August 15th, 2011

English language: Children misled

 WHY is the government or the nation surprised at the people's poor command of English? It did not happen overnight nor is it a phenomenon.
As far as I am concerned, it is a sanctioned blunder and one that has been going on for as long as I can remember.

Malaysians are "punished" for speaking proper English. One is considered as "showing off" or a "phony" if one does so. Sometimes, the terms used can be derogatory.

Why is that? We never question someone when he speaks proper Mandarin or Malay, do we?

I believe our children have been taught or misled into mastering the wrong aspects of English.

Instead of flawless grammar and an expansive vocabulary, youth think they just need to "sound" like they know the language.

So, the workforce is filled with half-baked English, spoken by those who appear to have spent some time abroad or in front of the TV, with no etymology or linguistic knowledge.

During my time in the education sector, two things never ceased to amaze me -- how graduates would rate their English aptitude and how their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia English result did not reflect reality.

Eight out of 10 applicants who rated themselves 10/10 were not even close to a six, and that was on a good day.

The moment Manglish was considered to be colloquially acceptable, good English was obliterated.

DOROTHY CHONG, Sibu, Sarawak 2011/08/15

Source: The NST Home Letters to the Editor English language: Children misled

English language: Bring back English schools

DEPUTY Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also education minister, asked the other day how one could improve the standard of English of our students.

Very simple: bring back English-medium schools and use the Cambridge syllabus with some fine-tuning. But this will require strong political will.

Why is it that the children of our diplomats have no problem with English? The answer is because they studied at international schools where English is the medium of instruction.

They speak English, they breathe English, they joke in English and that is why they can read the Harry Potter books with ease.

The children of my diplomat friends who go to international schools have high self-esteem, are confident of themselves, speak well, are open-minded, have good general knowledge and, above all, like to read.

To them, books are like drugs. In fact, their parents spend a lot of money on books.

And these children have no problem doing research or following lectures in university.

They put interviewers to shame with their flawless English. But they have a serious problem with Bahasa Malaysia, which is to be expected!

I believe language cannot be taught like Science or Mathematics.

Importing native language teachers from American Ivy League universities or England will not help either. Instead, these teachers will have a good vacation in Malaysia as they will literally be speaking Greek to the students.

It is wrong to assume that students are not interested in English. It is wrong to blame parents for not guiding or motivating their children to master English.

It is wrong to blame teachers for not trying their best.

Students want to read Reader's Digest or English newspapers but they can't because of their poor command of the language.

They are the product of the system. It is a waste and a pity.

HASSAN TALIB, Gombak, Selangor

Read more: The NST Home Letters to the Editor 2011/08/15

Language letdown

 While there are calls for action against the declining English standards, what needs to be done is to ensure that policies on improving the language should be for the long term.

LAST WEEK, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin reportedly said that he himself was at a loss as to why Malaysian students have a poor grasp of the English language.

“I have instructed the education director-general to look into the curriculum to see why our students are unable to master English as a second language despite learning it for 13 years,” said Muhyiddin, who is also Education Minister.

... it is the students who become victims of all these ‘experiments’.

As always, this was the cue for a flurry of commentary over the declining standards of English and general hand-wringing over what can be done about it.

Questions have also been raised over the need for a new study following the current implementation of Upholding Bahasa Malaysia and Strengthening English (also known by its Malay acronym MBMMBI) policy, as well as the new Standard Curriculum for Primary Schools (KSSR) introduced this year.

Also left unanswered is whether English will be made into a must pass subject for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations; the idea was mooted by the minister himself in 2009.

Although the ministry stated then that 80% of the feedback received supported the proposal, there has been no subsequent developments on the matter.

Among those concerned over the issue is Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia (Page) chairperson Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim.

“I think this admission reflects poorly on the ministry,” she says.

“Why weren’t these studies conducted before RM3bil was allocated for the MBMMBI policy?

“Education policies need to be well thought-out for the long term, and we cannot afford to have new policies with each new minister.

“In the end, it is the students who become victims of all these ‘experiments’.”

To be fair, the ministry has embarked on initiatives to improve English language skills to complement the MBMMBI initiative, the latest of which is the Pedagogy Standards for English Language Teaching.

Launched by Muhyiddin in July, the standards were developed by the English Language Training Centre (ELTC), the Education Ministry’s in-service teacher education provider.

Goals for teachers

ELTC director Dr Ranjit Singh Gill says the standards served as ‘aspirational’ goals for English language teachers rather than prescribing a minimum requirement.

“The main aim is to help teachers identify their strengths and weaknesses to help them chart their own career development.

“It will also help us in designing programmes to cater to teachers’ needs,” he says.

While it is still too soon to gauge the response to the project so far, Dr Ranjit thinks that teachers will be open to using the self-assessing standards.

“Judging from the number of teachers who take it upon themselves to further their studies, I think that there is a genuine desire among our teachers to improve themselves,” he says.

