Hong Kong is an example of a nation where English is taught as a second language. It is a unique representative of L2 teaching in that the language proficiency of the many students in the past has been conveyed as not living up to the expectation of the community. Similarly, many years of the British colonial rule did not leave a major language impact on the local population, as was the case with the colonization of the United States. The reason is perhaps that Hong Kong people’s mother tongue is culturally and linguistically distinct from English. It is against this backdrop that I analyze the territory’s current ELT curriculum innovation’s successes or failures during its implementation.
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The report aims to analyze the Hong Kong senior secondary (S4-S6) English Language curriculum document. It is directed to the peers to give them detailed information on the current theories and issues underlying the ELT syllabus and how they manifest in this curriculum document. In addition, the issues and concerns that arise with major changes in the curriculum are discussed. Credible literature sources, including books, dissertations, book reviews, journals, curriculum documents and other relevant manuscripts, provide the cornucopia of information presented here.
A good TESOL curriculum development approach is the one in which the aspects of planning, implementation, and evaluation decisions are consistent and interdependent and not undertaken in a lockstep manner (Graves 2008). That is the case with the Curriculum and Assessment (C & A) guide (secondary 4 – 6), one of the many documents prepared for the Hong Kong English Language Curriculum. It was prepared in 2007 by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA) and the Curriculum Development Council (CDC) and updated in 2014 and 2015 respectively (Education Bureau 2015).
Therefore, the C & A guide is a compulsory national document recommended for use in senior secondary schools in Hong Kong. It is updated regularly to comply with the medium period proposals of the New Academic Structure (NAS) review of curriculum and assessment (Education Bureau 2015). This ensures that students benefit from such alterations at the earliest opportunity.
The document is conceived to offer the basis and aims of the English subject syllabus, curriculum framework, planning, pedagogy, assessment, and use of learning and teaching resources (Cheng 2009). In addition to considering learning and instruction strategies as being important aspects of promoting learning to learn and entire-person development, the curriculum emphasizes on the recognition of assessment as a means for evaluating performance as well as improving learning. It follows the general direction for the development of English Language Curriculum established from primary 1 to secondary 3 and expounds on the previous knowledge, skills, and positive values and attitudes that learners gain through the basic education (Education Bureau 2015).
The curriculum is an innovation as it stipulates a specific approach to teaching English Language, i.e., introducing the communicative methods to language teaching. Hall and Hewings (2001) suggest that concept of innovation in the environment of language teaching elicits the question: “Who adopts what, where, when, why and how?” (p. 120). The curriculum provides these questions as well as their responses.
Relation to the Mainstream Curriculum
The senior secondary academic framework is reinforced by a flexible, smooth, and diversified curriculum meant to cater for students’ varied interests, requirements, and abilities. English Language is one of the core subjects taught in senior secondary schools. The others are Chinese Language, Mathematics, and Liberal Studies, providing Hong Kong with a bilingual education system (Vinci 2012).
The early exposure of learners to English makes it possible for them to cope with the school curriculum at senior level as both basic interpersonal communication skills and cognitive academic language proficiency have developed by the time they reach this level (Ping 2017). The senior secondary English Language curriculum (S4 – 6) is built on the notion that a person’s development is a growing scale in which a lifelong approach is adopted for English Language curriculum planning and development, instead of a selective approach with separate and standalone syllabuses (Tse & Hui 2016, p. 1014). Hence, it is a part of a common English Language curriculum designed for meeting the needs of many students.
In addition, the common English Language curriculum serves all levels of school education from primary 1 to secondary 6. The primary curriculum insists on establishing the foundation of English Language development, while the secondary curriculum (both junior and senior) aims at the application of English for different daily learning and developmental purposes (Education Bureau 2015). Particularly, the senior secondary curriculum consists of a wide array of learning targets, goals, and outcomes intended to enable learners consolidate what they gained through basic education. Additionally, it broadens and deepens the learners’ experiences, enabling them to develop the required language knowledge and skills for their future needs either in vocational training, university education, or at work (Li & Yuan 2013, p. 440).
There are nine principles behind the design of the senior secondary English Language curriculum. The first one is the consolidation of knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes developed at lower classes. The second principle is to support assessment for learning by improving on the expertise of school-based assessment and standards – referenced reporting (Education Bureau 2015). The third one is to offer assistance to the utilization of the standards to inform learning and teaching and further the association between curriculum and assessment. The fourth principle is to strike a balance between quantity and quality in language learning to enhance articulation to further study or entry into the workforce.
The fifth principle is to promote both language learning and use. The design also aims to provide an all-inclusive and accommodating curriculum to provide for students’ diverse needs, interests, and abilities (Education Bureau 2015) and stimulate an independent and permanent language by horning students’ learning how to learn skills and promoting learner-centered educational approaches involving inquiry and problem solving. It also seeks to avail a suitable progression plan to facilitate school-based curriculum planning and permit awareness of the many aspects of learning that learners are to come across at various year levels (Education Bureau 2015). Finally, the curriculum seeks to advance greater association between English Language and other subjects by encouraging cross-curricular alliance.
