The Jungle Teacher Responds to Nadilla Jamil's Open Letter

This blog post is a response to this article.
This is a long blog post in response to Nadilla Jamil's article 'An open letter to secondary school English teachers' which was published by the Malaysian Insider on 13 June 2014.

In this letter, she eloquently shares her beliefs in the teaching of the English language in Malaysian secondary schools & passionately urges English teachers to follow suit. Here are some quotes:
- stop doing word-to-word translation or even mother-tongue mirroring
- speaking English in an English language classroom provides the linguistic environment that you know they are lacking
- English is fun. Bring along your games, movies. Act out. Consider role-plays. Let our potential future leaders learn the language through music.
- I passionately believe that the trouble is that education doesn't go on in the committee rooms of our legislative buildings. It happens in classrooms and schools, and the people who do it are you and them as students. And if your discretion is removed, trust me, our education will stop working.
- as an English teacher, you are not a grammar nazi who will red-mark or point out every single written and verbal grammatical mistake of our potential future leaders.
- you don’t need to make sure they get the Queen’s tongue while speaking
- Don’t rob their confidence. Don’t kill the language-learning joy.  Don’t make them feel timid. Don’t sabotage their language learning by speaking in L1 in their L2 classroom.
- the more you speak and let our potential future leaders speak L1 in L2 class; the longer they will remain in miserable limbo of being unable to communicate in that language.
- we can never learn English by speaking in and listening to another language. No one ever has mastered a language this way. And no one will.
- your mission is not only to let them know how to read and write in English to pass their exams. Your mission should be that so that one day they can THINK critically when they converse and read in English.

The Malaysian Insider balanced her article by publishing these responses:
1. A reply from a secondary school English teacher – Mohd Faiez Mohd Ali
   A teacher describes how he tried to use only English to little effect and then finds success when he uses the mother tongue in his lessons. Students understood the task & proceeded to make use of the target language to complete their tasks which are essential to success in SPM.
2. Teaching English is a task for all – Daron Benjamin Loo
   A teacher trainer argues that the use of mother tongue is acceptable in the second language classroom.

I did some sleuthing because I thought that she was probably a renowned teacher trainer or researcher or master teacher whom I could learn from & what I have found will surprise you.

About Nadilla Jamil:

Siti Nurnadilla Mohamad Jamil is a PhD student in Discourse and Rhetoric at Loughborough University. She did an MA in Discourse Studies at Lancaster University. She has a Bachelor's from the International Islamic University Malaysia in Linguistics. She was a TESL undergraduate for a year at UiTM Shah Alam.

I was disappointed when I found out that she was not involved in the education field at all. This explains a lot about the way the open letter was written. It was more of an opinion piece with a lot of personal 'beliefs'. Those beliefs probably came from a reflection on her schooling experience embellished with some knowledge of language teaching theories.

Also, this is not the first article of hers to be published by the Malaysian Insider.
An open letter to secondary school English teachers, 13 June 2014
An open letter to the young, 22 May 2014
Surat terbuka kepada sarjana muda Malaysia, 12 May 2014
An open letter to all Malaysian undergrads, 12 May 2014
For you. For me. For our children, 2 May 2014
An open letter to a Bumi who turns 25 today, 10 April 2014
An open letter to all SPM school-leavers, 9 April 2014

Her articles are all written with the same conviction. She is quite a liberal & she is open about it. I can tell that she hopes that she will win more of her people to her world-view. As a 25 year old, her articles are usually addressed to youth. This is the first time she has targeted teachers.
She is definitely someone with a bright future & will do Malaysia a lot of good should she choose to return. I really hope that she does.
She will probably make a good politician one day. She reminds me of a young Sharyn Shufiyan.

My Response:

Dear Nadillah, thank you for your article. I want to commend you for bravely voicing out your thoughts & taking on the 60k+++ strong English teaching workforce. We do need reminders of what we are capable of & what we are responsible for. It is indeed humbling to receive such reminders from a young intellectual.

I am not an expert in English language teaching & I have limited experience in teaching but I want to speak up for my fellow teachers when I see them being targeted in the media. I hate teacher-basing & I strongly believe you do too. Teachers tend to keep quiet when this happens. But, when an opinion is falsely perceived as fact, I am compelled to step in & share my OPINION.

Nadilla's ideas are not new but they are simplistic. Not all schools in Malaysia are the same. Even in the same school, not all classes are the same. She is probably drawing most of her ideas from research of second language acquisition in a NATIVE-speaking environment. Think about it. In Malaysia, except in some urban areas, most students learn English as a FOREIGN language which has no immediate real-world application.

Keep in mind that not all teachers work in well-equipped schools with students who wish to learn. There are extremely rural schools where students only really start learning English in secondary school. There are also challenging schools in urban areas which are ridden with discipline issues which constantly disrupt classes. For some of the classes in these schools, full English is possible. For some, we might need to give teachers the benefit of the doubt.

I have nothing against the use of another language in the classroom. I am, however, against the FULL use of the mother tongue in the classroom. Teachers should strive to use as much English as possible & challenge their students within their zone of proximal development.
Teachers should be entrusted to make their own INFORMED decisions on this. Factors influencing the use of English include: teacher-student rapport, teacher ability, lesson objectives, student willingness to stretch themselves, student discipline, student ability, student achievement, class history & school culture.

