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Speech by SEM on "Promoting the use of English" Motion Debate

Speech by SEM on "Promoting the use of English" Motion Debate At the Legislative Council Meeting on 22 January 2003

Following is the speech by the Secretary for Education and Manpower, Professor Arthur K C Li, in the motion debate on "Promoting the use of English in Hong Kong" at the Legislative Council today (January 22) (English only):

Madam President,

Let me join my honourable friend, the Chief Secretary for Administration, in thanking the Hon Mrs Selina Chow for introducing today's motion. The Chief Secretary and Members of this Council have already spoken extensively on the importance of English to Hong Kong both at present and in the future. I do not intend to elaborate on this point.

While the Chief Secretary has given Members a detailed account of the measures taken by the Government to ensure that English will remain one of our two official languages, I would like to bring to Members' attention what the Government has been doing to promote the use of English among our students and working adults. In fact, we are already doing what many Members have suggested.

Use of English among primary and secondary students

English language has long been part of the core curriculum of local schools. Students learn the language throughout the nine years of their basic education, with some 17% to 21% of their curriculum being devoted to the subject. We are also aware that most of our school children are exposed to English even before they start their primary education. A survey conducted by the Education Department in May 2000 found that almost all of the kindergartens surveyed provided some form of English learning for pre-primary children under their care.

Notwithstanding the fact that our students spend thousands of hours learning the language, employers are expressing increasing concern over the decline in English proficiency, particularly in spoken English, among their employees. This is an issue that has given rise to much debate in the community. Educators, parents and employers are all asking, "that is wrong with the way we are teaching English in schools?"

The problem was captured succinctly in the Consultation Document on English Language Education issued by the Curriculum Development Council (CDC) in November 2000. It reads, "In many local English language classrooms, considerable emphasis has been placed on helping learners master the language forms (including vocabulary, text-types, grammar items and structures), communicative functions, and skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing. Mastery of these learning elements is no doubt important and should continue to be promoted in the language classroom. However, mechanical drilling of these elements in isolated contexts is unmotivating and can hardly bring about effective language learning. This, together with the lack of a language-rich environment in Hong Kong, presents challenges for teachers of English."

The problem is not new. We have frequently heard from teachers about students lacking confidence in using English outside the classroom. Their English is also often described as 'text-book', as opposed to 'authentic' - the kind we come into contact with in real life situations and in the English media.

To address these concerns, the curriculum reform, which is an integral part of the education reform started in 2000, advocates providing students with more opportunities to use English for purposeful communication both inside and outside the classrooms. Teachers are encouraged to focus on the cultivation of the reading habit, the use of information technology, and the adoption of innovative teaching methods such as language games and creative projects, so that students will be motivated to learn the language. Teaching English in a small-class setting is indeed one of the means, and is already being practised in some schools.

The Standing Committee on Language Education and Research (SCOLAR) supports this direction of change. In the report of its recently completed review of language education in Hong Kong, SCOLAR emphasises the need to motivate students in language learning, and calls upon teachers, the school management, parents and the wider community to work together, with a view to creating an environment more conducive to language learning.

In summary, SCOLAR recommends that the school management should create an environment that provides more opportunities for students to use English. English teachers should improve their teaching methods to arouse interest. They should also adopt a curriculum that suits the particular needs, interests and ability levels of their students. Parents should support the curriculum reform and cultivate in their children the habit to read. Last but not least, teachers, parents and students should make better use of the mass media, particularly television programmes in English, as a resource for learning the English language.

Among the many recommendations of SCOLAR and the large variety of Government initiatives to support the curriculum reform, I would like to highlight some examples to illustrate what we have been doing and will be doing to promote the use of English among students. I shall go into some detail about the Native-speaking English Teacher (NET) Schemes, co-curricular activities that encourage the use of English outside the classroom, the campaign to promote reading extensively in English, and a pilot project to use television programmes for English learning and teaching.

Native-speaking English Teacher (NET) Schemes

The Native-speaking English Teachers (NETs) Schemes are important means by which the Government seeks to enrich the language environment in schools, to bolster students' confidence in using English to communicate, and to introduce a wider variety of English teaching methods. We believe the presence of NETs in our schools will encourage the use of English not only among our students but also among our teachers.

NETs have been teaching in a number of our secondary schools under the Expatriate English Language Teacher Pilot Scheme since 1987. To extend the benefit to all public sector secondary schools, we launched the enhanced NET Scheme in September 1998 to provide one NET for each school. Schools using Chinese as the medium of instruction may employ a second NET. In the current school year, 471 NETs are working in 430 secondary schools.

