Vietnam Embraces English Teachers and English Classes!

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Teaching English in developing countries always poses challenges, and Vietnam falls into that category. Let me share a few selective details to provide a brief introduction to the educational atmosphere for English teachers who prefer a communicative approach to grammar drill and kill tasks.  Consider the gap between a traditional teacher-centered education philosophy and modern student-centered approaches for teaching English.

  • An English language magazine cover story proclaimed: “Let Students Ask Questions.”  The two-page article presented the idea of students – even college students – asking classroom questions as an overdue reform.
  • Vietnam, the world’s fasting growing economy, has embarked on a rapid expansion of English language classes.  The official government ministry of Education and Training has even adopted a new slogan: Friendly School; Active Students.  This new slogan presumably indicates that the old approach was something else!
  • Several APU high school seniors, in long interviews, indicated that they were forbidden from even talking in their old public high school English classes.  These same students informed me that English class in the public high school ranged between 50-70 students.  Sometimes the English instructor was believed to be unable to actually speak English.  As a result, the class focused extensively on grammar and fill in the blanket tests.
  • A few APU students expressed gratitude that they could have actual classroom discussions because this was a new educational experience for them.  “We ask questions, and the teacher responds,” laughed one senior.  Imagine the possibilities!

These few glimpses into Vietnam’s evolving education system indicate an increasing awareness that communication skills matter.  They also confirm that students, parents, and teachers want better schools and more communicative English language classes.

So let me repeat two favorite themes.  Good schools cultivate student curiosity, and English lessons should allow students to display their experiences and perceptions.  Further, students who have been forced to take years of English classes should be able to speak English – and I literally mean speak English.  Conversation skills are not a bonus for excellent students; they remain an essential life skill for international students, entrepreneurs, and immigrants.  Therefore, English teachers can and must allow students time and opportunity to develop their speaking skills in class.  Why is this still controversial in 2009?

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