The Trenglish way to better English

I CAN’T remember the last time I went to Kuala Terengganu. It must have been decades ago. The occasional trips to Berjaya Resort in Redang by air from Subang do not count, I guess.

But I am glad I went there recently to support Petronas’ efforts to promote English in schools via The Star’s Newspaper- in-Education (NiE).

It might be surprising to learn that the Terengganu state government is determined to improve the level of English in schools.

That is a mammoth task, since this is a predominantly Malay state which is still rural in many ways. It has been reported that 85% of its people struggle to speak and write in English.

In short, English is only taught in schools. Forget about having students converse in English among themselves, attending English tuition classes or using the language at home.

It seems almost like a lost cause but Petronas, Yayasan Terengganu and the state education department are determined to give it their best shot.

So, to make it interesting, the state has introduced its Trenglish programme – or Transforming English in Terengganu. The Trenglish programme was introduced in 2014 as a collaborative effort between the state government and state Education Department.

The results are beginning to show as almost 75% of students who signed up for the Trenglish programme passed the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) English paper in 2016.

State executive councillor, Bazlan Abdul Rahman, was quoted saying that this was an improvement from the 71.43% who passed in 2015.

“This proves that the Trenglish programme has managed to improve the English proficiency of our students.

“Unfortunately, the programme is only implemented in 50 schools, which merely makes up about 10% of the 501 schools in the state.

“Therefore, I hope the state government will review the programme (so that) it can expand to more schools, maybe to 250 in the near future,” he reportedly said, while debating the royal address by Sultan of Terengganu Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin at the state assembly.

Trenglish employs an interactive and fun approach by teaching English through language camps, mock interviews, drama and even nasyid performances.

No one can blame the state for making an effort to improve the standard of English among its students. The state has reason to be worried since, according to reports, 5,500 or 27% of students who sat for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination in Terengganu failed the English Language subject.

This was based on statistics by the Terengganu Education Department over the last five years, which displays a disconcerting trend since English was made a compulsory subject to pass in the SPM.

It’s a scary situation as most urban Malaysians already feel the English standard taught in schools and in examinations is low, with some saying the passing rates are compromised.

Like it or not, even if the medium of instruction in public universities is Bahasa Malaysia, the harsh reality is that the reference materials, whether books or online documents, are mostly in English.

Job prospects on the many island resorts in the state hinge on basic English proficiency. The management of these establishments would surely want to hire those who can converse in English.

But what is impressive about the Terengganu state government’s efforts is that it has carried out a well-structured plan to improve the command of the language among students through Trenglish.

The state has hired graduates in English from local public institutions of higher learning to teach, focusing on Forms 3, 4 and 5 students.

Getting local graduates to teach has been more effective here as American graduates, whose mother tongue is English, have not been able to communicate effectively with their students.

(Under a programme between Malaysia and the United States, American scholars are invited to teach English in various public schools in Terengganu, Kelantan, Pahang, Perak, Kedah, Perlis, Sabah and Sarawak for a full academic year.)

But that’s not all. Terengganu is flexing its might to ensure that its plan works and this includes roping in Petronas as a partner. The oil and gas producer’s group human resources management senior vice-president, Datuk Raiha Azni Abdul Rahman, who was selected as a Petronas scholar 30 years ago, understands the importance of the language.

A native of the oil-rich state, she is determined to ensure that the NiE programme benefits students in her state.

“Give it a year or two, we will see changes in students’ ability to speak in English,” she said. I can feel her excitement. I have attended many government-type functions, but I was surprised by what I saw this time.

The event, where 54 SPM school leavers from Terengganu were awarded scholarships under the Petronas Education Sponsorship Programme (PESP), was conducted in Bahasa Malaysia and English.

Even the emcee, who conducted the doa (prayers), made it partially in English. At the conclusion of the event, I made my rounds to thank Petronas and Yayasan Terengganu officials for joining hands with The Star on this project.

Everyone spoke in English — the state education department, Petronas and Yayasan staff all chose the language they are propagating.

Either my Bahasa Malaysia is bad or they wanted to send a clear message that the state was passionate in ensuring that Trenglish succeeds.

Before we headed back to Subang, my colleagues and I already began talking about our next trip to Terengganu.

We are prepared to roll up our sleeves and dive in deep. We are so primed and ready for this.

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