Former education director-general Tan Sri Alimuddin Mohd Dom also believes that the MBMMBI policy is sufficient to cover the language issue.

“The MBMMBI initiative is suitable because it addresses both the role of the national language in ensuring social cohesion, while recognising the importance of English as a global language.

“We should keep in mind that the purpose of the national education system is not just to prepare students for the workforce, but also to promote national unity.

“Of course, it will require all parties to play their roles if it is to work; teachers have to be passionate about teaching English, students need to be motivated to learn, and parents need to be more involved in their children’s academic study,” he says.

Staging plays and dramas are another avenue through which
schoolchildren can express themselves in the English language.

Alimuddin also thinks that there is a serious rift in the public discourse of education and language, based on comments published by the media and posted on the blogosphere.

“On one hand you have those who are pushing for the direction of English medium schools, while on the other, there are those who lament the position of the national language.

“If these two divisions cannot reach a consensus, it will be a very problematic situation for the national education system as a whole,” he says.

A notable feature of this ‘rift’ is the Teaching of Mathematics and Science in English (better known by its Malay acronym PPSMI) first introduced by then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 2003.

Announced six-months before its implementation to the tune of RM5bil, the ministry reversed the policy in 2009.

PPSMI proponents continue to applaud the policy’s aims of exposing students to Mathematics and Science knowledge in English, saying that this will enable Malaysia to achieve a developed nation status.

Detractors meanwhile, say that the policy was implemented at the expense of Bahasa Melayu’s status as the national language, and cause rural students to lose out in their academics.

Numerous surveys have been cited by both parties to support their arguments, but a 2010 study stands out both in its methods and findings.

Carried out by Universiti Teknologi Mara researchers, the study involved 186 urban and rural Year Four pupils taking two sets of Mathematics tests; one purely in English, the other in both English and Bahasa Melayu.

The study concludes that all the students performed poorly in both tests, with the rural students being weaker than their urban counterparts.

Need for change

It should be noted that Malaysia is not unique in its problems with the English language and the education system.

In the CBI/ EDI Education Skills survey published in 2011, surveying 566 employers in the United Kingdom (UK), it was revealed that 42% of employers are not satisfied with the basic use of English by school and college-leavers.

Additionally in May, it was reported that the British education watchdog Ofqual will announce an investigation into concerns in the UK over the perceived lack of standards in their A Level and GSCE examinations.

“There is definitely a general rot in our system,” says a retired teacher from Perak.

“If students cannot speak the English language, then why is the SPM passing rate increasing for the subject each year?

“So if the passing rates for this subject cannot be relied upon, what are we to make of the other subjects and the increasing number of top scorers?” she asks.

Nora*, who works as a headhunter for multinational companies based in Malaysia, expressed a similar sentiment.

Time to stretch: Some teachers have taken the initiative
to speak to their students in English during PE lessons. - File photo

“I get poorly written resumes in English and even Bahasa Melayu from students who are straight-A scorers,” she says.

“I find it easier to deal with those who have average grades, but can articulate themselves well and are motivated to learn,” she says.

Retired teacher Yo Lim thinks that motivation is crucial in improving students’ grasp of the language.

“Think of the children in a place like Kuala Tembeling, in a totally Malay environment where they are taught four to five hours a week.

“The reality is that English has no relevance (to their daily communication), so they don’t see the importance or relevance of having to learn a foreign language.

“This is not to say they don’t learn anything at all, as they do acquire some rudiments of the language,” he says.

He adds that while the system does produce students who are proficient in English, this has more to do from their out-of-school exposure.

“Quite often, their (the students’) high standard of English is despite the school system they have gone through,” he says.

“These are students who come from homes where English is widely spoken.

“Then we have to ask: is the Ministry able to lure enough of these graduates into the teaching profession?

Increasing research in the field of linguistics seem to challenge commonly accepted notions of learning English as second language.

For instance, while many may note that “children soak up information like sponges”, this is not necessarily so for Year One students encountering the language for the first time.

Additionally, some researchers also warn that just because a child can converse in a language, it does not mean that he or she has actually fully acquired it.

Helen Chew, a retired teacher with 26 years of experience, says that these sort of opinions over language learning can be damaging.

“There are just so many myths that are being circulated by non-educators and the media when it comes to language learning,” she says.

“For instance, what is the point of pushing literature down students’ throats if all you want them to do is speak and write English for the work place?

“I propose an even more radical idea; if there is a shortage of qualified English teachers, then maybe we should look at starting students on the language in their later years of primary school.

“It is better for children to have two years with good teachers and get a solid grounding in the language, rather than to go through so many years of below-par teaching that has to be ‘un-learnt’ at the secondary level.”

She adds that examinations should also be restructured to properly test students’ knowledge of the language.

“What is the point of oral examinations when I know of students who pass by memorising and regurgitating entire chunks of text?

“If we want to cater to all the different learners’ abilities without upsetting anyone, then maybe there should be different levels of examinations as well; an elementary one that everyone should pass, and intermediate and expert levels for those who wish to pursue the language on a deeper level.

