Why are our English teaching standards so low?

Khairie Hisyam Aliman
The Malay Mail Online
September 16, 2013

SEPT 16 — Recently we heard that out of 60,000 English teachers nationwide, about 70 per cent of them did poorly when sitting for the English Language Cambridge Placement Test.

Last Monday, Education Minister II Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh said these English language teachers, classified as “unfit” to teach the subject, had been sent to courses to improve their command of English.

“The ministry will also consider sending them overseas for exchange programmes to take up TESL (Teaching of English as a Second Language) courses,” a news report quoted him as saying, while adding that a good portion of these teachers had enrolled in local English courses.

Well, now talk last year of Malaysia possibly importing English teachers from India is put in a different perspective. But the core of the problem is also brought to light — what’s up with our teacher recruitment process?

While I am all for continuous self-improvement whatever your job title is, these “unfit” teachers have no business teaching English in the first place. If they are unfit to teach English to our kids and have to be trained further to be good enough, how is it that they became English teachers in the first place?

The fact that such a large proportion of our English teachers are so poor at what they are supposed to teach speaks poorly of the entire teacher selection process. One wonders how low the bar for entry is if more than two thirds of those selected by the process are then found incapable of teaching the language.

While the issues surrounding the teaching of English in Malaysia is not limited to the proficiency of the teachers — they cover, among others, the average Malaysian’s negative mentality towards English as well as our misguided teaching approach — proficiency and competency nevertheless remains a core issue.

In a complex equation where every variable needs to be up to par in order to produce good results, getting teachers who know their English well is relatively basic compared to, say, revamping the teaching approach in the classroom or tailoring our education syllabus to cater to different competency levels of students from different backgrounds.

Forget last year’s silly talk of importing English teachers from India. If our recruitment standards at home for local English teachers remain as low as they apparently are, how do we move forward from here?

How do we progress in tackling declining English standards among our students and graduates if such a simple aspect — teacher proficiency and competency — is neglected?

Therefore there must be measures to tighten up the recruitment process and raise the bar for entry into the English teaching profession. Let us hope this is on the minister’s agenda.

In addition, if so many of our teachers are not up to mark, is it worth all that money to send all of them to courses and exchange programmes overseas?

Courses and exchange programmes, which I presume would involve government funds, would be costly. These teachers would still be on the payroll while they study.

If they were not qualified to teach English in the first place, why bother training them further? Will they even come close to a desirable proficiency level after these training programmes when mastering English takes years for most people?

Would it not be more cost-effective to slowly cut away the deadweight and instead use the ministry’s resources to hire better, more competent people who do not require extensive, expensive training just to be able to do their jobs properly?

Continuing with “retraining” for so many teachers who weren’t meant to be hired as English teachers in the first place is like throwing good money after bad. And money is not unlimited, especially given the economic climate and fiscal issues we are facing.

I for one hope that the Education Ministry marshalls its resources better, because our students’ futures — and by extension ours and the nation’s — are at stake here. We need better English teachers today, not tomorrow or whenever these teachers have been to more courses.

  1. #1 by sheriff singh on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 1:05 am

    ‘ … If they are unfit to teach English to our kids and have to be trained further to be good enough, how is it that they became English teachers in the first place? …’.

    On a wider level, many if not most of them, are also not fit to teach other subjects. Have you ever thought of it ?

    When passing marks for government and public exams are frequently set as low as 20% and if you get 50% you get a ‘Distinction’, a 60%, you get a star to go with it. Not that the standard is high in the first place.

    If the passing mark is set at a fixed 50% yearly (to maintain standards), probably 90 % of all students would fail. That’s why we are at the bottom of all international league tables for all levels in Primary and Secondary schools.

    Has anybody assessed our exam papers and checked the answer scripts? You will be appalled what the standards are. The Thais, Vietnamese and Filipinos are streets ahead of us. Not to mention the Indonesians.

    So how effective has the 1,000 or so English teachers from USA teaching English at our schools ? Was this project effective or have they all come here for a holiday ?

  2. #2 by sheriff singh on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 1:11 am

    Let us do an experiment.

    Take a Form 5 level examination paper from Thailand, The Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia and let our students answer it. Then see what happens.

  3. #3 by tpk203 on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 1:14 am

    In principle we should train those who are proficient in English to be English teachers. But where to find those who are proficient in English and want to be teachers? Such persons would probably have many other options which seem more promising than being a school teacher! We have already lost a few generations of those who can speak and write English well when we changed the medium of instruction from English to BM in the secondary schools. It’s a sad reality. The present state of a large percentage of English teachers not proficient in English certainly had something to do with the recruitment in teacher training colleges (now called IPG). It is now a big problem which does not have a simple solution. Getting teachers from India or elsewhere and sending our teachers for re-training will not solve the problem at least in the next many years. I am afraid making English a compulsory pass in SPM means lowering the passing mark which I suspect is already very low! The schools most affected will be the rural schools. I wonder what the people in the Education Ministry are doing.

