In my blogpost of August 29, I recalled 5 excepts from my own language learning at school. One of the scenarios pointed to the lack of input from my English teachers in my secondary school, which was run by the Government.
A few days later, I was happy to receive a detailed response from Stephanie, who also went to a Government secondary school, but who had a much more positive and memorable experience afforded by her English teachers. Stephanie reminisced:
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.
I thank Stephanie for allowing me to share her experience with other readers in this blogpost. In fact, I hope that there will be more sharing (and hopefully more positive stories!) from other people in Hong Kong about their experience in learning a foreign language so as to enrich our understanding of effective second language teaching and learning.
Stephanie’s experience in F.6 illustrates two points 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; and instilling in students a love for the subject
My previous few posts might have given some readers the impression that I don’t value grammar teaching. This is certainly not the case. But there is also this deep-rooted belief among some teachers that since grammar is the foundation of language, if students focus on acquiring a solid grasp of grammar, their communication skills will take care of themselves. With this belief in mind, they subject their students to dosage after dosage of repetitive grammar exercises that concern themselves with manipulation of language form only. Yes, occasionally we read of successful stories of students (especially newly-arrived students from China) who make up the achievement gap through massive amounts of grammar practice, but these rare students started off with an untypically high level of motivation already. Whether we like it or not, the majority of students brought up in today’s society and today’s schooling need to experience learning as an interesting and meaningful activity.
Stephanie found her F.6 learning experience interesting and meaningful because she was using the language for purposeful communication. She was not ‘practising’ English merely for the sake of ‘practising’ English. But if we are to subscribe to this view, and at the same time to the need for grammar learning, what shall we do? I do admit that this poses a challenge to the second language teacher. How do we strike an appropriate balance between focus on grammar and attention to communication skills? How do we link grammar teaching to developing students’ communication ability? When should we focus on using the language to get things done, and when should we get back to grammar practice? This requires a lot of alertness and a high level of professional competence on the teacher’s part. To cite Miss Janet Law:
“Teachers are professionals because we know how to adjust our teaching strategies according to the students’ needs and interest.”
And because of that, I appeal to all stakeholders in education who believe in the importance of good teaching, to do everything they can, in terms of duty and resource allocation, to enable teachers to do the best teaching they can. Effective language teaching requires a lot of time for lesson and resource preparation.
Finally, for me, Stephanie’s response is not just about how good teachers can make a difference in their students’ language learning. It is also about how good teachers can make a difference in the lives of their students. I copy the ending of Stephanie’s sharing below, and I don’t need to elaborate any further:
“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.”