I think that all teachers should at least conduct their lessons entirely in English at the beginning. They should also do this with the assumption that students will understand. Students pick up on teacher's expectations & deliver accordingly.
As teachers develop a better understanding of the school & their students, they can decide whether it is beneficial to employ whatever degree of code-mixing for specific lessons. Decisions must be thoughtful & never reactive.

For teachers who are using English entirely AND your students are learning, good for you. For those who do not, you better have a bloody good explanation.
I usually code-mix when I want to:
- lower the difficulty of a task which is beyond the ability of my students
- make quick definitions of unknown words/terms which are not key

I am not an expert teacher so take my OPINION with a pinch of salt. I have really weak classes with a lot of catching up to do & I am pushing them every day. What is important is our students are learning & progressing. If we haughtily use English entirely just for the sake of it, we might miss the point altogether.

A great teacher should use everything in his arsenal to push & pull his students to success & that also includes knowledge of the students mother tongue (which is why I have learned to speak Bahasa Iban). The students in my weakest classes are motivated & progressing in their English. Am I a bad teacher because I use code-mixing to make the above happen?


For centuries, we teachers have been told what to do by every possible layer of society; from ministers to professors to administrators to parents to students to other teachers themselves. So far, we have taken all of your concerns quietly into consideration because we know that we serve all the stakeholders & we trust our policy makers to make the best decision for the future of our nation.

Can I speak honestly? Can I? Please? Can a teacher say something this time?
Honestly, we are tired of being TOLD what to do. We want to be SHOWN what to do.

This is my challenge to anyone who wants to speak. PROVE to me through your own efforts that all you say is true. Become an English teacher. And please don't dabble. One year is nothing. Stick with it for a few years & actually try your best. Just like how you would want us to do.

Oh oh oh... And do this not at a premier school. Teaching at a Putrajaya, MARA, Sains or cluster school is kind of like cheating, no? Go to a challenging school. A school where the students are weak in English & many English teachers have already given up. This is the best place to prove your point!

If you succeed there, you have earned your place to speak. And when that happens, I will listen to you, follow you & I will even fight for you.
Furthermore, if, after all that, you still choose to stay in the teaching profession, I will respect you.


  1. Kor kor, do I earn your place to speak? *bright eyed*

    1. So sweet! You're the first to comment!
      Of course! You earned your place a long time ago! =)

  2. Bravo, Jarod! "We are tired of being told what to do. We want to be shown what to do" 100% agree! Thumbs up!

  3. Wow that's what we want. Not one of those who speak but has no action in real life :)

    1. Sometimes we can learn a lot even from those who don't walk the talk.

  4. Totally agree with u... u speak my mind too.. tk

  5. nadilla has to be in the system itself to experience the real classroom situation to understand then only to critic. oh how i wish i could simply carry out all her suggestions in my class *sigh*

    1. Actually, I think that we can try. Sometimes there is something to learn even from those who do not walk the talk.

  6. Anonymous17/6/14 14:58

    Thumbs up for the clear respond. Teaching English in rural schools is quite a challenge; my mum whom has been teaching the lower secondary students faces the same kind of problem you relate before. It's not surprising to find very weak students in classes as if they've never learnt the language during primary school before- it's a really sad reality you see.

    1. Yes, and it is a sad reality every part of society needs to work together to ameliorate.

  7. Anonymous17/6/14 15:08

    You are right jarod. Once a colleague told me to use magic in my teaching, because she said she used it when many of her students passed the exam with flying colours. But when I asked her to show me the so-called' magic', she was reluctant. this case it's easy to say than to act, right?

    1. Yes, it is always easier to talk than to walk. We always talk about how other people should do their work better when we ourselves have got a lot more to improve in our own work. I myself am not excluded.

  8. Anonymous17/6/14 21:41

    Totally agree with your points. Only teacher can actually understand how our worklife is. Salute you bro

  9. Anonymous18/6/14 06:43

    The MA in discourse studies pretty much sums up why she is too consumed on the idea of immersing students in L2-only use in the classrooms. More opportunities to use the L2 leads to increased fluency which will lead to students being able to not only talk, but think in the L2. Well, that is the ideal. And what her textbooks say. Unfortunately, that is much easier said than done. As intelligent a person she may sound through her writings, I can tell that Nadilla's knowledge in the subject area is not quite graduated yet --- there have been significant turns in current ESL/EFL research showing that use of L1 do facilitate L2 learning. Yes, it does. If you want to speak on behalf of other people's area of expertise, especially prescribing them what to do and not to do, please, at least check on the validity of your facts first. Consider arguments from all angles so you don't end up to be unintentionally undermining other people's noble efforts. Better still, stop being an arm-chair critic and join the public school teaching force if you dare.

    1. You, dear sir, have summed up my boringly long blog post into a short & sweet paragraph!
      But! There is still a lot to learn from what she has said & teachers should really strive to use as much L2 in the classroom as they can.

