SCMP Tuesday, June 19, 2001

When teachers fail, what chance have our students?


The undeniable fact stares us in the face. No one can deny it any more. The teaching of English in our schools is a failure. The results of the first benchmark test for English language teachers were appallingly poor, though not at all surprising. Two thirds of the candidates fell below "benchmark" requirements in writing, and half failed the oral test.
It has been argued the test results cannot be used to judge the overall quality of English teachers in Hong Kong schools because only one per cent of the serving teachers sat the test. It should be noted, however, that teachers who underwent the test did it voluntarily, and one can hardly believe they are inferior to those who refused to take the challenge.
It has also been suggested that the poor results should not be attributed to serving teachers, since they accounted for only a minority of the candidates. The others were mostly teacher trainees. But the most important fact is that nearly all the candidates, whether teachers or trainees, have learned their English in Hong Kong. They are products of local schools. They may not belong to the cream of the crop, but their English standard must at least be above the average of school-leavers, for they are either working as English teachers or being trained to become such.
The benchmark test did not call for exceptionally difficult skills. In the poorly performed written section, for example, candidates were asked to write a letter from the principal of a school to someone coming from abroad to join the teaching staff, providing him with information about his job. This should involve nothing alien to someone familiar with the school environment. The unacceptably low "pass" rate reveals the inadequacy of the whole education system rather than individual students.
The benchmark test provides a more tangible assessment of language abilities than the school-leaving public examinations. Such certificate examinations taken by students at the end of their school education are basically "norm-referenced", meaning candidates are graded by comparison with each other. A passing grade only indicates that an individual candidate scores higher than a certain percentage of his peers. But it does not reveal what skills the candidate has acquired, or what level of proficiency he has attained. The results of these examinations therefore do not give us any idea of the general English standard in our schools.
By contrast, the benchmark test is "criteria-referenced", which means there is no pre-determined pass rate. Candidates fail not because they are outdone by stronger peers, but because they simply cannot perform specific language tasks to the satisfaction of the examiners. A failed script in the written test was divulged to the press and published. The writer of that script was unable to compose coherent sentences to express even the simplest of ideas. One can assume, without being over-pessimistic, that this candidate is no worse than the average school-leaver in Hong Kong, who is supposed to have studied English for at least 11 years.
Some educators try to defend the quality of teaching by putting the blame on the learners. They say students lack motivation. This is begging the question. The Government, employers, parents and the media keep reminding students of the importance of English. Social and economic incentives to gain proficiency in the language are obvious. In practically every primary and secondary school English is the most important subject, in terms of teaching hours, assessment weighting and learning facilities. Why, then, would students be poorly motivated if not due to defects in teaching?
There are many questions to be asked about the "communicative approach" to teaching English, which the Education Department has imposed on Hong Kong schools since the 1970s. (The method emphasises conversational ability rather than grammar.)
Despite denials by experts, systematic instruction in grammar has been abandoned in our schools since the introduction of this teaching method. It brought drastic changes to the design and marking system of English tests. A comparison of text-books and examination papers used in the past two decades with those of an earlier vintage shows students are now taught to pay less attention to grammatical accuracy.
It came as no surprise that teachers taking the benchmark test were incapable of explaining common mistakes made by students. The teachers do not give such explanations in their classes, and when they were students their teachers never explained their mistakes to them.
Another change accompanying the communicative method of learning was the abolition of translation, which used to be an important component of the English Language subject in local schools. Translation exercises served to highlight the syntactic differences between English and Chinese, and helped students to develop alertness to pitfalls related with "mother-tongue interference" in learning the foreign language.
I have no intention of arguing for a simple restoration of the "grammar-translation approach" which was discarded decades ago because of its alleged inefficiency and lack of liveliness. But whatever the present method of teaching is called, there is little evidence it makes English learning more pleasant and effective for the majority of local students. And yet after so many years of proven failure, those in charge of language education still refuse to see the need for an overhaul of the system.
Perhaps we need experts from outside to tell us, experts free from the preconceptions of local educators and at the same time aware of the latest developments in teaching English as a foreign language - experts sensitive to the specific needs of children who speak Cantonese whenever they are out of their English classes.
Tsang Yok-sing is chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong.