‘Give English teachers a chance to practise’

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PETALING JAYA (Dec 26): To train English language teachers effectively, the focus should shift from short, abrupt courses to increasing the teacher's proficiency in the language, a former education ministry official says.

The Education Ministry should concentrate on improving the support system for these teachers to practice the language in a school setting in their own local area, the educationist says.

Speaking to fz.com, Datuk Siti Zaleha Abdullah Sani, who has had 20 years experience in teaching and developing English language training courses for teachers, said that although English language teachers are very enthusiastic about improving their skills, there is not enough support for non-native speakers to improve their grasp of the language especially in the rural areas.

"Most of the English teachers we have today have gone through an education system where the medium of instruction was in Bahasa Melayu after the switch in 1970s. Unless they are in an environment where they use the language outside of the classroom, they will not be proficient in it. Many of them are not native speakers and only have

English language experience in the classroom and not much opportunity to practise it outside of the classroom," said Siti Zaleha, a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.

She said that anyone trying to improve the competency of English language teachers must understand this reality.

"After all when it comes to teaching English, one must be proficient enough to deliver. That is what teaching is about. It is to be able to stand and deliver, and you have to be comfortable in that language," she said. Placing the focus on increasing the personal capacity of the teacher will increase her proficiency in the classroom, said Siti Zaleha.

She said that the ministry must recognise that teachers who have low personal proficiency in English must have a local support system.

"The best way to learn a language is through practise. One strategy is for the ministry to arrange daily classes after school hours where the teachers can get together and just talk,” she said.

"Don't call teachers from Kuantan to come to KL. Just let them go to the nearest teacher centres that does not require two days’ travelling time,” said Siti Zaleha.

"Language has to be sustained continuously, so if teachers can go somewhere every afternoon and have these little, little classes to support them, it would be great practise,” she said.

"They can have a conversation about books while they have tea. They just need to talk. Teachers don't need any more input, they just need this support system," she said.

Chong (not his real name), who teaches English in a rural school in Johor, agreed with Siti Zaleha. He said that it was difficult to practise the language because other teachers and the students were not so proficient.

"Even if you have a good grasp of the language at the start of your posting, there is a chance that it may deteriorate solely due to the lack of practise," he said.

The former accountant has only been teaching English for two years but says that the lack of practise opportunities for the teachers in the rural areas are glaring.

"I practise with my colleague. We usually take our own initiative to make sure our personal standard of English does not deteriorate," he said.

It was not always true, Chong said, that the courses conducted by the ministry were not of use. Travelling time was also short as most of these courses conducted two or three times a year, were conducted at the district level,” he said.

"During the courses, although they were short, I did gain some new knowledge, so I wouldn't say that they are a complete waste of time," he said.

However, Chong agreed that the support system suggested by Siti Zaleha was important.

"But we must remember that most rural schools are located in isolated areas so transportation may be an issue," he said.

Mohamad (not his real name) said that the teacher's commitment is crucial if after school classes were to be effective.

"We don't want a scenario where at first many are enthusiastic, but then from 10, the attendance becomes five, then deteriorates  to two,"Mohamad, who has 35 years of experience as a teacher, said.

He said that in his experience, many teachers grew complacent over time despite the initial enthusiasm. At times, teachers found many after-school programmes cumbersome.

"They would always complain that they have a packed schedule with their family-related chores. At one point, we had a buddy system during the switch of Science and Mathematics to English. So the system was to coach the subject teachers to consult English language teachers.

"We gave them our handphone numbers so they could consult us on terms through calls or sms but none of them did so," he said.

He added that should after-school classes be effective, it should be made compulsory.

"When we have short courses, the proficiency and interest for the language is high but after that, when they go back to their schools, it’s back to square one," he said.

A continuous support system programme as suggested by Siti Zaleha is important but the ministry had to play a role in sustaining the teacher's interest in the courses, he added.

*Names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.

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