Topics, Functions, and Vocabulary Combined: Students’ English Refined

(A popular article; by one NEB)

The teaching of English in Indonesia—especially that in junior and senior high school—has left students unable to use the language to express themselves effectively both in oral and written form. This has been put forward by many parties, one of whom is Alwasilah (2001: 48) who calls it a “failure.” There exist many factors which contribute to this fiasco. Among others are the ever-changing curriculum not adhering to the students’ needs and interest, the classroom teaching instructional practices following the change of the curriculum, and the absence of conducive learning environment as a result of the language policy still putting English as a foreign language.

As far as the curriculum is concerned, there have been 4 curricula around adopted with all the methods or approaches that follow. What should be noted here is the fact that none have succeeded in equipping the students with the ability to perform adequately in English both orally and writtenly (read: in written form). In fact the curriculum changes time after time only to search for its right form to function to the full to achieve the above-mentioned purpose. Yet the latest curriculum of 1994 is still believed not to work its wonders of communicative approach. According to Alwasilah (2001)—when explaining his research findings concerning the implementation of the approach—“The communicative approach which is integral to the 1994 curriculum is not well understood by school teachers” (p. 44). Back in 1984 when the approach was first introduced, it was even misinterpreted as oral-based instruction (Musthafa 2001).

That undoubtedly impacts the teaching-learning practices at the classroom level. With such an understanding, the teacher will find himself the domineering person who uses the language to deliver his teaching. The students will just be provided with exercises—mostly grammar and vocabulary exercises—doing or answering which they will have to use only very little English giving short answers. This will not facilitate the students to use their language to the full, let alone enable them to exercise their critical thinking using the language to give their opinion on something in a discussion, for example. They can not even argue about alternatives answers to the problems posed. There is only one correct answer; and that is the one given by the teacher.

English treated this way is put as a subject rather than a skill. It is taught and learned as parts, not as a whole (Goodman 1986: 8). As a result, the students may know a lot about the language after learning its grammar broken into various linguistic forms, but they may not have the skills to use the language to communicate ideas effectively. Hamied (2001: 25) asserts, “By teaching linguistic forms …….. in isolation, we cannot guarantee that our students will automatically learn the English language as a linguistic and communicative entity.” Perhaps one only distinct achievement that this kind of teaching has ever made is the highest scores on the grammar section of the TOEFL test achieved by Indonesian students taking the test as reported by Alwasilah (1993).

To make things worse, the environment where the students return is not conducive to encourage them to learn more to utilize their language since English is still a foreign language the use of which is exclusively restricted to contexts usually not attracting the students to make use of their language to get access to them: English newspapers and magazines, internet English sources, English conferences, etc. This, therefore, will not be able to compensate for the lack of practice in the classroom. The students’ language will be much more of what remains as knowledge of language aspects in their memory storage just like other content knowledge gained from other subjects. This way the language will never come out a proven skill in their daily life.

In the midst of this, put into effect in 2004 was a new curriculum focusing on competencies that the students were to achieve upon completing their course of study, for which it is called competency-based curriculum. Given the context of junior and senior high school, competency can safely be taken to mean students’ ability to perform in the language listening, speaking, reading, and writing based on the instructional objectives already set. In order for this to materialize, the students are given more chance to exercise their language in the classroom. Therefore, the curriculum highlights the following important elements:

a. teaching materials being topics, not language aspects

This constitutes topic-based teaching. Calling them themes, Hamied (2001: 24) asserts, “themes, instead of linguistic components, are to be used in developing teaching materials.” Sundayana (1998) states that the approach starts with the teacher selecting an interesting topic to study and then designing activities to involve the students to explore the topic using their language as the tool. Therefore, he affirms that topic-based instruction is sure to integrate the four language skills.

b. Language functions

These make up the tool the students need to talk about the topic they are learning (Sundayana 1998).

c. Grammar and vocabulary

These can be very integral to the language functions. For instance, to express something about values, the students should be able to devise nouns, gerunds, and sentences (See Antoni 2003).

It is expected that competency-based curriculum will be able to facilitate the students’ learning in such a way that they have more opportunity to use their language in the learning activities devised by the teacher in the classroom talking about topics of their interest. This happening, the students will develop both their language competency and knowledge of topics surrounding them.


Alwasilah, A. C. (ed.) (2001). Language, Culture, and Education: A Portrait of Contemporary Indonesia. Bandung: Indira.

Alwasilah, A. C. (ed.) (1993). Dari Cicalengka sampai Chicago: Bunga Rampai Pendidikan Bahasa. Bandung: Angkasa.

Antoni, F. (2003, October). Teaching Grammar and Topics Integratedly Revisited: An Alternative for Tomorrow’s ELT in Indonesia. Paper presented at the 51st TEFLIN International Conference, Bandung.

Goodman, K. (1986). What’s Whole in Whole Language? New Hampshire: Heinemann.

Hamied, F. A. (2001, February). English Language Education in Indonesia. Paper Presented at The East-West Center and Ohama Foundation Workshop on Increasing Creativity and Innovation in English Language Education.

Musthafa, B. (2001). Communicative language teaching in Indonesia: issues of theoretical assumptions and challenges in classroom practice. Journal of Southeast Asian Education, 2 (2), pp. 296-308.

Sundayana, W. (1998). Pengajaran bahasa berdasarkan tema. In Alwasilah (ed.), Bunga Rampai Pendidikan Bahasa (pp. 115-133). Bandung: IBP.

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