Close the gap between teacher and student, focus on classroom realities, bring the real world into lessons – these tips were given to teachers at the 15th Melta conference. TAN SHIOW CHIN and SHARMILLA GANESAN report.
IF THE recently held MELTA conference is anything to go by, the time is ripe for education practitioners to climb down from the ivory tower.
Themed Reading and Writing: Preparing ESL (English as a Second Language) Learners for the Real World, the 15th Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (Melta) conference echoed the sentiments of the majority of teachers present, by focusing on strategies to bring the realities of the modern world into the classroom.
Speaking at the opening ceremony in Sheraton Subang Hotel and Towers, Melta president Assoc Prof Dr Malachi Edwin Vethamani said that with the tremendous changes taking place in society, teachers needed to prepare students for the real world.
“I believe that the theme is apt and timely. Let us teach so that our students become proficient and competent in the language itself, and not just in exam strategies,” he said.
English in the real world
The first plenary speaker, Yayasan Budi Penyayang Malaysia chief executive officer Leela Mohd Ali, believes that reading and writing should be taught in an integrative manner.
“Reading and writing do not exist separately in the real world, both are communicative activities,” said the retired curriculum developer and teacher trainer.
“People say that grammar is important, but in the real world, this is not really true. As long as students have a large vocabulary, they can express their ideas.”
She related an incident where she opened a textbook and saw a long e-mail written with proper sentences and paragraphs.
“Is that an e-mail, or a letter in an electronic medium? Someone said that we have to teach students to write properly in e-mail, but is that the practice in the real world?” she asked.
Leela also urged teachers to talk to employers and find out what the workplace requires of employees.
Among the reading and writing skills she feels are essential for students to function well in the real world are speed reading, being able to gather information, and summary and paraphrasing skills.
“Writing, in the real world, is for communicative purposes. We need to facilitate learners to become strategic readers,” she said.
Plenary speaker and Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Humanities deputy dean (higher degree and research) Prof Ambigapathy Pandian emphasised the role language teachers play in shaping the students’ education.
“In a way, language teachers are the most important in a school because literacy skills are needed for all subjects,” said Prof Ambigapathy, who is involved with the International Reading Association in developing, implementing and promoting reading and literacy programmes.
Teaching is all about relationships, he said, and the biggest challenge lies in bridging the distance between teacher and learner.
“Smile at your students, motivate them, and try to marry your exam questions with real world based activities.
“If you expect to get rich in teaching, then you are in the wrong profession.
“But if you want lots of blessings, then you have made the right choice,” he added.
Bridging the gap between educator and student was also the focus of speaker Richard Hughes, who taught English in Malaysia for eight years before joining the University of Leeds in 1988.
“If students are not interested in writing, teachers need to find something that will excite them – catch their interest, their passion, and link it to English,” said Hughes.
“They have got to look forward to your classes. Textbooks are important, but don’t limit yourself. Try to inject creativity into your lessons, and make them think about what they are learning.”
He also suggested that instead of focusing on students’ mistakes, teachers could encourage achievements too.
“Our instinct, when we see a piece of writing with mistakes, is to correct it. But filling the page with red marks may not be the best way because it is very discouraging. Perhaps you could correct only the aspects of grammar you are focusing on for that week.”
Hughes also emphasised that students needed to be encouraged to read extensively, as that was the best way to learn to use the language in the real world.
“It does not matter what they read, whether they are fashion magazines or novels. As long as they read, they will pick up the fundamentals of grammar,” he said.
The conference sessions introduced participants to interesting and practical teaching methods, as well as offered solutions to real world problems like large classes and lack of resources.
SMK St Mary, Sandakan, teacher P. Renuka Devi shared her experience using the STADs (Student Teams Achievement Divisions) cooperative learning strategy in her English classes of over 50 students.
“The fact is, there are too many students and too few teachers.
“The STADs method has proved effective for the teaching of science and maths, but not so much in language,” she said, when presenting her paper Reading Comprehension – Is There A Road Not Taken?
The strategy involved grouping students of varying English language abilities into teams of four or five, and assigning each person a task that revolved around reading comprehension, while the teacher acted as facilitator.
“The students become more proactive after the third or fourth lesson as they become more familiar with the system,” said Renuka.
“I would recommend this method as an alternative to a teacher-centred classroom.”
Universiti Teknologi Petronas (UTP) Language and Communications lecturer S. Subarna decided to bring the real world into her literature classes by using young adult literature to stimulate her students’ interest.
“Most students identify literature with Shakespeare, which they don’t really like.
“They enjoy popular young adult literature as it confirms and illuminates their own life experiences,” she said, while sharing her paper Enhancing Real World Adolescent Experiences Through the Reading of Young Adult Literature.
Among the stories she and her colleague Hairuzila Idrus used in their classes were The Jade Pendant by Catherine Lim, Re and Creation from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and The Voice by KS Maniam.
Two sessions, Demystifying the Writing Task – Activities to Seduce the Reluctant Writer, and Enhancing Reading and Writing Skills via ICT: The Ministry of Education Experience, addressed the issue of teaching resources for teachers.
English textbook and workbook authors Lyla Roberts and Jugdeep Kaur Lachman encouraged teachers to look to their textbooks for reading and writing material.
“We don’t really have to search far for material – the textbook is an under-utilised resource,” said Roberts.
Both she and Jugdeep offered suggestions on how to spin off activities from resources in the textbook, including generating writing topics.
Meanwhile, Education Ministry Curriculum Development Centre officers Ali Abdul Ghani and B. Jagdeesh Kaur Gill reminded teachers of the wealth of language courseware available from the ministry.
“Our courseware will help teachers prepare and deliver lessons in a fun and meaningful manner,” said Ali.
“The material is readily available and suitable for use in the local context. Even teachers who don’t even know how to switch on the computer can easily learn how to use the courseware,” added Jagdeesh.