  4. #4 by sheriff singh on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 1:45 am

    Who needs “England” when 1Malaysia is the center of the Universe?

  5. #5 by Rose on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 1:55 am

    We are reaping what we sowed. We have ignored the importance of English for so many years. Hopefully (actually it is hope against all hope) we have not gone too far downhill to turn back. It’s time we have the best brains to helm our Education Ministry. God bless Malaysia.

  6. #6 by yhsiew on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 2:26 am

    ///how is it that they became English teachers in the first place?///

    As I have said before, any attempt to improve the education standards of this country will be in vain if politics stands in the way. I wonder whether politics had played a part when these English teachers were accepted to teach English.

  7. #7 by Noble House on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 2:55 am

    Despite the billions spent over the years in education funding, the fact remains still that most urban schools are making no progress in reducing the achievement gap between our students and those of our neighbors.

    Our students have been made into slaves of a dysfunctional education system that is only good at creating a nation of sheep with the wolves as shepherds.

  8. #8 by lbn on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 3:52 am

    The cause of the problem is the RECRUITMENT of teachers. The recruited teachers must first be proficient in English. This should be the basic criteria. After being accepted the newly recruited should undergo training in teaching. Education must not be politicise. Let the professionals handle it. Not the half baked or those who think they can. We must have those who know they can! As the saying goes: Do the right things and you don’t have to do the things right! Let’s be colour blind and put our country first before self.

  9. #9 by hvpl on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 8:04 am

    ALL teachers-to-be MUST pass English Language Cambridge Placement Test, in the first place. The TESL (Teaching of English as a Second Language) must be part of the curriculum for those designated to teach English in schools.

    As usual, our Ministry of Education gets everything backwards – recruit those, who should not be recruited in the first place. Then, spend more money re-training them for a job that they are not eligible in the first place.

    Talk about the bullock cart before the kerbau …..

  10. #10 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 8:21 am

    Honestly at this juncture, if people don’t get it, its justified not to give a damn and just take care of yourself and loved ones..

    • #11 by megaman on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 10:08 am

      Sigh, unfortunately I might have to agree with on this.

      Most just don’t care, unable to care or too ignorant to care.

      It’s like trying to push back the tide.

      Most people just can’t see the problem until it smacks them on the face.

  11. #12 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 8:44 am

    Check this out people.

    I cut it from oxford uni site and paste it here:

    ///All teaching at Oxford University is carried out in English (with the exception of some language-specific teaching) and tutors must be convinced that you have sufficient fluency in written and spoken English to cope with your course from the start. Therefore, all non-native English-speaking applicants must satisfy one of the following requirements:

    IELTS: overall score of 7.0 (with at least 7.0 in each of the four components)
    TOEFL (paper-based): overall score of 600 with a Test of Written English score of 5.5
    TOEFL (internet-based): overall score of 110 with component scores of at least: Listening 22, Reading 24, Speaking 25, and Writing 24.
    Cambridge Certificate of Advanced English (CAE): grade A
    Cambridge Certificate for Proficiency in English (CPE): grade B
    English Language GCSE, or O-level: grade B
    First Language English IGCSE: grade B (not English as a Second Language)
    International Baccalaureate Standard Level (SL): score of 5 in English (as Language A or B)

    European Baccalaureate: score of 70% in English.

    Please note that, as they are educated and assessed in English, applicants following the Singapore Integrated Programme (SIPCAL) are not required to satisfy any of the above requirements.///

    And jib is still talking about endless possibilities.

    What Unlimited Stupidity that is.

  12. #13 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 9:12 am

    Honestly, in the first place umno should never have sent teachers who are incompetent in english language to teach school kids that language.

    Then again, umno is all about Endless Possibilities. Never mind if those possibilities are of the Unlimited Stupity variety.

    Ah yes. The question is can a short course here and there improve the competency of an incompetent in the English language? Is that Possible at all? Or could it be an exercise of pure Stupidity?

    Anyway. I can anticipate umno’s solution to this problem. As usual, I expect umno to skirt around the real issue. And instead umno would come up with solutions that inevitably would require billions of ringgit in special budget allocation. One more thing. Dont expect umno to account for the use of the fund and the progress of the effort. You see. Umno really knows best!

