Categorised | Columns, Commentary

Teaching in English: Do or don’t


(© Dan O’Connell / sxc.hu)

THE English for Teaching Mathematics and Science (ETeMS) policy has become more than just about its effectiveness. It has been politicised to the extent that all kinds of claims have been thrown into the mix. These include threats to national unity and the position of Bahasa Malaysia (BM), to the erosion of mother tongue culture and education.

So, either do it or don’t. Either continue the teaching of Science and Mathematics in English as it is now, or scrap the policy totally.

There are existing tools available, such as the Pupils’ Own Language (POL) classes, and improving the way English is taught and learnt, that if used creatively, could go some ways in resolving political and racial polemics.

Seven options, one decision

The Education Ministry has put out seven options drawn from roundtable sessions it has held since early 2008 to review the policy with various stakeholders.

Maintaining the status quo is the first option, which is to continue the policy as it is now.

Scrapping it would mean option four, which is to use BM or mother tongue language at primary level, and BM fully at secondary level. This would be a reversion to the practice before ETeMS was implemented in 2003.

The other alternatives appear to be half-measures which make for messy implementation. Some problems are already foreseeable.

Take the second alternative, which is to use BM or pupils’ mother tongue as the medium of instruction from the primary school level, and English for Maths and Science at the secondary level.

One can anticipate future complaints about pupils’ difficulty in making the switch to English at secondary level. This is likely to happen if the core problem of poor English proficiency at primary level is not resolved.

The third proposal is to start using English for Maths and Science from Standard Four right into the secondary level.

Why start from Standard Four? Until the rationale for starting at this stage is provided, there doesn’t seem to be a solid reason. It is generally accepted that students learn a language best when they start from young. The earlier they start, the longer they have to learn and become more proficient.

The fifth option is to let schools determine the medium of instruction for Maths and Science.

This sounds reasonable as it would promote competition among schools and give parents and students the right of choice.

It would also make for an interesting study if the schools’ performance were tracked over a long-term period. The study could be used to compare the outcome in English proficiency, and the students’ performance in Maths and Science, between schools that continued ETeMS and schools that didn’t. A study like this would address the debate over the policy’s effectiveness.

But, this option can be hijacked by politicians and self-professed defenders of culture and race who will decry such autonomy for schools as a further erosion of national unity. From a practical point of view, would letting schools go their own way on this matter create future problems for students entering tertiary education?

The sixth alternative is to use BM or mother tongue from Standard One to Three, implement bi-lingual use from Standard Four to Six and full use of English at the secondary level.

This sounds similar to option three with more staggering in the use of English. Like the argument against option three, why stagger the use of a language when it is best absorbed from young?

Abolish Science?


Option seven is to abolish the Science subject from Standard One to Three and incorporate teaching of Science in other subjects.

I hope the cabinet doesn’t even consider this. Abolish science as a subject? It would be a pity to squander the innate curiosity that young children have on watered-down science disguised in other subjects.

Science is a universe of a subject in itself. It would be a shame to imply to our children by abolishing it, that science is unimportant. Instead, science should be taught more creatively to the young to instil an early love for it.

What the ministry should abolish is Pendidikan Moral. Pendidikan  Moral is a subject that can be incorporated into other syllabi, yet our children waste time memorising a whole syllabus.

Out of the box

The ETeMS debate has recently been subsumed into the vernacular schools debate, sparked off by Umno Youth chief hopeful Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir.

As Chinese education groups reacted angrily to Mukhriz, Dong Jiao Zong inserted a threat to hold a protest against the use of English to teach Science and Mathematics.

Perhaps enforcing POL classes in schools is a solution, albeit imperfect. This was actually a point, lost on many that Mukhriz had made in the same breath when calling for vernacular schools to be integrated into a single system.

He had said that under a single education system, students could be made to learn their mother tongue and also be given the chance to learn another language.

The role of vernacular schools is a separate issue; in any case Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has already clarified that they are here to stay.


Based on demand, schools decide whether POL classes should be held (
© Dave Sackville / sxc.hu)

The Education Ministry’s policy on POL classes is to let schools decide whether they should be held or not, depending on demand by parents and as long as there are 15 or more students.

POL classes and ETeMS can converge as a solution to both the national unity and language debates. By teaching POL, students can learn their mother tongue and perhaps even learn each other’s mother tongues. That’s a start for national unity.

But thinking out of the box is required — perhaps POL subjects should not be examination subjects, and classes should not be limited to students according to race. Perhaps even Chinese vernacular schools could offer POL to non-Chinese students. Fostering national unity should be creative and not dogmatic.

