we declare Your Perfection above and beyond all: we have no knowledge whatsoever except what You have taught us. No doubt it is You, and You alone that is all Knowledgeable and all Wise. (al-Baqarah, 32)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Teaching English - Futile

Note: I have noticed that my brain is functioning much slower lately. I have been in instances where I had to think before a word comes to my mind. So, to exercise my degenerating mental prowess, I have took it upon myself to produce an academic writing during my free time at school. The result is the following, my personal opinion of the teaching of English in rural schools, or to be more specific, the school in which I am teaching in. I wasn't too pleased with the outcome, but as a mental exercise, it serves it's purpose.


Meaning-focused input, form-focused instruction, meaning-focused output, and fluency. The four strands that I was constantly reminded during my student days as the core components of language learning. Through my experience teaching so far (which, admittedly isn't that long), I have come to notice that there are much more factors that come into play before it is even possible to reach the four strands. One tha stands out most to me is not on our part as the educator, but rather on the students and their role in language learning.

One: The first being, the students' own willingness to ingest the input given by the teacher. I have tried my best to use English in my classroom. English, which I gone through a lot of trouble to dumb down to more suit my learners; level. Yet so day, my teaching in English had resulted in futility simply because there is a mental barrier set up in the students' conundrum, almost as if there is a switch that automatically registers English words as unrecognizable gibberish.

The mental barrier condemns the students' language learning to their submission to "I don't know English". strangely enough, I get that sentence (gramatically correct, I might add), so often that proves their statement wrong. One has to wonder that the real situation isn't that they do not understand, but rather, they refuse to understand any input they receive.

Two: The next factor stems the issue that (my) students aren't at all keen in using English. Not in class, and most definitely not outside of it. Without having a consciouss choice to actually practice what they've learnt (also, considering that nothing might have been learnt in the first place!), there will not be a chance for neither meaning-focused output nor fluency practice to take place.

These two factors I propose come from a deep-rooted issue which I have come to identify - the source of why English learning seemed to be such an impossiblity. A point, that I will discuss in my third and final point.

Three: I have conducted a semi-formal interview with a number of my students in my school. The following were the three questions that I asked:

  1. Do you watch English movies/shows?

  2. Do you listen to English music?

  3. Do you like English?
My findings revealed that the vast majority openly voiced their dislike for English movies, even those with feature Malay subtitles. English music fared a little better but the bombshell was that about 90% of them plainly admitted that they do not like English at all (of note, they didn't seem to like most of the other subjects either). Interestingly, my two best students - whose 'best' is most probably comparable to 'mediocre' to the better schools out there - are those who rather enjoy watching and listening to English materials.

It's a clear fact - and I know that my colleagues are surely aware of this - that there is a very strong relation between the students' own interest in a target language and their capacity to learn the language. So perhaps, instead of wasting the effort on actual language teaching, the first step would be by winning the students over to liking the language. The killer question is 'how'. I've tried from storybooks to videos to songs and nothing worked so far. I am at the point where I start to wonder if there is any hope to teach English to (most of) my students.


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