We have further extended the NET Scheme to public sector primary schools this school year. We intend to provide one NET for every two primary schools that apply to the Scheme, and have so far recruited 167 NETs to work with 334 primary schools. The remaining 298 primary schools that have not yet had the opportunity to share a NET are provided with cash grants of $150,000 each to hire the services of native-speaking English Language Teaching Assistants (ELTAs). We have already started a new recruitment exercise and aim to recruit all the NETs we need in the 2003/04 school year.

In terms of outcome, a study sponsored by the Language Fund and completed in 2001 indicated that the NET Scheme for secondary schools had yielded positive results. It has been successful in enriching the language environment and helping to diversify teaching methods among our secondary schools. Nevertheless, professional exchange and collaboration between local English teachers and the NETs should be further promoted.

In its review report, SCOLAR recommends that the Government should ensure the NETs in both primary and secondary schools are properly deployed to achieve the objectives of the two Schemes. To provide professional support to the primary schools and the NETs involved, we have set up an Advisory Teaching Team consisting of 20 NETs and 20 local teachers seconded from schools. The Team provides centralised professional development programmes on a monthly basis for the NETs and the local English teachers who work as their partners. It gathers and disseminates good practices in the teaching and learning of English, and promotes the exchange and collaboration between local English teachers and the NETs.

Co-curricular activities

In addition to ensuring the effective deployment of NETs, SCOLAR recommends that the school management should explore and provide experiential learning opportunities for students to practise and develop their language skills. One example is the English language camps jointly organised by SCOLAR and the Education Department in March 2002 with support from the Language Fund. A total of 8,200 primary school students participated in fun-filled activities led by 2,500 students from secondary schools in day-camps held on two Saturdays. Evaluation reveals that these activities have been useful in enhancing the interest and confidence of primary school students in using English and in developing leadership among secondary school students.

We shall continue to provide financial and professional support to schools that wish to organise English language camps. We shall also encourage our schools to organise more co-curricular activities such as English days, debates, speech and drama competitions. We believe the NETs will be a useful resource, who will play an important part in the planning and organisation of such activities. Schools can also explore the possibilities of working with business organisations, alumni, and sister schools both inside and outside Hong Kong to provide immersion programmes or placements in local commercial firms.

Promotion of reading campaign

In order to motivate students to learn and use English more extensively, we have to maximise their exposure to the language outside the classroom. One way of achieving this is to nurture an interest in and a habit of reading extensively in English. Since 1997/98, we have progressively extended the English Extensive Reading Scheme to all school levels. An English Extensive Reading Grant is given to schools for the purchase of reading materials in English. The Quality Education Fund has also sponsored over 270 projects that aim at promoting reading among pupils all the way from the pre-primary to the secondary level.

In May 2002, the Education Department set up a task force to map out a comprehensive strategy to promote reading among students. Schools have been asked to incorporate reading into their school plans, and a focused school development programme is being developed to support schools in this effort. Teachers are being trained to help their Primary One to Three students learn to read. They will in turn conduct workshops for parents on how to help their children learn to read at home. Action research on approaches to promote reading and their impact on learning will be conducted. Lists of quality reading materials will be compiled and good practices in promoting a reading culture will be disseminated for the reference of schools. In addition, promotional activities will be arranged in collaboration with public libraries, the Hong Kong Education City, television and radio stations, to publicise the importance of reading throughout 2003.

SCOLAR supports these continuous efforts to promote reading among students. In its review report, it draws special attention to the great influence parents have over their children's reading habit. Parents should themselves develop a reading habit, take their children to libraries regularly, help them select high quality reading materials, and spend time reading with them. These are simple suggestions for parents who want their children to develop an interest in reading.

The 'English in the Air' project

Apart from the print media, the electronic media can also be used to increase students' exposure to so-called 'authentic English'. In Hong Kong, we have two local television channels and four radio channels that provide free English programmes. SCOLAR found in a survey conducted in March 2002 that television was by far more popular among students. Those who watched English television programmes were far more motivated to learn the language. Yet 36% of the students surveyed said they never or very seldom watched English programmes.

To encourage more students and teachers to learn and teach through English television programmes, SCOLAR has launched a pilot project with the support of the Language Fund. Two entertaining television programmes (see Footnote 1) targetting the teenaged audience have been selected on the advice of teachers and students to serve as the basis of a series of exercises, games and activities focusing on English, and the resources will be made available at a website (see Footnote 2) specially designed by the Hong Kong Education City. Teachers and students can access the resources whenever and wherever they find convenient. The project will be launched in the second half of the 2002/03 school year. Information on it has been disseminated to schools and parent-teacher associations. We believe this is a worthwhile project and would urge all teachers and parents to encourage students to watch the programmes and attempt the online exercises and activities. Teachers may also wish to integrate these resources into their curriculum or adapt them for use in co-curricular activities.

