokao. I had never heard the word before, but I quickly become familiar with it that summer. First, in early June, I noticed a surge in the number of students visiting my school, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Students lined up to take pictures with the stone lions at the front gate, in the hope that they would be blessed with good luck.

The far more telling moment came during my first creative writing class, though. I told students to write about 60 important seconds of their lives, and out of a class of 18 students, almost all of them wrote about the gaokao. Some wrote about counting down the final seconds of the exam, doubting every answer they had put down. Others remembered the first few seconds, panicking as the clock ticked down and they could begin.

As an American, I remember the stress of taking the SAT when I applied to university. But as I read over my students’ essays, I got the feeling that they had approached the gaokao very differently from how I had approached the SAT.

The content of the gaokao varies by province, but there are generally three sections: Chinese, math, and a foreign language, usually English. Students must also take an additional test in either the sciences or the humanities. It is taken over two days and determines the candidate’s university placement.

While criticism of the gaokao has been well-documented, my concerns over the English writing section have little to do with the pressures on students or the long study hours. Instead, they are more holistic in nature: I believe the test fosters a set of writing skills that fails to adequately prepare students for actual university writing classes.

Each fall, I teach Academic Writing 1 at Jiao Tong. It is the first university writing class that these students have ever taken, and each year, I spend the first couple of months teaching them to unlearn some of the writing habits they picked up from studying for the gaokao.

I cannot fault my students for their gaokao writing skills, though. They are among the top test-takers in the country, and if they had chosen to write any other way, then they would not have earned a place in my classroom. Instead, the problem is that the gaokao overemphasizes a number of generic writing traits that later hinder their ability to express themselves clearly in an academic conversation.

Any test that rewards the cosmetics of writing instead of the real meaning it is intended to convey establishes a false set of values.

Currently, the gaokao English exam focuses on practical linguistic concerns. Students are generally asked to write one short essay of around 200 words that is either a dialogue, a short letter, a public announcement, or a response to a quotation or idea.

Several of the essay prompts demand that students think less about the actual content of their responses and instead focus on writing out prelearned phrases in English. “I can write the opening paragraph for my essay as soon as I see the prompt,” a student once told me. “Nearly all openings are the same for certain prompts.”

When I talk with my students about their gaokao writing, they are quick to list the qualities that good answers are supposed to have. “One: conjunctions or transitional sentences to indicate logical flow. Two: the more advanced the words, the better. Three: sentences that are longer than needed, but not so long that they exhaust the grader’s patience.”

Another student somewhat robotically listed off all the stock phrases used in response to the questions: “Looking forward to your arrival. Sorry for any inconvenience caused. We extend our warmest welcome to you.”

In a university classroom, though, a flair for longer sentences and overly developed vocabulary do little for good academic writing. In my experience as a writing lecturer, a week or two passes before students realize that shorter sentences might have some value. Then, they give them a try. After a few exercises, they learn that shorter sentences can create an emphasis not found in their long-winded counterparts.

I also work toward achieving an understanding of what can be counted as evidence. Often, students use their own stories to buttress their arguments — and while this tendency may be practical for a standardized English test, it runs counter to standard practice in academic writing. As my teaching assistant explained to me: “Some [exam] topics require students to use a personal story to illustrate a given point, and it’s common for students to just make one up or put themselves into a story that they read somewhere.”

Students already respond sensitively to the perceived aesthetic standards of their graders. They would also adapt quickly if graders signaled a preference for clear, watertight prose.

Finally, I try to get students to make an argument that takes a position and argues a single side. This runs counter to the common gaokao writing approach, in which, as one student told me, an objective mood in your essay is important. Students are taught to weigh both sides of an issue in their response instead of arguing from a singular thesis statement, which is far more common in English academic writing. In place of making a declarative sentence, students use qualifiers like “perhaps,” “sometimes,” and “probably” to make their central arguments less certain and more conditional.

Students need to remember that the gaokao curriculum teaches a specific genre of writing with its own rules and standard practices. Learning these rules is important, but so is remembering to let these practices go after the test concludes. As soon as students enroll at the university they have worked so hard to get into, they will need to write differently.

A more complete solution to poor English writing will take time, though, and must come from the test writers themselves. The gaokao English exam is a test of language, not logic, but any test that rewards the cosmetics of writing instead of the real meaning it is intended to convey establishes a false set of values. Graders need to stop rewarding endless chains of clauses and excessively florid, sometimes misapplied vocabulary as if it were exemplary English. If graders change their expectations, then the students will follow suit in their writing.

For now, students are focusing on the smallest trends in graders’ behavior in order to gain an advantage over their fellow candidates. Several students noted that neat penmanship can greatly influence a grade. One even joked: “If you write as beautifully as Times New Roman, you’ll get full marks, whatever you write.” With students already responding so sensitively to the perceived aesthetic standards of their graders, I feel that they would also adapt quickly if graders signaled a preference for clear, watertight prose.

Some of my students’ teachers were far more pragmatic in their advice to their students. As one student noted, “My high school English teacher told me to just show off my best writing as much as possible.” But this “best writing” should not mean long-winded, hulking sentences that labor under the stress of overly prolix vocabulary. Instead, future examiners might reward creative use of language, simple sentences in the right context, and statements that declare instead of equivocate.

Editor: Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: An English teacher gives a class for senior students at a high school in Liaocheng, Shandong province, Feb. 24, 2014. Zhao Yuguo/VCG)