Five Excerpts from My Own English Learning at School: What’s in it for language teachers?

In the course of writing the last three posts, further thoughts came to my mind, some of which were triggered by the responses on FB to the three posts. For example:

Carol: My English became fluent after I had worked in Singapore for some time. Then I came back to Hong Kong, and the reverse situation happened–my spoken and written English are getting worse…sigh….strange though… my Singaporean ex-colleagues speak fluent English…however…their written English is very bad…

Sammi: I have taught some students from a primary school which seldom teaches grammar, instead, they focus on writing and speaking skills. They don’t have dictations either. Yes, some of them are confident in speaking English, but none of them can write a proper composition themselves because they are so weak in spelling and grammar.

Anna: Talking about interesting teaching ideas – I’ve been pretty dried up in recent years. I need to borrow ideas from my colleagues and seminars (the most recent one being Story Alive by SCOLAR). I am studying EDB’s old publication on “Promoting Quality Interaction in the Primary English Classroom”

Janet: I learned a lot from the BBL workshop I took in the summer. I’ll try out the strategies I’ve learnt this year and see what happens. It’s unbelievable that I feel pretty exhausted way before the first day of school. Meetings and adm work kill teachers. I’m hoping my kids can energize me!!! 

Jill (pseudonym): I have done quite well in English exams, but I’m not really good at using the language.

A number of issues are now circling in my mind:

  • Why do we have the tendency to judge people’s language proficiency mainly by their grammatical competence?
  • Why do teachers have the tendency to focus on grammar in their teaching?
  • On the other hand, what can happen if we are mainly interested in developing students’ communicative competence?
  • How should we strive for the right balance between fluency and accuracy in language teaching?
  • How much attention should be paid to preparing students for language exams?
  • What is the best method for teaching a second language?
  • To what extent can we expect teachers to teach creatively when they are so busy?
  • We are giving a lot of thought to how to teach better, but are we giving enough attention to teaching students how to learn better?

Just now when I scanned the above list again, I thought: OH my God, I will have to write at least another 8 blogposts on language teaching and learning. I might have a few loyal fans, but how many of them will have the time and patience to follow them through?

Hence, although I had had some initial answers to those questions, I changed my mind one minute ago. Instead of addressing these issues one after the other from this post, I will keep the list for the next few months, and pick one topic to write about when a suitable occasion arises (like, when I am observing a TP lesson, and something unusual pops up and it relates to one of those issues; like when I am having a class session with a group of inservice teachers and one of them shares an experience that indirectly answers one of the questions).

So, instead of me discussing those questions, I would like to stimulate your thinking by presenting five excerpts from my own learning of English at school. These experiences are hardly exemplars of ‘successful’ language learning strategies. But I hope they will stimulate you to mull over some of the fundamental issues in language teaching and learning.

Primary One

When I started primary school, like all the other subjects, English relied on a lot of rote-learning. There were no teaching methods. The teachers would teach in Chinese. The purpose of learning English was simply to get high marks in English in tests and exams. Everything was learnt by memorisation. For example I can still recite Lesson 1 in my Primary One coursebook:

A man. A pan.
A man and a pan.
This is a man.
This is a pan
Is this a man?
Yes, this is a man.
Is this a pan?
Yes, this is a pan.

At that time, I did not particularly like English, but I played my part in learning it as I would learn any other subject on the timetable.

Primary Four

One day, my English teacher asked me to go see the headmaster at his office. In those days, headmasters never talked with kids, so if a kid was to see the headmaster, he had to be in deep trouble. When I arrived at the headmaster’s office, recalling any terrible crime that I might have committed, there was another girl waiting at the door. The English teacher took both of us into the headmaster’s room. Poker-faced as usual, the headmaster asked us to take turns to read aloud a short passage in English to him. When both of us were done, we were told to wait outside the headmaster’s office.

Two minutes later, my English teacher came out, and told me that the headmaster had chosen me to perform a task. A brass band from a visiting American navy fleet would visit the school and give a performance. The headmaster was looking for a student to deliver the vote of thanks at the end of the show, and he had chosen me.

This turned out to be a turning point in my lifelong learning of English. In those days, it was not the practice of teachers to praise students for good work. The assumption was that praising would spoil a child, as it would make him prematurely proud of his work. So, from P.1 to P.4, I had never been praised by my English teachers, so I had no idea how good my English was. (We already knew exam and test results did not reflect genuine proficiency.) Now the fact that I was chosen, and not one of my classmates, indicated to me that my English wouldn’t be very bad. This drastically boosted my self-confidence in learning English. I doubled, and trebled, my effort in learning English. My marks shot up. This gave me further incentive to improve my English. So here was the virtuous cycle:

Secondary One

It was in the sixties. I was studying in a Government secondary school. The teachers were all civil servants. I didn’t know about the situation in other Government schools, but in mine, the English teachers, who were all English-major graduates from HKU (CUHK hadn’t produced its first batch of English-major graduates yet) felt that they could have been AOs or Eos so teaching was their last career option. With the exception of one or two teachers, they did not put any effort into teaching. In those days, a typical lesson would look like this:

T: Open your book at page 121. Peter, read paragraph 1.
Peter: (reads paragraph 1)
T: Paul, read paragraph 2.
Paul: (reads paragraph 2)
T: Mary, read paragraph 3.
Mary: (reads paragraph 3).
(When the whole passage had been read …)
T: Now, turn to the comprehension questions. Look at question 1. John, you read the question.
John: What did Mrs Brown …
T: Jill: answer the question.
Jill: Mrs Brown …
T: Peggy, read question 2.
Peggy: Who saw Mr Green ..
T: Patrick, answer question 2
(and so on)

Believe me, teaching English in those days was the easiest job in Hong Kong. Anyway, I was not expecting to learn anything from my English teachers. I continued to learn English on my own, through deciphering the coursebook materials, and reading storybooks borrowed from the library.

