OUR latest gamble in improving students’ English is to reintroduce English literature as a subject in secondary school. This would be one of the best moves ever.
Quality literature should naturally extract a variety of strong emotions from our young readers — including love, loyalty, empathy, a sense of happiness, rage and more importantly, a passion for reading.
It should also stimulate their aesthetic and emotional development, including soft skills, generally enrich their lives and, along the way, help them to improve their English proficiency.
Here, English teachers need to be role models and become avid readers. Such teachers should be able to pass on the passion to their students. That is, if our English teachers themselves are into reading.
The truth is that few of our English teachers read English literature or English books, for that matter.
This would only be too clear if we were to carry out a survey of the English teachers in the schools, or those undergoing Teaching English as a Second Language courses in colleges or universities on the books they have read. Few would have gone beyond the basic, prescribed literature textbooks.
In schools, what happens is that the minute the Education Ministry introduces a change, such as a new subject like English Literature and make it an examination paper, publishers will start recruiting writers and churning out revision books for the subject.
Most of the English teachers will then be making a beeline for these short cuts to help their students in the examinations.
Through constant memorisation, drills and writings on plots and characterisations, using these revision books, teachers would be able to make students slog through the books and the exam.
In the process, neither teachers nor students would have experienced the real pleasures and beauty of reading. And, it would have contributed little towards the improvement of their English.
If the ministry is serious about reintroducing English Literature and instilling the reading habit, it should be done right from the start and not just in secondary schools.
Love for literature books and reading needs to be nurtured. It should begin at home where fun, colourful books are read as bed-time stories when children are small, and carried on into preschool, primary and secondary schools under the supervision of English teachers trained in the skills and techniques of reading.
I still remember the days when our English teacher would read out the stories of “Pin Shu” in her softs voice, which at times would modulate, her face a picture of emotion, hands waving frantically and the air filled with loud screeches. Then, a long silence.
She lived her stories. We were only in Standard Four and we loved her, gathered under the shade of a merbau tree, straining our ears, feeling the breeze in our hair, her voice firing our imagination.
At other times, it was acting out small parts of a story or silent reading in class when everyone was immersed in their books.
We grew to love reading, going on our own into Enid Blyton, Biggles, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and later on, more serious literature.
Admittedly, it would be more difficult now to woo the younger generation with such simple and wholesome bait as most are addicted to their handphones, laptops, blogs, Twitter and Facebook.
To support literature and the reading habit, reading classes should be reintroduced in the timetable where group or leisure reading is done. The classes should never be a free period.
During classes, teachers should themselves be reading or identifying the reading levels of the students, selecting books, gauging, probing and recording the progress made by students.
However, serious, continuous, comprehensive evaluation and grading should only begin in the secondary school.
For the purpose, every school library should first be stocked with graded reading books for all levels — from primary to secondary.
Teachers should persuade, cajole, coax and make students read books rather than leave them untouched on the shelves. A book well read is worth a thousand stacked on the racks collecting dust.
Libraries should also be provided with a special, well-equipped room with the Internet, where movies, videos and CDs can be shown.
The impact of these devices on our young is incredible as seen from the sale of Harry Potter books after the movie was shown.
Classes should be given easy access to the room and an occasional audio, movie or video of interest, especially literary adaptations, be arranged for viewing.
But first and foremost, we would have to persuade our English teachers to read in English.
Few of our English teachers actually read English literature like Shakespeare and cannot instil the beauty of reading in students.