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Robert Badal sharing his experiences of HK education

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Joined: 08 Oct 2007
Posts: 2515
Location: UK

PostPosted: Wed Jan 22, 2020 7:00 pm    Post subject: Robert Badal sharing his experiences of HK education Reply with quote

Sometimes people who undertake my Phonics Training Online are particularly appreciative and I really welcome them keeping in touch with me to tell me about their findings in their own countries and contexts.

I have had some very interesting exchanges with Robert Badal who has given me permission to share his thoughts with others. The message immediately below is his latest message but in further postings, I provide his original messages:

Hi Debbie: How are you? Happy (late) New Year! I have wanted to post several times but have (as usual) gotten too busy. Before any more time passes, I thought I would drop you a note. Feel free to post any part of it you wish. First off, I thought you might like to see my recent editorial for the South China Morning Post,

The Hong Kong education system does not get enough global press and could be a model of what NOT to do. It is an example of the "market approach" to education run amuck. Another link I would like to share with you is from the "M.I.T. Technology Review" : "How Classroom Technology is Holding Students Back."

It is extraordinary that this article would appear in a publication from the pre-eminent technology university in the world. But this simply reinforces what we exchanged in our previous emails: much of the anti-phonics rhetoric is, at its heart, driven by a desire for "cheap and convenient" education (translation: "low or no pay non-professional teachers") that is unwittingly being supported by the Whole Reading crowd, who see themselves as "liberators" of children from martinet grammarians, but who in fact, are helping to create two educations tracks, one with reading and phonics for the rich, the other, with games and tablets for the poor. Teaching phonics is hard. Getting kids away from phones and tablets and into books is hard. Parents must be part of the process. And there are no great fortunes to be made, as there are in peddling mass-produced education gizmos. But in my private tutoring in Hong Kong, I am finding fewer and fewer kids who do NOT have ADHD or have SEN. I am sure it from 24/7 staring at electronic flashing and beeping electronic screens. Ill write you more again (and check for how to make direct posts). BTW, my business is doing OK. I have 7,200 followers on Facebook now and my brand is trademarked in HK, Macau, China, Taiwan, and Malaysia. Taiwan is quite nice and I am hoping to more there. OK, take care, Rob

Debbie Hepplewhite

Last edited by debbie on Wed Jan 22, 2020 7:29 pm; edited 2 times in total
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Joined: 08 Oct 2007
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Location: UK

PostPosted: Wed Jan 22, 2020 7:18 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Here is the first message I received from Robert via the message system of Phonics Training Online:

Hello Debbie: I wanted to tell you what a wonderful course you have created. I think it may be the biggest bargain of my life! It is wonderful on so many levels and I want to be involved in encouraging this type of instruction.

My name is Robert Badal and Im a private English teacher in Hong Kong. I've been a public high school teacher, university professor, business and primary school teacher in Japan, a public school Adult ESL teacher in Los Angeles, a university professor in Korea, a primary and secondary and business teacher in Chongqing China, and a marketing consultant in China (haha).

I also write about educational issues for the South China Morning Post newspaper. I working on a 12 volume vocabulary/reading comprehension series designed for HK and Asian students. I'm taking the course because I want to do teacher training for primary school teachers here. Reading and phonics are almost completely absent from the HK curriculum and the results are disastrous.

What prompted me to write was Module 1 part 3. I have always found the history of English to be a great topic. I thought you might like to see a YouTube video I made in response to a Hong Kong student's question, "Why are there so many words in English?" It has Chinese subtitles courtesy of my wife Amy. At any rate, thank you so much for your professionalism and passion and I'm looking forward to the rest of the course. Best, Rob

My reply to Robert:

Oh my goodness, Robert, praise indeed – thank you so much.

I just hope you feel the same way about the course when you reach the end of it! I really appreciate your kind words.

I have watched your video and added it to the forum for the Phonics Training Online course here:

I have introduced it in a simple way for now – but I need you to let me know if you’re not happy with my wording or would like to make suggestions to add to this post (above) or change it.

In addition, I would like to ask your permission to copy and paste your message to me on the ‘Feedback’ forum – or that when you have finished the course, you would kindly write me a feedback message so that I may add it to other responses as shown here:

All these responses are genuine and added with permission. I’ve only lately been adding names to them because, historically, so many people have undertaken their phonics studies privately and reported their context privately as they were unhappy with their school’s provision.

It looks to me as if you may only be in the early stages of the course, so I await with baited breath to see if you continue to enjoy it and find it of value.

Thank you so much for contacting me.

Warmest good wishes,


Debbie Hepplewhite
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PostPosted: Wed Jan 22, 2020 7:25 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

And then Robert shared his further observations with me about education in Hong Kong - although his comments about worrying addiction to technology are relevant globally are they not!

Thank you for your reply. You can always make anything I say public. I think your work is painstakingly professional and I also get where you are coming from philosophically about phonics and reading and strongly agree with it. I have come to the same place, but from a different starting point.

