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SED's speech at conference "Reflections" 2008 (English only)

    Following is a speech by the Secretary for Education, Mr Michael Suen, at the conference "Reflections" 2008 organised by the Cambridge University Hong Kong and China Affairs Society today (July 12):

Ladies and Gentlemen,

    I am delighted to join you this morning.

    Let me first thank the organiser, the University of Cambridge Hong Kong and China Affairs Society, for inviting me to address this gathering of young talent and future leaders of Hong Kong.

    I have chosen the title "Enhancing English Language Proficiency íV A Key to Global Competitiveness". It is a subject that concerns not only you as individuals but also the future of Hong Kong as Asia's world city.

    In June, I attended the fourth Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Education Ministerial Meeting in Lima, Peru, where the education ministers of APEC economies gathered to discuss how to enhance our students' competencies and skills for the 21st century.

    One of the meeting's resolutions was that member economies should give priority to strengthening the learning of foreign languages so as to foster trade and international exchange in general. In this respect, most APEC economies regard proficiency in English as crucial to staying competitive in the global world.

    On this, we see eye to eye with our counterparts in the region.

    With our prime location in the heart of Asia and as the southern gateway to China, Hong Kong has a unique role to play on the world stage. Add to this our historic legacy and current stature as an international financial centre, it is not surprising that we are fully plugged into globalisation, with English the most common means of communication.

    I don't think I need to further emphasise the importance of English to Hong Kong. Quality English education is our top education priority.

    In the next 15 minutes, I am going to share with you what we have done and what we will do to enhance our young people's English standard.

    To start with, let us look at how our students are doing.

    A month or so ago, I visited a Chinese-medium primary school in Tai Po. I was particularly impressed by how the Primary 2 and Primary 5 students confidently spoke up in English despite having some uncertainties about their pronunciation. Afterwards, I chatted with some of the students and they were able to use English to communicate with me without much difficulty. The students even interviewed me in English for their school newspaper.

    What I saw was really encouraging, particularly as I am given to understand that they seldom speak English at home. Their English language attainments owe very much to the skill and advice of their principal and teachers.

    I am very pleased to find such high quality English teaching in our public school sector.

    I am happy to note also the findings of a recent HKU study, which shows that our top Primary Four students read English to a higher standard than the average child around the world reads his or her mother tongue.

    However, I did not find such high levels in each and every public sector school. In some of the schools I have visited, there is certainly room for improvement in encouraging students to learn and use English.

    To strengthen teaching and learning of English in schools, we need to focus our efforts on three major areas: the development of a diversified English Language curriculum, the enhancement of teachers' professional capacity and the provision of an English-rich environment. These are the crucial areas that we should work on.

Development of a flexible English Language curriculum

    First, the English language curriculum. Since the launch of our curriculum reform in 2001, we have put in place a flexible English language curriculum at both primary and secondary levels to develop students' proficiency for work, study and leisure. The aim is to help students increase their mastery of grammar structures, communicative functions, vocabulary and text-types.

    The reformed curriculum features a wide variety of strategies catering to students' learning requirements, their interests, and their abilities. Everyday topics and themes are used to provide authentic language-use contexts. Teachers are encouraged to use different resource materials including books, articles, poems, films and songs.

    In our New Senior Secondary English Language curriculum, to be implemented starting in September next year, students will be offered language arts electives.  This means that they may choose amongst drama, short stories, poems and songs, as well as popular culture, in the English Language subject. We aim to arouse the interest of our young learners.

    I grew up watching movies like "Casablanca", "Dial M for Murder" and "Dr Zhivago" and listening to the songs of Paul Anka, Johnny Mathis and Elvis Presley. These names may seem like something from a history lesson to you all, but some of their lines and lyrics helped to shape my values and stretch my imagination, and they certainly expanded my English vocabulary.

    Today, we have the likes of Harry Potter, Tom Cruise and Lindsay Lohan, not to mention bloggers and rappers.  I am certain that our new English language curriculum will offer plenty of space for teachers to exploit such chic and contemporary materials, and so appeal to the varied interests and tastes of our students. When students are motivated, learning will come naturally.

Enhancing our English language teaching force

    However, a good curriculum is only a good road map. It does not guarantee reaching the destination. For that we need competent guides, and that means good English teachers.

    We have embarked on a series of measures to upgrade the overall qualifications of our English language teachers. To begin with, all serving English language teachers have already met the language proficiency requirement.

    They are also encouraged to upgrade their capabilities in terms of proficiency, subject knowledge and pedagogy. We provide them with a great range of professional development programmes, including overseas immersion courses in English-speaking countries, arranged by ourselves and in collaboration with tertiary institutions or other educational bodies.

