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Test for language competency only

I WAS bemused by your report “Only imported English textbooks from next year” (Oct 5).

The Education Ministry’s decision to purchase books from Britain has raised a few critical issues that need to be addressed. In doing so, the ministry is saying very loudly and clearly that locally produced books do not meet the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

I believe many schoolteachers and the general public are hearing this CEFR acronym for the first time. A quick search on the Internet will show that the CEFR is only a “framework of reference” that is used as a way of “standardising the levels of exams in different regions”.

The CEFR lists six levels of language (not only for English) competencies: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. At the lowest level, A1, the descriptor states: “A basic ability to communicate and exchange information in a simple way. Example: Can ask simple questions about a menu and understand simple answers.”

At the highest level, C2, the descriptor states: “The capacity to deal with material which is academic or cognitively demanding, and to use language to good effect at a level of performance which may in certain respects be more advanced than that of an average native speaker. Example: Can scan texts for relevant information, and grasp main topic of text, reading almost as quickly as a native speaker.”

It is interesting to note that Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan said, “The ministry will buy off-the-shelf books to cater to schools because locally produced textbooks are not able to meet the new CEFR levels.”

The CEFR is only a term of reference with a set of descriptors that tell you what you can do at each level; it does not tell you how to get to those levels. That’s why you will find different publishers (including British publications) having different interpretations of what it takes to arrive at the different levels.

As an example, a native English writer may use “telephone” as an A2 word, but a Malaysian writer might use it as an A1 word because the word is very close to the Malay word “talipon”. That is only the word level. What about structures?

So what does it imply here? Can our local writers write books that are aligned to CEFR competencies? Of course, they can but I shall not go into the arguments to prove my point. Instead, I will look at the implications and likely results of the Education Ministry’s decision.

First, apart from cultural differences, are the imported books suitable for second language learners?

Second, with the stroke of a pen, the ministry is killing the local publishing industry.

Third, there’s already a dearth of good writers and this decision is going to deprive local writers of the opportunity to write.

Fourth, does it mean that the ministry has decided to abandon all the KSSR (Standard Based Curriculum for Primary Schools) and KSSM (Standard Based Curriculum for Secondary Schools)English curricula?

Fifth, has anyone actually done a study of our local books and curricula to see how they could be aligned to CEFR standards?

My last point/question is: Will the Education Ministry’s decision to use imported books “ensure students achieve proficiency levels aligned to international standards”?

You are only changing the books. It is the teachers in the classrooms who are going to teach what’s in the books. Changing the books without having competent teachers to teach the students can only mean one thing: it’s doomed from the start. You are only making expensive cosmetic changes with the expected poor results.

CAN’T WE DO THINGS RIGHT? Puchong The STAR Home News Opinion Letters October 24, 2017

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