THE Ministry of Education has long acknowledged the emphasis in improving the quality of English proficiency amongst students as well as teachers through the introduction and implementation of several key policies.
The policies, which include Upholding the Malay Language and Strengthening Command of English (MBMMBI) introduced in 2010, outline the plan to strengthen English proficiency in students as the international language of communication and knowledge.
This was followed by the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (MEB), which sets the aspiration for students to be proficient in both Bahasa Malaysia and English. Although the MEB outlines key steps needed to be taken to achieve its aspiration, there was also a need to empirically understand the level of English proficiency when it is benchmarked against internationally recognised standards.
Hence, the Cambridge Baseline 2013 commissioned by the Education Ministry and carried out to evaluate English learning, teaching and assessment from preschool to pre-university levels. The report suggested that the level of English language education system may only be sufficient for the needs of the past. However, it also indicated that the level of English is not sufficient for us to succeed as a nation in a globalised world that requires English for international communications of all kinds. Hence, what we really need to do is to reform the entire national programme for the teaching and learning of English from preschool to graduation.
Genuine change can only be brought about by the adoption of a holistic and integrated approach. This can be carried out by putting together a coherent programme that encompasses every component of the education system relating to the delivery of the English language programme — curriculum, teaching and learning, and assessment.
This is what the English Language Road Map 2015-2025, led by the English Language Teaching Centre, sets out to do. To ensure that learners achieve what they are capable of achieving, we need a continuous and sufficient supply of high-calibre English teachers, learning materials of international standard, and a conducive and supportive learning environment.
The formal learning of English has to be supported by a highly immersive English-rich environment (e.g. the Highly Immersive Programme at school level, and the ecosystem for English Language Learning at tertiary level), which extends learning to spaces beyond the classroom, so that learners can apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life situations.
The road map provides an overview of English language education in Malaysia, covering all stages of learning from preschool to tertiary education, from pre-service to in-service teacher training, and the development of coherent learner-oriented programmes at every stage complemented by reliable and valid methods of assessment. It sets proficiency target levels (generally known as aspirational targets) for learners at all stages, and includes an implementation plan to ensure that learners progress from the current situation described in the Baseline Study in 2013 to the 2025 target.
The baseline study as well as the Cambridge Evaluation Study 2017 evaluate where our students and teachers actually are when referenced against the 2025 Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) aspirational targets. Components of the CEFR include the global proficiency scale and the “can do” statements. The CEFR distinguishes five communicative skills, namely listening, reading, spoken interaction, spoken production and writing. Although the CEFR is targeted at understanding students’ English proficiency, English language teachers too have an important role to play in the implementation of the reform and will have to be at a certain skill level.
The same goes for teacher trainers (i.e. lecturers at the Teachers Training Institutes and universities) who deliver the courses to pre-service teachers. This is important to ensure that teachers are fully familiar with international standards in language teaching and learning.
The adoption of the CEFR at school level will have consequences for Higher Learning Institutions (HLIs). The primary and secondary curriculum for English language has been aligned to the CEFR progressively starting with Primary 1 and Form 1 in 2017 through the revised Standard Curriculum for Primary Schools (KSSR) and new Secondary School Standard Curriculum (KSSM).
Students will take the English language paper in the national assessment that is aligned to CEFR in 2021 (for Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia) and 2022 (for Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah) respectively. English language programmes in HLIs are also being aligned to the CEFR, so that the learning experience provided for secondary students going up to university is integrated and continuous. HLIs will, therefore, retain the responsibility to devise their own CEFR-aligned English language programmes.
The idea of the ecosystem is that the different components (including classroom and beyond classroom activities) work smoothly together to optimise the learning experience for the student.
The ultimate goal is to create a favourable campus-wide ecosystem for learning English, placing the students in a collaborative learning atmosphere and requiring them to put into practice what they learn in the classroom, so that they are able to develop their skills and knowledge in line with the expectations of the jobs market.
Dr Amin Senin is director general of Education and Dr Siti Hamisah Tapsir is director-general of Higher Education, Education Ministry