Wednesday, August 24, 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 artists: 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.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

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’. — DATIN NOOR AZIMAH ABDUL RAHMAN
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.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

It’s time for us to stop the rot

(The Star)

Five push one equals four.

Mix A with B, then disturb the solution.

Don’t get it? Replace “push” (tolak) with “subtract” and “disturb” (kacau) with “stir”.

That’s how far English has deteriorated in schools. And that is just scratching the surface.

Hence, the Deputy Prime Minister’s recent call for solutions to the poor mastery of English among students despite 13 years of learning it in school is a cry after the hearts of many.

It’s been the perennial lament of parents, institutions of learning, employers – and teachers.

We have all seen, heard and suffered the decline of English proficiency for years now, three decades to be precise – after the switching of the medium of instruction from Bahasa Malaysia to English.

Countless proposals, blueprints and programmes, including flip-flop policies, have been implemented to rectify the problem but the malignancy seems to have spread far and wide.

Is it too late to get our act together and put our money where our mouth is?

Is the Government – and politicians – willing to put our children’s English proficiency ahead of our insecurity about our national language Bahasa Malaysia and mother tongue?

We must strive to keep politics out of the classroom, though we know it is easier said than done.

We need proficient teachers to build the students’ language foundation at primary level and develop it further at secondary level.

Unfortunately, we have a huge cohort of English teachers who themselves need lessons, what more teach.

Are they to blame?

No, they are the products of our policy change and the adoption of the Communicative English syllabus which stresses that it’s fine as long as the “meaning comes through”.

We need to keep and reward teachers who are skilled and can make the difference so that the vicious cycle doesn’t keep repeating.

The rot has to stop or our low proficiency students will continue to beget low proficiency teachers.

Singapore, on the other hand, works to attract some of its best brains into the teaching profession by paying them competitive salaries and keeping them through incentives like fast track promotions, leadership allowances, performance-based bonus and work attachments.

As for our exam-oriented society, our students need to be challenged. Make it compulsory to pass English to obtain the SPM certificate – as is the case for Bahasa Malaysia – and they’ll flock to tuition centres for extra classes.

It works with Bahasa, it’ll work with English.

Students in rural schools who do not see the economic value of English in securing jobs or fear using the language need to be tackled differently.

Unfortunately, the Government has largely adopted a one size fits all policy, which holds back the high achievers to prevent the gap from growing too wide between them and the laggards.

The PPSMI is a case in point.

Give autonomy to schools to teach the subjects in English if their teachers are proficient and the students capable.

Why make everyone learn Maths and Science in Bahasa to keep the rural schools on the same page?

Be innovative, allow bilingualism for as long as it takes for schools to find their respective levels.

There is no need to rush the weak, but instead, let the proficient move forward, not backwards.

Perhaps, the Government should consider holding a referendum on whether we should bring back English-medium schools – a place where unity thrived. Let parents and other stakeholders have a bigger say in their children’s education.

Be less prescriptive, allow schools to decide if there should be more contact time or teaching periods for English in the timetable.

Send the best teachers to schools where they are sorely needed, instead of assigning three Guru Cemerlang for English to a premier school!

There are many factors that contribute to our low proficiency but we should stop using piecemeal measures.

It’s time to get down to the serious business of making our schoolchildren masters of the English language.