English lessons failing pupils in many schools

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 September, 2011, 12:00am


Many secondary schools are unprepared for the switch from teaching in Chinese to English in senior classes, threatening the city's economic potential, scholars have warned.

Oxford University education professor Ernesto Macaro and Dr Lo Yuen-yi, of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, raised the alarm after observing three schools making the switch between Form Three and Four. They compared the skills of teachers and the abilities of students in those schools with those of two English-medium schools.

'The students are not ready for the transition, and the teachers aren't ready as well,' Macaro said. 'It's surprising how much students rely on their first language.'

The study was completed by June but Macaro disclosed the results during a recent trip to Hong Kong.

It recommended teachers receive more training and that the language transition be made more gradual.

'[Teachers] require higher levels of initial teacher training and continuing professional development, which seem to be currently lacking in Hong Kong,' the report said.

Lo said: 'Teaching in English shouldn't sacrifice the pupils' learning, but teachers need to reach certain standards to achieve that goal. If not, classes will be less interactive and learning may be less effective.'

The government announced a 'fine-tuning' policy last year that enables a school to switch to teaching in English in Form One if it deems 85 per cent of pupils are in the top 40 per cent of their age group academically.

Those that fail to make the switch in Form One can do it by Form Four with fewer government restrictions.

The study found that when the medium of instruction changed from the students' mother tongue in Form Three to English in Form Four, there were noticeable changes in teacher-student interaction patterns. Lessons became more teacher-centred as students were more reluctant to ask questions and seek clarification.

Teachers appear less skilful in helping students answer challenging questions. And, as with previous studies, Lo and Macaro found that lessons in Chinese tended to be more interactive than those in English.

Macaro, in Hong Kong to give a talk about multi-sensory English learning through a new kit called Oxford Path, said interactions between teachers and pupils are the best way to learn in a second language.

'Learning a language from learning its grammar is not the best way to do it. I learnt English through using it. I learnt French through learning the grammar. And in France, I couldn't speak any French at all.

'Being bilingual is important to Hong Kong if you want to further your economic potential. It's pretty dangerous for your society if English education is not kept up. Look at how much resources Singapore is putting into that.'

Pupils' language ability and teachers' skills were the main problems, the report said. The study aimed to identify the possible effect of changes on classroom interaction and its potential for learning.

Fung Wai-wah, president of the Professional Teachers' Union, agreed the transition should be more gradual. 'The fine-tuning policy has in fact made it a little bit more gradual because some classes are taught in English earlier, and earlier is better. But training for teachers may not be enough for that,' he said.


The number of secondary schools teaching in English in 1999; 300 used Chinese. Most schools used English before the handover