The increasing popularity of RHB New Straits Times National Spell-It-Right Challenge indicates the growing awareness of the importance of mastering the English language, writes NURJEHAN MOHAMED
IF last weekend is anything to go by, spelling is winning popularity with schoolchildren.
The RHB New Straits Times National Spell-It-Right (SIR) Challenge saw record numbers of participants turning up at the first two venues in Sungai Petani, Kedah and Arau, Perlis.
A total of 116 primary and 206 secondary students tried their luck in the Kedah leg while 55 primary and 63 secondary students vied for the crown at the Perlis competition.
Last year, there were 64 primary and 84 secondary entrants in Kedah, and 28 primary and 32 secondary contenders in Perlis.
Looking at current registration numbers, a similar trend may continue at other state challenges in the coming weeks.
Among the reasons for the fourth season’s early success could be a change in rules.
Instead of school teams of four, participation is on an individual basis and up to 10 students per school can enter.
This means that those keen on spelling can enter without having to find a group to be eligible to do so.
This has also paved the way for several good spellers from the same school to advance to the finals.
Three of the top five spots at the Perlis secondary competition were taken by three of eight SMK Derma students, with second-former Pang Zheng Bin leading the pack.
And SMK Sultan Badlishah’s Vivien Khor Wei Wen and M. Dharshana took home the second and third prizes in the Kedah state challenge.
Opening the competition to students from private schools which use the Malaysian national curriculum might have also contributed to higher numbers.
This development comes at a time when English in Malaysia is increasingly being used as a shared language across communities and an international medium of communication, which underpins the relevance of activities such as the SIR Challenge.
In the recently released English First (EF) English Proficiency Index (EPI), Malaysia came out tops among non-native-speaking Asian countries and ninth globally. Malaysia is the only country outside of Europe placed in the “high proficiency” category.
The 42 countries and two territories included in the exercise undertaken by education provider EF were placed in five categories ranging from “very high proficiency” to “very low proficiency”. The EPI calculates a country’s average English skill level using the best available data from four English tests completed by hundreds of thousands of adults every day. All the tests include grammar, vocabulary, reading and listening sections.
The index was calculated using combined test taker data from 2007 to 2009, which included test results from 2.3 million test takers.
EF states, however, that the EPI is not guaranteed to be representative of the country as a whole as the test takers are self-selected.
Still, the dominance of English at the workplace is undeniable and this is an important factor in encouraging students to master the English language.
This was recently highlighted by University of Malaya (UM) vice chancellor Professor Datuk Ghauth Jasmon.
UM, as the country’s oldest university, had to “buck up on the command and use of the English language to improve graduate employability”, he said.
This was based on feedback from employers who evaluate the institution’s students during their industrial training.
It is said that spelling is the cornerstone of language.
The participants of the SIR Challenge — winners or not — stand to gain much more than just the tangible results of monetary reward and certificates of participation.
They may also find a greater desire to expand their vocabulary through reading as well as the confidence to use the English language more frequently.