Conference particpants listening to a talk on practical and innovative ways in teaching and learning the English language.

MUCH have been said about the poor grasp of English among students in Malaysian primary and secondary schools. And often times, the low level of proficiency in English language are associated with teachers’ ability and competency to teach the subject.

Teaching English is not without its challenges — especially in the rural or remote areas of the country — where the lack of opportunities to use the language in a relevant manner and lack of interest among students are stumbling blocks to helping students acquire language skills.

The changing education landscape too, with the infusion of technology in the teaching and learning process, have also brought about rapid changes in teaching methodologies which some teachers struggle to keep up with.

According to Associate Professor Dr Hanita Hassan, chair of the Language Academy at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s (UTM) Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, it is important for teachers to note that teaching is not stagnant but dynamic.

“Teaching and learning as a second language have seen tremendous changes in a few decades. Changes are inevitable. The question is, are teachers ready to embrace the changes?,” she asked when addressing 500 English language teachers in a plenary session at the 10th Johor State English Language Conference held in Johor Baru last month.

The changes, she said, resulted in multiple persectives in the teaching and learning of English as a second language, starting off with the grammar translation method, which focuses on the rules of the language rather than oral competency.

Realising the drawbacks of over-emphasising grammar rules, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) was then introduced in the 1970s which stresses the ability to communicate rather than accuracy.

“CLT is the cornerstone of the change in method of second language teaching where we witness the derivation of task-based, active and collaborative learning. English as a second language was then overwhelmed with HOTS (or Higher Order Thinking Skills) where students are expected to be able to analyse, synthesise and evaluate, not merely remember and memorise what was taught in class.

“HOTS was followed by blended learning, the 21st century learning mode where teachers are expected to complement face-to-face classroom teaching with the use of technology. The latest direction of English language reform is the introduction of CEFR (the Common European Framework of Reference) in 2015 which helped teachers to focus more on what students can do rather than what they cannot in terms of language skills,” said Hanita.

Despite the long list of methods, she said teachers should not feel pressured to use any particular one based on directives but rather choose a method or a blend of methods that suits their students needs and enable the delivery of the lesson objectives.

“There are no wrongs or rights. The methods may be various as long as they achieve the objectives. If your students cannot do HOTS, for example, choose a different way to teach them. The aim should be to ensure they grasp the vocabulary, learn communication skills and are motivated. Aim for something achievable. Be creative,” she remarked.

“Once students learn the language skills, they will be able to answer exam questions,” she added.

Associate Professor Dr Hariharan N. Krishnasamy, who is a senior lecturer at the School of Education and Modern Languages, College of Arts and Sciences, Universiti Utara Malaysia, said teachers must always be ready to learn, unlearn and relearn to keep up with teaching methods or be prepared for very challenging times in the classroom.

“There are two things we must accept. The first is that teaching English as a second language, especially in the rural areas, is tough. In many of these homes, they hardly use English. They lack the opportunity and the motivation to use English outside the classroom.

“Another challenge is that we are in rapidly changing times. For example, not many teachers are comfortable letting go of control. This thinking is very traditional and does not appeal to the current generation of students. Students these days are used to learning on their own terms, including via the computer. When you impose methods they are not comfortable with, they may not respond as expected,” he said.

This, he said, can be frustrating for teachers.

“Some teachers can be very hardworking but their methods do not appeal to students or meet students’ expectations. If teachers lack techno-literacy which is a tool for teaching and learning, and techno-literacy is higher among students, teachers could feel threatened. The issue of respect then comes in.

“So the teacher has to continually improve to be confident and acquire skills and knowledge to teach students. What is new now may be outdated tomorrow,” Hariharan pointed out.

He added that teachers have to understand where the students come from and tailor lessons accordingly.

“If they like music, use music to teach English. This has been effective to Orang Asli children, as shown in UUM’s research. They respond very positively to music and dancing. Once we capture their attention, it becomes easier to get them to learn on their own. They will try to learn as the motivation comes from within. They do it because they want to do it.

“If you use textbooks far removed from their lives, they will give up. They are already weak in English so don’t set standards that are too high,” he said.

Play is an important element in learning and it is an effective way to teach English, said Dr Farhana Diana Deris, a senior lecturer at Language Academy at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia’s (UTM) Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities.

“Learning English as a second language can sometimes be frustrating. Board games can be a useful and ready asset for the ESL (English as Second Language) classroom, a change from the normal routine,” she said.

With the right board game, said Farhana, students have the opportunity to practise language skills as well as soft skills such as teamwork and leadership, depending on the roles they take on when playing.

“Games are highly motivating since they are amusing and challenging at the same time. They also encourage students to employ meaningful and useful language in real contexts. Discussion, negotiation and cooperation are all part of gameplay,” she said.

Farhana illustrated how this was done by having participants of her workshop get into groups and play a game called Werewolves of Millers Hollow.

The game takes place in a small village which is terrorised by werewolves. The objective of the game is to suss out who the werewolves are before the village is wiped out.

“In any board game, there is always the briefing part with lesson objectives and teaching of language expressions. Once the game is completed, the teacher will highlight the expressions and vocabularies in context,” she said.

JELTA president Vincent D’Silva said the conference — carrying the theme Multiple Perspectives in the Teaching and Learning of English as a Second Language — served as a suitable platform for English Language instructors to share practical and innovative ways in teaching and learning the language.

“It is hoped that participating teachers would be able to adopt and inject new ideas and approaches into their teaching in the classrooms,” he said.