A race to catch up

A race to catch up

Hong Kong students need to be taught English in new creative ways

English has long been one of Hong Kong's official languages. Yet many students still struggle to get to grips with it even after all the time and resources dedicated to teaching the subject in schools.

It's sad when we compare ourselves to students in other former British colonies, such as Singapore, India and Malaysia: their English skills tend to be higher.

Ask yourself these simple questions: are you confident enough to give directions in English to tourists? Can you understand your favourite American TV shows without the subtitles?

The Singaporean students I used to hang out with at university certainly never had any trouble with either.

Yet some experts scoff at such parallels. "You can't make that comparison," says Dr Stephen Krashen, a bilingual studies professor at the University of Southern California, in the US. "People in Singapore get so much more [exposure] than people in Hong Kong."

Singaporean students have an edge when it comes to learning English because it is their first language, he says. Still, that doesn't mean Hong Kong students can't catch up. The secret is to make English learning more comprehensible and interesting, Krashen told teachers at a forum on language learning at the Chinese International School.

In schools, students often get "comprehensible input" - that is information they understand - but not interesting content, he says. They learn about the rules of grammar and spend hours reciting new vocabulary. Then they are expected to repeat what they learned in exams.

"This is linguistics, not English," says Krashen, an expert on language acquisition. "It's a course in English grammar, which is like a course in chemistry."

Krashen says students learn a second language best through stages.

First comes the read-aloud stage. Children love compelling stories. They listen to stories not because they want to learn a language, but because they want to find out what will happen next. As they do so, they gradually pick up the language, the expert explains.

A child could ask someone to read to them from a Harry Potter book or listen to an audio book, for instance. Then, all of that builds up to the second stage: free-voluntary reading.

"It's 'You read because you want to'," Krashen says. "No book reports. No questions at the end of a chapter."

The method is effective because students get to choose what they want to read. This is the best way to improve your English, he says. The process can also prepare you for the academic discussion language you will need at university.

The traditional model of assigning texts and testing students on them doesn't work because it causes high anxiety and low self-esteem - both of which are enemies of language learning, according to Krashen.

The same goes for conversational English. Many teachers force students to speak up and then correct their mistakes. Instead, students should be encouraged to talk freely whenever they feel ready.

Lily Liu Tin-lei, a teacher from Po Leung Kuk Laws Foundation College, agrees. "Language is best learned through subconscious acquisition," she says. "Only with quality input, instead of meaningless drilling, will students be able to produce quality output."

Unlike Krashen, Liu thinks it's still necessary for students to learn grammar - in a correct way. "Teachers should emphasise the usage and the function more when they teach grammar," she says. "Teaching grammar forms is not enough."

Yet Krashen thinks students can learn new words and grammar naturally by reading compelling texts. So pick up a book.

Dr Stephen Krashen was invited to Hong Kong by the Bring Me A Book Hong Kong Limited, a company which promotes reading among children and teens in Hong Kong. You can watch Krashen's talk on YouTube.

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