Saturday, June 8, 2019

English-Medium Education: What is best for Malaysian students?

My friends at Dialog Pendidikan have started a discussion on the topic of English-medium education recently. You can check out their blog post here and their Facebook post here. They would love to gather opinions and thoughts from as many people as possible, so please join in the discussion!

Join in the dialogue here

As an EL teacher, of course I want my students to know the importance of English and my life-long mission is for every children in my country to have the opportunity to learn the language well. And I can totally understand MoE's stand on this matter and why they come up with initiatives such as the Dual Language Programme (DLP) - which, supposedly is an 'improvised version' of the former Pengajaran dan Pembelajaran Sains dan Matematik dalam Bahasa Inggeris (PPSMI) (Teaching and Learning of Science and Mathematics in English).

Also, as a school teacher, I believe the question: "what is best for Malaysian students?" is not only pertinent, but also the most important one - for me at least. In this post, I'd like to share some of my thoughts from the perspective of a classroom practitioner, and also as a student studying research in bilingual / multilingual education.

Teaching other subjects in English

The principles that underlie the implementation of Dual Language Programme (DLP) seems to borrow from a lot of popular language teaching and learning models such as the one-way and two-way dual language program currently gaining popularity in the United States, Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) - widely used in the UK, Language Immersion - reported to be very successful in Canada, and English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI). I don't have an insider's knowledge of the background research that has led to the implementation of our Malaysia's DLP, but I suspect some, if not all, of these models must have had influenced the decisions made by the policy makers.

From bilingual / multilingual education point of view, teaching curriculum content in English and the use of English as a medium of instruction are two different concepts, though in public discussions these two concepts are often used interchangeably. I think to answer the question of what is best for Malaysian children in terms of language learning, a practitioner needs to understand the nuanced differences among these many different models.  Just to provide an example, Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) operates based on the underlying principle that "all teachers are language teachers" (The Bullock Report - A Language for Life, 1975). Marsh (1994) defines CLIL as "situations where subjects, or parts of subjects, are taught through a foreign language with dual-focused aims, namely the learning of content and the simultaneous learning of a foreign language." CLIL lesson is neither a language lesson or a subject lesson transmitted in a foreign language. In CLIL, both language learning and the learning of the subject are given equal importance. Teachers who teach CLIL are specially trained teachers - often referred to as CLIL teachers - and they're well-versed in the teaching of both the language and the subject.

Our DLP employs current subject teachers (Mathematics, Science, Information and Communication Technology, Design and Technology) to teach the subject in English. Under the DLP, learners use textbooks and learning materials in English, and all classroom instructions are to be delivered in English. The teachers are not specially-trained DLP teachers, although they do receive trainings on how to conduct lessons under the DLP and how to use materials provided by the MoE. The teachers are not supposed to teach language skills and content. The focus is on the teaching of the subject - and DLP hopes that through the language immersion provided by classroom instructions and interactions as well as engagements with learning materials written in English, students would be able to acquire a certain level of English language proficiency.

These strike more resonance to English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) rather than CLIL. The British Council in their 2014 report on the global widespread of English as a medium of instruction defined EMI as "the use of the English language to teach academic subjects in countries or jurisdictions where the first language (L1) of the majority of the population is not English" (Dearden, 2014, p. 2).  According to the report:
  1. In many countries the educational infrastructure does not support quality EMI provision: there is a shortage of linguistically qualified teachers; there are no stated expectations of English language proficiency; there appear to be few organisational or pedagogical guidelines which might lead to effective EMI teaching and learning; there is little or no EMI content in initial teacher education (teacher preparation) programmes and continuing professional development (in-service) courses. (Dearden, 2014, p. 2)

This echoes the sentiments associated with the former PPSMI. DLP addresses part of the issue by ensuring that only schools with enough subject teachers with high level of English language proficiency are allowed to carry out DLP. This is great, but I believe it is also important for us to address the issue of support for teachers. I don't have access to any data on this matter, but last year when I was working with KK Education Office, I was asked to interview some teachers in my district to get their feedbacks on DLP as part of MoE's study on teachers' training needs analysis. From the few responses that I got, teachers seemed to believe that more support in terms of trainings focusing on pedagogical approaches should be provided. Some teachers also pointed out that the materials provided by the MoE were not sufficient. At the time of the interview, some primary school teachers told me that their schools still hadn't received the Science and Mathematics textbooks in English. One teacher told me that most of her classroom materials were downloaded from the Internet, which was fine - but she wished that there were more support in terms of the costs of printing and photocopying. But to be fair, this was last year. I haven't been in the field for almost a year now - things might have changed, - for the better, I hope.

Don't kill the wrong bird

The reason I'm sharing all of these is because I believe it's important to get our motivation right. In this post, I won't be discussing the socio-economical or political justifications for advocating English-medium education. I'd like to share my thoughts from the educational perspective, with specific focus on language education.

I acknowledge the appeal of the idea of "killing many birds with one stone." It carries with it the connotation of productivity, efficiency and effectiveness. But I also believe that it's important for us to ensure that during the bird-killing spree, we don't end up killing the wrong bird.

