New syllabus good, but can be better

WHILE welcoming the move to introduce a Cambridge-based English Literature syllabus, stakeholders stress the importance of literature especially in the age of digitisation, and are suggesting some tweaks to the planned syllabus.

Under the new Secondary School Standards-based Curriculum (KSSM) next year, Form Four students will sit for the elective SPM paper with a new format in 2021.

The Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (Melta) is supportive of the new format and structure. But the syllabus aims and learning outcomes should be expanded to include contemporary readings and analytical perspectives, says its president Prof Dr S. Ganakumaran.

He says the choice of texts offered is narrow and traditional.

“We want to use the International General Certificate in Secondary Education (IGCSE) model and structure, but we must innovate content and learning outcomes to capture our broader national education goals and meet the learning wants and needs of our 21st century students.

“We need a wider, more inclusive and progressive perspective of literature and literary texts.

“Open up the space for students to engage with the cross-cultural and global issues,” he says, calling for a wider choice of international and Malaysian texts to be included.


Perhaps a section on young adult literature can be included, he suggests. This could attract more students to take up the subject, he says, pointing to how the number of students taking literature has been on a downward trend in recent years. He thinks the lack of interest could be because there’s:

> A general drop in English proficiency;

> The feeling that literature does not have a functional purpose;

> The lack of qualified teachers to teach the subject;

> The reluctance of schools wanting to offer the subject due to timetabling issues; and

> Apprehension that the school’s overall academic performance would drop due to poor performance in the paper.

Universiti Malaya (UM) senior lecturer Dr Grace Lim says having fewer texts to study – a key feature in the new syllabus – means not having to rush through the list.

But Lim from the Faculty of Education, says it also means that students are exposed to less variety so it will depend on the teachers and students to explore on their own.

She’s keen to see how the assessment will be implemented.

“Students can produce reader-response creative works, put on performances and even write critical essays if they want. So I wonder if their results will still be wholly based on the exam.”

She hopes it will be a combination of both formative and summative assessments.

School Improvement Specialist Coach Gladys Francis Joseph favours how the new syllabus encourages teachers to stage performances because it’s really beneficial for students.

Gladys, who was involved in writing the new curriculum and was a trainer for the pilot project, says fewer texts to read and having the exam in the middle of the year would help ‘sell’ the subject.

But most schools say there’s a lack of English Language teachers. And to start a class, one needs at least 15 students. Without the support of the administrators, it is an uphill task.

“There are some schools which make it compulsory for students who want to enter the first two Science classes to take up the subject. So, Literature is thriving in these schools due to the policy implemented. Will these students take up the subject if not compelled? A significant number will not.”

Gladys thinks a black-and-white assurance on the prospects of taking English Literature for SPM is needed.

“Will they have an edge over other students for courses in colleges and universities? Parents and school administrators want to see the added value of the subject,” she says, adding that teachers willing to sacrifice their time to start small classes outside the timetable would be helpful. This needs the principal’s support.

The ministry, says Lim, should promote the subject to the public via infographics and social media. It shouldn’t just be done among schools and educators.

Lim says there’s a perception that SPM Literature in English is subjective and difficult to score. Maybe that’s why schools may not want their students to take the subject or let teachers teach it.

National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) secretary-general Harry Tan fears that there aren’t enough teachers if there’s an increase in demand for classes.

“Training for literature teachers and TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) teachers – who are the majority – are different.”

Literature, he says, is a higher form of language learning that requires a different set of skills to teach.

“Literature is a coherent part of any language learning. But when it’s a subject, it’s a different ball game altogether. Exams and the way you learn are different from learning a language to communicate.”

To get students interested, the texts have to fit with knowledge that the students can relate to, and the level of language mustn’t be too demanding otherwise only those who speak English as a first language would dare take the subject, UM senior lecturer Dr Krishnavanie Shunmugam says.

Those who are struggling with English should not attempt to sit for the new English Literature paper, says Melaka Action Group for Parents in Education chairman Mak Chee Kin.

If the ministry is serious in wanting students to learn and improve their English, the language must be made a compulsory pass in the SPM.

“English Literature is offered only as an elective subject. The new syllabus is good but it’ll only benefit those who are already good in English,” he says, adding that those who can manage it should take the subject.

“It’s definitely a plus. It goes beyond grammar and makes you think about how words are used.”

The buzzword in teaching and learning is HOTS (higher-order thinking skills), which you get ample of in Literature, says Gladys.

“We’re heading to a future controlled by artificial intelligence and machines. Literature can teach the next generation to be more humane, enhance their critical thinking and creativity, and most importantly, develop intuitive knowledge and reasoning skills to distinguish the real from the fictitious.”

Literature is one of those rare subjects that help students understand that not everything is in black and white, says Lim.

It might be unnerving at first but they soon learn that multiple perspectives can exist together. This develops their ability to consider and engage with different ideas and viewpoints.

“The point is not to prove that your opinion is the only one that matters but to give due consideration to how others interpret the texts.”

Literature helps students mature by letting them engage with experiences and situations that they might not have experienced before.

Students will also be more sensitive to how word choice and phrasing are ways through which language represents subjects.

