Chatty approach to teaching Hongkongers English can work wonders

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 6:10am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 6:10am

Sitting in a semi-circle, six senior students listen attentively to Philip Yeung Kwong-chung, who starts teaching them how to tell the time properly in English.

You can quickly sense that this is not just another after-class tutorial or cramming session. For a start, Yeung has a chatty style and asks the six students from Semple Memorial Secondary School to describe 4.45pm in English, to which they reply in Cantonese or broken English.

This is a typical lesson at the pilot "conversational English project for senior secondary school students" organised by the Boys' and Girls' Clubs Association for small classes of five or six students once or twice a week.

Instead of focusing on exam preparations, these classes aim to make English interesting for students, thus boosting their confidence in using the language in everyday life.

"To me, Hong Kong's education is very dysfunctional - students only drill past exam papers during class and they don't really know English," says Yeung, a former speechwriter for the president of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and an academic consultant at Macau University.

"Some students in Form Five haven't even heard of the word 'hen'. What do they learn in school?"

This exasperation at the local education system caused Yeung to jump at the chance of being an English teacher when Lilian Law Suk-kwan, executive director of the association, approached him about the pilot scheme in October.

"I want to let students know that language is for living, for everyday life, and not just for exams," Yeung says. "It could be a lot of fun, not something to be feared."

After teaching the time, Yeung went on to teach phrases which could be used and played around with by students, such as "you click with the girl you just met" and "I studied from dawn 'til dusk".

The pilot scheme, which began in mid-November, currently serves 36 senior students from Semple Memorial Secondary School and Baptist Wing Lung Secondary School. Both are low-band schools based in Tuen Mun.

"Our programme targets students who are grass-roots, who usually lack exposure to English," says Law.

"So far, the need [for such classes] is proven - many schools are interested in joining the scheme; there's a huge demand," she adds.

There are now five teachers involved in the project, including a retired principal and a university professor. For each lesson, they receive a travel subsidy of HK$500 per lesson; the seed money comes from Dr Roy Chung Chi-ping, chairman of the Boys' and Girls' Clubs Association.

Form Five students Calvin Man Tan-wa, 17, and Denver Ip Chun-yuen, 18, agree that the after-school English classes have increased their interest in the language and encouraged them to speak more of it in daily life.

"Philip once took our class out to play golf and taught us terms used in the sport," Ip says, smiling. "He chats with us in English and makes it really fun and lively for us. The phrase I remember best is 'nature's call', which means you need to go to the toilet."

"Before, I had no interest in English," admits Man. "Our school's English classes are basically full of reading and listening exercises and rote learning. Now, when we learn that one word can have different meanings in English, I find it more interesting."

Although such after-school classes are not focused on helping them pass their upcoming DSE exams, both students say the lessons help with their exam preparations as they learn many everyday phrases that are useful for speaking and listening skills.

Wong Pui-yi, principal of Semple Memorial Secondary School, agrees that the English scheme is very helpful to her students, especially in terms of boosting their confidence and vocabulary. "My students have gained from the lessons what I want them to gain: a desire to learn English on their own and a willingness to speak it."

The idea for this English project came from David Akers-Jones, a former chief secretary of Hong Kong, when he helped his driver's daughter enter a Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education programme by hiring a private English tutor for her over a six-month period. Before the tutorial classes, the girl wasn't able to say simple English sentences despite having had 12 years of schooling.

The success of the tutorial classes inspired Akers-Jones to kick-start something similar on a grander scale and he approached Chung with the idea.

Now, with positive feedback from the two schools involved, Law is hoping to expand the English programme to serve more schools in the coming academic year.

"We are looking for more funds [for expansion]," says Law. "We hope to scale up and involve more schools and, more importantly, we also hope to recruit more quality teachers."