The significance of sociolinguistic backgrounds of teachers of IELTS Test preparation courses in selected Malaysian institutions


Carol Gibson

Anne Swan

Date Published:

27th April 2008

This research investigates the teaching of IELTS Test preparation classes in Malaysia. It focuses on the linguistic, social and cultural values which different teachers bring to the classroom and to washback into the curriculum.

This research investigated the teaching of IELTS Test preparation classes in Malaysia. Malaysia has been ranked 7th in a list of top 25 IELTS Test locations worldwide (IELTS Review 2002). This ethnographic study focused on the linguistic, social and cultural values which different teachers bring to the IELTS Test practice classroom and to washback into the curriculum according to the requirements of IELTS Test preparation and associated academic and social language skills.

We visited six institutions which held IELTS Test practice classes. These were both public and private, located in and around the Kuala Lumpur area and in the state of Pahang. Within these institutions, 92 students completed questionnaires and we interviewed nine teachers. As the student questionnaires were researcher-administered in all centres but one, the return was high (90%). Of these 92 students, 47 claimed Bahasa Malaysia as the first language (with most having English as another language), 30 claimed Chinese, Mandarin or Cantonese as the first language (with most having English as another language), the remainder claimed a mixture of Tamil, Punjabi, Indonesian, Burmese, Persian, English (one student) and Malaysian ethnic languages.

Within this context, the relevance of the term ‘non-native speaker teacher’ was revisited alongside the suggestion that the richness of multilingual speech communities should be better appreciated by centre-based researchers than is currently the case. We found that the teachers’ varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds enabled them to understand the relevance of the IELTS Test in their programs, institutions and in their country, and hence to teach its skills appropriately. Furthermore, despite not being familiar with the term ‘washback’, both teachers and students commented in detail on the positive effects they perceived the Test to have on the Malaysian teaching/learning environment.

Finally, we discovered that teachers working in this region had a strong desire for more specific information about the IELTS Test and candidate assessment; they felt that such information would enable them to provide better guidance for their students.

Note: Ethnic backgrounds Malaysia

Malaysia is a multi-ethnic, multilingual country with a population of about 23.27 million people (according to the 2000 census). Although at least a hundred languages are used daily, (Gaudart 2003), there are three principal languages in use: Bahasa Melayu, Chinese (which in itself is represented by both Mandarin and Cantonese and other dialects) and Tamil.

Special note should be made here concerning the nationality, ethnic background and linguistic background of the students. Of the colleges we involved in this research, one had enrolments restricted to Bumiputera (Malays and natives of Sarawak and Sabah). Private institutions had varied enrolments of Malay, Chinese and Indian Malaysians as well as students from other countries (Iran, Mongolia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, PR China, Morocco, Somalia, French New Guinea, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam). In the case of Chinese, some claimed to speak Mandarin, some Cantonese and others nominated an all-encompassing Chinese. Of interest, some of the students from other countries claimed to be studying English in an English-speaking country (Malaysia).