Learning English at school, a mandatory chore that leads nowhere

By Minh Nga   September 19, 2020 | 04:45 pm PT
Students learn English in secondary and high schools and continue to do so in college, but few achieve any proficiency.

Every evening from Monday to Thursday Nguyen Dieu attends an English center in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 after work. She is doing a course in English designed for people who have graduated and are working.

She now works in the field of foreign education consultancy after spending two years in retail and then the food-beverages industry.

Now 27, she has been learning English since sixth grade, and says, "The curriculums at secondary and high schools and the tertiary level offer a certain level of English proficiency, but they are not practical."

"What I learned in school is not enough to use English at work."

English is compulsory in school. Before 2018 students learned the language from sixth grade, but now start in third grade.

In 2014 the Ministry of Education and Training issued a six-level foreign language proficiency framework compatible with the A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2 levels in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

Students graduating from high school are required to achieve Level 3, equivalent to the CEFR’s B1 level, which represents a score of 4.0-5.0 in IELTS and 500-780 in TOEIC.

According to CEFR guidelines, someone at B1 level "can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc, deal with most situations likely to arise whilst traveling, produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest, describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans."

But in reality, not many students who have graduated from high school can meet these standards. Learners and educators blame that on the English programs in public schools being outdated and irrelevant, and the lack of investment in training teachers.

Nguyen Thi Thuy Anh, deputy head of the English faculty at Thu Duc College of Technology in Ho Chi Minh City, says a majority of her students "look like they are starting English at zero," and this creates pressure on teachers because it is their responsibility to help the students achieve a certain level so that they can later graduate from college.

"It looks like students do not have a clear idea about what benefits learning English can bring them, and therefore they do not have the motivation to try and master it."

Mark. A. Ashwill, an American educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005 and served as country director of the Institute of International Education (IIE)-Vietnam, said two key reasons preventing Vietnamese youths in general from being fluent in English are "the manner in which English is taught and a lack of learner motivation."

"Focusing on the latter, many young people don’t see the relevance of learning English to their future career goals. The economic reality is that not everyone needs to be proficient in English. While it is the most popular foreign language, many students are learning a number of other important languages, including East Asian (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Korean) and European (e.g., French, German, Spanish).

"Most will require no foreign language proficiency once they enter the world of work," said Ashwill, also the co-founder and managing director of Capstone Vietnam, an educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and HCMC.

Not feasible

Last month over 900,000 high school seniors wrote the national high school graduation exam that comprised tests in math, literature, a foreign language, and a combination of natural sciences or social sciences.

Around 750,000 took the English test, with the rest opting for Chinese, French, German, Japanese, or Russian.

English was the only subject in which they scored less than 5, at 4.58 out of 10. The English exam had 50 multiple choice questions, but did not include speaking, listening or writing tests.

High-school seniors listen as an inspector informs them with regulations before taking a test of the national high school graduation exam at a school in HCMC, August 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran

High-school seniors listen as an inspector informs them with regulations before taking a test of the national high school graduation exam at a school in HCMC, August 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Le Van Dat, a senior student at a high school in the southern Kien Giang Province, says the test was "at another level" compared to what he had been taught in school, and so he fared poorer than he had expected.

Huynh Thanh Phu, principal of Nguyen Du High School in HCMC, says a 60-minute test cannot evaluate the English skills of students but sheds some light on the teaching of English in Vietnam these days and reveals many problems.

First of all, "the test contents are not from textbooks whereas teachers are always obliged to stick to the textbooks. So if the test does not come from the textbooks, we have to ask whether what we are teaching in schools is up-to-date. Otherwise why do we have to use completely different sources to set the test?

"The education system requires that students graduating from high school must be fluent to a certain level in English but there has never been a survey or tools to actually measure that, and therefore we have never had an assessment submitted to the government saying the English education system is not good or feasible."

But even when one gets high scores, he/she is not confident.

Dat admits that even when he was doing well in English during his senior year in high school, which meant getting good grades for this project, he was still not comfortable using English in an actual environment such as having a simple conversation with a foreigner.

"The current teaching style focuses only on structure and grammar, and without practicing more it will be really difficult for me to be able to talk to a foreigner."

In an op-ed she wrote for VnExpress, Chu Thi Van Anh, a former specialist at the Ministry of Education and Training who founded and is the CEO of education company Active Skills Education and Training, said: "The Vietnamese English education system places great emphasis on marks and grades instead of focusing on the target, which is the capacity to use English in real life, and that has resulted in very low efficiency in learning English in school."

In 2013 she and her team had suggested that the education ministry allow assessing the two skills of listening and speaking in the national English education system, but the proposal remains on paper.

