English is not an impossible dream

Language mentor: Teachers listen intently as a A Pro-ELT trainer (centre) briefs them during a training session in Johor. – File photo

Although the Education Ministry’s postponement of English as a must-pass subject in the SPM last week was unexpected, it explains here the steps it is taking to strengthen English language proficiency among students and teachers.

THE English language is without a doubt the most influential language in the world. Trade and commerce in the globalised world are dependent on English as a lingua franca.

Academic and scientific researches are also largely authored in the English language. The government and Education Ministry are fully aware of the importance of the English language to the long-term development and well-being of Malaysia today and the future.

Many proactive measures and policies have been instituted to ensure our children and graduates have a strong command of the language.

The ministry has taken a dual-pronged approach to increase the quality of English at both the school and tertiary level of education. The first is remedial in nature and the second is policies that will strengthen English overall among students.

The first phase is to retrain current teachers to reach a satisfactory level of English proficiency through various methods. Among the methods employed to do this is the Native English Speaking Programme (Program Penutur Jati).

So far 1,800 primary schools have undergone this programme across six geographical zones. 360 mentors whose native language is English have spent 360,925 hours of personal input time to train 4,639 teachers so far.

There has also been an improvement to the teaching and learning pedagogy of the English language for teachers. This improvement stresses on factors such as class administration, student motivation, research literature and teacher evaluations to further improve the delivery of English lessons.

To build a strong foundation, the ministry has embarked on the first phase of increasing literacy by choosing 21,568 students randomly across the country based on the School Based Assessment.

On average 58.6% of students increased their proficiency by one band. 30.8% increased it by two bands.

Though it might not be considered a mind-blowing achievement, it’s a start in the remedial process.

The Literacy and Numeracy test (LINUS) is an intervention programme aimed at providing students with access to equality in education.

The programme is focused on Years One, Two and Three in primary schools.

Remedial programmes

At the early stage of schooling, students will undergo screening tests to identify their strengths and weaknesses in literacy and numeracy skills.

Weaker students will then be given extra attention and care, so that they will be able to keep up in mainstream classes.

This is another example of a remedial programme carried out by the ministry that is reaching its third cohort this year. The Professional Upskilling of English Language Teachers (Pro-ELT) is a professional upskilling of English language teachers’ programme. So far the ministry has done three cohorts and trained a total of 15,500 teachers in this programme.

Based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), 76.4% of teachers improved one band. These remedial measures are slowly but surely showing results.

The fourth cohort has already begun in June this year with 7,000 teachers taking part and in total 22,500 English teachers would have benefited from this programme.

However it’s important to remember that although the above measure is a step in overcoming the problem, almost a third of teachers have not yet been trained and met the minimum requirement under the CEFR band system.

This being the situation, the ministry has decided to postpone its ruling on the SPM compulsory pass in English. It wouldn’t be fair if 30% of students do not have a teacher who is proficient enough to ensure an effective learning and teaching process takes place.

However, the policy is earmarked to start in 2017, which is actually a year off the previously determined date.

Other steps taken by the ministry is in collaborating with Teach For Malaysia, where a total of 62 teachers for three cohorts have been employed in rural schools to teach English directly to the students.

They also work together with existing English teachers to create new and fun ways to make children take an interest in learning and using English in their daily life.

In this vein, the ministry also conducted 264 English camps involving almost 18,000 students from 2012 to 2014.

Future plans to ensure English teachers become better, will take off at the end of the year when English experts from India are brought and placed in all district education offices to train local school English teachers.

This will be an ongoing process and these experts will monitor, evaluate and provide remedial steps to upscale the standard of English being taught.

In a longer term, foundation and structural changes will help alleviate the standard of English in our country - the English Language Standards and Quality Council has created a roadmap which is 80% complete.

Titled “Roadmap for English Language Education in Malaysia”, it is responsible for creating overall holistic steps to make English a strength in Malaysia and not a weakness.

On June 1 this year, this roadmap was presented to members of the English lab organised by the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) and the Performance and Delivery Unit (Padu) and hopefully the final draft will be ready to be launched by the end of the year.

Another long-term action carried out by the ministry was to ensure anyone who wanted to join the teaching profession has a minimum of five As in the SPM.

This is to ensure the quality of teachers in the future are those who are good students, and not those who chose teaching as a last resort.

Also, students who apply for critical courses now have to attain a higher band in the Malaysian University Test for English (MUET) in order to qualify for their chosen courses in public universities.

This policy will be extended in time to include more courses.

All the steps above are designed to uplift the standard of English among Malaysians. But this is a national agenda that needs all Malaysians’ support in order to succeed.

From buying an English storybook for a child or nephew to subscribing to English newspapers for our kids to read, all of us need to be agents of improvement for the English language wherever and whenever possible.

I’m confident that with such support, the country will and can become a nation that is proud of its command of the English language.

I dream of the day when we export this talent to other nations which were once like us.

P. Kamalanathan is Deputy Education Minister. He welcomes feedback via twitter@PKamalanathan.

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