Teaching English in VN: requirements and other information
Video source: Alex Stevenson
Video source: Alex Stevenson
East Asian culture is known to praise academic achievements, and we see no exception here in Vietnam. Many Vietnamese parents, especially in the big cities, are pressured by social expectations as well as their own, and are sending their kids to all kinds of after school classes. In addition to the overwhelming workload in school, children spend their evenings not relaxing and enjoying life, but participating in classroom activities and struggling to learn new knowledge.
The question that these parents and even teachers seem to ignore: will it make them high-functioning people? Or can overwork undermine children’s development?
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According to Dr. Nguyen Thuy Anh, founder of the “Reading with Kids” club based in Hanoi, being forced to learn too many things at the same time can lead to a lack of motivation in children. Seeing no purpose in learning about subjects that they are not genuinely interested in, many children start developing the habit of what she calls “getting by”: rushing to finish homework without fully understanding the meaning of what they are doing.
Parents tend to assume that education can only be conducted in the classroom, and the responsibility of educating their children lies solely with the teachers. “In fact, children can learn a lot through day-to-day activities outside of school, including interactions with family members at home and going out together with friends”, she said.
Parents can encourage and motivate their kids to study simply by talking about subjects at school, and explaining to them why it is important that they learn certain things, instead of talking only about their grades. Too much pressure on perfect grades, without concern for the child’s psychological wellbeing, can even lead to disastrous consequences, such as low self-esteem, resentment, rebellion, and self-destructive behaviors.
Nguyen said “during the developmental years, a child does not really need to cram as much knowledge in their head as possible, but more importantly, they need to learn to live”. They need to learn about the world around them, which encompasses more than textbooks and school matters, and how they can fit into that world as an individual.
Making friends with the right people, learning skills such as self discipline and self-defense, and taking up hobbies can all benefit and potentially save their life in the future, as modern life is increasingly complex. All these things certainly do not come from hours of toiling over homework.
On the bright side, educators are now more aware of the problems with overwork, and starting to incorporate more elements into the school curriculum to facilitate children’s overall development.
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Dao Thi Phuong Thao, deputy head of Ban Mai Primary School, shared the school’s strategy for holistic development through a focus on five values.“We aim to cultivate these five values in our students, including personality, intelligence, capability, health, and global vision, through programs such as The Leader in Me. At school, children get to participate in a variety of fun, engaging activities rather than only learning in class,” Dao said.
On the last day of school before the Tet Holiday, students of Ban Mai Primary School gathered in the school yard to meet children’s writer Le Phuong Lien, author of a picture book about Lunar New Year, and then returned to class to write their own resolutions for the coming year. In the afternoon, they cleaned their classroom, following the traditional custom of spring cleaning before Tet. Such activities—though not explicitly academic and perhaps unusual in a school setting—are undoubtedly memorable to children and contribute to their development as a person.
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It’s a “flop”, Tuoi Tre called it in a headline, or a “failure” according to another headline in VNExpress. In 2016, it was described as “unrealistic” by Minister of Education and Training Phung Xuan Nha.
They’re talking about Vietnam’s National Foreign Language Project—or, as it’s more commonly known, Project 2020—the education initiative meant to bring all of Vietnam’s high school students to an intermediate level of English by graduation. Less than 20 percent of students have reached this level.
Project 2020 dates back to 2008. It was proposed as an ambitious plan with one central goal: “by the year 2020 most Vietnamese youth whoever graduate from vocational schools, colleges and universities gain the capacity to use a foreign language independently,” according to the official language of the initiative “Teaching and Learning Foreign Languages in the National Education System, Period 2008 to 2020”.
But in 2016, Nha addressed a collection of government heads and education officials warning that the project still had a long way to go in its four remaining years.
An article in Tuoi Tre stated that some Vietnamese teachers had cut corners on the testing required by Project 2020, or opted to learn at centres that had developed a reputation for slack grading. Nha announced in the meeting that teachers would be retrained and the number of authorised centres that could provide these English teaching credentials would be narrowed down.
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That year about half of English teachers in Vietnam were reportedly substandard according to the requirements of Project 2020.
While the project’s core goals centre around English proficiency, in 2016 many students were still lacking access to regular English language curriculum. Around 20 percent of elementary school students were receiving four periods of English a week. The goal is to have 100 percent of third-grade students following a 10-year English language program by 2020.
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At that point, the project had a VND10 trillion (US$446.43 million) budget.
Thai Nguyen University built a basic communication English language capacity into their graduation requirements. As a result, 2,000 students failed to graduate on time at the Thai Nguyen city university. The delayed students gave the university heat. As a result, the school lowered the language standard.
