By HKU’s Dr Loh Ka-yee Elizabeth & Dr Hung On-ying Cathy & Oxfam Hong Kong’s Wong Shek-hung

It is clear that poverty has been on the rise in Hong Kong, according to government statistics. Currently, more than a million people live below the poverty line, many of them in working poor households.

Various organisations have been researching sustainable solutions to these issues. One issue, for instance, is the language barrier, which has limited many ethnic minorities to jobs that are often low-paying. While we are keenly aware that this is not the reality for all ethnic minorities, it remains an everyday challenge for an appreciable number of people.

racism ethnic minority minorities july 1 diversity
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Against this backdrop, Oxfam Hong Kong, The University of Hong Kong, and the Education University of Hong Kong have been looking into ways to empower more ethnic minority children to learn Chinese from an earlier age to make up for the head start Chinese-speaking students get as their families can teach them the language.

As with learning a second language in any place, it is difficult to expect children to dive right into a curriculum that was not designed with their needs in mind. That is why, through our two-year pilot programme – which involved everything from enrichment classes for non-Chinese speaking (NCS) students and smaller class sizes, to a curriculum and teaching materials designed for those learning Chinese as a second language – schools, parents, teachers and children have seen results.

We have continued to conduct research to improve this programme. Our latest study, which was mentioned earlier in an article on HKFP Voices, was commissioned by the Equal Opportunities Commission to investigate the difficulties mainstream schools experienced in teaching NCS students. With the Education Bureau’s curriculum designed for Chinese-speaking students, it should come as no surprise that teachers and schools are struggling with this.

Currently, there is a serious lack of teaching materials systematically designed for NCS students that cater to their varying academic levels and learning needs. So the task of creating them falls largely on the shoulders of individual teachers. While many teachers are doing their best to create teaching materials that enable NCS students to learn Chinese, most educators are not adequately trained in this area as they are not required to receive such training.

For those who are doing what they can to develop teaching materials to teach Chinese as a second language, creating materials with a systematic progression can become a challenge given the wide variation in proficiency among students. Schools also often lack the resources needed to offer smaller classes for NCS students, even though it has been proven time and again that such classes can enable students to learn more effectively.

education kid child school
Photo: GovHK.

Given that this is a systemic problem, then, it is hard to expect teachers to shoulder this responsibility alone. That is why we at Oxfam Hong Kong and The University of Hong Kong are calling on the Education Bureau to provide teachers with a comprehensive set of teaching materials, on-site professional support, and require them to receive professional training in this area so they are better equipped to provide NCS students with quality support.

We are also urging them to enable schools to hire qualified teaching professionals they need to support smaller and more effective classes. Moreover, it is suggested a coordinator is added to serve the function of organising the teaching support and monitoring the learning progress of students more effectively. To make all these suggestions materialise, the support of the government, in terms of resources and policy change, is necessary.

While these suggestions might not sufficiently address all the issues those from ethnic minority communities are facing, we are taking small steps with people and organisations from across society to tackle poverty and create a better learning environment for our NCS students.

Dr Loh Ka-yee Elizabeth is Assistant Professor, Assistant Dean (Knowledge Exchange) at Faculty of Education, The University of Hong Kong. Dr Hung On-ying is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Advancement of Chinese Language Education and Research, The University of Hong Kong. Ms Wong Shek-hung is Hong Kong Programme Manager at Oxfam Hong Kong.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.