WE often lament that Malaysians are not sufficiently fluent in speaking English despite the many years spent in carrying out programmes that are expected to enhance their skills in the global language.
Speech, as we all know, is the most basic of language acquisition skills.
Early man responded to his surroundings in the most primitive way of satisfying his needs by communicating in the only natural way he knew. And that was to utter sounds which were familiar and decipherable to others in his group.
That was the kind of communicative speech in the early days of our civilisation.
Speech, of course, works hand-in-hand with its twin, listening. One simply cannot exist without the other.
But it is quite unfortunate that learning programmes that are executed by the Education Ministry, have always been met with negative responses and criticisms by certain quarters with vested interests.
Language mastery encompasses four universal steps, one leading to the other – listening, speaking, reading and writing.
Decades ago, there were always teachers in schools who were known for their skills in teaching Oral English, namely listening and speaking.
Times have changed. Our children are not taught English from the basics.
The only English they get to listen in the classroom is perhaps the teacher’s instructions to carry out tasks. Beyond that, daily exposure to the language is minimal.
Common sense tells us that if students are not exposed to listening to the basics of a language, how can they possibly even try to speak it?
Students who fall into this category are mostly those from rural areas.
Since English is hardly spoken at both primary and secondary schools, it is perhaps time to look back at some of the practices our local schools adopted decades ago.
Teachers made their students read out sentences and sometimes an entire passage in unison – it was called choral reading.
Even then, many children did not come from English-speaking homes and were nervous and self-conscious when they had to read.
However choral reading helped as they became more fluent and it built their self-confidence.
We were later encouraged to read simple picture books after which we began to read stories that were no more than a few paragraphs.
At home, we read what we had learnt in school.
Soon, we were reading the Ladybird Series and Enid Blyton books. We then moved on to literature classics and even Shakespeare in our teens.
We were at ease reading, writing and speaking in English.
The Education Ministry should take note that choral reading is a proven technique and should be introduced in Malaysian schools again.
Doing so would also bring about more English language readers among our students.
SHANMUGAM G. KAILASAM
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