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Test-takers sit for the language proficiency assessment for teachers (LPAT) at the New Method Collage in 2006. Photo: Handout

Less-than-stellar results on language proficiency test no gauge of Hong Kong teachers’ classroom ability, veteran educators say

  • ‘Relatively difficult’ English written test proves challenging, with many tripping over grammar
  • Results possibly dragged down as members of the public, non-language teachers sit the test

The results appear disturbing. Only about half of those who sat Hong Kong’s Language Proficiency Assessment for Teachers (LPAT) over the past two decades passed its English writing and speaking components, a Post analysis has found.

But veteran educators argue that the test results are not a true reflection of language teachers’ proficiency or effectiveness in the classroom, while one lawmaker thinks the test should be renamed to “avoid confusion”.

The assessment was introduced in 2001 following concerns that Hong Kong’s language teachers were not up to the mark.

All serving teachers of English language and Putonghua – known as Mandarin elsewhere – had to clear the assessment by 2006 or they would not be able to teach the subjects.

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There are separate tests for teachers of English and Putonghua, with more than 1,000 people taking each of the tests every year. These days, test-takers include aspiring teachers, those who teach subjects other than English and Putonghua, and even interested members of the public.

Teachers still cannot teach languages if they do not clear the test. Only those with degrees in areas such as English language, literature or linguistics and relevant training – or similar qualifications for Putonghua – are exempted.

An Education Bureau spokeswoman confirmed that all serving teachers of English or Putonghua at public schools have attained the qualifications since 2006.

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Chinese is the medium of instruction in most secondary schools in Hong Kong, with most teaching in Cantonese rather than Putonghua. About 120 of the city’s more than 400 secondary schools use English as their main medium of instruction.

Fewer teachers among candidates

One reason for the less-than-sterling LPAT results in recent years is that more members of the public, as well as teachers of other subjects, have been sitting the test.

Principals and veteran teachers said it was unfair to use the test results as a reflection of teachers’ proficiency, stressing that the city’s language teachers were generally up to snuff.

Some also said the LPAT’s English writing and speaking components were relatively difficult.

Although the Education Bureau and the exam authority have not released data on the number of teachers sitting the test since 2006, teachers now make up a smaller proportion of candidates compared to the 2000s.

Between 2001 and 2006, more than 10,000 serving teachers sat the English language test.

The test has five components: writing, reading comprehension, speaking, listening and a classroom component in which the teacher is observed conducting a lesson.

Last year, nearly 1,500 people sat the tests, but only 356 were eligible for the classroom component, an indication that only about a quarter of the candidates were serving teachers.

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Official data from 2001 to 2020 shows that candidates performed relatively poorly in the English speaking and writing components, but did better for reading and listening.

Over the past two decades, only about 40 per cent of candidates passed the writing test, which requires candidates to write 400 words on a given topic, and to examine excerpts of a student’s composition, pointing out and explaining any language errors and problems.

In the September 2004 test, for example, candidates were asked to describe the reading habits of teachers and discuss ways to encourage young people to read for pleasure.

A report by the exam body that year said candidates had the most difficulty with grammar. When it came to correcting the student’s composition, most struggled to explain the errors they spotted.

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For the oral English component, which includes an assessment of pronunciation, stress and intonation, about half of all candidates over the past two decades passed. This year saw the best result, with 62.3 per cent passing.

Candidates fared better overall in the other parts of the English test, with about 78 per cent clearing the reading component and 73 per cent passing the listening component over the past two decades.

‘Not familiar with grammar rules’

Dion Chen, chairman of the Direct Subsidy Scheme Schools Council, which represents 71 of the city’s primary and secondary schools, said the LPAT results did not fully reflect teachers’ abilities.

He was confident that many subject teachers would be able to teach in English if it was the medium of instruction.

Dion Chen, principal of the YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College. Photo: Edmond So

However, some might not do well in the test because they are not language teachers, and therefore not fully acquainted with the rules of grammar or the skills needed to pass, added Chen, who is the principal of YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College, where English is the main language of instruction.

He said it would be unfair to assess the ability of teachers by the test results alone.

Veteran English language teacher Tang Mei-yee, who passed the assessment in the 2000s and is now English subject head at CMA Secondary School, said the writing component of the test was especially difficult, and even some with relevant degrees had failed.

“The education authorities require a high standard for those who want to teach English language in schools,” she said.

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She added that many candidates did badly when explaining the language lapses in the student composition because “not many people have the skills to do so”.

Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said he had been urging the government for years to change the name of the test to avoid confusion – as it is not just a test for teachers, as the current name implies – but he was disappointed that his calls had fallen on deaf ears.

Lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, who chaired a government advisory committee on language education and research from 2000 to 2009, during which time the test was introduced, said passing the exam was only one of many ways to assess a teacher’s ability.

“The most important quality in an English language teacher is the ability to arouse students’ interest in learning the subject,” he said. “If a teacher hasn’t passed the assessments but can motivate pupils to learn English, I would prefer hiring him or her if I were the principal.”