    2. I'll agree with Anonymous above. I was at a conference this month in Bangkok when this very issue came up. Guy Cook was giving the keynote speech and he said that he has been looking for any studies or any evidence that a mono-lingual classroom is more effective than a multilingual one. And he said that there doesn't seem to be any at all. So while I appreciate Nadilla's "passion", she might want to base her opinions on evidence rather than just the way she feels. (And to be honest, I am not an expert in this area either, so if anyone has any evidence to show that an L2-only classroom is better, please share with everyone! :)

    3. That's interesting. I wish I could read up on Mr Cook. I suppose if he is a keynote speaker at an international conference, he should be credible.
      Thank you, Stuart!

  10. Anonymous18/6/14 06:49

    This happen to my new school in rural area,0% passes for english paper in UPSR 2013 but the english subject teacher have the top english profieciency tested in CPT test.

    1. I have read studies which ranks teacher proficiency really low in the predictors of student success. The top predictor is actually student-teacher rapport. Your friend should work on that & then capitalise on that to push her students to pass UPSR.

  11. Anonymous18/6/14 16:42

    I do hope nadilla can come down to schools for at least 1 year....n perform miracles with our students......I know she can......(snickering) har3.....after all aint she the best teacher in Malaysia......

    1. She is young. We can forgive her for her rant. But we should never discourage her from coming back & doing whatever it is she thinks is good for our country.

      We can laugh at her now.. But nobody knows who is going to have the last laugh. haha~~~

  12. Anonymous18/6/14 19:36

    Using only English in the class? You can forget about it... In rural schools, most kids already have problems understanding meanings of words, what more to say instructions in English?? Some are even illiterate!

    1. We shouldn't dismiss everything that she said even though the way she said it was really uncouth. There are some truths there & teachers should really strive to use as much of English as they can in their classrooms.
      Don't give up!!

  13. Hats off! Love your response and I totally agree with you.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Anonymous20/6/14 00:02

    Well said Jarod ; D

  16. Thank you for replying her letter on behalf of me. Chewah! Haha. Although I consider myself proficient, when I was a student, my teachers do not use much of L2 and I ended up being quite a proficient English teacher (Don't know what's my proficiency level yet because I didn't take TOEFL iBT test yet) So she was born in the middle of family who speaks English and she should volunteer herself at Teach For The Need--to prove her theory. I challenge her!!

    1. Yes. We are ALL challenging her! =)

  17. Very well written Jarod! Though purists in the likes of Nadilla may be necessary, I believe that her ideology of English teachers is what stigmatizes so many non-native English teachers who may not be born and raised speaking English but possess high levels of English proficiency coupled with the language teaching know-how. If everyone shares her notion of what an English teacher should do, all of us would probably lose our jobs.

    1. She should understand that the medium is the message. What they do in the classroom is sometimes secondary.

  18. Anonymous27/6/14 19:38

    easier said than done

  19. Dear Mr Yong ... thank you so much for doing your best for the students in SMK Katibas ... I think teachers like you in those challenging schools need NEITHER be told NOR be shown what to do! Instead, YOU teachers need to SHOW THEM what should be done because YOU KNOW BEST about your students and what is best to help them achieve their full potential!

    1. Hi Gan. I'm sorry I have to disagree with you.

      There is a difference of being TOLD what to do & be SHOWN what to do. I believe that all teachers can be SHOWN what to do. We don't know that we are inferior until we are SHOWN a superior practice. I have stuff that I can show other teachers & I bet those same teachers have impressive ideas/talents that they can show me too.

      I know my students the best but I refuse to think that I know all there is to know about teaching them. Once I start to think like that, I really start to lose my credibility to teach. There is still a lot I can learn & improve on.

      Thank you so much for your support! All teachers need this kind of support! Not just me. =)

  20. Dear Jorad,
    You do not need to feel sorry at all for disagreeing with me!
    However, I certainly do not mean there is nothing you can learn from any other teacher ... I think you have interpreted my sentence with a broad and general backdrop ... When writing the sentence, I was actually having the backdrop that some so called superior officers coming to tell you what to do ... what I actually meant was I strongly believe that there is nothing these officers could show you that you have not done it better! Certainly, there is no end to our learning of how to help our students learn! Cheer and sincerely hope that the students in Katibas will continue to have the blessing of having them as their teacher!

    1. Thanks! All the best to you too!! Let's continue to do what we can. =)

  21. We all must work towards developing confident and thinking teachers. Generally, our system is focusing more on controlling our teachers rather than trusting them to do their best! God bless all our children in schools!

    1. Stephen Covey said that if we hire the right people, we don't have to manage them because they will manage themselves. We only need to lead them.

      Government is doing a lot of management because they realise what they have done & they are unable to correct decades of thoughtless mistakes & faulty policies.

  22. Anonymous15/8/14 07:32

    J S Azumi

    Wow. Reading all these posts make me feel super pumped and invigorated !!! Thank you all teachers, you have made me realise why l love teaching☆★☆★☆

    1. You're welcome back here any time.
      But I suggest you find something at your school which you can use every day to invigorate you. For me it's easy, my students inspire & invigorate me. =)


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