Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Teaching English Writing

A friend of mine, Oon Yeoh has quit his deputy editor position at the Sun on Sunday (no pun intended :)) You'd have notice his fairly regular columns in the Sun as well as the Edge newspapers. He'll be taking time off to work on some of his pet projects, including an political biography of Lim Kit Siang. However, to pay the bills, he'll be doing various freelancing projects, including his new part time job with New Era College to teach English writing:
I haven't worked out the syllabus for the course yet but I'll draw upon my years of experience in newspaper journalism to come up with something that will help the students become adept at writing straight news, feature articles and commentary pieces.

It's going to be a challenge, for sure, as the students at New Era College are mainly Mandarin-speaking.

To be very frank, I think Oon's probably going to be in for a fairly rough ride as to the standards of English among his students. This will be true not just at the New Era College, but at many other universities and colleges as well, particularly those which attracts the most Chinese school students. The objective the course he is conducting is:
... to enhance listening, note-taking and reading skills in English. We hope that at the end of the course, the students will acquire the nuances of the English language, the particular appeals in the design of persuasive and informative messages as well as the fundamentals of different types of news.
Oon will have a major challenge ahead. Meeting these objectives will be very difficult, not because New Era College is a poor college, but because our primary and secondary schools (both national and vernacular) do not provide sufficient quality and training in English language. Hence unless the students come from an English speaking family or happen to "mix" with English speaking friends from the early years (I have fortunately fallen into this category - and yet I still struggled to a B3 for my 'O' Level English in Singapore), his or her standards are likely to be poor. Please note, I have no doubt that many of these students would have been good English speakers/writers, if they have had the right education opportunities.

I have no doubt that Oon would have many ideas to incorporate plenty of interesting lesson plans for his students. However, he will most likely have to incorporate many of the English language basics including strengthening vocabulary, dramatically improving grammar (simple stuff like tenses) and subsequently, working to "straighten" their thought structures.

One of the basic lessons which I believe will be most useful for his students will be to teach them to write professional resumes as well as how to answer simple questions often posed in application forms (which tends to be a feature with large local companies or MNCs). This will not only touch on the students English language skills but also prepare them for their next steps in seeking employment. Some of my grievances with graduates and their applications are blogged in "Graduates Need to be Serious 1".

As a student/graduate seeking employment, I should pay particular attention to the "freeform" question segments. Some examples of questions asked as part of the job application process are (examples from Jobstreet):
  • What would you consider as your biggest achievement and why?
  • Describe a situation where you tried your hardest but failed.
  • How did you handle your most challenging experience in your previous job?
  • Describe the last time you did something that made you feel good about yourself.
  • Describe your personal qualities that suit the requirements of this position.
  • Describe a time you were asked to do something you did not think was right.
I remember the time when I applied for my first job some 10 years ago now (no "online" facilities available then!) where I had to fill up an application form for a position in the local chapter of a multinational consulting company. It was 6 pages long with at least 3 questions of the above nature, and you are advised to write your answers for the questions on a separate piece of paper should there be insufficient space. It took me nearly 3 weeks to complete that application form!!

Why did it take so long?
  • Well, first of all, it took me a while for the "writing juice" to start flowing

  • I would think of the answers and plan a tentative outline

  • I would think of the answers which will catch the attention of the employers

  • I would think of the answers which I believe strengthen my case in securing the job

  • I would research the company in great detail, understand their "culture" and seek to provide answers which will fit those cultures (it's so easy with Google now!)

  • I would have friends with "A*" for English help review my language and grammar

  • I would draft the answers, leave them for 2-3 days and return to review the answers again, to obtain a fresh perspective on them.

  • I would read the answers I've written from the perspective of an employer, to see if "I" would be satisfactorily "impressed", differentiating myself from the tons of applications they must receive.

  • I finally sent in the application after being satisfied that I can't make further changes to the answers "overdoing" it :)
And why did I put in so much effort?

  • It's a job I clearly wanted, and I wanted to do justice to myself

  • These questions offer me a chance to distinguish myself from the tons of applications the employers receive, and I decided to take it

  • On hindsight - it was well worth it, I got my first job after being shortlisted and attended 3 rounds of interviews.

However, I realise that the graduates putting in applications today can't be bothered to spend some quality time "answering" these questions. Jobstreet has an interesting function which tells you how much time a candidate spends writing the answers to the questions - most spend bare 3 minutes! I know that submitting resumes online is a breeze today, but what's the rush? The candidates seem to regard these simple questions as bothersome as well, wasting their precious time. You can tell how "bothersome" these questions are, when the number of candidates who applied for a position I advertise for (e.g., web application developer) dropped from between 800-1,100 candidates to approximately 150-300 candidates after Jobstreet installed the "Test" and "Question" features in the application process. Even then, many of these candidates who proceeded to submit left the question's answer blank.

