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Teachers not to blame for students’ poor English

Stop blaming the teachers. It’s an arduous task for teachers these days to motivate students to learn English, especially those in the rural areas. Grades scored by students in major examinations conducted by the ministry have shown that they do not really reflect students’ proficiency in spoken and written English.
The usual reasons given for this quandary are flaws in the curriculum design, the lack of English teachers, teachers who are not proficient in the language, and the lack of motivation among students. This has become an academic cliche of sorts when it comes to weighing the reasons for students’ poor grasp of the English language.
In reality, the problem facing teachers in schools and varsities is not that they do not have the qualifications to teach the language. These teachers are trained to teach the language and they must possess the basic requirements before they are recruited to be trained as English teachers. The single most important problem they face is that they find it challenging to motivate students to learn the language. Teachers’ degrees and scrolls alone cannot help students if the latter have no enthusiasm to acquire the language.
‘Floating’ in the language
There was an era when English was used as the medium of instruction in schools. It was when English was used across the curriculum that students were more driven to acquire proficiency in the language. English was used to teach all the subjects in school. It was spoken in class and also on the sports field. This enabled students to expediently “float” in the language. The English language enthusiasts among them went on to study English literature. That was the era when even Form Three school dropouts could converse proficiently in English.
There were not that many English graduates teaching in schools at the time. Teachers were mostly college trained with many having teaching certificates from Kirby, Brinsford and local teachers’ training colleges. Yet they were proficient in the English language. When subjects in schools were taught in English, students managed to acquire the language naturally without too many pedagogical theories attached to the teaching process.
This was the case in the 50s, 60s, early 70s and, at present, a few selected schools like Mara Junior Science Colleges in a country where English is still used widely to teach and prepare students for a challenging and differentiated international curriculum. Students engaged in this system will find it pertinent to learn English.
Our present school curriculum for ordinary schools has made the national language the medium of instruction. English is taught as a single subject in isolation and this has made it less appealing for students to acquire the language as there are many other subjects to study for examinations. In other words, the education system has to a certain extent put students in a disadvantaged situation to acquire the language.
Not that teachers are not well trained
For students, there are compulsory subjects to pass in order to obtain an examination certificate. Learning English is not a priority for many students, especially those in rural settings, as they do not need to pass the subject in order to obtain a certificate. This has hampered the efforts of teachers to motivate students, not that teachers are not well trained or equipped to teach the language. Even native speakers of English have failed to motivate these students to pick up the language.
Obviously in our setting, there is an urban and rural gap. Students coming from an urban and English-speaking background will adapt to the English language naturally and they will find it a joy to use the language as there is an intrinsic motivation to perform in the language. Students without such backgrounds, though, will find it difficult to acquire the language. They lack the intrinsic as well as extrinsic motivation to learn the language.
Making English option teachers sit for the Malaysian University English Test (MUET) to gauge their language proficiency must be a knee-jerk reaction to the many comments made against the lack of English proficiency among teachers. This academic exercise is not going to help improve students’ performance or motivate them to learn the language.
Certainly, those recruited to undergo English courses in training colleges and universities were selected based on their SPM English results. Only those who have achieved good grades in English are chosen. Why then the need for them to sit for MUET after they have graduated?
It’s a requirement for students entering local public universities to sit for MUET. It defeats the purpose to ask these teachers to sit for MUET after they have graduated to gauge their competence level in English. What more, MUET does not actually gauge a candidate’s overall proficiency in the language. No empirical studies have shown that with a high MUET score, an English teacher can be more prepared to teach the language.
MUET is an academic exercise or requirement for students before they further their studies at the tertiary level. It’s just like sitting for any other English tests such as TOEFL, IELTS, the Cambridge Placement Test and the Aptis-Assess English Skills.
Schools should be given autonomy
Students are not motivated to learn the language for many other reasons. Primarily, it is not made compulsory for students to pass the English paper at the SPM level. Logically, students will not put much effort into learning the language. They will prefer to focus on the many other compulsory subjects. A pass in English as requisite to obtain a certificate would encourage students to learn the language.
Many studies have shown that teaching English as an ESL (English as a Second Language) subject has not been very effective either, especially in rural settings. Teaching English as a single isolated subject has not been effective in making students acquire the language. Studies also show that when the Teaching of Science and Mathematics was done in English (2003–2009) even rural students had a marked improvement in English. Indirectly, they performed better in their English language subject when English was used to teach some core subjects.
At the moment, only some selected schools are allowed to implement the DLP (Dual Language Programme). Isn’t it wise then for the ministry to encourage all rural schools to get involved in the DLP where schools are encouraged to use English to teach Mathematics, the sciences and technology, instead of just teaching English as an isolated subject?
Besides these core subjects, the ministry can consider another option that is to allow the teaching of a few other subjects in English. Schools should be given the autonomy to do so. Let’s stop blaming teachers when the education policy itself is flawed and negates students from acquiring the English language.
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