As a seasoned teacher-lecturer of English language, literature and linguistics and a proponent of excellence in English Language Learning-Teaching (ELT), I humbly offer some pragmatic classroom approaches to optimise the learning potential of students and teachers of the English language.

No amount of platitudes on the virtues of English can produce Malaysian students proficient in the use of the language or teachers adept at teaching it. The mastery of English (or any language for that matter) requires total immersion, that is a situation where learners are completely and constantly exposed to the correct models of the language and will acquire it spontaneously. 

In their home environment children internalise the basic structures of their mother-tongue, including its grammar and pronunciation, without any formal teaching.  In contrast, the second language learning situation places students in a contrived environment with teachers covering a selected syllabus using certain teaching methods and techniques. Success depends very much on the variables which input its processes, among which are the readiness of the students and teachers, the suitability of teaching-learning materials and techniques, and the relevance of the assessment tools.

For many students in Malaysia English is a first or second language learned as a subject in school but reinforced by continuous exposure to a conducive educational and social environment.  For the less-privileged, it is a foreign language with little opportunity for use except in the English language classroom where the teachers themselves are poor models. It is no surprise therefore that there are great disparities in the proficiency levels of English among the population.

How then does one crack the ELT egg to address its problems squarely and come up with effective long-term remedies? How does one intercede the vicious downward spiraling of English standards with immediate short-term solutions? How can the basic requirements of language learning be simulated in the classroom?

First, the English language curriculum must be revamped to adopt and adapt the pedagogical principle of total immersion.  The four traditional skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking must incorporate materials that will expose the students to a wide range of topics at all levels.  Central to this will be a strong literature component to hone their reading and writing skills through activities such as reading aloud, dictation, recitation, role play, drama, answering comprehension, writing essays, summaries and book reports.  Group project work will encourage further interaction, reading and research.

Second, the teaching methodology must be modified to provide for maximum participation of learners in their own learning. What this means in classroom management terms is that the students are grouped in fours or fives with a group leader who will facilitate the activity and allow for peer turn-taking.  Teacher talk is reduced as the teacher’s role will be to guide and monitor the learning with computer-aided input whenever necessary.

Third, the time-tested method of teaching listening and speaking through the use of language tapes must be religiously pursued. Drills in pronunciation and enunciation of words and phrases, and oral practice in intonation of sentences and longer stretches of speech are effective methods in oral/ aural English.. Students are provided with ample exposure to the correct models of spoken English and have the  opportunity to practise speaking aloud.

In the ideal ELT classroom the teacher is the role model that the students imitate and emulate. However, in the Malaysian context one must be innovative and circumvent the problem of the lack of trained English teachers and teachers who are proficient in the language, by using more creative teaching aids and technology-aided learning. At the same time as fulfilling the traditional role of the teacher, these classroom methods if skillfully used will also allow the teachers to improve their own language proficiency as they monitor the progress of the students.

Apart from the language and computer labs which require great financial investment and complex time-table scheduling for the school, a quick and effective investment would be to equip each classroom with a library of learning materials (books, magazines, newspapers, educational toys, tapes, CDs), and to provide every English teacher and student with a personal listening device such as the Walkman. With this ready availability of language tapes and CDs, they can use them in their spare time and free periods, or even borrow them in the weekends and school holidays.

I urge the Education Ministry to collaborate with radio and television businesses, telecommunication corporations and electronic service providers in providing Malaysian students and teachers with language-learning materials and the appropriate technology to learn English in efficient modern and innovative ways.  The Europeans, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans are successfully learning English in language labs and by using personal listening devices.

As part of their corporate social responsibility, corporations can also offer to run training programmes for teachers to bring their language proficiency up to par in the shortest possible time through the use of modern language-learning technology.  The teacher mentoring programme must extend beyond the 300 native speakers from abroad brought in to train local English teachers. Apart from the high cost of importing them, their command of their mother tongue sometimes leaves much to be desired. A more practical move is to mobilise the thousands of retired English language teachers in every state in the country and recruit them on a part-time basis.

Instead of pointing fingers and playing the blame game or getting caught in circular arguments about which comes first – the chicken or the egg – an reasonable government, a business/ corporate community with a conscience and concerned parents can do wonders if they put their heads together for the sake of their children and ordinary Malaysians who, through no fault of their own, are unable to participate fully in national development or contribute meaningfully to it because of poor English.



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November 2011
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