Building on a benchmark

  • Education
  • Sunday, 04 Feb 2018

The English Language Roadmap 2015-2025 uses the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). This year, imported CEFR-aligned English textbooks are being used in schools. And, plans are underway to align the Malaysian University English Test (MUET) with the framework. StarEducate finds out more about the CEFR, and how it can improve our English proficiency.

FOCUSED on teaching, assessment, and assessment-reporting, our Primary School Standard Curriculum (KSSR), and Standard Curriculum for Secondary Schools (KSSM), are based on expected outcomes that indicate progress and success, says Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (Melta) president Prof Dr S. Ganakumaran.

Essentially, both our curriculum, and the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), are based on learner achievement standards, he explains.

Two months ago, the Malaysia Examination Council announced that efforts were underway to align the Malaysian University English Test (MUET) with the CEFR so that it can be globally marketed especially to international students planning to further their studies in Malaysia.

“The biggest difference between the CEFR and our curriculum is that the KSSR standards are internally set based on the needs of learning a second language in Malaysia, and our success criteria is based on national goals, and expectations.

“On the other hand, the CEFR standards are determined externally based on language-learning research in Europe. These standards allow us to structure what we teach, and assess, to benchmark the progress of our students internationally,” Prof Ganakumaran says.

Launched in 2001, the CEFR, adds Universiti Malaya’s (UM) Faculty of Education senior lecturer Dr Zuwati Hasim, is neither a curriculum, nor a syllabus.

“Why do we need CEFR as a benchmark? What will happen to MUET - the English language competency examination taken by local students as a requirement to enter local public and private universities? If students are in Band 6 of MUET, which is equivalent to C2 of the CEFR, will they be exempted from taking the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), or any other internationally-developed English language test, when they enrol in universities abroad?” she asks.

Calling for a transparent evaluation of the CEFR’s implementation, she says the framework can be used as a form of reference for many different languages - not just English, but it must be an adaption, not an adoption.

Stressing that the framework is a mere guide, she says it can be adapted here if it’s aligned towards the communicative needs of our pupils.

“In Malaysia, English is a second language, not a foreign language. We shouldn’t be aligning our syllabus to the framework by compromising on our learners’ needs,” she feels, adding that the curriculum we’ve had through the years, were impressive and well-developed. Now, it’s about improving what we have.

The KSSR, and KSSM, are in line with the national education principles, and aimed at strengthening unity in a multi-cultural society, she adds.

KSSR was implemented in 2011, replacing the Primary School Integrated Curriculum (KBSR), which was introduced in 1983. The KSSM, which replaced the Integrated Secondary School Curriculum (KBSM), and a revised KSSR, kicked-off last year.

“Imported textbooks are being introduced even before we’ve analysed the effectiveness of the KSSR and KSSM textbooks. Will the CEFR lead to a revamp of the current co-curriculum?” she asks.

It’s important for teachers to be assessed based on the CEFR to show the quality of their proficiency according to an international standard, says Prof Ganakumaran. But, language proficiency - though advantageous, doesn’t necessarily translate to good teaching.

One of the key aims of the CEFR is to address a society that speaks several languages, and is sensitive to the different cultures around them, Dr Surinderpal Kaur, the deputy dean of postgraduate studies at the UM Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, points out. “Like Europe, Malaysia isn’t a monogamous culture. But the CEFR isn’t prescriptive - it tells you to modify the benchmark to suit your cultural context, not how to do it.”

European countries use the CEFR for many different languages as a benchmark for communication competency. This international benchmarking is very important because it allows for labour mobility. If correctly interpreted and implemented, the CEFR brings consistency. But it boils down to the training of educators, the materials used, assessment processes, and curriculum developed.

“We’ve to continuously tweak our curriculum which is still very traditional. We need peer-learning, emersion in digital technology, and critical thinkers who can apply their knowledge to solve problems.

“Aligning everything to the CEFR won’t be of much use if we don’t open up our curriculum. You can’t have your own benchmark for the SPM, then expect students to sit for the CEFR-aligned MUET at varsity. The benchmark must be consistent from primary level.”