Research shows students may need up to 400 hours of training to move up one rung in the CEFR ladder. Thai Nguyen University lowered their standards in part because their undergraduate curriculum only included 100 hours of English training, Professor Dang Van Minh explained to Tuoi Tre in January.
Students have criticized Project 2020 for placing too much emphasis on grammar training and not providing enough opportunities to practice listening and speaking. “Two English lessons per week and too many students in a class do not allow us to practice,” Saigon University student Nguyen Minh Tri told Tuoi Tre.
The project appears to come at least in part from the extreme interest Vietnamese have in the English language. In 2014, researcher and author Christopher Candlin described the country’s zest to become anglophile an “English fever” in his English language teaching review “Language and Development: Teachers in a Changing World”. Sending school children to English language centres early to get them an early head start on their language acquisition is almost de rigor for Vietnamese families.
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In spite of the pronounced shortcomings of the 2020 Project, English language advocates are building new educational initiatives around it, such as the HCMC-based plan to begin English language learning in the first grade starting in the 2018 academic year. In the current academic year, 91 percent of students in the city have begun English classes since the first grade.
Nevertheless, Saigon’s Department of Education and Training Head of Primary Education Nguyen Quang Vinh complained that the quality of the teachers was inconsistent and said his department would begin making sure foreign language centres are integrated into every school’s activity.
Vinh noted that the schools still had difficulties filling their foreign teacher vacancies because of inadequate salary offers. During the 2017 academic year, the school officials recruited 1,797 teachers, who filled 70 percent of the available foreign teacher slots.
Only 40 percent of the recruited teachers meet the Ministry of Education training standards.
Over parents’ objections, Saigon will slowly phase out foreign teachers in city schools over the next few years.
By 2020, the city plans to train 400 Vietnamese teachers to replace their foreign counterparts, according to reporting by the Vietnam News Agency. There are currently 100 primary school teachers undergoing a four-phase training program required to pass an assessment crafted by UK’s Pearson Education, the program administrator. Over 300 teachers applied to be part of the program.
Parents angrily commented that their students would have limited or no interaction with native English speakers.
Do Minh Hoang, an official with HCMC’s Department of Education and Training, said the Vietnamese teachers would be able to deliver similar or better results compared to the current foreign teachers. Education officials responded, noting that fees would be reduced when the switch to Vietnamese English teachers is complete.
Thuong Nguyen, a researcher with National Chengchi University in Taiwan, presented an analysis suggesting the project was not a doomed to failure. In a paper titled “Vietnam’s National Foreign Language 2020 Project after 9 years: A Difficult Stage”, Nguyen argued that simple changes like updating teaching methods from basic “teacher asks, students respond” routines and introducing new curriculum could prove fruitful in changing the narrative around Project 2020. Nguyen’s research involved observations of several Ho Chi Minh City high schools, a handful of which are currently meeting the foreign language initiative’s target goals.
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In 2016 when Tran Anh Tuan, deputy director for the Ministry of Education and Training, addressed the dearth of foreign students studying in Vietnamese schools, he candidly stated that it indicated a failure of presence for his nation in a global landscape.
“This shows that Vietnam’s education still has not integrated into the world,” Tran said in remarks reported by VietnamNet.
At the time, there were reportedly 2,000 foreign students studying in Vietnam’s schools, a number far out of balance with the the over 100,000 Vietnamese students studying outside of the country. A rector of FPT University called the situation “a trade gap in education”.
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When Timo Schmid, a Dutch media and communications student, was asked what was bad about his study abroad experience, Schmid responded over instant message “No negative experiences! I didn’t even get food poisoning or anything.”
Schmid recently returned to Holland where he studies at Hogeschool van Amsterdam after four months studying in Ho Chi Minh City thanks to his university’s partnership with Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).
While he said Saigon could have been cleaner — “a lot of litter around the city … I think people should be more careful and cleaner with the environment”—he rates his experience as overall very positive.
“I got to learn a new culture and new people, which made me realise that the world has so much more to offer than the things I have in the Netherlands. When you don’t travel you don’t learn other cultures and meanings”.
Schmid had been in Vietnam two years before he came as a student. “I liked it so much that I wanted to go back so this was a great opportunity for me”, Schmid said.
A European encountering Vietnam in an academic context might encounter a place defined by apparent contradictions. According to Schmid’s account of his experience, while the grounds of RMIT are very modern and state of the art, the world it lives in is radically different from the type of environment a prospective Western student might be familiar with.
The study abroad experience in Vietnam is “for people who want to a part of the world that’s completely different than their own,” Schmid said. "It’s actually quite adventurous"…
Those who want to have what Schmid calls a “super comfortable life” may want to look elsewhere for their study abroad experience.
“But for me this was the best decision to make,” he said.
