ENGLISH LANGUAGE: Teaching a love of language

Read more: ENGLISH LANGUAGE: Teaching a love of language - Letters to the Editor - New Straits Times http://www.nst.com.my/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/english-language-teaching-a-love-of-language-1.370637##ixzz2sLlxpI14

THE revelation that about 70 per cent of the 60,000 English language teachers did not perform up to expectations in the Cambridge Placement Test (CPT) shocked all those involved. The Education Ministry has responded by adopting several measures to enhance their teaching capability.

The CPT comprises three separate components. They are on intelligible pronunciation, listening and speaking, reading and writing, grammar, vocabulary, meaning, applied linguistics and internationally influential English usage. Some of the teachers who took this test informed me of their difficulties. It was an Internet-based test. There was no proper briefing. In rural schools, the facilities to take the test were inadequate. Internet connection was slow and erratic. There were no headphones for the listening comprehension component. The test was biased towards American and British usage. The questions were difficult. The candidates were unable to complete the test.

The training of future teachers is fine. It is their language proficiency which has to be improved further. What is required is lifelong teacher development until a teacher retires. The specific areas that the English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers need to focus on are the four macro-skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, together with the many sub-skills associated with them. These include pronunciation skills, grammatical and lexical competence.

Non-native English speaking teachers have to make efforts to be as competent as a native speaker to do justice to the job. Completing a TESL/TEFL/TESOL programme ought to be considered the commencement of a lifelong quest to continually improve ourselves to teach a language. If we want to excel in the productive and receptive aspects of the language, there has to be a change in mindset. We need to be as closely proficient to that of native English speakers. They ought to be our benchmark. English teachers need to adopt a multi-pronged approach to enhance their knowledge of the language and raise their proficiency.

They need to have knowledge of applied linguistics, appropriate classroom methodology, grammatical and lexical competence as well as familiarity with international English usage and language change. Prominent educators have emphasised one of the essential characteristics good ESL teachers should have, besides a TESL diploma/degree, is they ought to have a love or liking for the language.

Grammatical accuracy is one of the essential components in language teaching. English grammar is inherently difficult. Use of the tense aspect, irregular verb, modal verb, phrasal verb and preposition accurately is not without problems. Do we say I have quit my job or I have quitted my job? Do we advise our students to work much harder or to work more harder? These may be overcome with extensive exposure to English grammar.

Vocabulary is also essential. The ability to communicate successfully and appropriately is important in social and occupational contexts. It must be acknowledged that language users may still be able to communicate to some extent even with deficient grammar, but in the absence of appropriate word choice (knowledge of vocabulary), the meaning may be compromised. Extensive reading and listening will enable teachers to possess good vocabulary and knowledge. There is much language change involving lexical items. Professional educators need to be aware of them. All vibrant living languages change over time. English has borrowed numerous words due to language contacts. Many have been anglicised as well. These should not be dismissed as non-English words as they have entered the lexicon of English; amok and kebab, to name a few.

ESL teachers must aim for global intelligibility. This does not mean that they must speak like their American and British counterparts, but it must be understood by others with less difficulty. Teachers also need to be aware of the pronunciation variations between Standard American and Standard British. These are used on a global scale. Being proficient in the language has to be complemented with clear and easy to follow pronunciation which goes beyond identification of a specific ethnicity, area or country. We also have to recognise the expanding worldwide influence of Standard American English or Mainstream United States English. If our teachers had their TESL training in US, there is no harm in using this international variety.

A teacher also has to regularly reflect upon his/her teaching. At the beginning of the term/semester administer a questionnaire to determine what the students themselves need, besides what they have to be taught according to the syllabus. The analysis will help us to focus on what they are lacking or interested in. In the final week, administer a questionnaire and a form of assessment to see how much progress has been made.

We must continue to read professional and leisure materials in print and online. There are professional ELT communities with whom we can interact through email and via social networking sites to keep abreast of ideas in our thinking and practice. We need to continuously practise our language skills, both productive and receptive, to be up-to-date.

 Dr Haja Mohideen Mohamed Ali, associate professor, Department of English, International Islamic University Malaysia

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