Malaysia: poor English impedes lessons

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Mar 7 20:33:35 UTC 2007

Poor English impedes lessons

MANY students are already weak in Mathematics and Science. Teaching these
two subjects in English, a subject most students are poor in, only
compounds the difficulty they have in understanding the subjects. And it
certainly does not help when nearly 60% of Maths and Science teachers are
not fluent in communicating in English, while only 45% of them are
comfortable teaching in the language. These findings are some of the
results from a research project conducted last year by Prof Datin Dr
Juriah Long and her team from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysias Education

Their objectives were to obtain information on the teaching of Maths and
Science in English within the context of Malaysias diverse student
population, and to gauge the effectiveness of this policy. Commissioned by
Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, the study involved 8,886 individuals from 242
schools in the country. Divided into three categories, the participants
included 1,650 school administrators, Maths and Science panel heads and
teachers, as well as 7,236 Form Two students. The study shows that there
is a clear schism between the background of students who are comfortable
learning the two subjects in English, compared with those who have
difficulty understanding the lessons.

Not surprisingly, non-Malay students from urban areas with a high
socio-economic background generally prefer learning Maths and Science in
English. Rural Malay students from national schools and coming from
low-income families show the most concern over their difficulty in
understanding those subjects in English. These findings were reflected in
the test scores for the 2004 mid-year Maths and Science exams for the Form
Two students. Students who prefer learning the subjects in English
obtained higher results for both the subjects, compared with their

About 95% of students feel they are not using English fully in their Maths
and Science lessons, neither are they psychologically prepared to study
those two subjects in English. Almost half of them are worried over their
difficulty in understanding the lessons, as well as their ability to
answer exam questions in English. The study also showed that while over
three-quarters of Science teachers and two-thirds of Maths teachers are
specialised in their field, their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) score for
English was generally poor. Less than 40% of teachers are able to
effectively teach in English, although nearly 80% of them claim they are
psychologically prepared to improve their teaching of Maths and Science in

Only slightly more than half were confident and enjoy teaching both
subjects in English. A good majority of the Maths and Science teachers
involved in the study had attended courses relating to the policy,
including curriculum-orientation and software. Between 51% and 63% of
Maths and Science teachers agree that the courses they attended and the
buddy system, where they are paired up with an English teacher who assists
them in terms of language, was a good approach. Based on the data
collected from teachers, there are five main problems in the
implementation of teaching Maths and Science in English.

They are: students command of English, their method of learning, teachers
method of teaching, equipment and mismatch between the implementation of
the teaching of Maths and Science in English and the National Education
Policy. Among the recommendations of the study were that teachers be
allowed to conduct Maths and Science lessons bilingually, especially in
lower secondary classes, so that students can acquire a solid foundation
in the subjects through their first language. For students who are clearly
disadvantaged in the implementation of this policy, motivational
programmes in the form of English language camps and student exchange
programmes should be conducted to help them improve their English language

In addition, it was suggested that the Education Ministry should give
these students an opportunity to continue studying Maths and Science in
Bahasa Malaysia right up to the tertiary level, so that they may master
the two subjects effectively. The study concluded that the implementation
of the teaching of Maths and Science in English was done in a hurried
manner without proper in-depth study of the strengths and weaknesses of
the policy. The findings show that there is a mismatch between the
objective and the implementation of the policy, which may result in
disadvantaged students missing out on equal access to quality education.


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