Listening and speaking hold the key to mastering the English language, according to a leading theatre personality. Ed Cousins, director of Madrid-based theatre group Interacting, was commenting on Hong Kong students' English standards before the visiting artists' final show at Yan Oi Tong Tin Ka Ping Secondary School (TKPSS) in Tuen Mun last Wednesday. Interacting staged more than 40 live performances and conducted workshops for about 8,000 local students and teachers during the English Festival 2005. 'We have visited 40 secondary schools and conducted 20 workshops for teachers. Generally speaking, the passive level of English understanding was very good among students,' said Cousins. 'But it was not matched by the ability to produce. The students lacked the confidence to speak up. 'There are things in the curriculum that need to be changed. At the moment, there is too much attention on grammar but not the communicative parts of the language.' Cousins and his colleagues at Interacting believe exposure to English is not enough - to communicate effectively one needs to participate, while the quality of interaction determines the speed at which one acquires the language skills. At the workshops, the group showed the teachers how to design an interactive play in five stages. This required using safe physical contact to make students feel at ease and add humour to the proceedings, while facial expressions and body gestures helped translate emotions into words. The artists also showed how games can be used to tell a story as well as hone students' listening skills. In Interacting's comedy, Sherlock Holmes Goes to Scotland, the legendary detective, played by Nick Lyne, and his friend Dr Watson (Cousins), are looking for a lost personal item - a pair of underpants adorned with the Union Jack flag. TKPSS students were invited to take part in the play. They were asked to be Mrs Hudson - Holmes' landlady - an antique clock, a bay window, a policeman, horses, a Scotsman wearing a kilt and even the legendary Loch Ness monster. 'The actors were speaking quite fast so I had to concentrate to understand their instructions,' said Form Two student Windy Yiu On-ting, who played Mrs Hudson. 'Our teacher asked us to read one of the Sherlock Holmes stories before watching the drama. It helped us to understand the show better.' Her schoolmates, Vivian Choi Wing-lan and David Tsang Kang-chun, agreed that they needed to improve their listening skills. Organised by the Standing Committee on Language Education and Research and sponsored by the Language Fund, English Festival 2005 encourages young people to use the language in everyday life. The South China Morning Post is the festival's media partner.