There have been controversies around grammar, mainly arising from the deeply embedded emphasis on the prescriptive grammar pedagogies that have customarily plagued the grammar instruction enacted in Hong Kong schools (Lam & Phillipson 2009). This curriculum has, however, tried to take an approach that provides learners with access to the grammatical forms that are linked to success in school and in society (Gartland & Smolkin 2016, p. 400).
Direct instruction, which involves instructor-led language presentation, is touted as an effective model in L2 acquisition. Humphrey and Feez (2016, p. 208) note that such text-based genre pedagogy is affiliated with the idea that learning is a socially mediated activity, which involves partnership and interaction between the teacher and the learner. The notion is based on a metalanguage derived from systemic functional linguistics. It also permits teachers and students to talk about the way syntax and rhetoric are used creatively in the composition of literary writings (Humphries & Burns 2015).
While the traditional grammar coaching approach entailed labeling the parts of speech and learning rules for their combination, a functional approach is concerned with how language has evolved in specific ways to enable us to do things in our lives. As such, a functional model denotes how language enables teachers and learners to, first, depict and construct their understanding of the world, second, to interact with others, and third, to generate rational, well-formatted spoken or written texts. It has the ideation, the interpersonal, and the textual functions of language (Lam 2015).
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Genre is the different purposes for which language is used in the society. The importance of purpose as a person’s reason for using language was long recognized (Derewianka 2003). Within the school setting, language is employed for purposes such as “explaining phenomena, arguing for a position, recounting events, giving instructions, providing information, and creating and responding to literary works” (Derewianka 2012, p. 135).
As the Hong Kong school community’s language purposes develop and change, new language genres arise. The senior secondary English curriculum indicates a variety of genres that are relevant and suitable for learners to involve with at this level of schooling. These are aimed at entertaining, persuading, and informing and comprise narratives, reports, reviews, procedures, poetry, exposition, discussions, literary analyses, and transformations of texts (Derewianka 2012).
Theory of Language Learning
The functional grammar approach solicited for in the curriculum is aimed at extending the students’ ability to make meaning and is taught in the setting of curriculum activities that engage students to utilize language to achieve communicative purposes (Derewianka 2012). The relevancy of the language is dependent on the task at hand. It is normally taught explicitly at specific points during a curriculum cycle that oscillates through the phases of promoting an understanding of the subject matter, molding the structure and language features of the genre, mutually constructing texts, and stirring students towards independent use of the language under attention (Derewianka & Jones 2013).
Such an approach is not only grounded on scaffolding, but it also mirrors the contemporary learning theory. An activity-based genre approach to teaching writing in a TESOL setup has been lauded for yielding several positive learning experiences related to “students’ comprehension and production of well –structured texts, the characteristic lexico-grammatical features of the targeted genres and the overall enjoyment expressed by the students” (Derewianka 2012, p.143).
The cognitive theory is one of the main approaches that support the curriculum. The cognitive psychology’s working memory has major impact on many aspects of language learning like language understanding, vocabulary acquisition, language performance, reading comprehension, etc., (Koo 2010). Researchers have singled it out to be a vital element of learning ability (the tendency people present during learning) of a second language (Guo 2016).
Cognitive information processing is utilized when the learner is actively absorbed in finding ways to understand and process information received and relate the information to what is already known and memorized (Guo 2016). Information processing is governed by mental processes rather than observable behavior or external circumstances. In line with the central curriculum, the English Language curriculum employs the co-construction methodology which stresses the class as a community of learners who contribute jointly to the conception of knowledge and the building of the standards for judging such knowledge (Guo 2016).
Suitability of the Curriculum to the Context
There are three perspectives in curriculum implementation. The first one is the fidelity perspective in which “curriculum innovation is viewed as a technology where the change results when new behaviors and organizational patterns are taken up” (Graves 2008, p. 149). It looks at the grade to which something has been implemented as scheduled and the match between design and consequence, irrespective of the implementation approach (Ananyeva 2014).
Thus, the mutual adaptation perspective is focused on how the curriculum is modified by both curriculum developers and teachers during the execution process. According to this perspective, curriculum knowledge is one area of a larger, complex social system that is indispensable (Cross 2016). Finally, the curriculum enactment viewpoint concerns itself with how the curriculum is modulated through the changing constructs of the teacher and student. It focuses on the reliability of teachers and learners to implement a curriculum with anticipated consequences and how to enable them to achieve that.
To foster the usefulness of grammar learning and teaching at the senior secondary level, the curriculum suggests consideration of the students’ previous knowledge of grammar (Adamson et al. 2010, p. 112). Further, it prevails upon the teachers to draft rational tasks for the use of their grammar knowledge in context. Kong and Hoare (2012, p. 94) observe that the learners at this level are expected to have met the majority of the essential structures and grammar items at junior secondary. Thus, grammar learning at this level aims at consolidating grammar knowledge and even exploring its advanced communicative functions (Kong & Hoare 2012).
