16 March 2016

Raising English competence in Sarawak

By Dr Khin Khin Aye

As countries compete for skilled human power in today’s migratory world, most countries have identified competence in English as a skill that opens the doors of education, training and employment for their youth, and an important tool for the country’s global trade, commerce and industry. In the past, Sarawak, with its strong tradition of education in the English language had had an advantage of good English over several ASEAN neighbours but this advantage has been steadily eroded through unfortunate policy shifts and changes over the years, and the time has come to halt the decline.

To do so requires political will, planning, implementation and monitoring of an outcome-based policy that integrates a top-down approach with a lively classroom, grass-roots approach, all of which must address the needs and wants of three parties involved in any teaching situation: the teachers, learners and parents.

Applying Maslow’s psychological theory could give the planners a framework on which to build their master-plan to re-establish Sarawak as a state known for its mastery of English.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in developmental psychology introduced in 1943 by Abraham Maslow to explain human motivation system. Through this theory, Maslow explains that people’s motivation is driven by their hierarchical levels of needs and they rise through working to satisfy one level of need after another. People’s physical needs, security, love or belonging and esteem are termed basic needs, without which they would feel hungry, insecure, unconfident and tense while the higher, self-actualization needs are needs to realize one’s full potential.

According to Maslow’s theory, people are motivated to work hard for something when they feel the need for it. If teachers do not feel the need to expand their skills to keep pace with changing times, no top-down policy will move them to do so. Hence, the first step is to win the teachers over through a strategy of support and rewards. Support could be in the form of shorter teaching hours to accommodate in-service training, smaller classes, embedding of English into school subjects and assessments, audio-visual and media rooms for language learning, and so on. Rewards could be recognition in the form of promotions, salary increments, bonuses or scholarships and study leave without loss of seniority, depending on the level of their achievements. Rewards could also come through competitions for the good teacher, the good student, the good school, at school, neighbourhood, district and state level.

The second step is creating a felt need for English among students. This could be accomplished through the teachers who design classroom activities that involve students using English in a fun way so that even if students who do not need to use English outside their classroom will want to learn it. For example, role-play, story-telling, puppetry, emailing students in other parts of the world, or any meaningful activities which bring real communication into the classroom are likely to motivate students into wanting to use the language. Other activities include classroom, school, inter-school, district and state level debate tournaments, story-telling competitions, essay competitions, drama competitions, etc. They can be platforms that encourage and motivate the students to work harder at their English.

This framework will not be complete without bringing in parents’ collaboration into the picture: parents’ support is a key element. Creating parental awareness of the significance of competence in English, communicating with parents their children’s progress in English, inviting them to see their children’s performance in English and such parent-school collaboration will aid the state in implementing the mission of raising the level of English competence throughout Sarawak because the learning of English will happen not only at school, but also at home, where children spend much of their time.

From the state’s perspective, it may be good to consider whether the English language subjects in the school leaving examination could better reflect the state’s long-term goal of reclaiming Sarawak as a place known for its communicative competence in English. Key examinations tend to have a washback effect on the manner of teaching and learning in the classroom.

In a nutshell, keeping in mind Maslow’s framework of needs, with the state laying a long-term, practical, attractive plan, it is possible to win teachers, learners and parents over to a perceived need for English, and when the blueprint is well carried out, to a perceived want for it. This is akin to equipping children with a second pair of shoes – running shoes, the first being the national language. Children need shoes to go to school, but nowadays children do not just need their feet to be shod – they want branded shoes for running. The point is that we need to move from a situation of “no need” to “need” to “want”.

Dr Khin Khin Aye is a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at kaye@swinburne.edu.my