Training raises the bar for English teachers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 July, 2005, 12:00am

Programmes are on offer to improve teaching standards in line with language proficiency requirements laid down by the Education and Manpower Bureau

CONCERNS ABOUT POOR English standards in Hong Kong are putting the territory's language teachers under pressure to shape up or ship out. While most analysts maintain that English standards have fallen in recent decades, others say the real issue is the growing need for skilled employees who can communicate effectively in the language.

The government is so concerned about the problem that a Workplace English Campaign was launched five years ago to set the standards for written and spoken English needed by working adults, including clerical staff, telephone operators, secretaries and executives.

But what about the people who teach the language? Many teachers enter the profession without sufficient training, while anecdotal evidence suggests that not everyone employed to teach English can communicate effectively in the language. A further problem is that even effective communicators do not always make good teachers.

In a bid to tackle the problem and improve the quality of teaching, the Education and Manpower Bureau has devised a set of language proficiency requirements.

English teachers at most public or private sector primary and secondary schools can meet these standards through exemption, training, assessment or a combination of the three. One of the most popular ways is through taking classes, and a variety of programmes is on offer.

'The government has set up requirements for language teachers to receive training to upgrade themselves,' said Carol To, a course co-ordinator at the School of Continuing Studies (SCS) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. 'Many teachers are concerned about fulfilling the requirements of the government and the schools to keep their rice bowls.'

SCS is one of several institutions offering programmes aimed at improving the quality of the territory's English teachers. There is a diploma programme in teaching English as a second language (Tesl) and a master's programme in teaching English to speakers of other languages (Tesol). Both can be completed in two years of part-time study.

The diploma integrates theory with practical classroom application. There are four components: an introduction to the English language, classroom communication, teaching skills and theoretical issues.

'The programme introduces the basic technical aspects of linguistics, which is particularly useful for those who may not be native English-speaking teachers,' said Julian Kent, a native English-speaking teacher. 'Other modules include different strategies and approaches to teaching the four main aspects of language acquisition: listening, speaking, reading and writing.

'This is beneficial for language teachers who may not be qualified teachers but instead are teaching from experience, as it will introduce new activities and techniques. What is important is that it may also reinforce what these unqualified teachers are already doing,' Mr Kent added.

Local teachers in the programme were also optimistic. K.C. Tsang liked its practical nature. 'It is full of inspiring and practical tips that help to improve the quality of English teaching in school,' he said. 'Teachers of English cannot imagine how much they will benefit unless they have taken the course.'

Nancy Leung praised the section on the teaching of reading and writing. 'This particular module is useful in learning the different techniques and also [the teacher was] able to demonstrate these techniques during classes, making it very interesting and lively,' she said.

Audrey Fung Oi-sze, a primary school teacher, believed it would set the stage for further studies. 'It's practical and useful for the preparation of a master's degree,' she said.

The master's programme, which is offered jointly with the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University, will accept its seventh intake in September. Taught by professors flown in from Britain, it mirrors the programme taught at the university's home campus in northwest England.

It starts with an orientation to postgraduate study. This is followed by modules in applied linguistics, theoretical linguistics, methodology, language learning, language testing, spoken English and research methods, plus a dissertation.

'Our students find it very challenging,' Ms To said. 'Many have learned a lot from the programme. Some of the professors are very famous and they have done a lot of interesting research, which they share with the class.'

Even experienced teachers will find the content interesting. 'The current issues of teaching are a main component of the programmes,' Ms To said. 'Our instructors in some modules will talk about teaching policies and the latest trends and issues in Tesol and the latest teaching methodology.'

Local teachers are not the only ones signing up for the two programmes. Even native English speakers from overseas are finding them useful.

'A few Nets [native English-speaking teachers] have enrolled in both of them,' Ms To said. 'Some of them think that a first degree is not enough to teach effectively so they want to upgrade their skills.'