Time to turn tables on 'super-tutors'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 July, 2006, 12:00am

HKCEE English exams have long been a cat-and-mouse game between the exams authority and the armies of high-priced 'super-tutors'.

Typically, exam preparations are long on technique and short on substance. It is time to tutor-proof the design of the English paper and turn exams into tools for driving genuine language learning rather than filling-in-the blank exercises students can be drilled for.

The Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority is on the right track with the introduction of questions on the effective use of the dictionary. It has intensified interest in this key learning tool. But more needs to be done. Students should be sensitised to the special features of English.

For instance, unlike Chinese, it relies heavily on prepositions for meaning. There is a world of difference between having a contract 'with you' and 'on you'.

The same is true of the article. Misunderstanding the difference between 'Do you have time?' and 'Do you have the time?' can have social consequences.

Most Hong Kong students are woefully deficient in alphabetical literacy - in word-formational skills involving prefixes, suffixes, hyphens and roots, which are so valuable in creative writing. Pronouns are under-used as cohesive devices.

Cultural perceptions are encoded in language. Expressions such as 'keeping one's fingers crossed' are culture-specific and part of the vocabulary of competent speakers. Learning a language means using it idiomatically.

One glaring weakness of local students is their inability to distinguish word forms. How often have we cringed at signs such as 'This window is temporary closed' commonly seen in government offices?

Hong Kong students are notorious in using certain pairs of words interchangeably: 'borrow' and 'lend', 'bring' and 'take' or 'come' and 'go'.

In the oral component, phonemic awareness should be heightened, as in such phonemic pairs as 'live' and 'leave'.

English learners often treat words as having one dominant meaning, with serious communicative consequences. Some students insist that in 'The rights and wrongs of corporal punishment', 'rights' refer to your entitlements - a point noted by an exams authority official.

Other issues such as dangling modifiers refer to matters of style and logic rather than grammar but are nevertheless must-learn items.

As a world city, we should teach our children cultural concepts shared globally by speakers of English.

With the design of a new unitary English paper next year, now is the time to turn the tables on the technique-obsessed 'super-tutors' and reclaim genuine, meaningful language learning from subversive pretenders.

Philip Yeung is a writer and English teacher


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