Not reading enough results in poor language skills, cultural ignorance, and fear of books

Not reading enough results in poor language skills, cultural ignorance, and fear of books

One professor thinks the education system is failing students, as many leave school without ever finishing a book

Drilling practice papers, endless revision and an entire class of students who can’t communicate effectively in English. If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. One Hong Kong professor laments that the local curriculum is failing students, and explains why the way language is being taught just isn’t good enough.

Young Post spoke to Professor Thomas Lee Hun-tak, chairman of the Department of Linguistics and Modern Languages at Chinese University to understand the flaws in Hong Kong’s education system and why students aren’t reaching expectations.

Lee notes the new system has some good changes when it comes to the technical side of the exams, but he says: “When I went to a major textbook supplier, I was told at the bookshop that there are no textbooks for senior secondary forms. Only practice books and past papers are available. I asked students and many of them said that senior secondary English lessons were mostly devoted to drilling practice papers to prepare for exams. If that’s the case, what’s the point of schooling?” he asks.

As a second language, English has different teaching methods and goals from Chinese.

Thomas Lee thinks local students are being deprived of culture.
Photo: SCMP

“But the main point is for a student to acquire a rich vocabulary, develop a good command of core grammatical patterns and be able to articulate their thoughts well,” Lee says. And as he explains, this core knowledge of grammar has to be gained from reading, and not just from doing past papers.

Lee points out that because English is complicated, two seemingly similar sentences can have completely different implications.

He refers to the examples of: “The judge found Mr Chan to be innocent”, and “The judge found that Mr Chan was innocent”. The former reports a judgement and the latter a discovery,” he explains.

“The difference is very small, but English is full of these small nuances. The current syllabus probably skips many of the finer points of grammar, but explicit instruction on some of them would benefit students, who may well not learn this kind of critical distinction in the language they are typically exposed to.”

Lee lists another example, this time related to vocabulary. “Take the word serendipity. The definition of it is ‘fortunate happenstance’. But that isn’t something you can easily grasp from reading the dictionary definition. But if I read a book like The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, I see the word used in context and can grasp its meaning in a concrete way.”

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A problem with the current syllabus seems to be the lack of emphasis on reading materials of varying lengths, he says. “A text from an exam will typically consist of 1,000 words or so. So your reading will be limited to texts of 1,000 words. The school-based assessment provides opportunities for extended reading, in theory, but I am not sure how successful it is in encouraging extensive reading.”

“Without a reading of the great works of world civilisations, students can’t understand other cultures and their texts,” he says. “I have encountered many students who seem to have considerable anxieties about reading a book from cover to cover. They have to overcome the limits of secondary education.”

This lack of reading and resulting ignorance, as he puts it, is so bad, students have no sense of culture outside of Hong Kong, he says. “A total lack of awareness of the great ideas and thinkers of the 20th century would seem to me a serious inadequacy in our secondary school graduates. Some educators may think this is fine. However, this kind of ignorance would not seem acceptable if we are talking about elite students who qualify to study at the top universities.” As a linguist, Lee views language as something that offers more than ritualistic, formulaic expression. “Human language is creative. We can use language to say something that’s never been said before.”

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He points at the questions on a sample past paper: “These are authentic examples of the informational use of language. Asking for directions, searching for information in a job ad. But the functions of language go beyond this.”

“Learning a new language and its vocabulary will introduce you to new concepts, and thus initiate you into a new and somewhat different intellectual world,” he says.

“And now instead of learning about the great ideas and concepts of world civilisation through classical writings in English, the system seems to have been reduced to three years of drills with practice papers. Opportunities for cultural learning are sacrificed in favour of memorising the informational function of language. Language education should not be this restricted.”

But while it sounds like a problem that is impossible to solve, Lee’s suggestion is simple. “Pick up a book and read it. I don’t think it’s a particularly high standard to meet. The English version of Hear the Wind Sing by Haruki Murakami can be read in several hours if there is some initial help from a teacher, especially if you read it in Chinese first. It’s no big deal. Like Nike is always suggesting: ‘Just do it’.”

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Books teach what school doesn’t


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