23 January 2010 (Saturday)
3+3+4 Symposium on Language Outcomes for University Graduates
Speech by Mr. Michael M Y Suen, GBS, JP
Secretary for Education
Professor Ng, Professor Chan, Mr Stone, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Good morning. It gives me great pleasure to address this distinguished audience comprising education professionals, and members from different sectors of the community.
Let me first thank the hosting institutions, the City University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Baptist University, for affording me the opportunity to speak on this special occasion. I have been asked to speak on “University language education and its impact on global competitiveness”. This is a topic I attach great importance to, and I am delighted to share my views with you.
I hear many people characterising our era as one full of challenges and opportunities. I agree. And I do believe that we need to do our best to ensure that our workforce is versatile and possesses the requisite knowledge base to sustain the continual development of Hong Kong and to maintain its competitiveness as Asia’s World City. We must be well equipped to exploit the rapid changes of the world economy and to play a part in China’s development as a key world power. The new academic structure for senior and tertiary education, as part of our education reform, is implemented in part to respond to this need. Apart from enhancing students’ capacity for lifelong learning and whole-person development, we also seek to nurture biliteracy and trilingualism among our young people.
Tertiary institutions have an indispensible role to play in ensuring that we have a quality workforce. It goes without saying that the Government and the education sector must play an equally complementary role of underpinning by keeping our secondary and primary education abreast of demand.
Please allow me to start with basic education. We have undertaken our reform of basic education for a decade. We are pleased to note that we have produced some positive results. In the past few years, our students have been making significant progress in English and Chinese. For example, Hong Kong students ranked second and third in reading literacy in Chinese in PIRLS and PISA conducted in 2006 respectively. The findings of a local study on PIRLS in 2007 also show that the mean score of our students’ English literacy has increased by 11% since 2004, and that 24% of them, as compared with only 8% in 2004, have reached the literacy level of a native English student. These, by any standard, are significant improvements.
I am confident that this process of making meaningful improvements will continue. This underpins our guarded optimism that we do expect our students to achieve a high level of language proficiency under the new senior secondary curriculum.
I will go on to explain how the new curriculum seeks to lay the essential ground work for tertiary education.
When we introduced the new academic structure in September last year, an enhanced three-year senior secondary curriculum for both the subjects of Chinese Language and English Language was put into effect. It aims to extend the language competencies students have previously developed and to further enhance their interest and confidence in using the languages as tools for learning, thinking and communication.
A range of new features have been introduced into both language subjects, notably the Elective Modules comprising fiction, drama, popular culture, journalistic writing, Putonghua communication and application, and so on. They not only help cater for students’ diverse needs, interests and abilities, but also add interest and purpose to language learning.
We understand that successful implementation of the curriculum is made possible by effective learning, teaching and assessment. To motivate interest in language learning and to nurture critical thinking and creativity, we encourage teachers to adopt and flexibly apply an extensive range of approaches and strategies.
In the language classroom, students are engaged in meaningful tasks and projects which involve the use of a variety of materials, print and multimedia, verbal and graphic, on different life-related themes or topics. At the same time, students are provided with many opportunities to apply what they have learnt in natural and authentic settings, e.g. making visits to international schools, attending cultural and art performances, and participating in community service programmes conducted in English. Together, these life-wide learning opportunities and pedagogical practices contribute to a language-rich environment, which is vital for broadening students’ exposure and experience.
Regarding assessment, we maintain our belief that it should be used, first and foremost, to improve language learning and teaching. Likewise, for internal assessment, teachers are encouraged to adopt diversified modes of assessment and give timely feedback to help students understand their strengths and weaknesses and identify ways of making improvements.
For public assessment, standards-referenced reporting will play a significant role in promoting assessment for learning. It not only allows students and teachers to know exactly what is required to achieve a particular level of performance, but also provides parents and employers with a clear picture of what students can do in reading, writing, listening and speaking. Some say that School-based Assessment (SBA) serves as a critical tool for providing constructive feedback on student work and assessing those aspects of learning which cannot be easily assessed in written examinations. I do not want to take issue with this view but I am concerned whether we are going about it in the best way possible. I do hope that views on this topic will be deliberated by you all on the basis of your own experiences today.
