In Malaysia, the mastery of English as a vehicle for knowledge is essential as it has been reported that 85% of all information in science and technology is written in English.
English is also becoming the medium of instruction in the teaching of science and technology subjects worldwide. As such, more English for Special Purposes (ESP) teachers are needed to address the low proficiency in the language among students enrolling in universities nowadays, especially in science and technology.
This situation indicates that the Malaysian education system has to be tailored to meet the needs of the learners if the nation hopes to attain a knowledge economy.
Our education system has been going through constant changes and revamps, and the latest news is the proposal by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is acting education minister, to reintroduce the teaching and learning of Maths and Science in English policy, better known as PPSMI.
The introduction of PPSMI in 2003 was the first step towards equipping Malaysian students with academic language proficiency.
Prior to this (1970-2003), both subjects were taught in Bahasa Malaysia. The change in the medium of instruction led to a dire need to equip students with the academic language proficiency needed to cope with texts in these fields.
Integrated language and content instruction through these subjects are seen as beneficial in improving academic or cognitive development in the content areas while developing the learners’ proficiency in the second language.
Researchers say there are two kinds of proficiency that English as a second language (ESL) students must learn – basic interpersonal conversational skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). BICS English language is what ESL learners need to master to be able to interact in a social setting. BICS English language is not cognitively challenging as contextual clues are available for the listener and a speaker in a conversation.
In contrast, CALP English Language is context reduced as it is found in written texts and in content areas such as Maths, Science and technology. It is obvious that ESL students would find the task of reading academic texts particularly in science and technology daunting if they are not introduced to a specialised English syllabus for academic purposes.
Language researchers affirm that students cannot develop academic knowledge and skills without access to the language in which the knowledge is embedded, discussed, constructed or evaluated. Nor can they acquire academic language skills in a context devoid of content.
When PPSMI was mooted and subsequently implemented in 2003, our team conducted research in a few schools in Perak to establish the impacts of English in promoting content knowledge, language competency and independent study skills. Our findings revealed that it improved students’ proficiency in English especially in reading skills and vocabulary enhancement.
There was also sufficient evidence to conclude that it helped learners to cope better with their mainstream subjects especially in the pure sciences. Both teachers and students believed that it had improved students’ content knowledge although the manifestation of their improvement in content knowledge based on their performance in the subjects was not highly significant.
But it adversely affected students who were weak in the language and those with a poor grasp of the basic mathematical skills.
Language proficiency was found to be essential in areas that require solving of mathematical problems but it was not significant in those that merely involve mathematical formulas where there is minimal use of language.
It was also noted that the change in the medium of instruction slowed down the teaching process because teachers had to use a lot of elaborations, repetitions and even translation to help students understand the subject matter. This affected the successful completion of activities and syllabus objectives.
Teachers’ proficiency in English did not significantly affect the teaching and learning of Maths and Science in English. However, teachers with a higher proficiency in English were able to cope better.
Our research revealed that more has to be done to improve students’ readiness to learn Maths and Science in English. The curriculum should emphasise both content and the related language skills, and students should be taught strategies to tackle their classroom tasks.
The current teaching of these subjects is still very much teacher dominated, requiring students to be dependent on their teachers to a certain extent.
Our research discovered that the traditional lecture style method was the dominant mode of teaching used in the classroom. The preferred method was to have the class working as a whole instead of in smaller groups or in pairs.
The study also revealed that teachers of the subject hardly held lessons outside the classroom environment due to lack of facilities like computer labs.
The nature of activities conducted in the classroom also did not focus on strategies that could enable students to become autonomous learners.
Most of the teachers stated that they required training in order to be able to teach the subjects effectively. Through carefully designed instructional programmes, we can help students by providing them with the linguistic and academic tools they need to succeed in the mainstream primary, secondary and college level curricula.
Students also said that content-based instructional programmes help to build self-esteem and confidence in their ability to function in an English-speaking academic environment. Therefore, fulfilling the academic as well as linguistic needs of our student population must be the priority of English language instruction.
Our research offers conclusive evidence that content-based programmes can provide a highly effective medium through which the linguistic and academic needs of learners can be fulfilled.
It is our hope that the proposal to reintroduce PPSMI this time should not be rushed. It is important that we plan and implement it at the grassroots level, unlike in the past when it was introduced to students in Standard Four, Form One, Form Four and Lower Six. Back then, the students found it difficult to cope as they had begun learning these subjects in Malay.
Furthermore, prior to implementation we should identify qualified school leavers aspiring to be teachers, give them sufficient training (minimum of two or three years) and then assign them to teach Year One students nationwide. It would be ideal if the same teachers could continue teaching these students as they progress. New teachers also need to be trained every year to ensure continuity.
Once these teachers are in place, PPSMI can be implemented. In the meantime, schools can do the preparations needed to face this transition. Simply put, let us not rush into implementing this policy.
P. FRANCIS and M. THOMAS
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