Talking to learn in the English classroom

“When learners do real things with language the language becomes real to them.” – Dr Jonathan Newton.

By Jude Toyat
@judetbpseeds
judetoyat@theborneopost.com

Even though most graduates face the prospect of being unemployed for a while once they’re out of school, worrying data from the Statistics Department and Jobs Malaysia shows that there are about 15,000 to 20,000 unemployed graduates in the state.

While this is due to a combination of factors like lack of work experience, poor soft skills and self-marketing skills, it has become increasingly obvious that graduates in Sarawak have also been finding it difficult to find a job due to their poor command of English as they are required to be proficient in the language.

Besides the state government responding in March this year by launching the Graduate Enhancement Training Sarawak (GETS) programme, there has also been a pressing need statewide to upskill English language teachers and improve their proficiency levels.

“Sarawak presents a very complex education context as there is a significant gap between urban and rural with regards to the usage of English. Thus, there is a need for English teachers to adopt innovative pedagogical approaches that would make learning as not only fun and engaging, but also meaningful and purposeful.” said Dr Ida Fatimawati Adi Badiozaman when met at the ‘Talking to Learn in the English classroom’ public talk at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus (Swinburne Sarawak) on Sept 20.

She is the associate dean of academic operations at Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne Sarawak.

Newton during a photo call with participants of the public talk. Also seen is Ida (seated left).

Newton during a photo call with participants of the public talk. Also seen is Ida (kneeling left).

Ida emphasised that the standards of English has been reported to be on a steady decline over the years, creating a significant proficiency gap between students in the urban and rural area.

“Clearly, there is a pressing need to review pedagogical approaches in order to meet the complex demands of teaching and learning; and the individual difference often overlooked in a language classroom.”

The talk, conducted by senior lecturer and director of the BEd (TESOL) programme at Victoria University of Wellington Dr Jonathan Newton, served as part of Swinburne Sarawak’s efforts to boost English levels in Sarawak.

Drawing on classroom research, Newton’s talk explored core principles and practical strategies for effectively managing talk-for-learning.

“I wish to inspire teachers to engage with meaning, focus on purposeful language used in their classrooms and help teachers discover ways to engage with grammar and engage with the complexity of language but to do it from the starting point of meaning and communication rather than the other way round,” said Newton who has been coming to the state several times now for knowledge sharing.

Dr Jonathan Newton speaking passionately about learning English.

Dr Jonathan Newton speaking passionately about teaching English.

For Newton, harnessing conversational talk in an English language classroom can be rife with practical difficulties like noise levels and off-task behaviour which can escalate and force the learner’s first language to take over.

“It is not surprising then that real talk gets replaced with controlled speaking exercises to practice the sounds of words, to drill sentence patterns or to rehearse set dialogues.

“But talking is also a thinking process; we talk – we learn. Through talk, even the learner with limited English language resources can extend their language resources,” he said.

He discussed topics such as the use of the learners’ first language in the classroom, how to use task sequencing decisions to maximise learning through talk, the value of listening-based tasks, as well as experiencing some practical speaking task ideas with the 80 participants who attended the talk.

The talk is a complimentary course tailored for university lecturers, school teachers and students pursuing degrees in English from a bachelor’s to PhD degree, and individuals interested in implementing task-based language teaching into their pedagogy.

“Thus invites were sent to school teachers, primary and secondary; public and private schools, polytechnics, teacher training colleges and even tuition centres in Kuching,” said Ida, who explained that they specifically invited English teachers to attend the talk so that they could learn about, and implement meaningful communicative teaching techniques in their classrooms.

“It is hoped that participants will be able to adapt and apply the language teaching skills learned to their own contexts in the real teaching environment,” she added.

She pointed out that Swinburne Sarawak, which is jointly owned by Swinburne University of Technology Australia and the Sarawak Government through Yayasan Sarawak (Sarawak Foundation) and Sarawak Higher Education Foundation, emphasised not only on quality, engaged teaching and research, but also teaching and research that makes a difference in the lives of individuals and contributes to national economic and social objectives.

“We often work closely with industry partners and communities we serve in order to achieve outcomes that are directly relevant to industry and society.

“This event reflects Swinburne Sarawak’s contribution to the community particularly in enhancing teaching and learning skills in the English language,” she added.

“Therefore, Faculty of Language of Communication believes that this public lecture; ‘Talking to Learn in the English classroom’ is indeed timely,” she said.

The participants come from various primary and secondary schools as well as higher learning institutions including Kolej Datu Patinggi Abang Haji Abdillah, Lodge International, Lodge National School, Lodge School, MRSM Betong, MRSM Kuching, Politeknik Kuching, Politeknik Mukah, SMK Bandar Kuching No.1, SMK Batu Lintang, SMK DPHA Gapor Stampin, SMK Green Road, SMK Hajjah Laila Taib, SMK Kuching High, SMK Semerah Padi, SMK St Joseph, SMK St Teresa, SMK St Thomas, SMK Sungai Maong, SMK Sungai Tapang, St Joseph’s Private School, Taska Riang Ria, Tunku Putra School, and Institute of Teacher Education Tun Abdul Razak Campus.

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