Our work on the two language subjects leads us to our conviction that a holistic and coherent whole-school language policy is essential for students’ effective language and cognitive development.
With the implementation of the fine-tuning of our medium of instruction (MOI) policy which will come into effect this September, secondary schools are given the discretion to devise appropriate MOI arrangements for their students. Without undermining, or even compromising the importance of Chinese and its learning effectiveness, the new arrangements will enable schools to enhance the English learning environment by strengthening the extended learning activities conducted in English for content subjects, as well as maximising opportunities for authentic use of the language beyond the classroom. You will have noticed that I just referred to the “enhanced English learning environment”, I mean exactly that. It should not be taken to imply the greater use of English in teaching subject matters, irrespective of the ability of students to comprehend and to digest the subjects being taught. Because the two are distinct and different arrangements.
We will also establish an incentive scholarship from the coming school year onwards. Its purpose is to attract secondary school graduates with good English proficiency to become English language teachers by taking up relevant studies and teacher training at local universities. I do hope that this government initiative and enhancement measure, together with the support from universities, will help enhance the quality of language education in Hong Kong.
Let me now switch to language education at the tertiary level. As I mentioned earlier, Hong Kong needs versatile and resourceful next generations to uphold its competitiveness and to further embed its status as the foremost international city in China so that we can continue to win acceptance of our role as Asia’s World City. I am pleased to see that universities share this vision.
I have just announced two days ago that our tertiary institutions have expressed their support for Level 3 to be the minimum requirement in both Chinese and English in the new HKDSE for entering the 4-year undergraduate programmes. It is sending a strong signal to the community that we are attaching great importance to the language standard of our students.
I am also delighted to know that our tertiary institutions are engaged in the preparation of a curriculum that seeks to deepen students’ learning experiences and allow greater breadth in curriculum choices, one which will foster their growth as progressive and all-rounded individuals.
To my knowledge, most of our institutions are moving towards the outcome-based approach to curriculum planning and development. Under the outcome-based framework, students are allowed a clear picture of the knowledge and skills they need to achieve in the academic courses they study, and are encouraged to take greater responsibility for their own learning. Accordingly, our university language programmes will benefit, as clear, specific learning outcomes will be developed to encourage students to work towards the language standards required for their studies and future employment.
Further, to meet the expectations and needs for higher language standards among our graduates, I understand that our institutions are planning to strengthen the language component of their undergraduate programmes by offering various courses on English and Chinese (including Putonghua) as an integral part of the four-year curriculum for all disciplines. While different institutions may have different ways of organising these language courses, I am sure that they will be rich in content, and carefully designed to support undergraduates in their academic studies. I sincerely hope that undergraduates will be exposed to materials of different kind covering a wide range of topics. They will also be provided with stimulating and meaningful learning activities, such as international exchange with foreign students, intervarsity projects and competitions, or in some cases, placement opportunities which encourage them to apply the language they have learnt in diverse work contexts and to communicate with people from different cultural backgrounds.
A few moments ago, I referred to the language-rich environment that secondary schools are trying to build for their students. I am happy to learn that institutions will do likewise by continuing to create language-rich or even multi-cultural campuses to enhance students’ learning experiences. To this end, a whole range of approaches, strategies and materials will certainly be adopted in class to increase students’ motivation and confidence in language learning. Likewise, self-access language learning as well as language immersion or enrichment programmes will be further promoted.
As our international intake is expanding, I appeal to our institutions to take advantage of this positive development by providing local students with more opportunities or activities to interact with staff and students from different ethnic backgrounds. This will enhance students’ cross-cultural understanding and their motivation for language learning, thus equipping them well for the challenges of globalisation.
Ladies and gentlemen, the quality of our university graduates holds the key to Hong Kong's continued success in a globalised economy. The enhancement of language proficiency and development of a global outlook require the concerted efforts of the Government, the education sector, students, parents, and the community as a whole. With our joint efforts and the rich learning experiences provided by the new academic structure for senior secondary and higher education, I am optimistic that the language standards of our university graduates will improve substantially in the years to come.
I am delighted that this symposium provides a timely opportunity for us to discuss and exchange ideas on this subject of language education in tertiary institutions. I wish you all a rewarding and constructive Symposium.