Medium of Instruction (MOI) policy

Having reviewed what is being done to improve the effectiveness of English teaching and learning in schools, I feel obliged to address briefly the distinction between learning English as a second language and adopting it as a medium of instruction. It has been widely held that using English as the medium of instruction will improve students' English proficiency through increased exposure and use. Some people therefore argue that teaching in Chinese (or any other language) will reduce exposure to English and is unfavourable to the development of English proficiency. They even attribute the decline in English proficiency among university graduates in recent years to the adoption of Chinese as the medium of instruction in secondary schools.

First of all, I must point out that the first batch of students affected by the Medium of Instruction Guidance for Secondary Schools are still in Secondary Five at the moment. In fact, most of the university graduates currently in the workforce have come from schools that claimed to have adopted English as the medium of instruction. There is no evidence of any direct causal link between English proficiency and the medium of instruction in their secondary schools.

What is really important is that all schools, irrespective of the medium of instruction, should provide a congenial environment for language learning. This is precisely the rationale for the whole range of support measures we have introduced, including the NET Schemes and the provision of teaching resources. We do recognise that more should be done and we shall not relent our efforts in this direction. A number of studies have in fact been commissioned to explore ways of enriching the language environment in both Chinese-medium and English-medium schools to help students achieve better English competence. Support strategy and measures to help Secondary One students adapt to the learning environment in English-medium schools are being explored, and an enrichment programme to increase the exposure to English among Secondary Two and Three students in Chinese-medium schools is being tested. We expect these studies to be completed by the end of 2004.

Nevertheless, we do appreciate the concern over insufficient exposure to English of students studying in Chinese-medium schools. For these schools, the Government has provided a package of support measures, including the provision of additional English teachers and additional grants for purchasing equipment and books. As mentioned earlier, their schools may also have a second NET.

Capability of language teachers

The NET Scheme may have been put in place, but some still argue that improvements to English teaching and learning are not possible without competent local English teachers. Members are familiar with the effort we have made in recent years to assure the English proficiency of these teachers. The Language Proficiency Requirement for English Teachers (see Footnote 3) was announced in September 2000. By the 2006/07 school year, all teachers teaching English language in our primary and secondary schools, be they serving teachers or new to the profession, will have met the Requirement.

From the current academic year, the Government has also started to provide overseas immersion for all would-be English teachers as a mandatory part of their training programme. The immersion experience will not only help them master the English language, but also increase their understanding of the culture from which the language draws its vitality.

In addition to being proficient in the language, effective English teachers should also be well-versed in subject knowledge and teaching methods. To ensure that all new teachers have adequate training in these two areas, SCOLAR has recommended in its review report that schools should, as far as possible, recruit English teachers with a Bachelor of Education degree in English language, or a first degree in English language or English literature plus a Postgraduate Diploma or Certificate in Education majoring in English. We have heard comments both for and against this recommendation, and will listen to all views expressed during the public consultation exercise conducted on SCOLAR's review report.

Use of English among university students

Students at local universities will continue to be exposed to English, which is the medium of instruction for most programmes of studies and the target of a variety of language enhancement programmes provided by their universities. Since 1991, the University Grants Committee (UGC) has been allocating Language Enhancement Grants to the UGC-funded institutions on top of their triennial block grants. Over the past 12 years, a total of $785 million has been disbursed to these institutions to support a wide range of courses designed to enhance students' English proficiency. Some of the courses aim at equipping first-year students with the English language skills required for academic studies at the tertiary level. Others address the needs and characteristics of particular disciplines and professions.

To raise university students' awareness of the importance of English proficiency and to encourage them to work harder at improving their English, the UGC has recently adopted the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) as a common English proficiency assessment. Starting from this academic year, graduating students in UGC-funded institutions may take the assessment on a voluntary basis and receive reimbursement of test fees.

SCOLAR is also planning to consult human resources experts to determine the band scores of the test that reflect the level of English proficiency employers expect of university graduates. Professional bodies are also encouraged to specify the level of English proficiency they wish to set for their own professions, with reference to the IELTS band scores. Such initiatives should provide university students and professionals under training a useful reference and a clear standard to work towards.