    Courses aside, we conduct research and development projects, better known as "Seed Projects", on key areas such as reading, vocabulary building and assessment for learning.  These projects aim to enhance teachers' ability to develop and use appropriate materials as well as to formulate strategies for more effective outcomes.  Good practice emerging from these projects is passed on to all schools through seminars or in resource packages.

    Let me elaborate by showing you one innovative example.

    We can all imagine how boring a lesson might be if teachers teach new words without context, or teach rules of phonics in a mechanical way.

    In a local Chinese-medium primary school, students were asked to imagine that their school had received a cash donation to build a sports facility. Then they had to write a letter to the Principal describing the new facility.

    In the process, students were taught some vocabulary building strategies, such as the formation of compound words. They were also shown how to apply phonics techniques to pronounce unfamiliar words rather than simply being told the pronunciation straightaway. Active group discussions were also conducted to encourage students to thrash out their ideas. At the end of the project, their letters to the Principal were written in fluent English with rich ideas íV very good achievements for Primary 3 students!

    So, students learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process. Please allow me to share with you the wise words of Mr Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. He said, and I quote, "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn."

Providing an English-rich environment

    We now come to our third major focus area, where we aim to engage students in an English-rich environment.

    To increase our students' exposure to "authentic" English, we have provided in each of our public sector schools with at least one native-speaking English teacher or "NET" for short. In collaboration with local teachers, NETs aim to develop innovative learning and teaching resources as well as introducing new ideas and practice.

    In recent years, with the support of some NETs, a pilot reading programme for Primary One to Primary Three students was organized in about 100 schools. The objective was to develop a new reading programme in primary schools by giving special training to teachers and also involving parents, classroom assistants and librarians.

    It was found that the pilot programme brought about improvements in the reading ability of participating students. Based on this experience, we will implement a more holistic and integrated literacy programme, with writing as an added element, in the coming school year.

    We see it as equally important to extend the learning of English beyond classrooms.

    Some schools make good use of their premises and facilities -- for example, multi-media learning centre, English room and display boards, to maximise students' exposure to English. Interesting activities, including drama, story-telling, student-radio broadcasts, campus TV and newsletter publishing, are organised to encourage the use of the English language in meaningful situations.

    English learning can also extend beyond the school campus to home, the community and even across countries and cultures.

    Using information technology, for instance, some schools have enabled students to learn English via the Intranet at home. Some schools have launched international E-pal programmes to encourage students to practise English writing and share ideas with English students in other countries.

    Students today are fortunate enough to have plentiful territory-wide language activities on offer.  Long established examples include the Hong Kong Schools Speech Festival and the Sing Tao Debating Competition.  Via the Language Fund a variety of language activities are organised or sponsored, such as the English Festival, to encourage English learning outside classroom. Some of you here today might have taken part and won prizes in some of these events.

Student engagement

    I have introduced to you the key features of our English language education. We are now reviewing the effectiveness of various measures, hoping to find ways to further enhance the overall standard of English in Hong Kong. There will be a Q&A session shortly. Please give me your suggestions on how we might do better.

    Our own efforts would not bear fruit without the support of our school principals and teachers. Most importantly, we need our students to play their part.

    Outside of the classroom, how can our students enhance their English standard, and thus their global competitiveness?

    I would say íV first and foremost, always be active learners and users of English. Develop a positive attitude for lifelong English learning and make use of all available opportunities.

    In Hong Kong, one would imagine that we are fortunate to have English-learning opportunities on our very doorstep. One can borrow English books from public libraries, read English journals, watch English TV programmes, watch English plays, films and performances, listen to the English radio, sing English songs at karaoke gatherings, and so on. However, the extent to which our students avail themselves of such opportunities varies very significantly. We will have to come up with more imaginative means to encourage more students to capitalise on such opportunities. We also need to convince our students not to be afraid to take risks with the English language and be prepared to use it creatively.  New words and new phrases are coined every day to express new inventions or ideas. There is magic and power in the English language. To give an example, TIME Magazine in its edition earlier this year, coined the name "Nylonkong", placing Hong Kong alongside London and New York as examples of globalisation.

    Hong Kong also needs a pool of capable and free-thinking English language teachers, teachers who like to think outside the box. In fact, we have increased the starting salary of new teachers and are exploring incentives to attract new talent into the teaching profession. So, please consider becoming teachers!

    I hope I have been able to inspire you to excel in mastering the English language, and I hope you will serve as good language role models for our younger generation.  Together, you can help shape our future and sustain the global competitiveness of Hong Kong.

    Thank you.

Ends/Saturday, July 12, 2008
Issued at HKT 15:04


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