Step into Mr Aidil Subhan’s classroom and you may see pupils trying to figure out how to make a hot drink of Ovaltine, or how to cook a packet of instant noodles. These food wrappers and drink packets are his “textbooks” – the materials he uses to introduce the Malay language to his students.
As a former teacher, Mr Aidil Subhan understands the difficulties that Malay language teachers face. He also realizes that mere instruction from the textbook is insufficient for engaging his young and restless charges.
So Aidil tried to introduce other “instructional materials” into his lessons. As part of his instruction, the pupils were asked to read the cooking instructions on the back of Malaysian food products like “Maggie mee” or “Ovaltine”.
Rather than explicitly telling the pupils how to prepare the food, Aidil let them figure it out for themselves. “I would ask students to bring the wrappers of these products to class. Then, I would ask them how they would make Ovaltine,” he says.
“I use the instructions as a comprehension text,” he explains. “Because some of the words are relevant, and are used in the textbook.” This exercise also serves to build important life skills, through the learning of the Malay language.
Making It Relevant
Aidil believes that language learning should begin with the familiar. Thus, “nasi lemak” and “mee rebus” hold the key to making the Malay language more meaningful to students, not the textbook alone.
By first introducing students to words that relate to aspects of everyday life, pupils begin to see the relevance and utility of the language. This is particularly important in today’s Malay language classroom, where close to 60% of students speak both English and Malay at home, and an increasing minority come from homes where only English is spoken (Ministry of Education, 2005).
And because food is both interesting and relevant to most students, Aidil believes it is a good place to start teaching the Malay language.
Focus on High-frequency Words
But there is another reason for doing this. Words like “mee” and “nasi” are examples of high-frequency words – words that we see often but are often not explicitly taught. Other examples include honorific terms, like “Mr” (Encik) and “Miss” (Cik).
High-frequency words are commonly used in everyday interactions. Exposing students to these often-used words provides a good introduction to the language.
In a study Aidil conducted with non-Malay speakers, he found that when high-frequency words were taught to these non-native speakers, there was an improvement in their reading ability. If these results are anything to go by, then introducing native Malay students to high-frequency words should prove fruitful.
Increasing Student Spontaneity
Aidil noted that what is particularly lacking in the Malay language classroom is spontaneity. In a study of Primary 1 students, he found that while students have a high knowledge of the Malay language, their ability to speak it spontaneously in the classroom is diminishing.
In line with the new Malay language syllabus, there is a growing need to encourage spontaneous oral skills. However, sebutan baku, or the standard pronunciation of the Malay language, is so thoroughly taught in the classroom that it actually adversely affects the spontaneity of the students.
Thus Aidil is propagating a balance – a communicative approach where spontaneity is encouraged, and an emphasis more on form rather than structure during the initial years.
Aidil believes that more needs to be done to help students communicate more freely in the Malay language, especially at the lower primary level. His suggestions are easy to implement:
- Encourage students to speak up and express their ideas
- Focus on the ideas they articulate rather than on the grammar
- Use task-based activities that require the students to do hands-on work, rather than just worksheets
Using Differentiated Learning
Aidil also recommends the use of differentiated learning – providing students with different ways to learn about a subject. There are three aspects to differentiated learning:
Choose what you teach based on what your students are interested in. Ask your students what they want to know about a particular topic. For example, if they choose the topic “the neighbourhood”, ask them what they want to learn about their neighbourhood.
This has to do with how the lesson is conducted. Lessons can be taught online, or they can involve task-based or problem-based learning.
When it comes to assessment, it need not be a written test or worksheet. Try a skit or a video. Or get your students to createe a brochure or website about, say, their neighbourhood and the things that are happening there.
Ministry of Education. (2005). Report of the Malay Language Curriculum and Pedagogy Review Committee. Singapore: Author.
Subhan, A. (2008, October). Differentiated learning in the Vernacular classroom. Paper presented at 3rd International Language Learning Conference, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, Malaysia.
Sukaimi, A., & Subhan, A. (2009, June). High-frequency words & the impact of teaching reading to struggling readers. Paper presented at the international conference on Redesigning Pedagogy: Designing New Learning Contexts for a Globalising World, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.