“For example, calling someone a visitor instead of a guest indicates a different attitude towards that individual. In this sense, language is rarely neutral,” she says.

Krishnavanie believes that students who take SPM English Literature have an edge over others when applying for college or university degrees related to languages and linguistics, performing arts, creative writing, media studies, mass communication and language education.

“Even if they’re applying for a degree in the hardcore sciences, having SPM English Literature on their certificate would be impressive because it would imply that the students have not only been exposed to the kind of analytical skills needed for science, but have also been trained to have critical thinking skills necessary for reading literature.”

Literature, in whatever language, mirrors various facets of life – happiness, suffering, evil, goodness and foolishness – in creative forms, she adds.

“Literature has made me more sensitive to what’s happening around me. It’s given me a fresh perspective to stereotypes.”

UM language teacher J. Yasodhara N.V.J. Menon agrees.

“Many people are still stuck in the misconception that literature is old and boring. But they fail to realise that literature is alive, fluid, and in the present. It’s a written record of human consciousness and personal experiences. It tells us that humans are one in their needs and desires.”

Prof Ganakumaran says the study of literature has many benefits. It improves vocabulary and understanding of the different ways language can be used. This gives students the confidence to communicate and express themselves better.

“With literature, you learn the genuine communication of ideas. It offers a rich and diverse exposure to language as the focus is not on teaching grammar but on how language can be used to capture ideas, philosophies and experiences. It exposes you to different social and cultural worlds and worldviews.”

Yes to change“

It’s great. The best thing about it is that it’s based on the Cambridge IGCSEs, because you know what you’re challenged with is up to par with the worldwide gold standard. I also like that students are required to put in a minimal number of hours. I’m a little ambivalent about the exam being in June/July. Maybe it does lessen the burden, but there’s also less time to study.” – Levin Low, 18 (SPM 2018)

“If the curriculum standards are on par with the Cambridge IGCSE standards, it’s only fair that students receive an additional Cambridge certificate similar to the English paper where two certificates are given, namely, the SPM Certificate and GCE O-Level 1119 Certificate. There are very few schools offering SPM English Literature, which means expertise is limited. If teachers are not passionate, it can be dreadful. As for the earlier exam period, it may reduce the number of SPM papers in Oct/Nov, but it also means more hours per week as the actual syllabus takes two years. It’s like the Cambridge A-Level syllabus, which was initially a 24-month course but shortened to 18 months in many local colleges.” – Wong Zhi Yong, 19 (SPM 2017)

“This is a much-needed revamp. The new curriculum creates an excellent balance between science and arts. The greater emphasis on versatility and adaptability creates more holistic individuals. It also exposes us to a greater breadth of literature. The shorter time (six months less than previously) removes the pressure to study for this subject along with the other science subjects in the regular SPM period. But I’m unsure how this would pan out as writing good critical essays on literature takes practice. There are no facts to learn and remember. Critical thinking and mindset change takes time. It’s a skill that can only grow with time. As a STEM student, it was a challenge to adjust my way of thinking and writing style to suit the subject compared to scientific writing.” – Samantha Goh, 20 (SPM 2016)

It’s relevant

“As a student, I wrote many essays and critiqued poems and stories. It taught me values I would have otherwise missed had I not been trained to appreciate literary devices and techniques. Robert Frost taught me to appreciate nature, and ponder before making decisions. Shakespeare revealed the many facets of human nature, both the good and the bad, and taught me to see the irony and the comedy in each situation. He made me a more introspective teacher. Through the subject, I also learned the beauty and subtle nuances of the English language. I enjoyed teaching the literature component when I was teaching mainstream English at the secondary level. I helped make it relevant to students through activities like choral speaking and puppet shows. In 2016, I published my own collection of poetry and prose called Horizon of Hope. I organised a theatre workshop to train teachers from rural schools, to do stage productions. I have also set up Sharity of Hope, an NGO that brings books to far-flung villages to promote reading and literature. We believe that when a child reads, the world is their oyster. These were inspired by my own experiences as a student and as a trainee teacher studying English literature.” – Audrey Koh Sui Ean (SPM 1994), teacher specialising in the Malaysian University English Test (MUET) at SMK Majakir Papar, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

“English literature opened up a whole new world for me, almost separate from the reality of constantly having to achieve tangible things. It made me aware of humanity, life and what it meant to feel compassion and empathy. The beauty of literature is that it speaks to one’s soul. Contrary to popular belief, literature is more than just ‘some stories or poems’. It trains your mind to see beyond what is obvious and pushes you to achieve much more in life. It has made me more observant, analytical and adaptable.”Charlene Wong (SPM 2001), former radio announcer

“Aside from giving me a better appreciation and command of English, it has made me a more sensitive and analytical person. It is a subject that our young need to be exposed to in a social media era where information is often interpreted at face value. It’s alarming that many people have difficulty being in touch with their ‘human’ side.” – Hazli Ali Zapar (SPM 2006), entrepreneur

“Literature widened my views on society and humanity. It has helped me to gain a better understanding of people and their personalities as we were trained to consider the literary characters’ backgrounds, upbringing and thought patterns, to understand their behaviours and circumstances. It’s helped me to better manage my expectations of those around me.” – Dr Anderson Cheah (SPM 2009), dentist


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