The key errors in the candidates submissions are as follows:
  1. Bad spelling, grammar and vocabulary

  2. Candidates do not answer the question. I asked about "A", I'll get stories about "Z".

  3. Candidates to not structure their answers logically and coherently (i.e., their thoughts are all over place)
I believe that if Oon is successful in just the above task and challenge, it'll help the candidates tremendously, towards securing their interviews, which provides the opportunities to impress and secure the job position. In addition, should they be able to improve significantly on 1-3 above, they'll not just have a "better" application, the lessons learnt will also apply to many of the tasks that are carried out as part of a job e.g., report writing, presentations etc.

For the benefit of those who would like to read some of the answers which I have received, I've listed some below. These submissions are from students all over, local and overseas colleges, and of all races. I've also ignored answers from very weak candidates e.g., 3rd class honours, as they are even worse (well, actually, most of them leave it blank). These answers are extracted from candidates who submitted their application for an Analyst position advertised in March this year:

Question: Why do you think you can make a difference in this position?


  • "I am into analyzing and is a better speaker than a technical person. I have great interest in business especially e-commerce. I believe myself can be a good consultant."

  • "I can help the business to grow by introducing new technology to the business example like m-business which all includes wap phones, PDA and so on..."

  • "i have knowledge in IT areas and Business areas cause i did my degree in Business information system with IT and i did my master in international business"

  • "I am sure i will gain a certain degree of experience from the post. I am willing to learn any kind of experience from the post. I think the post will be a challenge for me."

  • "i have learn management consulting when i was studied in London...and i get upper second class in my degree. i have experience enough to handle this job. i willing to work more and indepentendly. besides that, i feel very interested in e-business."

  • "For this position i would like to make myself have a differences changing in my future. Base on this positiion this a like and analysts & consult so i have interested with this task."

  • "By having good analytical skill and technical background in system development, will be able to produce practical business solution to the client and work closely to the development team."

  • "I am Computer Science student that graduated from Tunku Abdul Rahman College which is a recognize college in Malaysia. I am gained the knowledge of E-Business in my study and the skill of communication with customer from my working experience, most of the customer of my current job is from oversea such like Belgium, USA, England, Thailand, Singapore, China etc."

  • "I'm very confident my knowledge and experience could help me make the difference in this position. I'm also a strong person in analyst issues and technologies to make difference solutions. I've the strong leadership skills as well as working independently for certain task and also a good team player. I've also the multi tasking skills in handling projects or task with a good result as output. This is provent by me handling or holding few position in one time."

  • "since i have the experience working in consultant company,it is an advantage for me to serve better in your company."

  • "Yes with the multitude of experience from many different fields i think i will be a good option. "

  • "I can persue my strong interest in this position by contributing the best for the company. In this position, I am able to make the best out of me by delivering excellent solution to client & provide excellent satisfaction with our team work. I believe having a strong interets in what I'm doing will give me more satisfaction & with this, a good job can be done much more efficiently..and most of all, happiness will last if I'm working on a dream job."

  • "With the given opportunity and confidence, i believe i'm here to drive myself towards my employer's mission and vision. "

  • "I hold 3.84 for CPGA in degree study and score 9As and 2Bs as my SPM result (science student). Besides, I am interest in e-business application development in my university study. "

  • "I'm have an outgoiung personality that makes me suitable for this position in addition to those theory knowldeges in IT that i have gained during my studies. I just need a chance to learn up and contributing my skill in this employment of real life work situation. "

  • "I am hardworking and willing to learn. Given the position, I will dedicate myself to it, and will definately do my best in it."
Hope you enjoyed reading some of their replies :)


Anonymous said...

Fortunately for me, I come from an English speaking background. Most of my friends too come from the same background but I noticed that their command in English can be somewhat terrible at times. I guess parents too have to play their role in educating their children about the importance of mastering this language.

I was quite disappointed that the government failed to recognize the importance of this language until maybe recently. For example, it is a MUST to pass your BM paper in SPM in order to get your cert, should you fail the subject, you would fail all your papers but it is ok if you fail your English paper because all you have to do is just take that subject again in college/uni level.

I remember going for an interview for a part time job with a call centre which requires you to be 100% fluent in English and they gave really tough questions which I can't really remember now and gosh, I did take quite some time in answering it and making sure that my answers are relevant to the question as well.

My two sen in this subject matter =)

minishorts said...

