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Reading booked on to timetable;Briefing;International

HONG KONG. Children learn English grammar and vocabulary - stories are next on the list, reports Katherine Forestier.

A pilot reading scheme is to be expanded to all Hong Kong's schools as it has been so successful in raising standards in English.

The voluntary Hong Kong Extensive Reading Scheme, which provides schools with free books and supplementary materials at key stages 2 and 3, will become compulsory from September, with schools receiving a grant to buy the resources.

The original programme required schools to devote one to two periods a week to reading and follow-up activities. Only 164 of Hong Kong's 800 primary schools joined, and about half of all secondary schools, according to Helen Kung, senior inspector at the education department.

"Policy-makers are already convinced that extensive reading is useful," she said.

Under the reading grant, primary schools with 12 classes or less will receive $3,250 (pound;260) a year to spend on approved books and materials. Those with more classes will get up to $6,500. Secondaries will receive $13,500.

Tony Mahon, senior English lecturer at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said reading was not explicitly taught in Hong Kong. "The course books are about grammar and vocabulary, not teaching children how to read," he said.

He is a joint leader of the Primary English Reading Project, a collaboration between the institute and City University.

Evidence from 12 schools shows that pupils learn English more effectively using children's literature and big books. The project incorporates a range of strategies that teach 11-year-olds how to read and how to write imaginatively.

"Preliminary analysis of data collected over three years shows strong improvements in their oral reading and retelling of stories, reading comprehension and vocabulary," he said.

A similar pilot - the pre-primary English language project - run by the Hong Kong Council of Early Childhood Education (CESES) has been successful with big books for four to six-year-olds.

It was devised by international language consultant Dr Ng Seok Moi, who has worked on reading projects in Singapore and Brunei.

"In-service teachers were trained to change from traditional textbook-based techniques to an activity-based approach employing an abundance of high interest stories. It integrates the practice of listening, speaking, reading and writing skills," she told a conference on reading.

After a year, children in 15 pilot schools were found to have superior skills in hearing sounds in words, identifying words in isolation, and in listening comprehension compared with a control group. "Children also enjoy learning English in the project and have started to form positive attitudes toward reading English books," said Dr Ng.

The two projects are now developing teaching resources for use in all schools. And the CESES has developed a mentor system to help teachers new to the programme.

San San Ching, director of CESES, said the pre-primary project was initiated because English at that level was badly taught, with children having to memorise single words. "We want to save them from bad teaching," she said.

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