Learning from children

Today, I had a lesson observation at a school which serves children from ethnic minority groups. The children come from at least 7 ethnic backgrounds. They are different in terms of appearance, first language, religion, habits, etc. Yet, they not only have no difficulty getting along with each other; instead, what I witnessed was a strong spirit of mutual caring and support, an ethos that I don’t often see see in local schools. The children are not bothered by their differences at all. They’re demonstrating that their being together is much much more important than their wrangling with their differences.

When I was leaving the school, I couldn’t help thinking that we adults ought to learn from these innocent children. We have lost the ability to resolve conflicts and reconcile differences. We’re so obsessed with ‘winning’ and ‘being right’, that we easily forget how blessed we are that there are other people in the world.

When grammatical accuracy is all that matters …

In my post of July 28, I asserted that “our social values, our education system, and sometimes the way we teach English, have joined hands to strangle students’ motivation to learn English.”

I have talked about the issue of social values and education system in my previous post. My thesis was that we are over-relying on extrinsic motivation as an incentive for learning English: English gets you into university and a good job, so just work for high marks in English exams. But for the academically average and less able students, extrinsic motivation may not work. How can we tap students’ intrinsic motivation to learn, by making language learning an intrinsically satisfying experience for these students?

In this post, my argument is that currently our undue emphasis on grammar learning and grammatical accuracy is demotivating and eroding students’ interest in learning English and confidence in using the language for communication, and that we should pay more attention to the meaning dimension of what we do. Let me start with two scenarios:

Scenario 1

I was starting teaching at a new secondary school (I had taught at four secondary schools in total). This was an elite school which took in the cream of the crop, so I was hoping to read some interesting and thought-provoking essays when I was about to grade their first composition. I was given a very simple marking scheme by the school: Five marks off for every mistake.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I started to read the students’ compositions. Contrary to my expectations, they were so mundane. In fact, they bored me to death. Before long, I realized that the students were simply playing an error-avoidance game. There were no marks to be awarded for content, so the students would not take any risks to write anything unusual, and would settle for short sentences and simple vocabulary in order to avoid producing errors. As a result, most of the compositions were error-free. Marking their compositions was a breeze. But a voice in the back of my mind said: What a waste of the students’ talents!

Scenario 2

(Be warned: if you are an English teacher, you may not like what I am going to say.)

Reading comprehension exercises in coursebooks usually require students to write out their answers. Invariably there will be some Why questions, and it is still the practice in some schools to deduct marks from students’ answers that do not begin with ‘It is because …’. The usual reason given by teachers is that this gives students additional practice in grammar through writing complete sentences (so an even better answer, for some teachers, is that students repeat the stem of a Why question: The man did not kill the woman because …)

My usual response:

  1. This is reading comprehension, so the focus should be on understanding the text. If students have got the meaning of their answer correct, we should not penalize them further for not writing their answer in a complete sentence.
  2. From a discourse point of view, in real life, we don’t always write in complete sentences. It depends on the context, and the purpose of communication. In a reading comprehension exercise, giving a response in “Because ….” is absolutely appropriate. In fact, if the meaning of the answer is clear enough, even the word ‘because’ can be omitted.
  3. In English, we do sometimes say ‘It is because …’, but linguistically it is ‘marked’, in that we only use this structure when we (a) need to emphasise that such is the reason (eg., If I always make fun of you, it’s because I know you have a good sense of humour), or (b) contrast two reasons (… <she left him> …It’s not because she doesn’t love him any more; it’s because he has no intention of marrying her). (Compare ‘John killed Mary” and “It was Mary that John killed”: the two structures serve different purposes.) Beginning a straightforward answer to a Why question with ‘It is because …’ is not grammatically wrong, but is somewhat unnatural. (Compare: Speaker A: What did John do? Speaker B: It was killing Mary that he did*.)

(As an aside, I once discussed this issue with the teachers in a part-time course. I had no idea that they were so keen about the issue that they took it back to their schools and discussed it with their colleagues afterwards. The responses from their colleagues which the teachers reported back to me included:

  1. This has been the school’s practice for many years. Just follow the practice.
  2. What’s wrong with requiring students to write 100% grammatically correct sentences?
  3. (From a NET teacher) What’s wrong with the sentence “It’s because …”?
  4. It is stated in the marking schemes of public exams. So we must follow it.

Hearing the last response, I immediately checked the marking schemes for the Reading paper in all public exams, TSA, HKCE, HKAL, and even LPAT. No, they NEVER require “It is because ….” as a lead-in for a Why answer. )


Before I continue to discuss this issue, I would like to pause here, and invite you to reflect on the two scenarios above. Can you also think of other scenarios that reflect our obsession with grammar learning and grammatical accuracy? What effect could this excessive focus on grammar have on students’ intrinsic motivation to learn English? In the next post, I will point out what can be done to make language learning a more intrinsically satisfying activity for students. (But it is just common sense, so don’t expect a magical formula from me.)

Low motivation for a high-stakes subject – English. Why?!

In my last post, I contended: “I know a simple reason why some people in HK do not succeed in learning English: Our social values, our education system, and sometimes the way we teach English, have joined hands to strangle students’ motivation to learn English.” Let me now elaborate.

