These people make learning English fun

The SMR Group is involved with training mentors and trainers for the two government programmes. Photos: The Star/Izzrafiq Alias

When Denise Cockerill first started work as a mentor in the Native Speaker Programme (Penutur Jati), she threw herself into teaching with gusto. The programme was introduced by the Government in 2011 to improve the teaching of English in primary schools. The British teacher, one of a select group of mentors or trainers, goes to five local schools to work with teachers on more interactive teaching methods.

“We do dances, songs and plays,” she says. “It’s not necessarily new methods, but methods we use in the west a lot.”

Hired by SMR Group, a company that specialises in learning technologies and tertiary education, Cockerill’s enthusiasm for the programme is matched by her colleagues Olena Benedyktova and Erik Blees. Benedyktova is also a mentor in the programme, while Blees is a trainer in the Professional Upskilling of English Language Teachers (Pro-ELT).

Both programmes were implemented by the Government to boost English proficiency among local teachers. In the Native Speaker Programme, mentors who have a native grasp of the language go into classrooms to help teachers learn creative techniques to teach the new curriculum. The programme is meant to supplement the Standard Curriculum for Primary Schools (KSSR), which emphasises the use of phonics to teach reading.

“Reading in the new curriculum is based on phonics, not just memorisation. The focus has shifted to listening and speaking,” Benedyktova says. “A very important component was added, which is Language Arts. The kids have more fun in class and play with language. If it’s phonics, we have cards. We have pictures everywhere; we tell stories.”

Inspired to teach: Blees, Cockerill, and Benedyktova are mentors and trainers who use creative techniques to make learning English fun. -
Blees, Cockerill, and Benedyktova are mentors and trainers who use creative techniques to make learning English fun.

“With the Native Speaker Programme, we’re not reinventing the wheel,” SMR Group CEO Syed Muzakir Al-Jofre adds.

In the Pro-ELT programme, teachers are taken out of classrooms once a week for a full-day workshop. In groups of 25 to 30, a trainer helps them to improve their fluency in English. An online component – which includes discussion forums, writing tasks, and speaking tasks – complements the face-to-face training.

“Our primary goal is to improve the English language skills of the teachers through the programme,” Blees says. “Our secondary goal is to introduce modern teaching techniques. For example, if we’re working on reading and vocabulary skills, rather than reading about polar bears, we get the teachers to read about teaching methodologies.”

Even though all mentors and trainers are seasoned professionals, handpicked for the job and rigorously trained, they have encountered a few challenges out in the field.

Cockerill says it was a bit of a struggle to get some of the teachers on board, because “some of them feel quite threatened by us, and by having to learn new strategies and techniques”.

Tackling challenges

Cockerill uses brightly coloured charts in her classes.
Cockerill uses brightly coloured charts in her classes.

For the mentors, working with local teachers has been a novel and eye-opening experience. They’ve met teachers who were initially wary, but soon came around.

“One of the biggest issues is confidence, especially building confidence in teachers. But I have conferences with them every month,” Cockerill shares. “One of the teachers I worked with was very nervous and shy, but by the end of it she was applying all the techniques.”

Like all mentors, Cockerill and Benedyktova have five schools they routinely visit. They work with teachers who require the most help, acting as a support system. Through peer observation and team teaching, they engage the teachers’ attention and encourage open dialogue.

“I think teachers are sometimes reluctant, because they think it’ll be so much extra work to make lessons more fun and interesting,” Benedyktova says. “What I try to do is give them a bunch of games for each skill that can be reused from topic to topic. We print and laminate all the necessary pictures, word cards, and flash cards. We create sentence strips and posters for the text book.”

“The beauty of this programme is that it’s individualised – we can work one-on-one with the teachers and talk to them,” Cockerill observes.

In such colourful, animated environments, where creativity can take root and blossom, initially reluctant teachers become more energised and are willing to experiment. The children respond to the methods with unbridled enthusiasm, playing as they learn their lessons.

“That’s a strategy I tell the teachers: whatever you do, make it look like a game. That way, the kids will pay more attention and remember the lesson,” Benedyktova says.

Story time: Benedyktova tells stories to get her students interested.
Benedyktova tells stories to get her students interested.

In the Pro-ELT programme, Blees has found that tech-savvy teachers are more likely to get onboard. Teachers with limited access to technology are more resistant.

“There’s a discrepancy between the teachers in the urban areas – their willingness to learn and do online assignments – compared to teachers in the most rural areas, some of whom don’t have e-mail addresses. So you can imagine that they would be less willing to learn about a new platform.”

However, the majority of teachers enjoy the work they’re given, displaying their interest by asking lots of questions and finishing their assignments in record time. The main issue is one of confidence in their own abilities, SMR Group ELT project manager Michael Hughes says.

“The teachers’ problem is always confidence. Their level of English is not as bad as they think it is. They can do it quite easily; they just need that confidence.”

Reaping results

The programmes’ successes have outweighed any challenges the mentors and trainers have faced. Cockerill and Benedyktova are pleased by the change in mindsets they’ve seen.

Teachers who were once unsure have flourished, taking charge of their classrooms with new teaching methods under their belts. High test scores have established the effectiveness of the Native Speaker Programme.

“There’s quite a big difference in the students of the teachers who use our methods and those who don’t, even in the same school. For the teachers who apply our methods consistently, compared to those who don’t, the results of the kids in those classrooms are better,” Benedyktova shares.

Cockerill reports the same good results: “When they did their test at the end of the year, the Linus (Literacy and Numeracy Screening programme) group in Year One in that school was better than a Year Three class in another school. Their ability to speak and structure sentences was much higher than a Year Three class who had never been introduced to the programme before.” This is a valid indicator of the programme’s achievements, since Linus students are identified as having weak basic literacy and numeracy skills.

More than just better test scores, students are also reaping the benefits of their hard work outside the classroom. Previously shy students who normally wouldn’t speak a word have come out of their shells.

“When they see me in the canteen having lunch, they’ll come and sit with me. They’ll ask, ‘Oh, what are you doing, Teacher Denise?’ ” Cockerill says. “Ordinarily, they would back off from most of the teachers. I think it’s a result of the strategies and the activities that we use in the classroom.”

Blees, a Pro-ELT trainer, was once a mentor in the Native Speaker Programme. He believes in interactive approaches to teaching English.
Blees, a Pro-ELT trainer, was once a mentor in the Native Speaker Programme. He believes in interactive approaches to teaching English.

In the Pro-ELT classrooms, where the teachers are students working to improve their English, there has been similar success. Blees is happy with the progress that the teachers have made.

“They took a pre-Pro-ELT proficiency test, and we’ve given them some mock tests. But we have seen improvement, because on the mock tests they’ve already scored higher than they did a year ago.”

It’s a testament to the programmes’ innovative methods and techniques, as well as the dedication of the mentors and trainers, that they have breathed new life into teaching and improving the standard of English in primary schools.

Rather than waiting for students to enter the job market with a weak command of the language, the programmes tackle any difficulties at the root.

By making English fun to learn and engaging young children, coupled with improving their teachers’ fluency, the programmes offer a solution to the teaching of English in the country.

“It really is a good programme, both programmes, they do work,” Hughes says.

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