Thursday, 26 June 2014

getting to their level

There has been a lot of heat recently when a PHD student wrote a public open letter to a rather controversial yet popular news webpage, telling teachers to use L2 instead of L1 in the classrooms and was very against word-to-word translation, indirectly blaming Malaysian English teachers for the downfall of the overall English proficiency among students.

To be perfectly honest, while I feel victimised by her opinions, I looked at the teachers around me and would give her credit to a certain extent.

Of course, no language teachers would choose to teach the target language in the students' mother's tongue if they have a choice. Speaking for myself, I would choose to teach in English above all else in a really ideal situation. But how often do we get an ideal classroom?

The truth is, there are HEAPS of lazy teachers.

Those who are only concern about their salary and their 'claims', those who do not enter classes, those who enter classes but do not teach, those who never even bother coming to school, those who leave the school way before they should, those who use school hours to run personal errands, those who hand out answers to students during exams to ensure his/her class score well, those who never step foot in the school assembly, those who eat in the canteen during school assembly, those who get students to run tasks for them while they laze at their couch smoking, those who blatantly stand up and leave the meeting room even when the principal is still giving his speech, those who are more concern about selling things than their lesson plans, those who constantly trying on the array of tudung, those who do not enter the exam classes to invigilate and give students the permission to cheat, and those who take the easy way out.

(the examples above are found in my school.)

And I have also come across English teachers who teach in L1, simply because they do not have the competency in L2.

There is an obvious lack of creativity, passion and dedication among many of our teachers. Of course they have to take the blame to a certain extent, but I also see the great burnt out as well as lack of motivation amongst them, simply because many of us are stuck in very discouraging situation.

Most of them are struggling with long-distance-marriage, our students are a tough bunch to teach, the students' parents do not value education, and mostly, for the bright and enthusiastic teachers, their fuel easily runs out simply as there is a great lack of professional development, acknowledgement or even support.

I really enjoyed my time teaching the Catholic High Students. They are highly proficient, witty, and a whole lot of fun to teach. Not only was I able to apply whatever I've learned in teaching, I taught only in English, was able to maximise my lessons with help of technology, and students often surprised me with their end product.

But now,

I teach in a high school in Gua Musang, Kelantan.

We were apparently ranked at the very bottom of the high schools in Kelantan, and Kelantan's SPM achievement was at the bottom tier out of the 13 states.

To better show you my students' level, here's a glance of their recent results:

Most of them scored below 25 marks and those marks are already from their effort in cheating during test. (3 out of 5 classes admitted to cheating when I threatened to retest them after seeing the obvious attempts in cheating; while the other 2 were just too weak to even cheat).

I don't know whose fault is it that at the age of 14 - 17, many still can't identify the meanings of very basic vocabulary such as 'trees' and 'bread'. I wanted to blame their previous teachers but then again when I tried my hardest to teach them, they seemed to have learned it well on that lesson but very soon forget everything the next day and even had the guts to claim that I had never taught them that before.


It is a profession that brings you a lot of disappointment, if you fully invest yourself in it.

It is a profession where your pay does not equate to the time and effort of your toil.

It is a profession with the highest risk of stress-related illness.

It is a profession with little respect and regard in our country.

It is a profession highly misunderstood by many.

It is a profession you either hate or love.

But, when you have GOOD TEACHING DAYS, or a simple ACKNOWLEDGEMENT or APPRECIATION from your students,


Satisfaction, pride, relief, joy..... It is also a profession that brings you meaningful experiences.

I would not bash this particular person for her opinions, as she does have valid points; but as a senior of mine had pointed out, WE WANT TO BE SHOWN WHAT TO DO.

To be fair,

I give you the situation of my classroom, and how I handled it. I am open for constructive feedback, as I believe that's how we actually learn to be a better teacher.

I have a class of 41 students, aged 14. They are a mixture of Malays, Chinese and Asli.

Here's the thing, only 2 out of 41 could make simple sentences, very simple SVO or SVC type of sentences.

The other 39 couldn't even tell me what's the past tense of 'sing' and have yet produced a single, unguided, error-free sentence. I can safely say, they are only at 'word-level'. I even had them tested and out of the first 1000 common English words, most of them scored 50 and below. We are talking about them not even knowing the meaning of 'care', or able to differentiate 'you' and 'your'.

The Chinese students to my horror, could not understand Malay. Possibly due to their family background and the strong racial sentiment in this place, they would rather fail in the Malay language.

The Malay kids are not even proficient in Malay, as they use the 'Kelate' dialect. I have been using 'Standard Malay' for my translation and even that proved to be hard for the students. Interestingly, the Asli students were the ones with better Malay proficiency, having learned it the 'baku' way.

We could easily say that to them, English has never been a L2. It is FOREIGN.

Now, the question is,


Do be mindful that in any Malaysian classroom, we are very time-constrained and are expected to finish our syllabus before their exams while our classes are often cancelled due to many school programmes and constant new launches by the government from time to time.

As for me,


The other 70% consists of explanation in Malay as well as Mandarin, followed by a lot of drawing and acting. I even had to use their different L1 to elicit responses in English from them.

The poem I had to teach was 'The River' by Valerie Bloom.

Using google image, I sourced for pictures, and drew them onto a Manila card.

Then I started off my lesson asking them in their L1, what comes to their mind when they think of a river.
Their answers were, "water, stones, fish."
Yup, that's all they could offer as a whole class.

I then proceeded to write six words on the board - Wanderer, Winder, Hoarder, Singer, Baby, Monster. 'Which of these words, do you already know its meaning?'

Not a surprise, they could only identify 'Baby' while a few boys yelled out 'Monster'. I was actually taken aback that none of them knew 'Singer'.

I then explained each of those words with a mixture of L1 and L2, and got the students to match my pictures with the 6 words. Thankfully, it was easily achieved.

As none of them brought their literature textbook (though I repeatedly reminded them before), I had to write down the poem, stanza by stanza on the board, explain to them word for word, and make sure they copy down neatly in their writing books.

As you can very well see, I had to teach in three languages.

At the end of the lesson, I tested their vocabulary by yelling out the L1 of the words, and having them give me the answer in English. Even the weakest in the class was able to provide me the right answer, which was a relief to me.

Lastly, I told them to draw the different characteristics or persona of the river beside their notes, in hopes that it will help them to remember better.

So that was how I taught the poem of The River in 70 minutes to this particular class.

Even if I tried, I would have not been able to teach completely in L1 for my lesson objectives to be achieved. It could be of my own lacking, so I would really like to know, how would you have taught differently with this particular group of students?

Any form of suggestions and ideas would be very much appreciated, as I truly want to be shown of new ways / perspective / techniques to teach my students.

If you feel like commenting on a more personal space, feel free to drop me an email on

If you are a fellow teacher and wishes to collaborate in any way (I have actually done quite a number of collaborations and thoroughly enjoy them), do drop me an email too :)

That's all for today,

God bless~

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