The effort to recruit inbound foreign students began in earnest in 2011 when Vietnam eased it’s university enrollment requirements and demanded that more coursework be available in English. Additionally, education officials called on more foreign researchers to conduct their work in Vietnam.
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The initiative appears to have at least partially worked. In 2011, education officials estimated approximately 500 students enrolling in Vietnamese universities, however,the precise figure is unknown because at this time the government didn’t keep official data on these statistics.
In 2015, Tuoi Tre News reported over 1,100 international students currently in Vietnam doing academic work. The government had begun compiling official data on the 23 universities that were running exchange programs with international partners. At that point, the greatest sources of incoming foreign students were from schools in the European Union and North America.
Noting the uptick, education officials credited the decision to offer English curriculums.
“One important reason for the surge is that many universities have offered advanced training programs taught entirely in English, which helps international students find it more favorable to choose the Southeast Asian country as their academic destination,” Deputy Minister Ga told Tuoi Tre News in remarks reported in 2015.
Still, with 2,000 inbound foreign students, the number continues to be far out of balance with the 130,000 Vietnamese students studying abroad, according to Vietnamese governmental data.
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Minor gains are being realized. In the academic year ending in 2017, the number of U.S. students studying in Vietnam reached 1,012, a modest increase from the 922 students that had come to study in the year prior.
In the academic year ending in 2017, 325,229 U.S. students studied abroad. About 11 percent of them chose an Asian country as their destination, according to a 2017 study by international scholastic activity research organization Open Doors.
The additional steps universities might take to tackle the “trade gap in education” aren’t obvious, but maybe one area to focus on is updating the image of Vietnam for foreigners who’ve never been there. For example, Killroy, a study abroad and travel service company, notes in its listing for RMIT that Vietnam is a safe destination despite a perception that the security situation hasn’t settled from the American War nearly 40 years ago.
Similarly, Schmid said his experience studying in Ho Chi Minh City surprised him in notable ways, such as how modern RMIT’s facilities were and how kind the Vietnamese people were toward him.
Schmid said his changed impression of the city left him with a love for Vietnam and a strong desire to return.
“I really wanna come back!” he said. “Vietnamese people are lovely and super friendly, I hope they will always stay like that!”
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Stephen Coyle, an IELTS instructor for the Reliable English School (RES), didn’t just see the dawn of technology in the classroom—he heard it. “When I first started teaching [in Vietnam] 14 years ago, the noise level in the classroom was incredible; people were shouting, talking, laughing. Now, during the break, it’s completely silent. Everyone is just looking at their phones.”
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The heavy reliance on digital devices in Vietnam has come swiftly: over 35 million people use Facebook regularly in the country, and an estimated 32.43 million will have a smartphone in 2018.
The use of technology has irreversibly changed the way we look at the world and have become social, but in HCMC, will it change the way our kids learn as well?
Thomas Galvez, Saigon South International School’s Technology Learning Coach, acknowledged that technology can have detrimental effects on a child’s socialisation, but averred that it it’s all about balance. “It’s not about weaning them off [of smartphones],” he said. “It’s about teaching them the appropriate times to use it, and to understand the effects.”
With separate technology coaches for the elementary, middle and high schools and an overall ICT Director in the administration department, it’s safe to say that SSIS takes the role of technology in the classroom seriously. Earlier this year, SSIS became the first Apple Distinguished School in the country, a distinction both prestigious and rather nebulous.
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At the moment 400 schools spread across 29 countries are Apple Distinguished Schools. To hold this coveted title, Galvez said it wasn’t so much having Apple products (although SSIS is a completely Mac-driven institution and requires all parents to purchase a personal MacBook for their child when they enter the 4th grade), but rather promoting an innovative approach to learning. Finding ways to do this is Galvez’s bread and butter.
Although he acknowledged that it’s impossible to keep up with all the technological trends, he keeps current through an active world-wide professional learning network with other technology coaches. “Twitter is a great medium for this,” he said.
Once he discovers something he thinks might make learning more efficient, or connect kids in a deeper way, he meets with teachers to discuss how the program can be integrated into their lesson. For a language class, he said that SoundCloud is often useful, which allows teachers to comment in different places on a student’s audio file. For multimedia collaborations, he might suggest Explain Everything, an interactive whiteboard app that lets students create visual presentations in the cloud, so students and the teacher can interact as it’s created.
“That’s the great thing about these cloud-based tools,” he said. “They provide asynchronous capacities that students and teachers can access to provide feedback and learn anytime, anywhere.”
The emphasis on creativity and multimedia emphasised by Mac products is widely believed to help prepare students for future careers, many of which will require teamwork, collaboration and thinking outside of the box. However, as Rob van Driesum, a parent of an SSIS child (and, full disclosure, the freelance copy-editor of #iAMHCMC) points out, “Not all kids will end up working in multimedia. They’ll need skills in Windows-based Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook and so on.”
