THE recent announcement of imported English textbooks to replace locally-produced ones in our schools next year has led to many discussions and arguments. Questions were also raised on the price of the imported textbooks.
The decision for the change is based on the reason that the previous textbooks have not been able to meet the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) levels. These books were selected for their quality and alignment to academic standards. They conform to the CEFR objectives and recommendations for the evaluation of language competence.
CEFR is the international established frame of reference for language teaching, learning and assessment adopted by the Education Ministry. In 2013, Cambridge English was commissioned to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the English language education in Malaysia. From pre-school to pre-university levels, the study was to give a picture of how our students were performing against CEFR.
The result is a roadmap with planned structural changes spanning 2015 to 2025 to reform the country’s English Language education system and raise the standard of the language.
I have shared in this column late last year on the start of this journey that included cascade training of information transfer for thousands of English teachers on CEFR. I have also expressed my concern of this approach and the need for ongoing support over periods of time.
In keeping track on the roadmap, I finally got my hands on the teacher’s book of Pulse 2, which will be used by Form One and Two school students.
With claims that rural students have problems using local English textbooks, could these imported textbooks make lessons more effective?
First things first, the use of textbooks in the classroom has always been a contentious issue for many teachers. It is argued that textbooks limit the learning and creative potential of students and teachers.
However, the latest Cambridge Evaluation Study 2017, a follow up of the Baseline study in 2013, finds that 46 per cent of 2,826 teachers in the country are at a CEFR C1 proficiency level, with C2 being the highest level.
The results based on the Teaching Knowledge Benchmarking also indicate that although our teachers generally possess comprehensive knowledge of teaching, there is still room for improvement.
At the same time, while technology has transformed the learning landscape and could be leveraged to support learning, many schools are still not using it.
Pulse’s 2 teacher’s book carries a detailed guide of how teachers can use the textbook during lessons. It also comes with classroom audio CDs. Each unit has different types of language practice from mechanical along with meaningful and communicative practices. If used correctly, this textbook can be an invaluable source of activities for communicative interaction.
With this in mind, having a tried and tested textbook can be a form of support and guidance for our teachers. They can provide effective language models and input for them whose first language is not English and who may not be able to generate accurate language input on their own.
The panel of experts under the English Language Standards and Quality Council (ELSQC) also stressed that getting quality CEFR-aligned textbooks is important at this phase of the roadmap while they develop expertise to produce our own textbooks suitable for the students.
The other concern is that the cultural content in these textbooks might be distant and alien for many students.
In the six-page starter unit of Pulse 2, the textbook begins with a topic on celebrations. From Easter to Valentine’s Day, some of our students might not be familiar with these celebrations. In the following pages, words like “jumper” and “trainers” were used to describe the clothes one wears.
I do not see the cultural factor as a main issue, instead, it could be helpful to students in preparation for life in the 21st century. In today’s increasingly interconnected and globalised world, students need to expose themselves in many ways to have a deeper global awareness and understanding of other cultures. I would, for instance, introduce these celebrations in my lesson and expand the content on various other celebrations in our country.
As I remember, my enjoyable and memorable English lessons in school were without textbooks. Truth be told, I cannot remember the English textbooks we used or if there was one.
During my own training in English Language teaching for four years followed by another two of postgraduate education in the same field, emphasis had always been on teacher-created materials and they are always encouraged in the language classroom. We were always reminded that using only textbooks in the classroom could cause boredom and hinder learner centred environments. Chaining to the idea that a certain unit from a textbook should be completed at a certain time, for instance, should not become the goal of teaching.
It is then important to remember that a textbook does not make the teacher, it is nothing without a good teacher.
Teachers have to be flexible to adapt and supplement the textbooks with authentic language activities set in meaningful communicative situations to boost communicative competence.
Adapting textbooks and authentic materials is an essential skill for teachers to develop. Ideally, teachers should become less dependent on textbooks in the long run.
Hazlina Aziz left her teaching career more than 20 years ago to take on different challenges beyond the conventional classroom. As NST’s education editor, the world is now her classroom.