Use of English among working adults

To maintain the importance and upgrade the standard of English in Hong Kong, promoting the use of English among students is not enough. Effort must be made to raise the awareness of the working population, and encourage them to improve their mastery of the language even after they have left school. To provide incentive, SCOLAR recommends that employers set clear language requirements for recruitment and promotion. And, for working adults seeking to improve their English proficiency, the Government has in recent years provided a variety of subsidies and training programmes.

One example is the Workplace English Campaign launched with the support of the Language Fund in February 2000. Its Funding Scheme subsidises the attendance of training by individual employees, and the development of Workplace English courses by professional and trade organisations to meet their particular training needs. By the end of 2002, about $38 million has been disbursed to or set aside for a total of 22,000 approved applications for subsidies from employees. As for course development, applications for 17 training courses have been approved, involving the commitment of $1.3 million. The trades and professions that have benefited from the scheme include taxi, import/export, legal and accounting services.

Besides the Workplace English Campaign, the Continuing Education Fund which was launched in June 2002 also provides subsidies for training in English to non-degree-holders aged 18 to 60. So far, over 1,500 applications for English training subsidies have been approved.

Furthermore, English training programmes are available from the Employee Retraining Board and as part of the vocational education and training courses offered by the Vocational Training Council (VTC). Work-related English training for employees is also provided under the Skills Upgrading Scheme for employees in different industry sectors, e.g. the retail, hairdressing, import/export and real estate service industries.

Setting and assessing standards

Some Members may say, "Well, these policies and measures are commendable. But how do we know they are indeed effective in raising the population's English standards?" I agree that while we push forward the curriculum reform and continue to support different forms of language training for students and working adults, we also need to set an English standard to be attained and to develop tools for assessment.

In this connection, SCOLAR has recommended in its review that basic competencies in English listening, speaking, reading and writing should be specified for school students, university graduates and professional groups. These basic competencies should be clearly defined in statements describing what the individual in question is capable of in terms of using the English language, which are to be accompanied by writing and speaking samples. The descriptors of the basic competencies for primary and secondary students, for instance, are already being developed and shall be tried out and validated by the end of 2004.

To ensure the basic competencies developed will cater to workplace needs, SCOLAR invites employers and professional bodies to participate in setting the basic competencies for students and working adults who have completed Secondary Three, Five and Seven, as well as undergraduate and professional studies. By adopting them as language requirement for recruitment and promotion, employers could also help to motivate students and working adults to work towards achieving these basic competencies.

And to monitor if our students, graduates and professionals are meeting the basic competencies set for their respective groups, SCOLAR recommends that a set of assessment tools be developed. The Basic Competency Assessment, which will be the tool for assessing the achievement of basic competencies among students in Primary One to Secondary Three, will become available in phases starting from the coming school year to 2006. The Hong Kong Certificate of Education (HKCE) and Hong Kong Advanced Level (HKAL) examinations on Chinese and English will, on the other hand, become the tools for assessing the achievement of basic competencies by students in Secondary Five and Secondary Seven. SCOLAR recommends that these HKCE and HKAL examinations should be reformed to set their grade levels against specified standards in 2007 and 2009 respectively. In the future standards-referenced HKCE English Language examination for instance, Grade E should be set against the basic competencies for Secondary Five.

After we have measured our students against these standards, we shall be able to identify who will require additional help to achieve the basic competencies expected of them, and shall channel resources to where they should be directed.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that all sectors of the community must work together to promote the use and learning of English. Educators, parents, employers and learners themselves must each play their part. In expressing our support for today's motion, we look to this Council and the community at large for active participation and support as we strive to maintain and strengthen our population's ability to use English as one of the two official languages in Hong Kong.

Madam President, with these words I support the motion. Thank you.


Footnote 1: The two programmes are 'Road Scholars' and 'Lizzie McGuire' that will be broadcast on TVB Pearl every Wednesdays from 6:50 p.m. to 7:20 p.m.. 'Road Scholars' will be aired from 2 February to 26 March 2003, and 'Lizzie McGuire' from 2 April to 20 August 2003.

Footnote 2: The website URL is

Footnote 3: Serving English teachers who were already in the profession in the 2000/01 school year should meet the requirement by the end of the 2005/06 school year. New English teachers entering the profession from the 2001/02 to 2003/04 school years should meet the requirement within two years of their entry. And from the 2004/05 school year onwards, new English teachers will have to meet the requirement before taking up their teaching duties, with the exception of the Classroom Language Assessment which should be completed within one year after.

End/Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Last revision date: 22 January 2003
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