English teaching needs revisiting

The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 03/17/2007 4:07 PM  |  Opinion

Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta

On Feb. 14, Kompas reported that Indonesian children must be equipped with basic English skills in order to have confidence in international interactions. To enable elementary students to be able to communicate in English, the Education Minister will soon try out teaching elementary school English using local content, mainly in big cities like Jakarta, Bandung, Surabaya, Medan and Denpasar.

The idea of fostering elementary learners to be fluent in a foreign language, especially English, is certainly not a revolutionary one. English lessons are mandated under the national curriculum. Yet its objective, emphasis, as well as its real implementation in schools has remained unclear. The extent to which teaching materials are available and support learning remain equally unclear.

What seems conspicuous is that the English proficiency of many elementary school leavers is a far cry from what is expected. This being the case, one might wonder who should be blamed for the low quality of English language teaching in the country.

Rather than seeking scapegoats, it would be judicious to reflect upon the sources that inhibit the teaching of basic English skills.

To start with, the vaguely formulated curriculum has distorted the implementation of English teaching in elementary schools. School teachers have no clear guidance on the syllabus they employ, what textbooks they are to use, and how they are to assess students’ language performance. Put simply, the programs are not clear.

The problems are further exacerbated by the paucity of higher learning institutions that offer training specializing in teaching English to beginners. The corollary is that teachers at these institution receive little training to develop their professional enterprise to the full.

It has become an axiom that to optimally assist learners in learning and acquiring a language as well as successfully interacting with their peers, a highly skilled teacher is required.

Given the peculiar nature of young language learners, it becomes especially true that teaching them calls for special skill, which can be obtained only through specific training, the curriculum of which is exclusively and specifically designed for young learners.

One could argue, however, that a teacher needs a sound knowledge of a language for him or her to be able to teach effectively. This definitely sounds true, but a linguistically competent teacher serves only as a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. A linguistically knowledgeable teacher can, for instance, make the students memorize and fathom detailed language rules (as has been the case in recent English teaching), but it does not automatically mean that comprehending rules make them able to communicate fluently or appropriately.

The fact that school leavers are good at understanding language rules and at verbalizing them, yet are unable to use them in daily oral and written communication attests to the above argument.

The government’s agenda of empowering elementary learners with basic English proficiency is laudable. Youth is considered the ideal time for language learning because students are still in “”critical period”” in which language (especially its phonological aspect) is thought to be acquired with ease.

Moreover, young learners generally lack inhibitions and are not as embarrassed as adult learners when learning a language. Thus the younger the learner, it is argued, the more likely he or she will acquire a native-like accent, and the easier learning process might be.

Nevertheless, teaching young language learners is not as simple as one might think. Young learners easily lose interest and become de-motivated if the learning tasks assigned to them are not suitable to their needs. They will also become indifferent unless they like the way the teacher interacts with them.

As a concluding remark, establishing language programs for elementary learners indeed requires a clear educational framework in terms of human resources development, curriculum and syllabus design, teaching material development and other related variables.

The idea of empowering elementary learners with English language proficiency will remain an illusion unless these crucial variables are taken into account.

The writer is chief-editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto@atmajaya.ac.id.

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One thought on “English teaching needs revisiting

  1. Malaysia has the same problems. We might be able to come up with similar solutions. I’m not a big fan of highly structured, top to bottom solutions. Wouldn’t it be ideal if we had, on top of an expected proficiency, a ready pool of extremely talented and committed teachers to wing it. Would it be possible to trust young people to show us how they wish to learn and we simply provide the tools and environment to learn alongside with them?

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