"Every language must begin with listening before speaking, and then reading and writing. If our education system evaluates listening and speaking skills more substantially and often instead of testing students’ skills only through a test on paper like now, it will foster student’s demand for practicing English," she said.

But to do so, the quality of teachers needs to be taken into consideration.

It is a common beef among people in their 20s or older that they realized they had very poor command of the English language only when they had to converse with a foreigner, and many blame their teachers for lacking good pronunciation, a basic requirement to maintain a conversation.

Students at Tran Dai Nghia Secondary-High school for the Gifted attend an English class with a foreign teacher in 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Le Nam

Students at Tran Dai Nghia Secondary-High school for the Gifted attend an English class with a foreign teacher in 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Le Nam.

Nguyen Ngoc Anh Trang, a lecturer at the HCMC University of Technology and Education, says the English proficiency of most high school graduates is poor, but blames the quality of teachers for it.

Phu of Nguyen Du High School explains,"We have to admit one thing: that not many college and university students who major in English linguistics and literature want to work as an English teacher at a high school after graduation, and not many high school students who are good at English want to be an English teacher later.

"The recruitment process for teachers is truly arduous, and yet those that are good at English can easily make use of that skill to work for other companies to earn a much higher income. In fact, those who choose to become teachers are not as bright as those who choose other careers."

Referring to English teachers at secondary and high schools, he says there is no guarantee they possess speaking and listening skills, and it is imperative to have "proper courses" to train teachers in those skills.

There are English teachers now in their 40s who are stuck with the old teaching style, but the education system is not provided with adequate training or investment to improve teachers’ quality, not to mention that it also lacks a framework to evaluate teachers properly, he says further.

Educators also point to another shortcoming that has a serious impact on the general English quality in Vietnam: the imbalance between rural and urban areas.

Phu says the average score in English in the national exam does not reflect a general view of the standard because "it is obvious that students’ English levels are different in each locality. Students in big cities and from families that are willing to invest in their education will have the opportunity to study at English centers or access other sources to practice English."

Students in HCMC, the country’s commercial hub, scored 5.85 followed by those in the neighboring provinces of Binh Duong and Ba Ria-Vung Tau and capital Hanoi.

Northern mountain provinces like Hoa Binh, Son La and Ha Giang achieved the lowest scores.

HCMC had 681 licensed foreign language teaching centers as of April 2019 and Hanoi had 947 as of February 2020, a majority in both cities being English centers.

Students of an English center in HCMC attend an outdoor activity at a park in 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

Students of an English center in HCMC attend an outdoor activity at a park in 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.

Huong Khe District in the north-central province of Ha Tinh recently reported a serious shortage of English teachers for its public elementary schools, with its 21 schools having only 14 teachers.

The Huong Trach District Elementary School in the province has had no English teacher of its own for the last three years, only two deputed from other schools. The school has 25 classes with 798 students, and 128 third graders are unable to learn English since there is no teacher.

Across the district more than 2,000 third graders are not learning English.

Different treatment

Educators said it is time to look at learning English at school as an essential need for use in the real world, for integration, instead of merely for getting a certain score.

"English today is no longer a passion or a hobby, but a means for survival," Anh warns.

For Vietnam to succeed in teaching its children English, there is no other option than identifying social needs and reforming the teaching process and methods toward meeting those needs, she says.

It will achieve success straight away if it can incorporate learning English into everyday life, and for the best outcome the education department in each locality can propose their own targets because each of them will have different demands and purposes, she points out.

But Ashwill has a different opinion. He says learning English should be made optional since it will be easier to offer quality instruction to those who really want to learn the language because of their motivation and the fact that there will be fewer students.

"Why not offer English as an elective to students who are interested in learning it for whatever reason, including those who are linguistically gifted?

"This would create opportunities to offer higher quality instruction, both online and offline and in urban and rural areas, resulting in better learning outcomes and greater proficiency."

"The current shotgun approach creates unnecessary stress for students, parents and teachers, and [since] it is inefficient while well-intentioned, it is not likely to achieve the desired result in terms of exam scores and other outputs.

"Vietnam's education system should recognize this reality, reorder its priorities, and reallocate its resources accordingly."

As a high school principal, Phu wants specific solutions to deal with the problem that strike at its root: improving teachers’ quality.

"Schools should have permission to organize proper training courses for English teachers, solicit private investment to get English teachers with IELTS of 8.0 and foreign teachers, yet only qualified ones and not random visitors to Vietnam whose mother tongue is English."

To achieve the best results, teachers should be trained in the four skills of speaking, listening, writing, and reading, and provided with the latest teaching methods, and teachers should attend those classes regularly, he adds.

Asked if he would sign up for a course in communication English at some center in HCMC if he has free time, Dat from the Kien Giang rural district says "absolutely" without even giving it a thought, adding that he has never had such a chance in his hometown.

go to top