There were two main reasons behind the Polytechnic University's (PolyU) decision to offer a new MA in English language arts last year. The primary aim was to train teachers in the use of drama, media content and the language of everyday situations to make classes more interesting and learning more effective. The Education Bureau wants to introduce language arts subjects in the school curriculum as part of a general rethink of the best way for young learners to acquire practical language skills. A secondary purpose recognised the recent rise in the number of corporate coaching courses in Hong Kong, many of which focus on making business executives better communicators. What seems clear, though, is that while the professional trainers or in-house staff responsible for leading these courses may have broad knowledge of the subject, they do not necessarily have the in-depth understanding or variety of skills needed to coach people of widely differing backgrounds and age groups. 'Our MA responds to that need for skills,' says programme leader Dr Christina DeCoursey. 'People have to function effectively with language and communication; that is what this class is all about. For example, engineers may be good at grammar and statistics but they also have to talk and interact well [in English].' For that reason, she says, the course combines three key elements: academic teaching, practice and allowing students the chance to discuss and reflect what works best and why. Much of the training involves drama-based instructional techniques. Some of these are improvised role-plays, others are scenario-based, with more time to prepare, and there are also full-scale simulations of various work and social situations. 'We teach the theory and then provide a lot of practice,' DeCoursey says. 'We look at speech, words and the relationship with different situations. This first cohort know what they want to do with language in the workplace and what they want from the course. They will shape it to their own purposes.' Offered in one-year full-time or two-year part-time modes, the MA entails five core courses and five electives for a total of 30 credits. There are, though, flexible 'exit points' with anyone attaining 12 credits eligible for a postgraduate certificate (PgC) and 18 credits earning a postgraduate diploma (PgD). 'In most cases, people want the full MA, but if their school is paying, they can exit after four subjects with the PgC, or after six with a PgD, and can always come back later to complete,' DeCoursey says. She says core subjects use popular materials and a contemporary skills-based approach that translates easily into a school classroom or corporate training. The first topic, for example, focuses on English literature, establishing the basics of different genres, such as short stories and poems, and examining their structure and use of language. The next looks more closely at drama and performance as a means of language instruction. One element that always stirs debate is a study of contemporary film versions of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and considering how to transpose the story to a modern Hong Kong or Singapore setting to make it relevant for today's school students. The core courses also include a look at spoken language, examining different voice types and seeing the effect they can have on communication and understanding. And, to remain as up-to-date as possible, a final module deals with English in popular culture. It covers the use of film, animated cartoons and online games for teaching, and how to select appropriate material. 'We also look at technical literacy, the things teachers need to be aware of and better at than kids, and to analyse their effectiveness,' DeCoursey says. 'There is a lot of time spent looking at the variety of genres and possible examples to encourage teachers to remain current. We get them to keep up with things and become aware, so they don't automatically ask kids to 'write an essay', but instead perhaps ask them to design a computer game and explain it.' She notes that, in some courses, the role of instructors is to give a certain amount of input and then let the class explore the idea. For example, they may brainstorm about the actual teaching value of a viral video of young rappers, trying to see it from a teenager's point of view. 'It helps if they can put themselves in the position of a 15-year-old high school student, so they can see the attraction, the challenge, and what is appropriate.' Other exercises centre more on business-based role plays. These are set up to resemble dysfunctional work situations, in which each person has conflicting objectives, unknown to the others. As a teaching method, the aim is not to reach agreement but to understand motivations, the way people pursue goals, and how the use of language affects attitudes and outcomes. Subsequently, the five electives were chosen from subjects on offer under PolyU's existing MA scheme. A number relate directly to teaching and professional English and generally include a mix of individual and group work. There is scope too for students to lean more towards academic-type essays in their electives, or towards action/research projects. The latter allows them to try ideas or techniques with their own students, record and analyse the results, and write them up. DeCoursey says the first intake was an interesting mix of 40-plus teachers, engineers, Social Welfare Department staff, working with immigrants, marketers and people with jobs in music and media. About half are taking the full-time mode, but all have clear ideas on how the course can enhance their careers. Programme fees are HK$2,700 per credit and basic entry requirements are a first degree in any subject plus a high standard of English proficiency.