Boosting English standards - The Star, 9 Jun 2019

Education deputy director-general Dr Habibah Abdul Rahim believes that implementation of the CEFR will help produce graduates who have strong command in the English language in the long run.

Lee Chonghui - Sunday, 9 Jun 2019

The directive for non-English language option teachers to sit for the Malaysian University English Test (MueT) has been controversial. Education Ministry deputy director-general Dr Habibah Abdul Rahim explains why the test is a crucial component in the roadmap to improve english proficiency among Malaysians. 

A STRONG command of English enhances employability. It’s a fact the Education Ministry knows only too well.

The English Language Education Reform in Malaysia: The Roadmap 2015-2025, is aimed at improving English language based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

But, if key players - especially teachers - are not up to par, implementation will be a problem.

Education deputy director-general Dr Habibah Abdul Rahim says any meaningful improvement to the teaching and learning of English is only possible if the roadmap is successfully implemented. Teachers, she stresses, play a key role so they must improve if they want to teach properly. She shares the ministry’s plans and its determination to improve English proficiency among teachers and students.

There was a lot of unhappiness when the ministry announced that English teachers must take the Malaysian University English Test (MUET). Why is there a need to do so?

Teachers need to be proficient in the English language in order to facilitate teaching and learning, as well as help students acquire targetted CEFR levels. It is only English language option teachers who have to take MUET and achieve at least C1 level. It is not compulsory for non-English language option teachers. However, if teaching English becomes the dominant subject of a non-English language option teacher, then the teacher should take MUET. A subject, such as English, becomes the dominant subject of teachers once they teach it more than three years and two-thirds of their time is devoted to teaching the non- option subject. The ministry has a programme called Add Option Intervention Programme (Pito) to help these non-option teachers improve teaching methods on the now-dominant subject.

So far, how have English option teachers fared in MUET?

The ministry has 41,676 English language option teachers. About 50% of the 41,676 teachers have sat for MUET. From the 50% who took the test, 67% achieved C1. The rest were at C2 level. We do not know the performance of the other 50% of teachers who have not sat for MUET. They have till December this year to take the test and notify us of their results. Meanwhile, we are still short of about 3,000 English language option teachers. We should have 44,924 of them. There are already plans to address the shortage.

Are there any programmes teachers can sign up for if they fail to achieve C1 level?

There are a number of English courses which are prepared and subsidised by the ministry to help them improve themselves. There are also ministry-approved materials available online for them to access before they sit for MUET. There is even an online moderator to help.

Why did the ministry choose to use MUET to benchmark teachers? Can teachers sit for other English proficiency tests?

MUET is already aligned to the CEFR and can be used to benchmark the proficiency level teachers are at. We encourage teachers to take MUET because it is based on local context, easily accessible, is offered three times yearly and only costs RM100 per test. Teachers can also sit for the British Council’s Aptis English test for RM208 and the International English Language Test System (IELTS) for RM795.

Teachers who want to sit for MUET have to pay from their own pockets. Shouldn’t the government subsidise this?We used to subsidise teachers taking the test from 2013 to 2018. But we have learned that for someone to develop, improve, and make a bigger impact, it is more effective when individuals take the initiative to do it themselves.

Plus, the investment  is small. Free things are often underappreciated. We want to encourage teachers to be responsible for self-development and growth, and invest in their professional development.

You said teachers play a key role in boosting English language education. How is the ministry preparing teachers for the task?

The Professional Up-skilling of English Language Teachers (Pro-ELT) is only available to English language option teachers. We have trained over 17,000 English teachers (including non-option English language and Pito teachers) through this programme.

Is the MUET requirement part of a bigger plan to improve English in the country?

Yes, it is part of our English Language Education Reform in Malaysia: The Roadmap 2015-2025, which is being used to align the whole of the English language programme and the education of English teachers to international CEFR standards.

What is the roadmap about?

It is a comprehensive plan for the systematic reform of English language education in Malaysia. It lays out the changes and improvements that needs to be done in the curriculum, teaching and learning, assessments, resources for teachers and students, and teacher training. Its goal is to bring about the transformation of English language education from preschool right up to tertiary education, including teacher education. It provides comprehensive guidelines for all stakeholders, including teachers. Using the roadmap, teachers can ensure that students achieve proficiency levels of international standards.

How did the roadmap come about?

The roadmap formalises the ministry’s on-going efforts to strengthen English proficiency, as encapsulated in the Upholding Bahasa Malaysia and Strengthening the English Language (MBMMBI) policy. It also provides a framework for the execution of plans proposed in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013 - 2025.

How does the ministry assess English language proficiency?

By adopting the CEFR which distinguishes listening, reading, spoken interaction, spoken production and writing. Language proficiency is measured in relation to the five communicative skills on a scale beginning with A1 progressing to A2 (basic user); B1 and B2 (independent user); and C1, C2 (proficient user). Proficiency in each skill is defined at each level by a series of “can do” statements. This scale enables us to set targets for each stage of our English language programmes. Our English teachers must achieve at least C1 level, while English language teacher trainers must achieve C2 level.

What makes the CEFR an important benchmark?

Some 47 countries also benchmark their languages, and English in particular, to the CEFR. This makes it easier for employers - both local and international - to identify graduates’ language capacity. In a changing global landscape, it is important for our younger generation to master English. This allows them to compete in the international market. If we want our students to be good, we must ensure that teachers who teach and facilitate the process, have themselves achieved a higher level of English. This means that teacher trainers must also be better than teacher trainees.Some are still unclear about the CEFR. Can you clarify?CEFR describes language ability on a six-point scale, from A1 for beginners, up to C2 for those who have mastered a language. This makes it easy for anyone involved in language teaching and testing, such as teachers or students, to see the level of different qualifications. It is not a curriculum, no one can fail it. CEFR is a framework that can be used to benchmark the level of proficiency and the level of fluency of our students and teachers in line with international standards. It is used as a reference for the ministry to plan and create teaching and learning programmes. Employers can also use it as a reference when selecting a candidate to hire.

How is the roadmap progressing?

This is the sixth year of its implementation. The ministry has introduced a revised Primary

School Standards-based Curriculum (KSSR) and a new  Secondary School Standards-based Curriculum (KSSM) which was rolled out in 2017 for Year One and Form One respectively. This group of students (those in Form Three) will be sitting for PT3 this year. This will be a baseline for the ministry for the cohort that have gone through the CEFR aligned curriculum.

We have also noticed there is an improvement in English language among our young. There was a baseline study conducted by Cambridge English in 2013 and another study in 2017. When the first baseline study was carried out, there was a gap between the achievements of urban and rural area students. In the 2017 study, 40% of students exceeded the 2025 CEFR targets of B1 at secondary level. Some did even better. The study also showed that improvements were across rural and urban children.

Can the roadmap really boost English standards? How?

Yes, because we are going about it systematically. We are on target. It’s not just through the curriculum. We are also gradually building capacity and resources to support the implementation of the roadmap.

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