THE spectrum of children's language proficiency will be under scrutiny during Children's Month. This year's event will focus on improving children's reading, writing and speaking skills and the role parents and schools can play in promoting language proficiency. Children's Month is the initiative of the Council of Early Childhood Education and Services (CECES) - a non-profit organisation that cares about the developmental needs of children up to 12 years of age. In previous years, Children's Month has adopted such themes as healthy eating and safety for children in the home. A particular emphasis of the coming language theme is the importance of the mother tongue, Cantonese. CECES director and co-ordinator of the event Sansan Ching said there was an alarmingly low level of literacy and speaking skills among Hong Kong's Cantonese speakers. She said the standard of teaching English in preschools and primary schools was causing concern because of the ad hoc approach taken by educators. 'One of the reasons our language proficiency is so low is because we don't have a clear-cut policy,' Ms Ching said. 'With English-language teaching, we do not know what we are aiming for. There is no programme, no rhyme or reason, no aims or objectives.' But there are moves to rectify the situation. English-language expert Ng Seok-Moi, who has instigated English teaching programmes in Singapore and Brunei, has been recruited to help develop a similar programme for Hong Kong schools. Ms Ching said Children's Month was only the start of an ongoing campaign to improve the language proficiency of children. Teaching English had to be more co-ordinated and teachers had to be better trained so they could communicate in English with their students, she said. 'The best way to learn a language is by speaking it . . . to have lots of opportunities to talk and hear the language being spoken. We are not getting enough of this at pre-school or even primary school levels,' Ms Ching said. 'Teachers have to have a certain level of proficiency and whatever level that is must be decided on.' Children's progress also should be monitored more: at a certain age they should know certain words and at another level they should be able to speak and read sentences. To achieve these goals, teaching techniques geared to children's developmental stages had to be devised. Ms Ching said many parents wanted their children to become proficient in English so they could get into university and become successful in their careers. That could only be achieved when there was a standardised approach to teaching the language at pre-school and primary school levels, she said. Cantonese should always remain the number one language in Hong Kong. 'We don't want to make the mistake that Singapore is making. It has made English its major language at the expense of its mother tongues, Malay and Chinese,' she said. The CECES already has government funding to devise a Cantonese programme for young children. This project will start soon after Children's Month. Ms Ching said that while there was a lack of statistical data, many Chinese had poor Cantonese speaking and language skills. 'A lot of people cannot read signs or notices and they cannot fill in forms,' she said. Many people also had limited speaking skills. 'Market talk we can all do. But, if we are discoursing on a particular subject in great depth, most people are unable to do it. 'Literacy is important in any community, especially if we want to bring ourselves up to international standards and compete in the international business world.' Language was also important in expressing the culture of the people of Hong Kong. Ms Ching said more research was needed into techniques of teaching children the more difficult Chinese characters. While some schools adopted an innovative approach to language teaching, generally Hong Kong schools lagged behind other developed countries.