The debate about technology’s role in the classroom has been raging for over a decade, since the concept of One-to-One learning was first propagated in the late 1990s. By providing students with personal learning devices, from which they could read digital textbooks and complete assignments, many claimed that the learning process could be more efficient and streamlined.
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Subsequent studies have suggested that digital learning isn’t the silver bullet some first believed it was, and some schools have tempered their expectations, or at least begun to view technology as a tool rather than an end in itself.
Thomas Galvez at SSIS mirrors these thoughts. “The whole focus of this job is really not technology,” he said. “Learning is always going to be at the centre of schools.”
He paused for a moment, and then continued: “A good teacher is a good teacher. And to be a good teacher, you don’t necessarily need technology. Really, it’s about relationships.”
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English is the third most widely-spoken language in the world, with about 360 million native speakers and with another half billion speaking it as a second language. However, its rising dominance as a second language in southeast Asian countries, especially Vietnam, is evident with the number of learning centres popping up across the country.
Vietnamese schools do provide English courses, taught by certified teachers. However, the focus is typically on the basics and often cannot establish fluency earned by practise that goes beyond class time.
Students who are genuinely interested in improving their language skills can continue their learning by watching English movies and television series, YouTube tutorials or by studying lyrics in English songs. Another option for students, with their parents’ financial support, is to enroll in language centres that can be found around the country.
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One such student is Bella Nguyen, 26, a fashion entrepreneur who picked up the language by watching plenty of English movies, socialising with more English-speaking people, including foreigners and also relied on resources online such as YouTube.
“There are many online tutorials on YouTube and Facebook that I follow. I also improved my vocabulary by watching BBC news programmes and talking to customers in English,” she said.
None of these options required her to fork over any cash, though the reliability of these methods is questionable. For example, she noted that part of this learning process involved additional work such as cross-referencing with words with a dictionary. Also, even though she could pronounce the words correctly, she was still unsure of which context the words could be used for, something which took quite a while to master.
However in the past few years, there have been new virtual alternatives that allow students to learn and practise the language in a more structured setting without needing to leave their homes, or even spend any money.
Duolingo is a free programme well known around the world for its innovative language courses.
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Its English lessons are wildly popular among the Vietnamese. There are currently 8.93 million students subscribed to their “English for Vietnamese Speakers” course.
With a learning tree structure, the programme teaches students the basic fundamentals of the language and provides tests which allow the student to progress to the next stage. It’s mobile app is popular among language learners.
However, the biggest drawbacks to the app is that it’s fully automated, right down to the lack of a human voice which may deter some learners. Duolingo’s model emphasises vocabulary but because of the complexities of the language, some students find it challenging to master grammar.
However, thanks to advances in communication technology such as livestreaming and Voice over IP (VoIP)—the technology behind Skye’s internet phone calls—a new model started to emerge in the past decade: online learning centres with actual teachers providing courses remotely that are similar to what can be found in colleges and universities.
Known as a massive open online course, or MOOC, these online courses provide options for various subjects and technical skills usually at college level. Some are taught by professors from renowned universities like Harvard. Certified English teachers teach the language lessons. These courses are usually free and provide students with the flexibility to attend classes whenever they like, from the comfort of their own homes.
Douglas, 30, a Canadian citizen who moved to Vietnam two years ago, teaches online from the comfort of his home to students learning online. He spends a few hours each day conducting English lessons for students in various countries from his apartment in Saigon. “It’s convenient for me because I have plenty of freedom to plan my schedule and the salary is competitive,” he said.
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“It works just like an actual language school, there is a lesson plan that I follow and often, I have students who understand the lessons but have problems with pronunciation or finding the right words to use in a given context and this is where I provide additional help. In most cases, the students get it”, he added.
We spoke to one student learning English online, Trang Min. The 24-year-old beautician started learning English so she could serve foreign customers
“Learning English online allowed me to attend classes whenever I was free in the midst of my busy schedule. One of the biggest benefits of this was besides the low cost, was the convenience of not having to leave my home. All I needed was an internet connection”, she said.
After completing two courses, I could feel my confidence grow and I was able to carry out entire conversations in English with strangers.”
According to Douglas, interest in learning the language has increased over the years, mainly because of the realisation by English learners that their chances of getting a better paying job outside the country decrease without a strong knowledge of the language.
With an increasing number of students learning English online through the use of MOOC platforms, as well as resources available on popular platforms like YouTube and even Facebook, Vietnam’s future generations may be able to master the English language, and teachers will be able to teach them from anywhere in the world with neither of them even needing to leave their homes.
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