Secondary Two

A blockbuster movie came out, and it had a profound impact on my academic interest later. It was called My Fair Lady, and was about how Professor Higgins, a scholar in phonetics, taught Eliza Doolittle, a working-class flower-selling girl, how to speak English with a standard accent. For some strange reasons, I completely bought into the notion of Standard Accent, and found it refined, elegant, and beautiful. I wanted to speak like Professor Higgins. I began to find the English Language superbly pleasant to the ear. Without knowing it, I was falling in love with the English Language! From then on, I paid a lot of attention to the pronunciation of speakers of Standard British English. Professor Higgins was played by the actor Rex Harrison, who became my idol. Soon my
idols included other stage-trained British actors like Peter O’ Toole, and Richard Burton 

It was also the golden age of ‘hit songs’, led by the Beatles and dozens of pop singers both in the UK, and the USA. This was supplemented by the folk song movement, with singers like July Collins, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, who were all careful with articulation. At that time, every secondary student was singing English pop songs all the time. So was I. I was able to memorise the lyrics quickly. And since I was singing all the time, I was actually perfecting my English, in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. (Think about the amount of English you can learn and practise from a simple song like “Where have all the flowers gone?”)

This interest in pronunciation doubled, and then quadrupled itself. In Secondary Three, I was decoding the transcriptions in IPA of words in dictionaries. I was practically teaching myself the International Phonetic Alphabet. This interest in phonetics and phonology continued on to university studies and beyond, culminating in my teaching Phonetics and Phonology for ESL teachers at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Secondary Four

In 15 months time, I would be taking the oral component of the HKCE English paper. Although now I had a more conscientious English teacher, she had no teaching methods. She did not know how to teach Oral English. I was confident about the written papers. I was sure I would do OK in the reading aloud in the Oral exam. (In those days, the Oral paper consisted of reading aloud a passage, and having a short conversation with the assessor.) But, as you can imagine, I had never had any conversation practice throughout my entire secondary school so far. So I began to worry about the Conversation component. I looked around; none of my classmates seemed to want to do anything about it. Rather than continuing to wait for the teacher to do something, I made up my mind to take the matter into my own hands: If I could talk with no one, let me talk to myself. 

At that time, my school was a 30-minute walk away from my home. Every day, I would pick a current topic and, while walking to school, spoke aloud in English whatever idea related to the topic came to my mind. The passers-by must find me strange, as I was murmuring to myself, but I was not bothered. I kept on with this practice for 15 months, and survived the Conversation in the HKCE Oral finally.


I could start discussing the issues embedded in these excerpts now. But I am certain you have already started to chew over some of these vignettes. So I will leave you alone here, hoping that I have provided you with some good food for TESOL thought.



4 thoughts on “Five Excerpts from My Own English Learning at School: What’s in it for language teachers?

  1. Stephanie

    Paul~ Great to know more about your English learning experiences! Your sharing has reminded me of the best year I had in a government secondary school.

    My F.6 class teacher and English teacher was a NET from England. At the start of the term, she told us that she and the other NET from Australia were going to organize a two-week study trip to England for F.6 students before the summer holiday.

    But the trip was expensive. Not many F.6 students in my school could afford it. In order to cut the cost, the two NETs organized a series of fund-raising activities and asked the F.6 students to help them. What we did that year included: selling handicrafts, second-hand goods and Vitasoy drinks at lunchtime, selling donated goods and doing ‘hair make-up’ for kids at a fair in an international school, writing thank-you letters to business people who donated money to us, and so on.

    It was the first time I had used English for real communication, not for homework or exams. I became much more interested in learning English. Meanwhile I realized my weaknesses (e.g. in terms of listening to native English speakers, not enough vocabulary, etc.) and improving my English became my number-one goal during my F.6 and F.7 years.

    Come to think of it, my class teacher from England even invited us for dinner at her house in Sai Kung. I couldn’t remember what we talked or ate, but the warmth I felt has always stayed with me.

  2. Hi Stephanie, we definitely need to hear more positive and encouraging stories such as yours. Your experience illustrates a few things which are always true in (language) teaching:
    – Interesting and meaningful teaching will always motivate students: using English for real communication – fundraising, selling handicrafts, doing hair make-up, etc.,etc.,
    – good teaching will always make a difference: energising students to put in more effort; instilling in students a love for the subject;
    – caring teachers make school life a warm and memorable experience for students: you don’t remember what your teachers in Sai Kung said, but you still remember their kindness, and this must have had an impact, no matter how small, on you.

    I’m glad you had a memorable experience in learning English while attending a government secondary school. Actually, I have a student in my MA group teaching at the secondary school I went to, and from her description, the situation has improved a lot.

    Actually I have an idea in mind now, Stephanie. Can I copy your comment to my next post, to help me reaffirm the points I made above? I’m sure other readers will benefit from your story too, but they may not have noticed your comment.

    Thanks again for your sharing.

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