More schools are expected to use English as a medium of instruction in the future following a government proposal to give secondary schools more freedom to determine the language in which they wish to teach. Under the plan, schools with 85 per cent of their Form One intake in the academic top 40 per cent will have full autonomy in deciding their own language policy. Schools that do not meet the 85 per cent requirement can conduct up to a quarter of their non-language subject class time in English. Though adjustments to the medium of instruction policy can be easily made, successful implementation will be far more difficult to achieve. 'It is what happens in the classroom and how teachers approach the teaching of their subject in English that is far more important than the policy. Changing what teachers do is far more difficult, but this is an area that is often overlooked,' said Philip Hoare, associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education's department of English. 'Getting teachers to teach in a language that isn't their native tongue is not like flipping a switch,' Dr Hoare said, adding that teachers and students can face a barrage of challenges in the process. 'Not only do students need to understand and learn the new subject content, they also need to be able to do it in another language, and that is a very complex process,' said Dr Hoare. 'As a rule of thumb, we tell teachers to assume that students can only understand about 50 per cent of what they say because the subject is new to them. They are not learning in their first language and you have to take into account all the usual classroom distractions such as students not concentrating fully all the time,' said Dr Hoare. 'For teachers who use English as a medium of instruction, everything has to be done bigger and better in order to help students understand.' The Hong Kong Institute of Education's eight-week professional development course for teachers using English as the medium of instruction in secondary schools is designed to help them attain a better grasp of English as a language of instruction, and tackle some of these difficulties. Ngai Yuen-ming, a secondary schoolteacher who took the course last year, said it heightened her awareness of how the appropriate use of English in the classroom could enhance students' learning of the subject content itself. 'Being an English medium instruction teacher is really challenging,' she said. 'It takes much more time in lesson preparations including lesson planning, design of learning activities and research of teaching materials in English that is suitable for the students' English proficiency level.' During her lessons, Ms Ngai is also mindful of the correct use of language in both genre and pronunciation, and uses audio-visual aids and reading materials to help explain abstract concepts. The government-funded course, which is also approved by the Education Bureau, focuses on several key areas: overall English language awareness and the role of language in learning, how subject content is expressed in curriculum materials and classroom discourse in English, and the range of strategies available for the effective planning and classroom teaching and learning of subjects through English. The early part of the course refreshes teachers' memories about the basic rules of the English language including elements such as sentence and paragraph structures. They then examine how the content of a subject can be expressed in English and what students need to learn, for example, special vocabulary, being able to describe a causal effect and the process of how something occurs, in order for them to demonstrate their understanding of the subject. 'The course helps teachers to see how content in their subject can be made real in English,' Dr Hoare said, noting that the programme provides broad concepts to teachers on how they can enhance their teaching in English so that they can return to the classroom with improved lesson plans and the ability to engage students better. The course concludes with a practical exercise. Teachers are asked to present a short spoken explanation that is recorded and played back for discussion, providing an opportunity for introspection and self-improvement. Helping subject teachers accept that they have a responsibility for teaching students both the subject content and the English language has proved to be most challenging because it requires a change in mindset, said Dr Hoare. 'In schools that use English as a medium of instruction, it is not the English classes that are different, but the subject classes. This means part of the responsibility of teaching English to students falls on the subject teachers,' he explained. That makes a professional development course like this one all the more pertinent. Without the proper support of teachers, it is the students who are ultimately at the greatest disadvantage, he added.