“At the end of the day, it all boils down to what exactly it is you want the students to achieve with their language skills,” she says.


The STAR Home Education Sunday August 14, 2011

Fresh approach to teaching

LIM* frowned when she looked at the unexciting syllabus for the English Literature subject.

The senior English teacher knew she had to come up with a clever teaching plan or risk losing her Form Four students’ interest in learning the language which could affect their future career prospects, if they failed to master the international language.

She decided to change her approach and let her students play and learn English at the same time.

She then asked her students to act out Gulp and Gasp by John Townsend which required them to prepare their own scripts and costumes.

Young art ist s: Instructing pupils informally in English during Art lessons, may be a good way for children
to pick up the language. – File photo

To her surprise, the 16-year-olds jumped at the opportunity which saw them work feverishly to perfect their pronunciation and intonation for the drama.

A boy, who had not been confident in speaking English, suddenly seemed inspired and even brought a wig to school and played the heroine in front of the class, she says.

“Not only did the drama help to improve their English, they also became more confident, creative and cooperative among themselves.

“The students had so much fun that they had forgotten that it was actually an English subject. They managed to step out of their comfort zone and showed less inhibition in using the English language,” says Lim, who has 25 years of teaching experience.

Forget about prescriptive textbooks and exams. The current exam-oriented system has not yielded promising results in increasing students’ ability to master the language.

With a touch of fun and creativity, the English language can be taught effectively too.

A check by StarEducate has found that, many senior teachers have in fact, taken their own initiative to help students maximise learning English in schools.

However, a lack of support from school authorities have dampened their spirits to sustain the work that they had carried out to achieve the goal.

But there may be light at the end of the tunnel, if the Government is serious about finding effective solutions to improve the standard of English.

Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin had recently said that the Goverment still placed emphasis on English as a second language, even though it had abolished the teaching of Mathematics and Science in English (PPSMI) in 2009.

He also said that many students were still unable to master English despite learning the language in school for 13 years.

This presents a perfect opportunity for the teachers to revive and incorporate some of the fun activities into the teaching of the language, if given adequate support and commitment from the school administrators.

Mary* said she initiated a link with a school in the United States (US) six years ago to provide her students with an opportunity to write e-mails and letters in English to their peers there.

Apart from learning about their respective cultures, the students also had a chance to practise using English in a more informal way.However, after a few exchanges, the interest died down.

While her students do not see economic value in the language, Mary is still determined to come up with activities to help her students master the language.

“Teachers should not be expected to work with a rigid syllabus, and must be given leeway in their approach to the language subject,” she says.

Lim agrees, saying that it is never too late for those who are poor in the language to buck up.

“I don’t like giving students written exercises because they tend to copy their answers from each other, so I prefer that they stand up and converse with their classmates in English.

“What teachers and students should do is to approach the English language as an everyday language rather than a subject,” she shares.

English teacher Jenny Tan from Kuala Lumpur says she takes the initiative to speak to her students in English during Physical Education (PE) lessons.

“The notes are in Bahasa Melayu, but I use English to explain them because I want students to have the opportunity to converse with me in English,” says the teacher, who has been in the profession for 17 years .

Even outside the classroom and school, she says she would speak to her students in English.

Another English teacher in Terengganu says she likes to get her students take part in competitions such as The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education contest Mag Inc.

“I also hope the Education Ministry will organise English camps for students and teachers to practise and learn how English is being taught in other places,” she says.

Lily*, who has been teaching English for 27 years, says non-exam subjects such as Civics , PE and Art can be taught in English to expose students to the language.

“For example, when students watch Art Attack (a British children’s television series) they can learn about Art and also English at the same time. That will be a fun way to learn the language,” she says.

The quality of teachers also matters.

There are some English teachers who are not qualified to teach the subject.

“There are English teachers who are not proficient in the language but are selected and asked to teach the subject although many of them are reluctant to do so. Sadly, such teachers don’t do a ‘good job’ of teaching the subject,” she laments.

Tan says the selection process of English teachers needs to be more stringent.

“It’s not the teachers’ fault if they are not proficient but selected to teach the subjects. Those responsible for the selection process should make sure that only qualified ones are chosen. It’s the quality that matters, not quantity,” says Tan, who has 17 years of teaching experience.

Authorities should stop criticising teachers. Instead, they should assist and support the teachers to achieve the goals.

Teachers have been burdened with loads of “irrelevant work”. From filing paperwork, organising co-curricular activities to dealing with district education officers, these non-teaching chores have left teachers with little time to plan their lessons effectively and pay individual attention to those who are weak in the English language.

“When the education district officers come to my school, all they care about is the National Key Results Area (NKRA). They want to see exam data such as the passing rates, marks and number of A’s students have scored.

“They are not interested in our teaching and learning approaches,” says Mary.


The STAR Home Education Sunday August 14, 2011