I became an English teacher late in life –45–after focusing on professional writing (and having many odd jobs). The whole time I was told “you will NEVER be a university professor, you are too old” and was always the “dark horse” to get the good jobs–but I did and ended up teaching at one of the top 10 universities in Japan, Nanzan–so my perspective is (and remains) somewhat of an outsider. But teaching came naturally to me and my pedagogy teachers always joked that my spontaneous lessons were better than my planned lessons. As an outsider who has joined the party later in life (and with a spirit of high-mindedness), I have found the different “factions” in English education to be depressing. I have presented at ESL language conferences in Japan and Korea and attended untold numbers of faculty meetings and the heated arguments between English teachers about things like reading have never stopped shocking me.

I have been engaged in a research project about HK reading and vocabulary for 5 years. I started with the observation that student’s reading comprehension seemed disproportionately lower than their general English ability. This led to observing that their vocabularies were shockingly low. Because I am a private English tutor and have students from a cross-section of HK schools, I think my observations are a fairly accurate snapshot. I also get to examine the students work and tests–and in the process I am able to not only evaluate students, but also see what is going on in their individual schools.

HK (and China) both devalue reading as a component of ESL education, so even the meager phonics sections of the Longmen texts they use are usually skipped by the teachers. Reading comprehension is not tested separately in HK, but rather is a section of the examinations. Looking at these exams, the students' marks on those section are nearly always much worse than the rest of the exams.

Though there is an Education Bureau that sets policy, these policies are general. The education system is “free market,” even the public schools.
Schools are ranked, Band I, Band 2, Band 3, so schools engage in a constant marketing process that includes shunning any research that might reflect badly on them and thus reduce the flow of potential “customers.” HK’s education story is a very much under-reported situation but it is a perfect testimonial to how dreadful “market-based” education really is. I would love to publish about what I have talked about here (if you have any recommendations of journals that might accept subjective research).

The disparity between reading ability and overall English got me interested in vocabulary and word decoding as a component of good reading. I started devouring research and buying different workbooks and trying them out on my students. This has led to a project to create an incremental, combined vocabulary and reading comprehension books series designed for HK/Chinese students. I'm writing the books, tutoring, and putting together a publishing start-up. I have done some teacher training consulting here and my idea is to market the books by including teacher training in phonics/word decoding/reading.

My original motivation in signing up for your course was the certificate of completion (HK people love certificates) to wave around in addition to my other qualifications. But to be honest, I have been totally blown away by how good your program is. I have also felt a warmth in my heart because it is a validation of what I have independently come to see as truth.

It is clear to me that the “politics” of (especially) the ESL branch of English negatively affect the quality of instruction. Reading and phonics advocates get branded “old fashioned” as the champions of “new” methods champion what are inevitably some kind of “short cut.” Teachers often like these “simplified” approaches because they are weary of unmotivated students and desperately grasp at anything that they think will painlessly increase “engagement” and produce some kind of quick result. There is a kind of smug self-righteousness to these “crusaders” as they see themselves as “protecting” the poor suffering students from the old martinets who want to teach “correctness” or “old school English.” This is being made worse by the relentless push to put technology into the classroom–even when it is unnecessary or proven harmful. Another thing about HK is the prevailing cell phone addiction and use of phones and tablets as “electronic babysitters.” I have observed a clear relationship between young cell phone use and poor reading and concentration. This is another area of my research. I am a “digital minimalist” (another point of view labelled “old fashioned”) but I am so, not because of nostalgia, but because I can see the result of technology addiction. If you go to the South China Morning Post website and enter my name, you will see the articles I have written about this.

My perspective also includes teaching adults who are struggling to take the IELTS or work in multi-national corporations. I can see first hand the agony they have in trying to fill in the holes in their English educations as a result of the shortcuts or “user friendly” versions of English they were taught. My most successful students have been readers from a young age. I naturally gravitated to including reading as part of adults' teaching because I have a background in using drama to teach English and have found reading aloud (with supportive coaching) to be the most time-effective way to improve adult English. This is why it is so tragic that there is so little emphasis on those early reading years and the teaching of phonics. This is the foundation that supports the whole edifice.

I want to really stress my support for this: teaching the decoding and encoding of the English alphabetic system with an incremental increase in the complexity of words and concepts as you advocate is not “old fashioned,” it is the way our brains work to use the language in an advanced way. Trying to skip or shorten this process may be “convenient,” but it comes with a huge price: the student will have a lifelong deficit that is very very hard to fix later in life.

At any rate, sorry for the long note. I originally just wanted to tell you the correct spelling of my name and that it’s OK to quote me or cite any of my qualifications or work history–but sometimes because I am not part of any institution right now, I feel like “The Long Ranger” in my work and it’s nice to talk to someone about it.

OK, on with the show!

Best, Rob

Debbie Hepplewhite
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Geoff Vaughan

Joined: 07 May 2019
Posts: 2

PostPosted: Fri Feb 14, 2020 12:06 pm    Post subject: International experiences of teaching reading Reply with quote

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the conversations between Rob and Debbie.
Rob, like me, you have found Debbie's incredible work and what you say is exactly what I think too.
It would be really good to connect professionally as I am in the process of trying to spread PI internationally through my university level work. It is in its infancy but Debbie knows about it and I am hoping to create a SSP transformation in 2nd language reading'
That is the wish anyway.
I would be really interested to find out more about your work on reading comprehension. It is the element of the Simple View of Reading that I think needs more work alongside the excellence of the SSP work on the decoding side.
Very pleased to be part of all this!
Best regards,
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