Rising to the challenge of teaching English

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2006, 12:00am

A remarkable fact that has often escaped attention in the debate on the standard of English in Hong Kong is that, until now, qualifications have not been needed to teach the language in our schools. This unsatisfactory situation has been brought to an end by the benchmark test for English teachers. A major step has, therefore, been taken in achieving our city's objective of raising the community's command of the leading international language.

It is often claimed that English proficiency among Hong Kong Chinese used to be higher, but this is a myth. The idea that standards have been allowed to drop since the 1997 handover for political reasons is also a serious misunderstanding.

In fact, the number of local people with good English-language skills has always been small. It has been rising steadily since the introduction of universal schooling in the late 1970s. The perception that standards have declined has been created because many more people are speaking and writing some English, rather than none at all.

In this predominantly Chinese society, where Cantonese is spoken in most homes and one can survive without English, it is unrealistic to expect the majority to become fluent in English. But poor teaching, particularly at the pre-school and primary levels, has compounded the problem. On average, a primary school pupil spends five hours a week, 36 weeks a year, for six years in English lessons. Yet only about 40 per cent are judged capable of learning in English in secondary schools.

The benchmark test for English teachers has exposed the alarming reality that many of them are barely capable of communicating in the language, let alone teaching it. Since the test was launched five years ago, hundreds of serving teachers have quit or moved to teach other subjects. They are being replaced by qualified ones who have passed the test and received professional training in teaching English as a foreign language.

Every effort should be made to help those weeded out by the test to find alternative employment, as they are victims of a system that allowed them to teach without the necessary qualifications. But calls for an extension of the grace period to give them one more chance to pass should be rejected, as they have already been given ample time to do so. The irresponsible practice of allowing unqualified teachers to teach English has gone on for too long.

Going forward, we should be thinking about how the teaching and learning of English can be further improved. Schools and teachers should be held accountable if they fail to reach performance standards for teaching English. Standardised tests administered to students at various levels already provide such information. At present, the data is used only for internal evaluation purposes. Over time, it should be released to parents, who have a right to know how their children perform. That would provide the impetus for schools to address their shortcomings.

Given our language environment, the challenge of ensuring that a substantial proportion of the population is proficient in English will remain a daunting one. With localisation at the senior levels of government, and even multinational corporations, the use of English in the workplace is believed to have declined. There is a serious need for all concerned to stop the trend, as English will become more important with globalisation.

It is heartening to note, however, that Hong Kong has done relatively well economically, despite our level of English proficiency. Even though the city is once again part of China, the market value of English remains high, and no one has seriously suggested it should cease being the language of the professions. Parents are still pushing their children to learn it well. It is to be hoped that with better teaching, fewer children will grow up learning bad English and more will appreciate the value of mastering the language, which is so widely spoken around the world.