DECLINING English results in schools continues to be a topic of public interest, particularly as it will become a must-pass subject in SPM next year.
Concerns have been raised by various quarters over the relatively poor performance by Sarawakian students in last year’s SPM, with 23.16% failing English.
That’s nearly a quarter of school-leavers who would not receive their SPM certificate if English were already a compulsory pass subject.
Earlier this week Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (Melta) president Assoc Prof Dr Ganakumaran Subramaniam was reported as saying that students everywhere in Malaysia, not just those in Sarawak, were struggling with English.
He pointed out that the English failure rate nationwide fluctuated between 22% and 28% in the last decade and last year’s results were poorer than the previous year’s.
Ba’Kelalan assemblyman Baru Bian also weighed in on the issue, noting that students from rural schools in Sarawak would be at an even greater disadvantage if the requirement to pass English is implemented next year, given their lack of infrastructure, equipment and human resources.
Generally the consensus is that firstly, it’s too soon to introduce the must-pass policy next year and, secondly, more needs to be done to improve the standard of English in schools.
Both points are closely related and need to be taken into consideration together by the relevant authorities.
Next year is too soon because students, through little fault of their own, are largely not ready for English as a must-pass subject, and they will not be ready unless there improvements are made to the teaching and learning of English.
As Dr Ganakumaran has observed, there have been no significant changes to the way English is taught and learnt in schools since the policy was announced in 2013.
“Students, teachers and parents need time to get their heads around this target. If students today have not been able to cope after nine years of public education, how can they make that dramatic turn by the end of next year?” he said, adding that it would be unfair to deny school-leavers the SPM certificate for a subject which the public education system had struggled to teach for decades.
Baru meanwhile called for more efforts to raise the standard of English, including teaching Maths and Science in English, encouraging an English speaking and reading culture among children, providing a good supply of books for school libraries and giving students a good foundation in English from their primary school days.
He also noted that two rural schools in the state, SK Ba’Kelalan and SK Ulu Lubai, had achieved excellent academic results due to the efforts of the dedicated headmasters and teachers.
“This shows that given the sufficient facilities and financial support and with teachers who are determined to succeed, rural schools can outperform urban schools,” he said.
Likewise, the British Council’s English Language Teacher Development Project (ELTDP) Symposium in Kuching last week showcased many creative methods used by primary school teachers to engage their pupils’ interest in learning English.
The examples included setting up reading corners, making storybooks, using puppets and flashcards, dramatising stories and incorporating songs, chants and drawings in lessons.
These teachers were clearly motivated to improve their teaching skills so that they could teach their pupils better. They exemplify how dedication, motivation and being equipped with skills and ideas can help pupils to learn better.
There are many opinions and suggestions on how we can improve English standards, including the Education Ministry’s must-pass policy.
The important thing is not rush into hasty decisions that could have unintended negative consequences for students but to keep the discussion going in a constructive manner and implement good practices that have been proven to work.