Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


University of Wollongong. Faculty of Education


This study investigates the relationships between Hong Kong secondary ESL teachers’ beliefs and practices and government policies in the teaching of English as a Second language (ESL). Three broad questions guided and framed the study. These were:

  • What is the nature of the relationship between three case study teachers’ beliefs and their practices with respect to teaching English in Hong Kong?
  • How do the English language curriculum and examination policies affect these teachers’ choices of teaching approaches, their assessment practices and their understanding of students’ learning English in Hong Kong schools?
  • How do the three teachers go about making sense of, and responding to, the Hong Kong reform policies and curriculum for the teaching of English?

The study drew on two main literature domains: sense making theory and teacher professional learning. The principal participants were three teachers of ESL from two mainstream secondary schools in Hong Kong. The data were collected using a variety of qualitative measures that included direct observations of the participants’ classroom teaching, analysis of videotapes of this teaching and stimulated recall interviews with teachers and students.

The data analysis indicated first, that teacher beliefs are interrelated and operate as a ‘belief system’ but that some beliefs (the closed belief system) are strongly held and resistant to change, while others (the open belief system) are more loosely held and thus more open to superficial change. A second key finding highlighted the obvious connection between teachers’ closed belief system and their teaching practices. It was found that teachers’ deep-seated beliefs strongly influence the choices they make about what and how to teach English.

It was revealed that tensions between each teacher’s open and closed belief systems led to some changes in practices (for example after attendance at a professional development course) and in turn, to his or her belief system. However, tightly held beliefs within their closed belief systems and their related teaching practices were still likely to endure, even when the two sets of practices are incompatible.

The explicated grounded theory demonstrates there are two different sets of assumptions embodied in the curriculum and examination policies in the Hong Kong context thus forcing ESL teachers to operate within a dual set of beliefs and their respective practices if they are to be successful. Functioning between dual paradigms means that ESL teachers know when it is appropriate to engage students incommunicative English practices and when to teach the specific skills assessed in examinations.

Finally it was found that sense-making theory is a particularly useful lens for understanding how teacher professional learning opportunities can be enhanced and thus support ESL teachers. Thus sense-making theory has the potential to inform future professional learning opportunities, particularly at the school and classroom levels.

Six key recommendations for change are put forward. These include the need to change the professional learning strategies for ESL teachers so that they have the opportunities to reflect, discuss and share their beliefs and practices with each other, as well as with significant others within their school contexts. Establishing mentor relationships would be one consideration.

A critical recommendation is the need for policy makers to communicate and negotiate with school leaders, teachers and parents when developing new reforms. Such consultations will minimize the conflicting assumptions underpinning curriculum and examination policies. Equally important is the need for ESL teachers to display a strong commitment to not only improving their teaching of English, but also ensuring that their students understand the important role that English acquisition plays in the global market place for the Hong Kong economy.

The study has raised many issues and contributed to further understandings towards the successful teaching of ESL. However it is important to note that further research is needed in order to explore alternative professional learning opportunities for ESL teachers that are guided by the principles of sense-making theory.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.