Anecdotally, most individuals will lament that the current language standards in schools are less than impressive, and that significantly more can be done not just to raise interest amongst students, but also to fundamentally rethink how languages are being taught by educators in institutions. More often than not, strategies implemented by and publicised in the media focus disproportionately upon the former shortcoming – that is, premising methodologies upon the fact that students are woefully uninspired – with newfangled technology-based solutions and innovative teaching-learning pedagogies. Unfortunately, all these efforts would simply go down the drain if the Ministry of Education (MOE) and corresponding stakeholders do not recognise inherent problems with linguistic education.
In my perspective, the challenges and the appropriate proposals are threefold. First, the foundations for language – especially for mother tongues – are not structured sturdily; therefore, greater emphasis has to be placed on strengthening pre-school education. Second, standardised tests and examinations for the languages overwhelming favour writing and comprehension abilities; hence, wider diversification is desired so as to incorporate essential reading, listening and speaking skills. Third, students are bored to tears by the uninspiring and monotonous study materials used to complement the syllabus; consequently, the MOE and schools must be more judicious, flexible, and less rigid in their selection of books and topics for study and discussion in classrooms.
Practice makes perfect; thus, it is no coincidence that students who have had the privilege of being actively exposed to dual languages at home often excel in school and eventually become effectively bilingual. The most straightforward manner in which these teaching-learning measures can be proliferated would be to review and improve the processes adopted in various nurseries and kindergartens. This can be coupled with the official creation of a free-for-all online repository-portal, where resources – such as worksheets, guides and activity planners – can be uploaded for reference and usage by parents. Opportunities are plentiful: strategic partnerships with the National Library Board (NLB) can yield tailored reading lists for different age-groups, and provide additional read-a-long sessions for households within the neighbourhood.
Emphasis on writing-based techniques must also be reduced in the long-run. Particularly for languages like Chinese, starting off with pedantic spelling practises, the memorisation of characters or handwriting exercises would be a recipe for language disaster. Even if eventual national examinations are predicated upon written elements, teachers must be proactive in the incorporation of reading and speaking elements to value-add lessons.
Traditionally, language education has relied heavily – sometimes solely – upon textbook materials per se. The importance of raising interest and proficiency in reading-comprehension and analysis cannot be understated; as students at a more progressive level begin to appreciate the benefits of fluent communication, they will naturally have a greater impetus to heighten their engagement with the language. Inspiring and relevant reading resources will also get them to independently read and learn more. Rather than just having newspaper clippings or morals-laden stories, incorporate current affairs debates or commentaries, satires and even musical lyrics to make the reading experience a truly wholesome, colourful and meaningful one.
A version of this article was published in My Paper.