Assessment refers to a vital and integral part of classroom instruction that constitutes the process of gathering evidence of student learning (Konishi 2009). The role of assessment in learning and teaching English Language, the principles guiding the assessment process, and the requirement of both formative and summative assessments are aspects that a good curriculum document should address (Naeini & Shakouri 2016).
That is what the English C & A guide strives to achieve. It provides guidance on internal assessment as well information on public assessment of the language. Further, it gives information on how standards are set up and maintained and how results are reported with reference to these standards. The importance of the assessment stressed in the curriculum document includes providing feedback to stakeholders on the effectiveness of teaching and on the student capabilities and weaknesses in learning, provision of information to school and education system management to enable them to monitor standards and to assist in selection decisions, promote learning and monitoring students’ progress, and assessment for certification and selection (Education Bureau 2015).
The Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education issues a universal certificate that gives access to university study, work, and advanced education and training (Education Bureau 2015). English is one of the core subjects examined. That being the case, the curriculum document caters for assessment of learning and assessment for learning purposes, but emphasizes on formative assessment over summative assessment.
The formative assessment proves vital when used for refining instructional choices in teaching and producing feedback to improve learning (Yurtseven & Altun 2017). It helps teachers adjust classroom instruction in a way that caters for the diverse needs of the learners in order to improve student achievement. Public examinations and moderated school-based assessments form part of public assessment process for all schools and are summative in approach (Yook & Lee 2016).
External influences on the Curriculum
There are evidences of external factors – the demands of the job market, government policies, mandated materials, local participants as parents and education authorities, teacher performance evaluations, and requirements of a school leaving or university entrance examinations – influencing the curriculum framework (Alvunger, Sundberg & Wahlstrom 2017). That being the case, the curriculum document provides a range of extension modules aimed at reinforcing different aspects of English Language learning, i.e., adding variety to the English Language syllabus, expanding students’ learning experience and supplying for their diverse needs and desires.
For instance, the non-art module, learning English through workplace communication, ushers learners to different text types in the workplace (Lien 2016). The module engages learners in a variety of workplace tasks intended to foster the learners’ knowledge and skills to use English in a practical way and gain confidence to communicate with others about work-related matters. Here, the learners develop language skills, organizational skills, presentation skills, and interpersonal skills (Lien 2016).
The Hong Kong’s service business has been burgeoning and boosting the demand for English speakers recently. In the past few years, the English proficiency of university and senior school graduates entering the job market has plummeted. The situation forced companies to invest large sums of money on remedial language training and was blamed on the education system’s failure to train students to work in the service industry (Yuen, Cheung & Wong 2012). The expectations within the community remain high given that English plays a pivotal role in higher education, the professions, and upper levels of commerce and governance. However, the situation is catered for adequately in the present curriculum.
The requirements of school leaving examinations affect curriculum implementation. The examination culture deeply impacts on the teaching practice. For instance, although consistent summative assessments help students to review and associate their learning and teachers to find out about student achievements, in case of imminence of public assessment, e.g., HKDSE, assessments could consume much of the lesson time. Therefore, it becomes necessary to allocate enough time for learning and teaching English Language, especially in final classes.
Tension in implementation
Efforts to usher communicative language teaching (CLT) into EFL countries have yielded several innovations, which, unfortunately, have had low rates of success. Dimensions of CLT include emphasis on communicative intent, learner centered, and knowledge- based outlook of second language teaching. Accordingly, each learner has unique interests, styles, needs, and goals that should be considered in the molding of instructional methods (Hall & Hewings 2001).
These are important aspects when we consider the case of Hong Kong English Language curriculum. However, the CLT implementation in the classroom has been difficult. Some of the limitations to its enactment include the context of the wider syllabus, old-fashioned teaching methods, class sizes and schedules, lack of resources and equipment, English teachers’ inadequacies in spoken English, and sociolinguistic and strategic competences (Hall & Hewings 2001). CLT is also used moderately as it requires a lot of preparation time (Li & Yuan 2013).
The grammar-focused English Language curriculum makes the English teaching condition difficult and the local use of CLT challenging. Further, the lack of relevant materials in a non-English speaking environment, the need to adopt textbooks to meet the requirements of communicative classes, and the reluctance on the part of the teachers and learners also hamper the execution of CLT in classroom settings. When the teachers’ own beliefs and the principles underlying a curriculum innovation clash, there is likelihood that the teachers would reject the change. Similarly, misconceptions regarding the values that underlie inventions in education hamper their implementation (Zheng & Borg 2014).
The Hong Kong senior secondary English curriculum is a good example of a TESOL curriculum. As it has been presented, the English curriculum is not static but is frequently modified subject to experiential inferences made during its implementation. It is also subject to internal and external factors. Sociocultural and inspirational problems linked to communicative use of English, bad grammar, inadequate vocabulary, and errors in written English are some of the challenges the curriculum aims at addressing as it endeavors to promote English as the second national language and English for special purposes. The three factors that are known to inhibit curriculum change have been singled out and discussed. These are the teachers’ expectations, external constraints, and the internal weaknesses.
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