  13. #14 by sheriff singh on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 9:42 am

    This brings up the issue as to what and how these teachers are ‘taught’ or ‘trained’. If the many training courses they attended are effective, then why are these teachers still incompetent after training? Or are these courses just a ‘show’ with every attendee receiving their ‘certificate and diploma’ of ‘competency’ when they in reality are mostly still incompetent. In short, these training courses are just a waste of time not fulfilling and achieving their objectives. Maybe we should not blame all these teachers but the whole system as it fails them and the country.

  14. #15 by Rose on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 11:35 am

    It’s high time the Education Ministry do things right. We are breeding mediocrity and will see continued decline in educational standard because of race-based quotas and policies. It will take many years to make right a wrong, even with great resolve.

  15. #16 by Rose on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 11:45 am

    What is the value of a distinction/credit/pass in SPM English today? Those who employ secondary school leavers and even graduates of higher institutions of learning will know the answer every well. A lot of lecturers in higher institutions of learning can’t even converse in proper English in spite of getting their degrees oversea!

  16. #17 by cskok8 on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 11:55 am

    How did these teachers qualify from the IPG if their standard of English is so bad? Is the passing mark 10% only. No wonder we have so many all distinction students now

  17. #18 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 11:59 am

    In the old days we were taught grammer and sentence structure. For a good 30 yrs or so until today (and still continuing), school kids do not learn such things. And now these kids who were never taught grammer and sentence structure, as teachers, are teaching english to other school kids.

    No wonder we are doomed.

  18. #19 by sotong on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 12:07 pm

    Better ‘education’ and more qualified people mean nothing…..there are more corruption, crime, racism, religious intolerance and etc.

    As long as self serving politicians could continue to manipulate and deceive the ordinary people, nothing significant will change.

  19. #20 by boh-liao on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 3:02 pm

    Our England standard not two bad what; teachers n students all can right proper England that everybardy understands one

  20. #21 by Di Shi Jiu on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 4:48 pm

    My guess is that all this hoo-hah about retraining the teachers is just simply talk and only token gestures will be made.

    Like all languages, one’s command of English improves with practice. There is really no way around it, I’m afraid.

    Reading, writing, speaking, listening, are all essential components to the mastery of any language – English is no different.

    I doubt if UMNO/BN will encourage such extensive use of English within Malaysia.

    A good grounding in English allows Malaysians to communicate effectively with other nationalities.

    Such communications present great risks for UMNO/BN as it means that Malaysian dissidents can give a more accurate picture to the international community about the injustice and corruption in Malaysia.

    Look at countries like Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Turkmenistan, Khazakstan, Somali, etc etc. None of their citizens have the ability to tell the world what is happening in their country.

    We only know some of the corruption and horror stories mainly because of other international observers looking from outside in.

    Imagine if the citizens of those countries could express themselves to the world.

    Do you think UMNO/BN really want to fall into that trap?

    No, intensive training in English will be reserved only for the elite UMNO/BN ruling class.

    The rest of the plebians will have to make do with “pasar Inggris”.

  21. #22 by tuahpekkong on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 6:00 pm

    I think the percentage of incompetent English Language teachers in Government schools could be higher as I have yet to hear from a parent heaping praise on these teachers. It is not just the English Language teachers alone who are incompetent. Many Maths and Science subject teachers are also not up to the mark. Sending them to attend courses or take part in exchange programmes won’t help much as I suspect many may just have a poor credit or just a pass in SPM English. I think many would just take it as an opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves and to claim for mileage and some outstation allowance. After they return, they would forget about everything. Sad state of affairs in our education system but this is real.

  22. #23 by Sallang on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 8:37 pm

    In Malaysia, we still have good English educated people who can still contribute. Unfortunately, most of them are passed 50 years old. There will be a mix of all races.
    If Talent Corp, or the education department had put up an advert. for them, they can be useful.

  23. #24 by bangkoklane on Thursday, 19 September 2013 - 10:27 pm

    We have excellent English language teachers but why do they go teach in Singapore and Brunei? The same with our excellent maths and pure science teachers. No promotions and their services not even appreciated.

  24. #25 by good coolie on Friday, 20 September 2013 - 11:55 am

    You don’t have to be good at any subject, including English, to teach in our schools. Just buy some revision course book and read that to the pupils. Make sure none of your students dare ask any questions on the subject matter!

  25. #26 by good coolie on Sunday, 22 September 2013 - 12:16 am

    The worst that can happen if teachers of English are incompetent in English: the students end up speaking bad English. Nobody gets killed.

    But please, please, please, Gomen! Don’t let low achievers do medicine at our local Universities through easy- to- pass matriculation courses.

    I am one of the fellows relying on doctors in government hospitals and local teaching hospitals.

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