There has been a lot of concern for a long while now on whether Malaysian graduates and school-leavers have the English language proficiency levels that will enable them to compete in a globalised world where trade and commerce are mostly carried out in English and academic research findings are largely authored in the language.
Two years ago, the Ministry of Education (MOE) launched the Roadmap for English Language Education in Malaysia spanning 2015 to 2025 to align the standard of English taught in schools and institutions of higher learning with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) — an international standard that focuses on producing learners who can communicate and interact in any language, in this instance, English.
The roadmap takes a cohesive approach where the English language curriculum, teaching and learning process and materials, and teacher training are integrated. With an emphasis on the ability to communicate, CEFR spells out the learning outcomes/skills (e.g. understand, read, write, communicate) students should attain at every stage of learning and puts the student, teacher and parent on the same page where expectations and results are concerned.
While the focus on the alignment with CEFR standards has been very much school-based, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh, in his 2018 mandate, proposed that the Malaysia English Assessment (MEA) be CEFR-aligned and integrated into the communication component of the iCGPA in public universities.
This move underlines the fact that where English language education is concerned, there is a themed continuum from preschool to tertiary studies.
To accelerate efforts to elevate the standard of English in schools, MOE announced the introduction of foreign textbooks in English language classes at public schools starting this year as part of its initiative to align the English language curriculum with CEFR standards. This move involves those from preschool, Years One and Two pupils, and Forms One and Two students .
While some — politicians, teachers and parents — opposed the move due to a multitude of reasons, there are also those who strongly feel that this initiative will enhance English language proficiency.
Issues such as the content not being culturally suitable for students in rural areas especially and lack of consultation with stakeholders like teachers and parents on the use of such textbooks were raised. Some also pointed out that the abrupt decision by the ministry may not augur well.
Superminds, the CEFR-aligned textbook used by preschoolers, Years One and Two pupils, is published by Cambridge University Press, while Form One and Two students use Pulse 2 published by Macmillan Publishers.
MATTER OF CONTENTION
International Islamic University Malaysia’s (IIUM) Department of English Language and Literature organised a recent roundtable discussion to provide a platform for academicians to extrapolate issues from angles as diverse as those from the grass roots, parents, teachers and universities to policy-makers but with an eye on building a constructive effort to address the concerns of all Malaysians effectively.
Professor Supyan Hussin of the Sustainability of Language Sciences Research Centre in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia kicked off the session by sharing the findings of a survey he conducted in October last year via social media which received 727 responses from the public to gauge whether they agree with the move to import textbooks from the United Kingdom to teach English.
Some 64.5 per cent did not agree with the idea of importing foreign books to be used in schools while 25.2 per cent agreed with the move and the rest were not sure.
From the survey results, concerns revolved around the cost (which many believe is too expensive), cultural elements (how foreign elements will affect the way students think and act), credibility of local writers (the country hascredible writers to write textbooks), and whether imported books are compatible with the curriculum.
“Some say it’s not so much the textbooks but whether teachers are able to use them to teach,” said Supyan, adding that a curriculum is designed with an education philosophy in mind and, in the case of Malaysia, materials must be in line with the National Education Philosophy.
“Based on the National Education Philosophy, we should conduct needs analysis and address the requirements of the Z and Alpha generations. The books need to fulfil the learning objectives for specific lessons. Delivery is tested and student assessments are conducted to see whether the outcomes match the objectives. Then we decide whether to adopt or adapt. That’s how we select materials for teaching and learning,” he added.
Malaysian English Language Teaching Association president Professor Ganakumaran Subramaniam, who is also the Asia Teaching English as a Foreign Language vice-president and School of Education head at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, said that textbooks alone cannot improve waning standards of English in schools.
Other elements that come into play include teacher competence; the learning environment in terms of context and opportunities to use the language; teaching strategies comprising methodologies, strategies and activities; a carefully thought-out developmental syllabus; student motivation; and learning-related matters such as personality, readiness, learning styles and strategies.