If our main agenda is to enhance English language proficiency among our children, then I believe the focus should be on English language education. I know that there are currently many MoE initiatives on that, which includes the controversial directive for all Malaysian EL teachers to sit for the Malaysia University English Test (MUET), the implementation of the Highly Immersive Programme (HIP), the adoption of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in English language curriculum and etc etc. (I actually have a lot to say about all of these, but let's keep that for another post).

DLP is a great idea - the principles mimic many of the successful models implemented in many countries. And I believe we can all understand the motivation behind the combination of English language and all science-related and technical subjects. Our politicians believe that in order to be a developed nation, promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) is the way to go. And for it to be much more valuable, English has to be in the picture. However, in order to make it work, a few things need to be taken into considerations.

First, what do we want? Do we want English as a medium of instruction, or do we want to teach English and the subject simultaneously? What are the justifications for our choice?

Both choices would require us to equip schools and teachers with the facilities, materials and expertise necessary. Have we done that enough?

What about the students? What do they think about it? Do they like it? How does this affect their learning?

So, what's the best for our children?

Dr Keith Taber from the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge once said, "In education, the answer to all questions is always the same: it depends!"

Some people believe that using English as a medium of instruction might widen the socio-economic divide between urban and rural area. Many opinions attribute this view  to the fact that more children (and teachers) in the urban area are more prepared to learn (and teach) in English compared to those in the rural area. I'm sorry I don't have the statistics to back me up for this, but I've been in Malaysia's primary school education scene for close to 15 years now and throughout the years I'm blessed to have known a lot of wonderful teachers who are teaching in rural areas. I've seen with my own eyes how these teachers transform their classrooms and schools, and how their efforts impacted the students in amazing, inspiring ways. And having experienced being a rural primary school EL teacher for ten years myself,  I think the view about rural children being "less competent" compared to urban children is just a load of bull. Geographical locations and demography don't determine an individual's cognitive ability. Abilities don't widen the gap, opportunities do.

So, what should we do? These are some of my humble suggestions:

Provide specialised and contextualised support for schools and teachers

We can't just roll out policies and directives to schools and teachers and leave them in the dark to figure out things on their own. Whenever I say things like this, many people will say "What do you mean there are no support? We conduct thousands of trainings!" I know. But define training for me, please? Is it nationwide blanketing of policy implementation through transmissive cascade model? Whether we want to adopt EMI or CLIL or whatever model in our education system, we need to ensure that specialised and contextualised support are given to schools and teachers. Especially for teachers. If we want to adopt EMI, we need to have EMI-specialist teachers. If it's CLIL, then we should have CLIL specialist teachers. The trainings should be conducted for both pre-service level (teacher education) as well as in-service level (professional development). Trainings should be customised based on the needs of the schools, the teachers and the learners. Trainings shouldn't be limited to instructions about policy, directives from the MoE and all stuffs related to that. In fact, I'll be radical. Those shouldn't be in the training at all. Those things can be done during a staff meeting or whatever. Trainings should be focused on helping and supporting schools and teachers. To give them the skills and knowledge needed to pull this off effectively. And it should be contextualised. There should be no one-size-fits-all. There's no such thing.

Provide sufficient materials and facilities

This has been an issue for a long time. Let's not talk about how using English as a medium of instruction can widen the socio-economic gap between urban and rural students when we know very well that part of the problem for the lower academic achievement in the rural areas is because many students have to learn in extremely non-conducive environment. Dilapidated classrooms, no electricity, issues of access etc etc contribute to rural students being deprived of lots of opportunities. Rural kids are as brilliant as kids in the urban areas. Given the same kind of opportunities, they can thrive as well as any kid. Believe me, I know. But the issue of lack of materials and facilities are not just confined to the rural schools, although rural areas might have suffered from this more severely. It's a serious issue in the urban areas too. Books, materials, equipment and other physical support need to be adequate, appropriate and relevant for any programme to be implemented successfully.

Listen to the students

My good friend used to say, "When it comes to education, everyone will have an opinion." She shared with me how she had some really good conversations on the issues of education with taxi drivers while she was doing her PhD field work in Singapore. When it comes to education issues, everyone will say something. And everyone will say that the main focus is on the children. True. But the children's voices remain muted. How many times do we turn to the students for opinions? We often measure the impacts of a programme based on students' performance in examinations or some kinds of tests, or based on what their parents say, or based on the school's achievement in co-curricular activities, or even based on evaluation of teachers' competence. Well, some studies do interview students to learn about their "perceptions" of something. But I think we need to go deeper. We need to listen to students voices more. They need to be at the table with the policy makers. If it's true that we're doing this for them, then this is what we should do. More on this in my next post.

Don't forget to share your thoughts

Well, as usual, this has become longer than I planned it to be. So I'll stop here for now. Please don't forget to share your thoughts on Dialog Pendidikan. Your opinions matter!

Till the next! -ccj


  1. Nice entry and so interesting to read. Kudos to you and all the teachers who are still pouring their sweat and tears in upholding education in rural area (including me) specifically in blooming English to the students. I agreed with your suggestions here, as for me it is exactly what we need right now especially in providing the basic facilities for school (LCD, computers, speakers etc.). Am not against the many policies by the MOE, bu t the terms "it depends" should really be taken into consideration too. Looking forward for your next enteries as this one ignite the fire within this humble rural teacher.

  2. Good day
    What are the effective ways to teach Linus pupils. They can't read

  3. What are the effective ways to teach Linus pupils. They can't read


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