A blurring of boundaries

The expanded role of English in delivering the Malaysian school syllabus was among several issues discussed at the Melta conference which brought together teachers and dons, reports SIMRIT KAUR. 

The decision to change the medium of instruction for two subjects – Science and Mathematics – from the national language to English has transformed the English language-teaching scene. 

English is no longer limited to just one subject; it has become a tool for learning and teaching other subjects too. 

This issue was addressed in a forum at the Seventh Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (Melta) Biennial International Conference 2003, with representatives from the Education Ministry’s teacher training division, Datin Dr Siti Zaleha Abdullah Sani; the English Language Teaching Centre (ELTC) James Lopez; and SMK Seri Ampangan principal Dr Chia Keng Boon. Absent was fourth panellist Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam from the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP). 

Lopez said the new reality had created “opportunities for collaboration and possibilities for conflict”. 

For example, while English teachers could help their counterparts improve their language proficiency, the policy could also create disquiet as all English teachers qualify for the 5%-10% salary incentive proposed by the Government while Maths and Science teachers will only be eligible after going for specific courses. 

Reality on the ground 

Dr Chia gave a “real-world” perspective on the issue by recounting his school’s experiences in the implementation of the policy. 

“With doubts in their minds, teaching scripts in their hands and notebooks and LCD projectors as tools, 12 of my Form One and Form Six teachers took on the responsibility (of teaching Science and Maths in English to the pioneer batch of students) . 

“One unexpected source of tension has been the inordinate amount of attention these Science and Maths teachers received, from parents and department officials to the school head. They have been under tremendous pressure because of the constant evaluation.”  

This is in addition to coping with the switch from traditional methods of teaching to the widespread use of IT – thanks to the notebook computers and software supplied by the Government. 

Dr Chia has noticed that there has not been much collaboration between English and Science and Maths teachers as “not many of the latter group are asking for help from the former”. 

ACTIVE ENGLISH: A Melta participant gives expression to his passion for English at a workshop entitled 'Teaching...a Craft with Cake Appeal'.

During the question-and-answer session, a participant called for the ministry to be more discriminating and not ask all teachers to attend the Science and Maths in English courses. 

“Many of us are already good in English, except for some istilah (scientific terms); we don’t need the courses.” 

He said that the constant courses had resulted in a disruption of the teaching process in schools. “If we are not forced to attend, then there would be no need for other teachers to relieve our classes, and valuable teaching time would not be wasted.”  

Speaking for the Education Ministry, Dr Siti said that the courses were a combination of English proficiency (30%) and pedagogy (70%). “When there are participants with mixed abilities, trainers can use their discretion on how to structure the course.” 

Good and bad  

Although there were many good papers and workshops at the conference, some presenters should have put more effort into their presentations; there was a lack of significant groundbreaking research as well as a fair bit of recycling of topics.  

Many presenters also limited themselves to small-scale studies which lacked depth. Some papers looked like they could have been researched by an undergraduate. 

One paper, Students Eye View of A “Happening” ESL Teacher was a case in point. The researchers asked the question: What are the quality characteristics of a teacher of English as a second language? 

Based on written responses and interviews with 200 Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) students, they identified what made for a good teacher. 

The findings surprised no one – good teachers used a range of strategies to make lessons fun and interesting, had a good command of the language, kept translation from English to Bahasa Malaysia to a minimum, and communicated their enthusiasm to students. 

The attributes were selected if identified by five or more students. One participant queried the limited sampling and the lack of a theoretical framework or proper statistical evidence. 

Defending the study, co-presenter Jasbir Kaur replied it was the norm in descriptive research to read through the students’ responses and identify patterns that emerged. 

“We didn’t conduct this research to prove something. We just wanted to show teachers how they could be more effective. The responses show that language learning is a personal thing. Students didn’t talk about IT but about the personal attributes of teachers – kind and caring, friendly, having a sense of humour,” she said.  

Lecturer T. Thavamalar, from Taylor’s College, said that presenters should have moved quickly from telling about their research and data collection to focus on the findings’ implications for teaching. 

“I attended a paper presentation on critical thinking skills expecting to know what techniques could be employed in class, but instead got a definition of critical thinking (which we already know) and how critical thinking can help students in class.”  

She added that the abstracts in the programme were also misleading, in that what was stated came out somewhat different in the presentation.  

“My suggestion is that the papers and presentations be classified according to levels or different areas of interest. For example, school level or university level; or leaning towards theory, application or both.” 

Overall, there were many presentations that were poorly thought out and executed, with little realisation that more could have been done to make them more relevant and practical to teachers. 

Qualified success 

Ramesh Nair, a lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Mara, Malacca, observed that there was a lack of paper presentations from teachers. Only five out of 115 papers, workshops and demonstrations presented during the three-day conference were from teachers, with another three being collaborations between lecturers and teachers. 

“Conferences like this are a good opportunity for teachers to share their ideas as they are meant to benefit teachers more than academics, but there was a very low ratio of papers from teachers compared to lecturers,” said Nair.  

“I think Melta should make this its number one priority in the next conference and try to get more teachers with good ideas to get involved in research.” 

Melta president Dr Malachi Edwin Vethamani, however, said that this year’s conference actually saw an increase in the number of presentations from teachers, including one from a Tamil primary school, who co-presented with a university lecturer. 

The popularity of Nirmala Ramakrishan’s paper – Using Mnemonics to Improve Vocabulary, Boost Memory and Enhance Creativity in the ESL Classroom – showed that teachers were eager for practical, yet innovative tips (see story on next page)

However, there was a dearth of this type of papers – aimed at low proficiency students, and proven to work in the classroom. 

The success of Melta 2001 where walk-in participants had to be turned away due to lack of space, led to the organisers choosing a larger venue, the Subang Sheraton in Subang Jaya, to accommodate the expected bigger crowd. 

This year’s conference saw almost 500 participants who ranged from those who have never been to an ELT conference to experienced Melta goers. 

“There was great networking. Thanks to e-mail, people will be continuing their links after Melta 2003,” said Dr Vethamani, adding, “We have started the new Special Interest Groups. We now want them to work and contribute towards teacher development.”  

On the perennial complaint by teachers that Melta was too expensive, he replied: “Actually, quite a lot of teachers were sponsored by publishers and Melta, including those from rural areas. Teachers should be more innovative and get people to sponsor them – ask their PTA, or have fund-raising events in schools.” 

He added that the Melta conference was not affected by SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). “While some international conferences like RELC and Micolac were postponed and others cancelled, we managed to stage our conference successfully. And we found substitutes for the seven speakers who could not attend.” 

Some participants interviewed felt that the quality of presentations and workshops at the last international conference in 2001 was significantly better.  

“Somehow the ideas we gained the last time around seemed more applicable in the classroom. At this year’s conference, a lot of the theories, including some plenary sessions, seemed very technical and was way over my head,” said a teacher. 

A lecturer from a private college felt that Melta should have vetted all the proposals more carefully and made sure they were relevant in the context of Malaysian education before accepting them for presentation.  

As in every Melta conference, the energy level of ordinary teachers and their willingness to pay their own way in their quest for self-improvement was an inspiration in itself. 

Hopefully, any shortcomings identified during this week’s Melta conference will be addressed the next time around and through input from the participants, the organisers can put on a better show. 

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