At the same time, ETeMS could be maintained but with better training for teachers. That way, students will be equipped for the future and become more comfortable using English, even if the policy isn’t the solution to improving language proficiency.

But if ETeMS was scrapped, then concentrate fully on finding ways to improve the teaching of English as a subject.

But don’t adopt half-measures that will only subject schoolchildren to further confusion. They have been guinea pigs of the education system for too long.

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8 Responses to “Teaching in English: Do or don’t”

  1. Kuntakintae says:

    This whole problem cropped up a few of years ago because the former PM commented that our graduates were not proactive or productive or progressive because they were not able to participate internationally due to their deficiency in English or something along those lines. An immediate quick fix – Science and Maths in English – a typical, characteristic knee jerk reaction by our leaders, without any in-depth study on the matter.

    A language, any language is merely a medium to carry across facts, concepts, feelings, impressions, etc. So, if you want to study any discipline in any language, you must first be proficient in that language to understand the concepts that are being put across. Are we now trying to improve the standard of English or are we trying to improve the standard of Maths and Science ? Either way we’re doomed to fail. You cannot improve the standard of English by studying Maths and Science in it nor can you improve the standard of Maths and Science by studying it in English if you are not proficient in it. So, can somebody kindly enlighten me as to what the purpose of this debate is? I’m truly lost as to what we’re trying to get at.

  2. victor quek says:

    Well, I would suggest the government allow schools with Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English as languages of instruction. Let the schools compete for students and let parents choose where to enroll their children.

  3. Satria Asia says:

    The people who have suffered most since “conversion” from English to BM as medium of instruction in national schools have been the Malays. They have been so bad at it, that they’ve become unemployable.

    It seems different with kids from Tamil and Chinese schools.

    So why not leave the vernacular schools alone — let them teach science and maths in their own mother tongue, but make it compulsory for national type schools to use English as the medium of instruction for these two subjects.

    If Malay kids become a little more employable, then we could see a reduction in the “mat rempit” problem.

  4. Siew Eng says:

    A friend who was taught in Chinese schools and adopted English only during her tertiary years, finding it to be the language she’s most comfortable with now, says POL classes don’t work. Language is a living thing. Without as many chances to use it in as many settings and subjects, as vernacular schools offer, you’d lose it, especially when it comes to one as difficult as Chinese.

    This two-birds-with-one-stone approach is way off the mark. What are the hard stats? How were students doing in Maths and Science in the different languages? Which group is the one that needs help and why? I suspect it’s the capacity of the language that is the problem. And maybe the quality of our teachers now.

  5. Singam says:

    I believe the initial idea of killing two birds with a single stone was not so ill-conceived. But, as with all things Malaysian, it failed in the implementation.

    The ETeMS project saw the introduction of the massive use of ICT for teaching. Even if the teachers initially lacked the language skills, the use of ICT tools was meant to help them overcome and bridge their deficiencies.

    Unfortunately too many wrong things happened – Laptops got locked up in the HM’s room for fear of theft; laptops were taken by administrators for their personal use; software development opportunities were awarded to the wrong people, leading to a dearth of content, that too of poor quality… and so on.

    Teachers with weak language skills were selected for retraining and a mentor scheme was established to help them improve… but these were resisted and opposed by people with vested interests.

    There are other instances of politicisation which was the real failure of the ETeMS project.

    It is still not too late. But only if the politicians keep their hands off and leave it to the educationists to implement.

  6. Low says:

    It is either English in English schools or none at all, otherwise it is an insult, abuse and misuse power, and should be brought to court.

  7. nkkhoo says:

    Perhaps the real reason for the English for teaching Mathematics and Science policy is to give out lucrative contract to Umno cronies.

    Anyway, my view on ETeMS is option 2, with vernacular schools in existence, is a great asset to Malaysia.

    My letter to Malaysiakini can be found at http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/94780

  8. Mike says:

    In secondary school we have a choice with art or commerce other than the science stream. Maybe primary schools can practice the same, which is parents and students themselves can choose whether to follow ETeMS or not. This means the schools have to group pupils for ETeMS and non-ETeMS. This will help parents to realize which is good and bad for them as time goes by without any pressure. It helps to produce better statistics for the ministry too. Perhaps ETeMS will no longer become an issue in the future because people can really see the actual benefits based on what they have chosen.

    I am Chinese-educated. I personally agree with the ETeMS system being implemented now because it will not only benefit the pupils in their future, it will also benefit the society and the country in the long run in terms of creating more competitive power for the individual.

    On the other hand, by offering the parents and pupils options to choose, this can also shut the mouths of those politicians with wicked intentions.

    Having said all that, I do hope the ministry will really look into the quality of teachers teaching ETeMS.


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