Our social values: Education is simply investment; learning is for financial rewards in the future. Learn English now, and be paid back in the future.

Our education system: English is everything. If your English is good enough, you go to a Band One English-medium secondary school. If you don’t pass your A Level English, forget about university.

Now, compare this with people who learn Japanese, French, Korean, etc. in their spare time. They learn the foreign language of their choice because they are interested in that language and, very likely, also the country where the language is spoken. Even when they learn the foreign language for occupational reasons, it is a language of their own choosing.

Usagi is a fine example. When she was in Form 6, she started to learn Japanese on her own. She didn’t have to, but she did, because she was fascinated with Japanese culture. She was not learning Japanese because she had to pass exams in Japanese. She learnt Japanese because she wanted to be able to use the language for communication. She grabbed every opportunity to get in touch with the Japanese language. Later, she took courses in Japanese, but again, not to pass exams, but to strengthen her command of Japanese. When she was fully engaged in something else, she felt no pressure to stick with the courses, and would stop going to classes for some time, while continuing to learn the language on her own. She would rejoin the courses later, when she could afford the time. She visited Japan whenever she could, to perfect her Japanese. When she finished university, Usagi’s Japanese was good enough (by the way, she did not major in Japanese in university) for her to work with a Japanese firm. Today, Usagi is a highly proficient user of Japanese. In fact, she is a teacher of Japanese.

In comparison, English is a high-stakes subject in Hong Kong. If your English is not good enough, you can forget about university, or going into the prestigious professions. Yet, paradoxically, despite this omnipresent need, not many students are highly motivated to learn English. The diligent ones treat English as another channel for displaying their academic prowess. The average ones will put up with the subject and go through the motions. The less able ones simply hate English.

Why is this happening?

In some low-band secondary schools, students would literally stop learning English from Secondary One. The longer they stay in secondary school, the less motivation they have to learn English. The English curriculum becomes harder and harder as they move up the secondary grades. At the same time, they keep getting fail grades in tests and exams. They don’t need to wait until S.3 to conclude permanently that they are hopeless with English. And since English is of paramount importance, they also conclude that they are failures with schooling. Why are we having this paradox? Why is it that English is the all-important subject, and yet some students couldn’t wait to see the back of it? Has this got something to do with the purely pragmatic values which we inject into the learning of English? Has this conundrum evolved from our exclusively utilitarian mentality about education?

And, does Usagi’s experience in learning Japanese provide us with some food for thought?

How can people improve their English?

This is a question that I hope 林沛理 and 劉天賜 will not ask me tomorrow
(Tuesday) night on 講東講西 . I hope that they will instead
ask Benjamin Au Yeung, who will also be speaking, how people can improve their Chinese.

Because of my work, I am often asked the embarrassing question above. Embarrassing to
me, because I don’t have a good and concise answer. So very often I try to get
away from the embarrassing situation with a tongue-in-cheek reply: “ I have no
idea. If I had known the answer, I would have become a billionaire.”

Which is probably true: English language teaching is a multi-billion-dollar business. If
only there was a magical formula, and I knew 1% of it, I would be the richest
man on earth.

Sure I could give some quick and vague answers: read more, speak more, don’t be afraid of
making mistakes, make English-speaking friends, go to English movies, listen to
English radio, find someone to practice English conversation with …. But who is
interested in such commonplace, uncool, answers?

Alternatively, I can delve into the very micro issues, such as:

You want to improve your speaking? OK, first of all, let’s look into the psychological
processes of producing speech. Writers generally agree that these are the six
stages involved: first is conceptualization (blah blah blah)…….and finally,
production. And these are the 6 factors that affect fluency. The first is
familiarity with the subject matter. … And then to be communicative effective,
you have to know your objectives in speaking …. And in real-life situations, we
speak for different purposes; so we need different speaking skills; these are
the 61 speaking skills in the HK English language curriculum …. And then,
spoken language is not just written language sounded out … these are some of
the features of spoken language …and what is the grammar of spoken language
like …..what about pronunciation ……

Of course, my listener will have long fallen asleep, unless they are taking my MA
course on the Teaching of Listening and Speaking. (Even so, I can’t guarantee
that my students are really awake and listening.)

And I haven’t even started to talk about other aspects of language learning:
listening, reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary, discourse, communication
strategies, learning strategies …….

The MA ELT at CUHK requires 336 contact hours. And most of the participants, who are
usually experienced ESL teachers, have already completed initial training in
English Language teaching.

IF you ask course members who have completed the 336 hours how people can improve
their English, it is very likely that, armed with all the knowledge
they have learnt, they are not able to give a straightforward answer to the

So I don’t have a quick answer to the question how people can improve their English. But I
know a simple reason why some people in HK do not succeed in learning English:
our social values, our education system, and sometimes the way we teach
English, have joined hands to strangle students’ motivation to learn English.

I hope I will be able to elaborate on that later, but for now, let me point out that I
know a few people who have learnt Japanese, Korean,
German, etc. for only three to four years (compared with 14 years of English learning by the time a student finishes secondary school) and have reached a very high level of
proficiency. Their secret? A high level of motivation.