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LifestyleFamily & Education

HKU programmes help students gain confidence in speaking English

Two volunteer HKU programmes are helping students gain confidence in speaking English in public, writes Annemarie Evans

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 9:55am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 9:55am

It's 8.15am on Monday at Hong Kong Chinese Women's Club College in Sai Wan Ho. A group of Form Two students gather in a circle and show me the role-play part of a voluntary English-language programme. Acting out a character like Captain America or Iron Man, and speaking the lines in English, is fun, they say.

Now it's my turn and I'm nervous that they'll choose a Japanese cartoon character, or an up-and-coming Korean pop star I've never heard of. But they're nice and keep it generic - I have to act out a Santa Claus. They applaud politely.

We didn't want students who were just looking for something extra to put on their CV
Dr david gardner, lecturer

"I was nervous [at first] speaking English to the whole class," Kevin Wong Ki-fung, 13, tells me later. "Because I lack experience in doing this, I was afraid that the whole class would be disappointed."

These days, he explains, that initial nervousness has disappeared. That's down to the SpeechExpress course he's taken over the past semester, which is organised by student volunteers from the University of Hong Kong at the Sai Wan Ho school. It also takes place at Clementi Secondary School in Fortress Hill.

Law students Emily Li Sze-wa and Alison Song Ming-jie, both 19, are key members of the board that oversees the SpeechExpress course, which has taken advice on public speaking from Toastmasters International. Both women are members of the university's Toastmasters' group. Song was previously a student at the Hong Kong Chinese Women's Club College, and the course has been welcomed by the vice-principal, Joanna Wong Ip Sook-kuen.

"We would sit in classes of 35 students and above, so there was very little opportunity to practise our spoken English," says Song. "Students can often write in English, but they can't speak it."

SpeechExpress's sessions with the children focus on increasing their confidence. If the students expand their vocabulary along with it, that's all well and good.

But the primary focus is to start them talking confidently. Lesson plans include: forms of communication; active listening and empathy; body language; arguments and debating; and storytelling and formal speeches. There is also the delivery of prepared speeches and impromptu speaking, among others.

SpeechExpress is one of two student volunteer-led projects being conducted via the University of Hong Kong.

In early January, a group of 19 students, both full time and exchange students from multicultural backgrounds, will head to Qingdao in Shandong province to teach for six days at primary schools.

The programme, "Ignite the Dream", is the initiative of second-year student Manson Chow Ho-man. Chow set it up with friends to help children to enjoy learning English, and also allow them to decide on a career on their own. The project is funded by the Tin Ka Ping Foundation, with some money from the university for travel and teaching materials.

"In Hong Kong and China, children just do what their parents or society expect them to do," says Chow. "We want them to think about their own dreams and follow them independently.

English language will be taught in a fun way, incorporating drama, singing and reading, he says. The idea is to help encourage children to enjoy the process, "because English is such an important world language".

They plan to maintain contact with the children through handwritten letters in English after the students return to Hong Kong, and follow up with another trip in the summer. This will probably be in June, says Chow, as some of the students will be taking summer jobs in Hong Kong. "Next time we hope to go for longer, for two weeks or even a month."

The joy of learning English is all about them overcoming glossophobia - the fear of public speaking - says Song. The terror of speaking in front of an audience is reportedly worse than that the fear of small spaces, or spiders. The ability to speak English well and be a good public speaker improves confidence, says Li, and is crucial for university entrance and job interviews.

"Our visionary leader and founder was Vikay Narayen, a Mauritian student, who is studying engineering, but is now on an exchange at the University of Edinburgh," says Song. "He contacted partner schools, as well as finding us advisers."

One of those advisers is Dr David Gardner, a senior lecturer and associate director of the Centre for Applied English Studies at HKU who has helped guide the students and also joined them to conduct interviews for volunteers.

"There were many more student volunteers than we required. But they had to have an excellent command of English and their attitude was very important. We didn't want students who were just looking for something extra to put on their CV," Gardner says.

Eighteen volunteers were selected, and that number will be expanded as more schools join the programme.

Some schools that did not apply have observed the success of the two pilot projects, and several others are now looking to come on board, says Gardner.

The English classes have made Form Two student Emily Lau Ching-ting, 13, a student at the Sai Wan Ho school, think about what she would like to do in the future.

"We had a section called 'My Dream Job'," she says. "Most parents want their children to be lawyers or doctors, but I told the class that I want to work at Disneyland." Wilson Tam Hon-wai, 13, says there were also topics covering "My Dream Film". "I chose Harry Potter," he says.

Form Two student Linda Guo Yang-ling, 14, says the classes have been very useful.

"Now we have more confidence, we are proud [of our skills] and happy to talk with others," Linda says.

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