Speech at "English Excellence in a World City-We Can Do it Together" for the Primary NET Scheme
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my great pleasure to welcome all of you to this conference, in particular Native-speaking English Teachers from the Primary NET scheme who are new to Hong Kong. It is indeed heartening to see so many primary school principals, English panel chairpersons and teachers, including Native-speaking English Teachers, gathered here to show commitment behind a common cause, that is, to raise the standards of English in Hong Kong. As the title of today's conference suggests, to be a world city, people of Hong Kong must attain excellence in the use of English, and we believe we can do it together.
2. The English proficiency of our students has been an issue of concern to the community in recent years. Hong Kong, being an international business, finance and tourism center, must have good English speakers to support the operation of multinational corporations here, to make visitors feel at home and to uphold the cosmopolitan character of a world city. To maintain Hong Kong's competitiveness in the region and sustain our economic development, we must keep pace with the growing demand for workers with high standards of English.
3. Research indicates that the peak age for language learning is during childhood. The HKSAR Government recognises the need to focus our energy and direct resources at this stage of children's learning to make the most impact. On average, a child in our system spends about 5 hours a week on English lessons for about 36 weeks every year for 6 years before going to secondary school, that is, a total of over a thousand hours. This golden period in the child's language learning stage is in your hands. It is both a privilege and responsibility.
4. For English learning or acquisition to take place - there are a few very basic prerequisites. First, the input to students must be accurate. While I am not myself an English teacher, I am sure you will agree that language learning involves some imitation - repeating how others use the language. If a child is given wrong input in the classroom, for example, grammatical mistakes and flawed pronunciation, even the world's best teaching pedagogy would be futile. Hence, we strongly encourage all English teachers to work towards raising their own English proficiency and language awareness throughout their career.
5. Secondly, there must be ample input of the language being taught. In Hong Kong, our children have limited exposure to English in the community and day-to-day life. Hence it is crucial that students get as much of it as possible in the classroom and at school by creating a physical English environment. English posters, English cartoon walls, idioms boards, English corners, etc would provide children opportunities for increased exposure during recess or lunch time. There are schools which require students to speak to their English teachers both inside and outside of the classroom so that they have more opportunities to use English in an authentic situation, and to appreciate that language is for communication, not just another subject. I hope more schools will adopt such a policy.
6. It is also useful to create school days where through various activities, students are exposed to and encouraged to use English. Drama days, English speaking days or outings, language bazaars etc would be just some of the ways in which it could be done. This year, the Government will be giving subsidies to schools to organize Language Camps and will supply quality learning resources to support the activity.
7. Thirdly, it is important to try new ideas in the classroom. Young children can have short attention spans - but of course this theory is blown out of the window where video games and cartoons on TV are concerned. When children are paying attention and are motivated, when they are interested in English, then and only then, will they engage in the learning and spend more time outside of the classroom, reading and writing in English. It is critical for language acquisition, and learning in general, that children should develop the skills, the habit and the enjoyment of reading, and be exposed to different text types. Continuing Professional Development (CPD) would enable teachers to keep abreast of the latest practices in ESL learning and teaching.
8. There are various stakeholders in the English language education at the primary level that will have a crucial bearing on how successful we are in striving to raise English Language standards.
9. First and foremost among these stakeholders would be the school leaders - the primary school principals. The school leader, who has a mindset that aims for excellence, who sets high standards and expectations, who believes every child, given the right support, can learn English well and who creates the facilitating conditions for success, will achieve more. There have to be clear English language expectations for primary school graduates before they enter into secondary school. Strategies should be in place to bring about change that would enable the teachers to achieve those outcomes. There has to be constant review and evaluation of progress to ensure that the strategies are working. These include curriculum design, learning and teaching methodologies, joint lesson planning, peer observation, and networking with other schools to share ideas, exchange experiences and engage in professional discussion for development. All these require strong commitment and leadership from the principal who has to bring colleagues on board, as it is only through a common goal that the team will succeed.
10. The other stakeholders are the NETs. In 2002, about half of the primary schools were provided with a NET on a shared basis, with the rest given a cash grant to employ English Language Teaching Assistant. This year all public sector primary schools have been provided with a shared NET. The presence of a NET in the school is a strong catalyst to put into place changes that will have positive impact on our children's English language learning. The NETs bring to our schools an authentic English speaking environment, increased opportunities both for our English teachers and children to gain exposure to English use, and innovative and different practices of English learning and teaching from their respective countries to be shared with all of you.
11. In the past year, the schools and Primary NETs have worked on collaboration and shared ownership, which is a key condition for the success of the Scheme. Already there have been positive changes, but I must stress that the NETs can only add value. We have to remember that there are 314 NETs in primary schools in Hong Kong against over 7,000 local English Language teachers. While NETs bring in their expertise and knowledge and English teaching proficiency from overseas, we also have the experience and expertise of our local teachers to help our students. Our teachers have worked hard under very trying circumstances and HK will benefit from cross fertilisation of both local and foreign ideas and philosophies in teaching and learning, as well as in education and finding the approach that works best for our children.
12. To our Native-speaking English teachers, I must say you have come into a very different environment from the one back home, and I speak especially for the new cohort of NETs this year. I am sure the experiences of NETs last year would have been quite interesting. Some seem to have settled quite well as I hear, and some may need a bit more time to adjust, which is understandable. What I wish to say is that progress comes by addressing diversity and riding on our previous experiences, and that the meeting of East and West will eventually bring the greatest benefits to our young people, our students. The practices that you bring may need to be adapted and it is important that there is sufficient communication among all parties concerned in the interests of our students before bringing about structured change. We should never get into a situation where we throw the baby out with the bathwater.
13. Our key stakeholders are local teachers and the English Panel chairs. They form the backbone of our education system, and are the major driving force behind our pursuit for English excellence in primary schools. It is imperative that we should provide resources and professional assistance to support the professional development of our local teachers and to upgrade their language awareness and proficiency. It is equally important for our teachers to appreciate the urgency of the task on hand, to seize every opportunity for professional development, to be open-minded about new ideas, to be willing to take risk and try out new teaching approaches, to take responsibility for their students' English proficiency, to have confidence that they can make a difference, and to persist and insist in the face of difficulties. The Advisory Teaching Team and all other English Language sections in the EMB stand ready to provide support and professional assistance. Your dedication and commitment to our students is crucial to our success.
14. Last but not the least - our stakeholders include the parents. They have placed their children's future in our hands. They have a right to demand the best from us. And we have the obligation to fulfill these aspirations. Enhanced communication with parents and their involvement in their children's education are necessary to create an environment inside as well as away from school to support the learning of English.
15. Society has entrusted us with a noble task to educate our children so that they will have the best possible grasp of the English language. It is not going to be an easy task. For those of us who have mastered the language, it is easy to forget that at one time, we too might have wondered why there is no egg in eggplant, no ham in hamburger; why quicksand takes you down slowly, a guinea pig in not from Guinea nor is it a pig; if horrific means to make horrible, why doesn't terrific mean to make terrible. As English teachers, you have to face these confounding questions from students. English is not an easy language for foreigner learners, but if one-quarter of the population on earth can speak English, and given Hong Kong's historical legacy and the Government's determination to implement the language policy of "biliteracy and trilingualism", there is no reason why our children cannot master the English language.
16. Our success will depend on our determination and collective efforts. If each of us present here today could play our part conscientiously when we touch our children's English language education, we will succeed. Let us pledge to realize : "English Excellence in a World City" and have faith that "We Can Do it Together".