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Saturday, Sep 19, 2020

Are Hong Kong students really poor at English? It depends on how you judge

In Hong Kong schools, English is taught as a second language to equip students with the competence needed for academic purposes. That is what students should be judged on, not their social speaking skills
I refer to the letter from Barry Leung (“Hong Kong school system is to blame for poor English standards among kids”, December 9).

While Mr Leung raised such interesting points as fluency in English, medium of instruction, schools’ compliance with the medium-of-instruction policy, the Education Bureau’s supervisory role and access to quality education, I disagree with his views – based on my experience as a veteran English language teacher who has served in both Chinese as medium of instruction (CMI) and English as medium of instruction (EMI) schools.

Given that English is taught as a second language locally to equip students with the language competence needed for academic purposes, the definition of fluency in this context should refer to a student’s language abilities in academic settings instead of informal social situations. A student who cannot converse casually with a native speaker on the street may still be fluent in an academic discussion.

Undeniably, EMI students are more capable than their CMI counterparts in terms of using English to discuss, analyse and debate extensively on different topics, owing to their richer exposure to field-specific jargon in English.

To narrow the gap between the two groups, the Education Bureau implemented the “medium of instruction fine-tuning policy” for secondary schools in 2010. The policy aimed to allow CMI schools more flexibility in this respect, subject to satisfactory student intake, teachers’ language competence and a conducive English language environment on campus.

Teachers teaching content subjects, such as science or mathematics, in English have to meet the language requirement of having attained Level 6 or above in the International English Language Testing System (academic domain) or equivalent.

Also, if a school wants to open an EMI class, 85 per cent of students admitted for each such class must be “EMI-capable” (as defined by the Education Bureau).

Simply put, there are stringent regulations in place to ensure that schools comply with the medium-of-instruction policy and that students are streamed into EMI and CMI schools according to their language abilities.

Besides inspections carried out by the bureau, school heads are held accountable for ensuring their staff’s adherence to the relevant regulations, so the argument that the medium-of-instruction policy is a laissez-faire one does not hold much water.

Regarding access to quality education, students are assigned to public schools based on merit rather than socioeconomic status, so students’ abilities make up one of the bigger deciding factors. The claim that the underprivileged are denied quality education requires further evidence and research.
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