When teachers don’t speak English

When teachers don’t speak English
Taken from JP; Saturday, April 28, 2007
Jan E. Dormer, Malang

Effective foreign language learning in school requires the presence of a good teacher and textbook combined with appropriate methodology.

Qualified English teachers are lacking in Indonesia, therefore, schools will often use teachers who have very limited English language skills. The textbook then becomes the only language source in the classroom.

If language is learned solely from a book, we can assume that only reading and writing skills in the target language will be learned. Speaking and listening will not be taught, thus, students will not learn to communicate orally. Furthermore, locally produced English textbooks frequently contain many errors. But the greatest drawback in the classroom is when the teacher does not speak English and fails to engage their students in speaking practice. English then becomes a drudgery of bookwork and grammar rules instead of a way to communicate interesting ideas.

Appropriate and effective language-teaching methods are needed. The government has adopted some of the latest approaches and methodologies, including “communicative language learning” and “competency-based” curriculum. Indeed this is a good start, but unfortunately these new ideas are not explained clearly enough to teachers.

I have often seen very puzzled looks on the faces of teachers when asked to describe how their classes are “communicative” or “competency-based”. Many seem to not know what these terms really mean, or what kinds of classroom activities do or do not support them.

Teachers rarely receive sufficient training, and so they often resort to lessons in grammar, which invariably do not result in the students being able to speak, listen, read and write in the target language.

The evaluation system must support, not drive, language learning. Teachers complain that they should not have to conduct communicative activities because “it won’t be on the test”, and there is not enough teaching time to engage in learning that won’t be tested.

Schools rarely have sufficient funding or appropriate personnel to provide testing of oral language skills. Does this mean that oral language skills should not be taught? A bigger problem is the fact that some tests have been found to actually contain language errors. These poorly-designed tests sometimes end up setting the language-learning standard. In education, this is called a “negative washback”.

Is there any solution to overcome these problems?

Teachers need to be given the opportunity to develop their English skills.

The standard of methodology also needs to be raised. Effective language-teaching techniques are not difficult or complicated, and effective training would be very beneficial.

The current national curriculum embraces the teaching of oral communicative skills. However, many teachers do not teach communicative skills because they are not specifically tested. This problem can be avoided if the test writers focus on well-written communicative items. Even though a test may be taken in written form, it can still focus primarily on communicative skills.

Another issue is time. Many experts believe that elementary school is the ideal time for foreign language learning. If this is the case, why not allot more time for language learning in elementary school? In my experience, children in lower elementary school who have one 40-minute period of English per week are largely wasting their time. If the total elementary school allotted time for learning English was concentrated in grades 4-6, giving children 3-4 hours per week, the potential for language learning would increase.

When teachers are able to speak English fluently and correctly and they use good methodology, their students’ English language proficiency is almost virtually guaranteed.

The writer is the director of the Nusantara Educational Institute, which focuses on teacher development, and specifically on the training of language teachers.

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3 thoughts on “When teachers don’t speak English

  1. Dear Pak Irwan

    I think I can recommend you to a foreigner I know.
    May I know where you live and in which school you teach.

    Best regards,
    Pak Yusuf

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