IELTS is inappropriate for primary students: educators

By Binh Minh   August 2, 2023 | 07:11 pm PT
IELTS is inappropriate for primary students: educators
Students at a primary school in HCMC, May 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
Many Vietnamese parents are putting their primary school students in IELTS classes although English educators said that is too soon because the children still lack life experience.

Thanh Huong's daughter is in 4th grade, and she has been studying for the IELTS for over a year.

Huong wants her child to be able to use her IELTS scores to apply for colleges when the time comes 8 years from now.

So, she has set her daughter's short-term goals as a band 5.0 score by 5th grade, and a band 7.0 by 8th grade.

Huong said her daughter studies all four skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing – in accordance with the IELTS format. Her teacher also emphasizes pronunciation and the use of vocabulary when writing essays.

"The teacher said her English is very good," Huong said. According to her, the class has 10 students from 3rd to 7th grades.

Back in June, Dang Thai Mai Middle School in Nghe An Province sparked controversy when it announced plans to directly admit five students into 6th grade using IELTS scores of at least 5.0. Thirty other students also entered the school using results from other English tests, but the scores were converted to IELTS standards. The school said it has been admitting students this way since 2021.

But teachers have argued that teaching primary school students the IELTS detracts from a time in students’ lives in which they need to develop other essential skills.

Too soon?

An English teacher at Vietnam National University in Hanoi said she had once refused a parent's request to teach her 5th grade child the IELTS.

"The student was very successful thanks to her English skills, so the mother believed that her child should study the IELTS as soon as possible," the teacher said, adding that in Vietnam, English as a foreign language is meant to serve specific roles.

But when everyone talks about the IELTS as a potential gateway into colleges, people begin to treat it like any other school subject, like math or literature, according to the teacher.

"So, you must start the race early if you want a high score," she said, adding that several families are willing to pay VND70-100 million ($2,956-4,224) to purchase English education packages for their children in primary school. The IELTS certification itself expires in two years, and it costs around VND5 million to take the exam each time.

Tu Pham, founder of Prep, an English-learning platform, said parents want to prepare for things early, but it has to be at the right time and at the right age.

The IELTS test requires social knowledge and analytical capabilities, such as analyzing charts and governmental policies, which are not often within reach for primary school students.

Ngo Diem Hang, an English lecturer at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, said studying for the IELTS is not suitable for primary school students, and may create unnecessary stress.

"Those with talent can do it, but in general it's not appropriate," Hang said, adding that for most students Vietnamese skills are not even honed enough in primary school. Their knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary is even less, and usually not enough to perform well on the tests, she said.

"If the IELTS test asks how Vietnamese families have changed over the last 10 years, what's impacting rural areas or the pros and cons of hydropower... even expressing such answers in Vietnamese would be difficult," another teacher said.

Even Huong admits that her daughter has the most trouble with writing because IELTS writing questions often involve topics the girl has little knowledge of.

Ngo Tuyet Mai, a lecturer on English education at the Flinders University in Australia, said teaching the IELTS to a third grader is not a good idea at all. Instead, they should be taught to develop their communication skills and grow to love the study of English itself, she said.

A Vietnamese teacher of applied language at a U.S. university said that learning English in the right way helps children grow intellectually. But if the goal is solely doing exams, children have little time to develop skills like communication, as well as potential hobbies like music, art or sport, which are all essential to life.

"They should just learn English for communication, and learn the language through games, art or science... Learning the IELTS is too dry," she said.

Luyen Quang Kien, the first Vietnamese to score 9.0 on all four IELTS skills, also does not encourage learning IELTS too early.

"An appropriate time to learn would be 8th grade, as students would have gathered sufficient knowledge and have their own viewpoints," Kien said.

Other teachers said high school is when one should begin studying for the IELTS. If one wants to study sooner, their teachers need to understand child development in order to design a curriculum in the most appropriate way.

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