Fine-tuning gives English a boost as teaching medium

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 November, 2009, 12:00am

With the government 'fine-tuning' its education policy, English is set to get a boost as the teaching medium in the secondary sector, with some Chinese-medium schools expected to relax their long-cherished mother-tongue tradition in favour of a mixed approach.

The fine-tuning policy will end strict segregation of schools into Chinese and English-medium streams, and give more flexibility to schools to set their own language policies. Starting with Form One next academic year, schools can teach a class in English if 85 per cent of pupils in the class are in the top 40 per cent of their age group academically.

Half of the eight traditionally Chinese-medium schools contacted by the South China Morning Post said they would offer science and some other subjects in English, while retaining mother-tongue teaching for humanities. The remaining four schools said they would stick mostly to mother-tongue teaching.

Three schools forced in 1998 to switch to teaching in Chinese said they would greatly boost teaching in English next September, when fine-tuning is due to take effect.

The Education Bureau said earlier that all secondary schools had submitted fine-tuning proposals for vetting. With the exception of a few schools, whose arrangements failed to comply with the rules and needed amendments, most proposals were satisfactory and would be made public next month.

The Association of Hong Kong Chinese Middle Schools says there are about 50 schools that have always taught in Chinese, and others that switched to Chinese before the mother-tongue policy came in.

One school that is a staunch supporter of teaching in the mother tongue but will attenuate its long-standing tradition of teaching in Chinese is Pooi To Middle School.

A Chinese-medium school since its opening in 1888, the Kowloon school will offer science and information technology in English, and allow pupils to choose Chinese or English for commerce and economics.

Principal Tsang Enian said it would maintain mother-tongue teaching for humanities subjects, which involve much critical analysis.

She said a learning environment with a 'watered-down' mother-tongue use could increase pupils' opportunities to learn English. 'We will set policies according to the abilities of students, and those with good English proficiency will receive more English teaching,' she said.

Agnes Au Yi-man, principal of Precious Blood Secondary School, a Chinese-medium school since 1945, said it would offer English teaching for subjects including mathematics, integrated science and computing.

Ho Ki-to, principal of Shun Tak Fraternal Association Tam Pak Yu College in Tuen Mun, which has supported mother-tongue teaching since 1986, said the adoption of English for science was inevitable.

'We have to move with the times,' he said. 'Although our mother-tongue teaching has produced excellent public exam results over the years, parents just put emphasis on English proficiency. Many schools will tout their enhanced English teaching in the future. If we don't change, how will we fare in terms of student enrolment?'

For around 80 schools that were forced to switch their medium of instruction to Chinese in Forms One to Three when mother-tongue teaching was introduced in 1998, the fine-tuning policy allows them to rectify what they see as a decade-long injustice.

The vice-principal of Yan Oi Tong Tin Ka Ping Secondary School, Choi Kwok-kwong, said all main subjects would be taught in English.

'The exceptions are Chinese, physical education and art,' he said. 'The move is to respond to parents' clamorous demands for more English teaching.'

However, there are holdouts who see it as their historical mission to persist in mother-tongue teaching.

Li Kwok-kai, the principal of Clementi Secondary School in North Point, a top traditionally Chinese-medium school, said it would not adopt blanket teaching in English for any subjects. 'The effects of mother-tongue teaching have always been good in our school,' he said.

Pui Ching Middle School principal Yip Chee-tim said it would stick to mother-tongue teaching, which had enabled the school to thrive. 'Nearly half of our students get an A or B for English in the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination every year.'

Tack Ching Girls' Secondary School principal Wong May-may said it would not be swayed. 'Fine-tuning is not the way to improve students' English standard,' she said.

For Chinese-medium schools in lower bands - whose pupils are rated as less academically successful - most welcomed being allowed to devote a quarter of class time to 'extended learning activities conducted in English'.

Pui Shing Catholic Secondary School principal Siu Sze-chuen said it would make good use of that time to boost exposure to English. 'Students will be asked to use English during morning sessions, and asked to write and read out English passages during lessons,' he said.

There are about 400 government-funded secondary schools. About 300 of them are primarily Chinese-medium schools.

The decision by Pooi To Middle School to water down its long-standing mother-tongue tradition has drawn a mixed response from pupils and parents. Li Mei-wah, 13, a Form Two pupil at the school, said she welcomed the switch. 'I love to use English to learn. Earlier exposure to it will help me adapt better to university study that is conducted in English.'

Anna Shao Sze-man, 12, a Form One pupil at the school, said learning in English would deter her from asking questions in lessons.

Parent Hsieh Kwok-ping said it was a pity the fine-tuning could not benefit his Form Four daughter. 'I have to enrol her in tutorials to brush up on her English skills,' he said.

A Form One mathematics teacher at the school, who wanted to remain anonymous, feared that pupils might find it difficult to understand long, wordy questions in English. 'We have adopted English to conduct certain topics in after-class sessions this year,' the teacher said. 'We found some students had difficulty understanding certain applied questions. We will hold discussions later on how to prepare for the switch.'