HK's top pupils read English like natives

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 July, 2008, 12:00am

The city's best Primary Four students read English so well they effectively have two mother tongues, a University of Hong Kong study has shown.

Nearly one in four reads the language to a higher standard than the average child the world over reads their mother tongue. Moreover, 9 per cent read English better than the average Hong Kong nine-year-old reads Chinese.

Their performance improved threefold in three years.

However, the study's author warned that the gap between the best and weakest students had widened considerably since testing was last carried out in 2004.

'Curriculum reform has created the opportunity for good students to pull away more quickly,' said Tse Shek-kam, professor of education and director of the university's Centre for Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research, which conducted the study.

'There has been an improvement in students of lower ability, but it has been slower. The best way to reduce this ability gap is to teach parents how to help their children.'

The bilingual study assessed just under 1,300 Primary Four students in 40 schools last year. They were tested in Chinese and English, and background interviews conducted with parents, teachers and principals.

The results were compared with the two rounds of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), conducted in 2001 and 2006, which tests students in their native language. The average worldwide score was 500.

Local students' Chinese-reading skills were ranked second in the world in the 2006 round of Pirls.

Reading in English averaged out at about 75 per cent of their first-language reading ability.

Professor Tse said the exceptional English-reading abilities of the very best students showed they effectively had two mother tongues; in Pirls and local tests 23.2 per cent scored over 500, the international mean for first-language readers, and 9 per cent scored over 566, the mean score in local tests of Chinese-reading ability.

Alex Cheung Chi-hung, chairman of the Aided Primary School Heads' Council, said the findings were a vindication of efforts to reform teaching and learning in primary schools.

'Of course, I am very happy to hear about these results,' he said. 'Teachers and parents have put an enormous amount of work into promoting reading.'

The background interviews allowed researchers to profile reading habits. They found that students who spent two to three hours a day on the internet reading blogs and celebrity gossip, or posting comments, tended to have much lower literacy levels than those who spent an hour or less doing so. However, the researchers did not determine whether internet habits caused the disparity.