By Maggie Holmes
Government funding for kindergartens which admit children from non-Chinese speaking (NCS) families came under scrutiny during the Chief Executive’s 2021 Policy Address.
The speech highlighted the need to assess the effectiveness of the NCS Grant but stopped short of calling for an investigation into how the money is used or stating how any effectiveness could be measured.
The Education Bureau provides tiered levels of funding for schools joining the government’s kindergarten education scheme and admitting children from NCS households. Schools with between one and four children from NCS families can claim HK$51,710. This rises to a hefty HK$795,840 for kindergartens with over 30 eligible students.
The NCS Grant underpins the government’s policy of early integration, which encourages NCS parents to place their children in Chinese-language kindergartens. Early immersion in Chinese, it is hoped, will help bring about high levels of Chinese proficiency, allowing the students to follow the mainstream curriculum as they progress through the education system.
While the funding is generous, a report by the Audit Commission found many kindergartens failed to use the NCS Grant in its entirety. Over a two-year period, 15 per cent of kindergartens used less than 70 per cent of the funds provided and some schools used less than half.
The Audit Commission urged the government to step up monitoring of how the NCS Grant is used and advised underspending schools to make better use of the money.
The upper tiers of funding allow kindergartens to buy in extra teaching staff, including the hire of teaching assistant from an ethnic minority group, while schools receiving a smaller sum are expected to purchase teaching materials to support the teaching of Chinese as a second language.
Unfortunately, a major problem faced by all kindergartens is a lack of resources which cater to the specific needs of children from NCS families learning Chinese in Cantonese.
Even with the NCS Grant burning a hole in their pocket, kindergartens have nothing to spend it on.
NGOs such as Hong Kong Unison, Oxfam Hong Kong and The Zubin Foundation have repeatedly urged the government to develop a “Chinese as a second language” curriculum starting at kindergarten level and supported by appropriate teaching tools.
The request falls on deaf ears. It is still nigh on impossible to find ready-made, centrally available resources to support Chinese teaching at kindergarten level for students from NCS families.
Collaborations between major universities and local NGOs such as Oxfam Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Jockey Club have some teaching materials in the pipeline, but these are still only available to kindergartens taking part in their projects.
Among the mountains of Chinese-writing copy books and exercise books at the Hong Kong Book Fair earlier this year, none had been produced with the needs of kindergarten students from NCS families in mind.
A browse through the websites of major Hong Kong publishing houses yields nothing suitable for the learning needs of children from families not literate in Chinese.
The lack of appropriate teaching and learning materials has serious consequences for students in an education system where kindergarten is about much more than sandpits and singing.
Kindergarten is where children learn the foundational Chinese characters which form the building blocks of written Chinese, as well as the principles of stroke order.
Children are taught writing skills during class hours, but it is widely assumed they will get extra practice at home, where a family member oversees the homework; reminding the child how to pronounce each character, what it means and how it should be written. Many families buy extra copy books and flashcard sets to supplement the learning process.
Children from NCS families also need to practise Chinese at home, but current study resources are inaccessible to non-Chinese literate parents.
NCS families need study materials which explain what is required in English or other home language. They need copy books that show pronunciation, what each character means and how to write it.
Reading must also be supported. Storybooks that come with audio (via QR code or digital pen) and a glossary are hugely helpful to children from non-Chinese literate families.
This is not an unreasonable request; this type of audio-supported storybook is commonly used to support English learners in Hong Kong.
Nearly 13,000 children from NCS families currently attend kindergarten in Hong Kong and the number seems likely to increase. So why the lack of suitable resources?
Unfortunately there is a widespread perception among educators that Chinese is such a “difficult and special” language that the written system cannot possibly be understood by non-native Chinese speakers. As such, creating resources for home-school usage becomes an apparently insurmountable task requiring teams of experts and many years of development.
This is unnecessary. In the early stages, writing Chinese is simply a matter of copying and repetition. Children from NCS families do not need materials that are vastly different from the Chinese students. There is no need to “add feet to a snake,” as the Chinese idiom says. A few thoughtful adaptations of existing materials are all that is required.
Another common refrain claims that the production of materials for students from NCS families is not commercially viable. We need to think about this. Is it morally acceptable to link the quality of a child’s education to the profit-making needs of a publishing house?
Financial support, by means of the NCS Grant, is a hugely important first step but it’s not enough. Teachers need something to spend it on.
If commercial publishers are unwilling to be involved, the Education Bureau must step up to create the resources. The kindergarten years are a golden time for language learning.
Teachers need a full range of materials at their fingertips to help children from NCS families learn Chinese most effectively. Only then can these young students start Primary one with confidence and thrive in a mainstream school.
Maggie Holmes is co-founder of Chinese as an Additional Language Hong Kong, an organisation which supports students studying Chinese in Hong Kong.
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