Like Supyan, Ganakumaran said textbook suitability should be measured by its compliance with the National Education Philosophy and aligned with the English curriculum goals; English Language Teaching pedagogical consideration; and technical and publication consideration, among others.
On teacher competency and readiness to impart knowledge of CEFR-aligned English language skills, Siti Bahijah Bakhtiar, the senior assistant director in the Research Development and Innovation Centre at the Teacher Training Institute of Malaysia in Cyberjaya, said the ministry has been organising curriculum familiarisation for teachers since 2016.
“We began to expose teachers to the new materials since April last year and in July we trained the teachers in curriculum induction and item-writing based on their scheme of work as per the curriculum. We have uploaded the resource to the Curriculum Division website so that teachers can refer to it at their convenience.
“We are buying textbooks off the shelf because local textbooks are not yet able to meet CEFR levels,” said Siti Bahijah.
“The use of foreign textbooks is cost-efficient and their contents offer a wider acceptance of other cultures and open students’ minds, providing exposure to the use of English in both the foreign and local context.”
However, IIUM Professor of Literature Nor Faridah Abd Manaf said the use of foreign textbooks that are aligned to a non-Malaysian standard may not be effective and may even be damaging.
“It is not only English that is on the decline. The same applies to Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and Tamil. We can’t fault the book, the teacher, the system. We need to look within us. Emphasis on love for knowledge is gone. It is wrong to institutionalise exams as per CEFR. How many of our students need that? What is the purpose in introducing it to our system? We have IELTS, TOEFL... it won’t stop here. It stems from our inferiority complex that we are not good enough to set our own exams and publish textbooks. Maybe we still have the colonial mindset,” said Nor Faridah.
She added that the rationale of providing foreign textbook for exposure to a global outlook and 21st century skills is not valid as most students have digital access.
“But their knowledge on Malaysian history and geography is severely lacking. There ought to be a balance of exposure. We have to decolonise our minds and highlight our heritage and culture. The way forward is a multidisciplinary team comprising language experts, psychologists and writers coming up with appropriate teaching and learning materials for Malaysians.”
Professor Zuraidah Mohd Don, a professor of linguistics and the English language at the University of Malaya and chair of the Education Ministry’s English Language Standards and Quality Council, remarked that an injection of culture is needed not only in the teaching and learning of English language but also in all subjects.
“We need to ask ourselves: ‘Does global awareness make us less Malaysian?’ Can’t we expose our students to the global stage and maintain a Malaysian perspective? The purpose of education is to benefit them. Children must be taught how to think, not what to think. They must know the reality of the world,” said Zuraidah.
“When talking about education, we talk about little things — the textbook is only one component — there are other elements such as the children, teachers and other stakeholders. We are part of a bigger global world and our children have to prepare for it. We need to know other cultures in the world and value them so that we are valued in return. Learning is not confined to one book and one place.”
Foreign textbooks aside, it is important to know the standards we subscribe to and the proficiency of English language in the country.
“In the past, this was based on perception. Forty countries from around the world are embracing CEFR. We learn from them. The standards clearly gauge the student’s ability and we move on from there.
“However, to come out with our own materials and textbooks will take at least five years so we adapt first as it is urgent we address the current standard of English in schools. The textbook is only one component — education curriculum, delivery and assessment and everything must be addressed at the same time and together,” said Zuraidah, adding that the public must give time to see the results of the CEFR initiative.
“It takes five years to produce a book, even in countries with high academic and technical standards in textbook writing. To find a good balance between local and global, we must learn from others first. The way forward is to build the capacity to produce high quality CEFR-aligned teaching and learning materials.”
In closing, roundtable moderator IIUM Associate Professor in Linguistics Dr Ridwan Wahid noted there has to be communication between the Education Ministry, teachers, parents and the public to go forward.
“The ministry and the implementer of CEFR have asked for time.. whether we are willing to give it depends on whether they can deliver,” he said.