What i can glean from this never-ending rants from various parties about how our students (and parents, and society) really should recognize the importance of mastering English is this:

- it's not that people don't recognize the importance. since the dawn of the English media we have realized that English is the international lingua franca and that it must be mastered. this realization is already there and hence you have the mushrooming of language centres, drama schools, speech training centres, training consultants, etc etc. we all recognize it already.

- it's more about attitude, and being humbled. how many people would be humbled enough to admit, 'gee my english isn't nearly good enough.' you don't get it from every body. i once worked with a guru penolong kanan / ketua panitia bahasa inggeris' from a reputable high school in petaling jaya, and she was only too eager to boast about her apparent strengths in the language. not only that, in the one hour meeting that i had with her, she kept on talking about how fantastic her children are in the language compared to the 80% majority who can't even differentiate the present tense from the past.

the same woman also plagiarized a complete text from a harvard med school research paper for her submission of sample english test papers to the press I was working in.

oon yeoh might not really have that much of a problem when it comes to attitude of his students. students who come from Chinese schools and who are not so eloquent in english are usually more willing to admit their weaknesses, and that alone opens up their minds about learning.

at the very heart of ESL theories is the constant discussion of how teacher/learner attitudes make up successful language learning. oon yeoh should also look to ESL research records on top of drawing his years of experience in newspaper journalism.

Besides, when it comes to 'good English' per se, I'm not entirely sure whether the writings in our local newspapers are suitable icons and examples for ESL learners. One has to first move beyond his own successes to be a truly dedicated and inspiring teacher.

Anonymous said...

A little bit of an advise: Teach them American English, since quite a few of their students may pursue higher education in China. In China, they mostly learn English American Style.

Old Man

Anonymous said...

i acknowledge that it is true what u obtain in spm for english does not reflect at all ur english profifiency since i encountered such person b4..that person got an A1 in english for spm however uppn coming to singapore to study, she consitently failed her general paper for A Level which is also english paper. Her essay is extremely inmature that if she sat for SG english o level instead of spm one, i bet she cant even attain a passing grade..

Anonymous said...

oops sorry for the typo errors..i was typing feverishly or perhaps my keyboard is inferior

Anonymous said...

I think people should read more thats all. Ours is not a reading culture and to improve your language you need to read and speak more.And language is about conveying your thoughts so if you mind isnt developed, you wont be able to write well anyways :P But having said that, books are expensive and our libraries are not going to have the very latest all the time. Still, good classics are available in any library so theres no excuse :)

But whats worse is for the people in rural areas who will never progress because of their lack of language skills. Its not that the people in the 'kampungs' dont want to speak better english, most of them have never even met a person who could speak it properly! A big problem with this country is that many of its people have had no contact whatsover with the very people who are posting on this page. They dont even see the possiblities that are out there. Why should a kid in a small school in Ulu Yam care about speaking proper english when nobody around him does, and he cannot even think about a time when he will need it.

What i think should happen is that students from urban areas take time after SPM, go to the interior and teach english for a few months before college. Its not just teaching the grammar, its also to expose them to the fact that there is a world beyond their town out there and your role models are not just the local district officer but educated college students.Itll be like a short term Teach for America program. Make the alumni circle prestigious enough and select only the best people to do it. What do you think?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

please delete the post 4/01/2007 06:42:00 AM

Anonymous said...

This is a never ending discussion. I am surprised when it comes to discussing this subject hardly anyone addresses the issue of the importance of reading at early age. It is unfortunate that this is also overlooked in the education system. There is the Nilam project that is supposed to promote reading among school children. However, sadly to say the approach is not right. The Nilam project does not promote reading as in to inculcate the love of reading but rather who is the champion as judged by the nos. of book read by a child per year. In addition, a child's reading progress is not monitored except probably by a few concerned parents. When it comes to children, the school and parents must work hand in hand. I've had the opportunity to work at a primary school in UK and one of my task is to listen to readers. It is such a joy to see the children developing their capability in reading. In addition to that in their English lesson, besides reading the children are also taught to retell the stories that they have read in writing. The children gradually develop the skills in writing and more importantly at expressing themselves. These are being taught to the children at the age of 5. While we are concentrating at teaching our older children and younger adult how to write, reading and writing at such early age must be considered as well.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed those little feedbacks there. :D Regarding the comment above me, I'll regard Nilam as another "kiasu" culture.

I'm not all THAT good or at THAT LEVEL with English and all but I do know one thing about Nilam. I never liked it. It's pure torture. I can't believe I have to record whatever I read. That's just nuisance. My parents never bothered monitoring us when it comes to reading. They shrugged it off as another basic skill in our daily lifes. They're just there to set a good example by relating a whole stories and whereabouts from various articles. So it's considered an indirect approach.

