Education Ministry mulls over hiring native English speakers to boost number of teachers

The Straits Times, 11 June 2006:

Native English speakers might well be hired by the Education Ministry as it takes a closer look at the teaching of the language.

While there are many excellent Singaporean English language teachers, their numbers may need to be ramped up, said Education Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday.

'If need be, we can bring back native speakers of the English language to help us ... to strengthen the teaching of the English language,' he said.

Teachers from Britain teaching the language and literature were a common sight in mainstream schools about 20 years ago, said educators.

But their numbers have dwindled to nearly none over the years.

Mr Tharman broached the idea at an education conference organised by Hwa Chong Institution to map out Singapore's future educational landscape.

He told students who asked him for his view on the falling standards of English that it was incorrect to say that the standard of the language here has deteriorated.

More people are speaking English now compared to 30 years ago, 'so it gets spoken in different ways', he said.

Last week, Mr Tharman announced that the teaching of English will be one focus of the Education Ministry, which is currently reviewing the syllabus.

Those who have difficulty with the language should be given help while those good in English should be encouraged to reach higher standards.

Reiterating this yesterday, Mr Tharman said: 'We need to make sure that those who have the ability to speak it well, really do so and are proud about it.

'Just like how we want students to be proud about speaking the mother tongue well.'

His idea to draw in native English speakers drew mixed reactions from educators contacted yesterday.

While a few thought having native speakers in their midst would add diversity to the teaching of the English language, others wondered if there were other ways to raise teaching standards.

Secondary school English language teacher Mah Kwok Lee, 35, thinks a better move would be to strengthen the teaching of grammar and encourage students to read more from a young age.

The British Council added this caution: Native speakers should be qualified to teach in Singapore's schools, given the diverse language backgrounds of the students.

Said the council's director of English language services, Mr Roland Davies: 'If the goal is standard English, then highly competent Singaporean teachers can, and in many cases already do, present a native speaker model.'

The council trains 2,000 teachers here a year on phonics, speech and drama and spoken English.

Beyond discussing the English language, students also suggested ways to bridge the gap between students from different educational backgrounds to promote better understanding and get rid of elitism.

Agreeing on the need for greater interaction, Mr Tharman lauded the idea of having students from the technical institutes and junior colleges do joint community projects abroad.

'Students from ITEs and JCs would come together and do community work in an environment that is neutral and favours neither the ITE nor JC students.'