Most European countries piloted their CEFR-aligned teacher-training, materials and assessments, when they started. This is necessary to iron out the kinks, she says.

“Once we’ve done that for English, the template we’ve created can be used for other languages like Bahasa Malaysia.”

Teachers, she adds, are crucial because if they don’t understand the CEFR, and the aims behind it, we won’t get far. She suggests:

> Improving teacher-proficiency in line with the CEFR;

> Ensuring that teacher-trainers know the CEFR well, can communicate it effectively, and are able to help teachers make sense of the teaching materials;

> Introducing a platform for teachers to share their best practices;

> Organising workshops for trainers and teachers; and

> Having townhalls to reach out to the community.

Dr Surinderpal calls for parents, teachers, teacher-trainers, and students, to be treated as equal stakeholders in the learning of English.

“Use lay terms. Reach out to the public. They must know what the Education Ministry is doing, and how it’s being done. Show the step-by-step progression, and address their concerns along the way.”

Dr Zuwati, who’s also a teacher-trainer, believes in empowering teachers.

Currently, only selected teachers are trained in the CEFR-aligned syllabus and textbooks. And, they’re expected to train their colleagues. The message, she says, can get lost in translation. She worries about the impact this would have on the implementation of the CEFR.

To fully benefit from the CEFR, you have to implement it properly, and not rush into superficial solutions, says Cambridge Assessment English (policy, projects and partnerships) director Dr Hanan Khalifa.

Part of the University of Cambridge, the not-for-profit organisation is dedicated to helping people learn English. It has been involved in the development of the CEFR for over 30 years.

“It’s tempting to take short cuts, but these don’t give you the improvements which a carefully implemented programme can give you.

“So it’s great that the Education Ministry is taking so much care in using data to align the curriculum, assessment, and learning materials, to the CEFR. This will ensure that they really deliver the skills which pupils need,” says Dr Hanan.


The CEFR is...

Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (MELTA) Prof.Dr.Ganakumaran Subramaniam.SAMUEL ONG / THE STAR, 15TH JULY 2015.
Prof Dr S. Ganakumaran

"An international standard for describing language ability on a six-point scale, from A1 for beginners, up to C2. It provides a framework to guide those involved in language teaching and testing."

Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (MELTA) presiden Prof Dr S. Ganakumaran


Dr. Zuwati of Universiti Malaya. RAJA FAISAL HISHAN/The Star..
Dr Zuwati Hasim

"A guide to determine, and measure, the standard of language competence or language ability. To facilitate free labour movement, the European Union, and the Council of Europe, coordinated its foreign language teaching so that the results of students learning French in Spain, for example, can be compared to Italian students learning German."

Universiti Malaya (Faculty of Education) senior lecturer Dr Zuwati Hasim


Universiti Malaya (UM) Faculty of Languages and Linguistics deputy dean of postgraduate studies Dr Surinderpal Kaur.
Dr Surinderpal Kaur

"A very good student-centred, and widely used benchmark, that treats language as more than just a subject. The problem is that most people here think it’s a pedagogical curriculum."

Universiti Malaya (Faculty of Languages and Linguistics) deputy dean of postgraduate studies Dr Surinderpal Kaur 


Malaysian Examination council chairman Datuk Seri Dr Mohamed Mustafa Ishak (second from left) exchanging an Mou with Cambridge English Language head of research Dr Hanan Khalifa (second from right) after a press conference on MUET, STPM and SKBMW in the Malaysia National Defence University (UPNM) on Dec 7 2016. Looking on is UPNM vice-chancellor General Tan Sri Zulkifli Zainal Abidin (left) and MPM CEO Mohd Fauzi Datuk Mohd Kassim (right).
Dr Hanan Khalifa

"A lot more than a set of levels. If you use it properly, it’s a way of making sure that learners have the skills to communicate effectively in English. It describes in detail the skills you need at each level and for each of the four skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing."

Cambridge Assessment English (policy, projects and partnerships) director Dr Hanan Khalifa 


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Education , CEFR , English proficiency , students


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