English language education in Malaysia is again in the focus of attention. It is a good thing that there is great concern for Malaysians to be proficient in the English language. Even as the government is considering whether mathematics and science should continue to be taught in English, the Minister of Education was reported in the local media of considering making “English Literature” a single paper at the primary school level. This news would have now sent alarm bells to another group of primary school teachers. There is already much concern about how the mathematics and science teachers are coping with their teaching in English! And now another surprise for primary school teachers.
I strongly advocate the teaching of literature. I am glad that we have a literature component in the language paper at both the primary and secondary school levels. Teachers seem to be getting comfortable with the idea of teaching literary texts in the language classroom. However, we have not seen of any findings from research conducted by the Ministry of Education on the implementation of the literature programmes at both the primary and secondary school levels. There have been some piecemeal researches done by university academics and graduate students which seem to suggest that teachers generally feel less threatened to teach literature now. They seem to have become comfortable teaching the prescribed texts and preparing students based on the present examination format. I dread to think how they will react when the next cycle of texts is announced and should there be any changes in the examination format.
I am sceptical about the call to make literature a single subject in the primary school curriculum, as reported by a local news agency. There are so many complaints about our students being overburdened at school. Do they need yet another subject? I don’t think so. The crux of our concern is the students’ proficiency in the English language. To help our students improve in their language ability, I think we need to look at the English language teacher and English language teaching.
What we could think of is on how to make English language teaching more effective. There is a need to look at English language teaching in both primary and secondary school levels and go to the cause of the problem. Introducing new programmes or subjects may not be the way forward.
I would like to highlight some of my concerns regarding the teaching of English in Malaysia. Although it will be wrong to blame teachers as the cause of the poor standards of English, I believe they have to take the bulk of this blame. First, we need to consider the English language proficiency of the English language teachers themselves. There is no denying that we have many teachers who are competent and proficient in the English language. However, there are many other English language teachers who need to improve their standard of English. There are teachers who have neither the competence nor the confidence to teach English.
Over the years to meet the need for English language teachers, we have had to lower our requirements and standards and accept people into the profession who are not equipped to teach the language. We need to work with these teachers. If we want our English language programmes to succeed, we need teacher who can speak, read and write well in English.
There are many English language teachers who are not trained to be English teachers but due to various circumstances have found themselves teaching English, many reluctantly and others for the lack of other options. These teachers lack pedagogical skills and often have low language proficiency too. They too need to be dealt with.
The effectiveness and the ability of numerous English language teachers who have been produced through “conversion” programmes have to be researched into. How effective are one-year programmes that attempt to produce English language teachers? There are already so many challenges with teachers that we produce in our four-year programmes, one can only imagine what these quick-fix teachers will face. The candidates chosen for these one-year programmes opt to teaching often not for the love of the language or teaching but as a last recourse to find a job. We need more teachers who see the profession as a vocation not a convenience.
Introducing literature in English as a subject in the primary school, I believe will only cause more problems than help to raise the standard of English among our students. Let us improve the existing literature component in the language programme. Let us even give more time to reading appropriate literary materials in the language classroom. But more importantly, let’s have teachers who are truly competent and proficient in the English language.