Sri Lanka is no different in this regard. English in our country has become the passport to opportunity, and an essential requirement for almost every profession. And for better or worse if you can speak English you win respect as a person having knowledge of the world outside.
But what is the ground situation? Let us review three simple examples.
(1) Every child in our country learns English from Grade 3 till Grade 13. Yet, the average child leaves school without being able to speak in English.
(2) When we check the medium of instruction in our public schools, we find that Sinhala only and Tamil only together constitute 93 per cent of the schools. Sinhala and English & English and Tamil together constitute 5.1 per cent. And, schools which consist facilities for all three media constitute only 0.4 per cent.
(3) Only 4.3 per cent students follow in English media in Advanced Level (Grade 12-13) Science divisions. In the Commerce Division for the same grade, it was only 2.4 per cent.
These statistics maybe grim but they indicate about the status of our poor English education system. Students struggle with English for most of their academic lives only to find that they still cannot comfortably communicate in English. It is a sad story. However, over the past few decades, some emphasis was given to promote English proficiency of students from a younger age. For many different reasons, the success of most of these projects was limited or inadequate.
In the meantime, many countries in South East Asia, where English has been used as foreign language over decades, have adopted the teaching and learning of English in their education policies. Most countries in this region have long been concerned about their incompetency in English language which made them lag behind in taking economic advantages from the momentum generated by globalisation.
For example, fifteen years ago, the Chinese government introduced English as a compulsory subject in Class 3 in all elementary schools and instructed all public colleges and universities to use English as the main teaching language for technology and business related subjects. This resulted in massive changes through which China opened up to the English speaking world, in terms of trade.
British rulers during their time in Sri Lanka adopted the UK education system as a political tool. Yet, even after 68 years since they left us, our teaching and learning of English language and education still leads us a big question mark.
Soon after British departed, we passed legislation to provide free education for all Sri Lankans with a view to create equal opportunities. And eight years later, we introduced legislation replacing English with local languages as media of instruction in education. Shortly afterwards, English became a non-compulsory second language.
Thereafter, within a span of fifty years, competency in English was lost in Sri Lankan society. A great majority of Sri Lankans could neither write nor speak English, except for a few who were educated in leading city colleges or fee-levying private schools or overseas. Lack of competency in English made it impossible for Sri Lankans to participate in global knowledge. This in turn hindered their opportunity to participate in the progress of modern education, science and technology. In addition, those who lacked competency in English were prevented from obtaining better employment in banks and foreign commercial enterprises, and also from lucrative overseas appointments.
What went wrong?
First of all, we did not have enough competent English teachers. By late 1990s, plans were afoot to train 50,000 school teachers to teach English. Much effort and money were spent on the project but the standard of English among the trained teachers remained low. Secondly, traditional Sri Lankan society put far too much emphasis on proficiency exams. Not only are they insufficient method of assessing language abilities, but also they put an insurmountable amount of pressure on students as well as teachers and schools.
Language teaching and learning in Sri Lanka had become test-oriented rather than for practical use. Also, most of our curricula are book-based. When the class is dependent upon a textbook, teachers and students become dependent upon the written word.
Vocabulary and grammar are taught mostly through reading and writing rather than through verbal communication.
What is the solution?
The writer believes that Malaysian example offers us many lines of thoughts and concepts.
The Education Ministry in Malaysia has taken a dual-pronged approach to increase the quality of English at both the school and tertiary level of education. The first is remedial in nature and the second is policies that will strengthen English overall among students.
The first phase is to retrain current teachers to reach a satisfactory level of English proficiency through various methods. Among the methods employed to do this is the Native English Speaking Programme. So far 1,800 primary schools have undergone this programme across six geographical zones. 360 mentors whose native language is English have spent 360,925 hours of personal input time to train 4,639 teachers so far.
There has also been an improvement to the teaching and learning pedagogy of the English language for teachers. This improvement stresses on factors such as class administration, student motivation, research literature and teacher evaluations to further improve the delivery of English lessons.
To build a strong foundation, the ministry has embarked on the first phase of increasing literacy by choosing 21,568 students randomly across the country based on the School Based Assessment. On average 58.6% of students increased their proficiency by one band. 30.8% increased it by two bands. Though it might not be considered a mind-blowing achievement, it’s a start in the remedial process.
At the early stage of schooling, students will undergo screening tests to identify their strengths and weaknesses in literacy and numeracy skills. Weaker students will then be given extra attention and care, so that they will be able to keep up in mainstream classes. The Professional Up-skilling of English Language Teachers (Pro-ELT) is another remedial programme. So far the ministry has done three stages and trained a total of 15,500 teachers in this programme. Based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), 76.4% of teachers improved one band.
These remedial measures are slowly showing results.
Other steps taken by the ministry is in collaborating with “Teach for Malaysia,” where trained teachers have been employed in rural schools to teach English directly to the students. They work together with existing English teachers to create new ways to make children take an interest in learning and using English in their daily life.
In this vein, the ministry also conducted 264 English camps involving almost 18,000 students from 2012 to 2014.
Future plans to ensure English teachers become better, will take off at the end of the year when English experts from other countries are brought and placed in all district education offices to train local school English teachers. This will be an ongoing process and these experts will monitor, evaluate and provide remedial steps to upscale the standard of English being taught.
The English Language Standards and Quality Council has created a roadmap which is 80% complete. Titled “Roadmap for English Language Education in Malaysia”, it is responsible for creating overall holistic steps to make English a strength in Malaysia and not a weakness.
On June 1 this year, this roadmap was presented to members of the English lab organised by the Performance Management and Delivery Unit and the Performance and Delivery Unit and hopefully the final draft will be ready to be launched by the end of the year.
All these steps will help Malaysian students to uplift the standard of English among themselves.