So you get the point, I live in a world that doesn't force you to read for the heck of it. Then came Nilam, the most fearful project that provoke a whole lot of arguments and stubborness. Reading became somewhat a trauma to me. O.O They made quotas of how many books to read in a month or so.

Not to forget, competitions between individuals and inter-classes. I just can't understand what's the pleasure of reading with all this menace going on. I guess the approach did motivate some to try on reading. it became a habit for some of my friends who finally volunteeringly flip through a book. Yet, there's still flaws that's unavoidable. Its just not perfect like any other. They aimed the target, that's important.

I'm a SPM leaver now. Just sitting here awaiting for my results. The typical "goyang kaki" :D And I'm glad the Nilam's finally over. Back to my carefree life reading through articles.

Now back to the topic XD, I didn't come from a family that gave grave importance to English or whatsoever. However, they did emphasized Chinese [a language I totally screwed up]. Let's just say, a certain caretaker of mine was the cause of my new profound language. XD She influenced me, and I just had the urge to learn more about it. And the end, I was only good with Malay and English, forcing my family and friends to conversate in English. I learn most of it through TV and textbooks but I berdarah despise GRAMMAR! >:{}

And its true how SPM doesn't reflect the true English nature in someone. I did those questions, scored some harsh crosses on my subjective. But at least I manage to get some remarks and contructive cristism on my essay. Overall, it didn't manage out pretty much thanks to my subjective and structure [never liked those sections either]. But as usual, I wouldn't be discouraged by trivial things knowing where my level of confidence in the language stands :D

Anonymous said...

What you said about, "our primary and secondary schools (both national and vernacular) do not provide sufficient quality and training in English language" is very true.

All those years throughout my education, I cannot recall having any constructive English lesson.

Grown up now, I see the importance of having a good English foundation because language is a powerful form of knowledge.... but coming from a non speaking English background and with lack of nourishment from English lessons provided during my schooling years, I felt that I do not come on par with the standard.

I agree with Anonymous on the importance of reading at early age. Nothing much has been done to ensure that students are engage into reading session to familiar themselves with a wider range of vocabs. The only English class that come close to having a reading session is through displaying the books at the back of the class, hoping that the students will make an initial move to read without much encouragement and motivation from the teachers and government.

Why aren't the government looking hard and reflect upon the issues regarding the English lesson in school? Gosh, I am so angry...

Anonymous said...

Oh, not forgetting to mention...

the standard of teacher is so low that sometimes, it's beyond my believe.

I know a few people, profession as a teacher who could not even structure or spell properly .... I am not insulting or toning the fact that I'm good (which in fact, I think I am no good and thanks to those useless English lessons I had), but I felt that the teachers should at least take initiative to improve on their own English to be able to teach student efficiently.......

Anonymous said...

I find that the English standard of the local public universities students nowadays is completely terrible.The following is my experience with them.The majority of UM students speak Malay rather than English.Their mastery of English is extremely astrocious regardless of race.I was speaking to a Chinese student at their Kompleks Perdana Siswa(KPS)when i had a roadshow there,he reacted nervously and spoke in very broken English.I think we have overly expected the university and its students.Some students there reflected to me that some lecturers refuse to use English in their lectures and the students also tend to speak in their respective mother tongue.IF this is the case,I wonder how would UM improve and make their name in the international stage.No wonder there are getting more students choosing private universities or going abroad!

Zain Azrai said...

Martias Mohd Ali dengan kerjasama Finas akan menganjurkan Bengkel Penulisan Skrip TV & Filem

Bengkel ini akan menawarkan anda beberapa kaedah pembelajaran untuk menghasilkan skrip drama TV dan filem.

Time and Place Date: Sunday, December 14, 2008
Time: 9:00am - 6:00pm
Location: Finas
Street: Hulu Klang

Yuran pendaftaran
RM 100 (termasuk bayaran pensyarah,sewa lokasi, sarapan, makan tengah hari dan minum petang).
Bayaran penyertaan boleh dilakukan pada hari berlangsungnya bengkel secara TUNAI.

Bagi yang berminat sila hantarkan nama penuh, no telefon dan alamat ke Email:

Sebagai pengesahan penyertaan serta rujukan bagi sijil penyertaan.

Contact Info Phone: 0173701651 atau ke

Anonymous said...

English education must be started at a young age. Kids must be exposed more to english mediums i.e. tv, books, news etc. If the government is really concerned of this matter, they should have a comprehensive program how to deal with it....

Matt Kopikarat said...

I am Deen. I came from non background English. I hate English when I was at primary school. But when I was at secondary I feel English is very interesting. Person who lived in rural area must work hard if they reallt want to improve their English because our system education do not expose well in four importand skill in English. Its teribble.