English learning and teaching have been a bone of contention for years in Vietnam as teacher qualifications and assessment methodologies are blamed for students’ failure to use the language in real life. These two issues are a major problem.
Vietnamese students start studying English as early as middle school, with many even learning it in elementary school or kindergarten – just like many other countries where it is spoken as a second language – but few of them can speak the language fluently when they leave high school.
“Students who have studied English for seven years beginning in grade six are often not able to use English beyond simple greetings and questions such as ‘hello,’ ‘good-bye,’ and ‘what’s your name?’” says Dr. Diana L. Dudzik, a senior fellow at an education ministry project on foreign language improvement.
Many have attributed myriad reasons to this problem, but everything seems to boil down to unqualified teachers and an outdated testing model.
Recent statistics on teacher performance on assessment exams may have discouraged local education officials who planned to spend VND10 trillion (US$480 million) on a national proposal, Project 2020 (refer to box for further information), to improve the foreign language, primarily English, learning and teaching system.
Thousands of teachers in 30 provinces and cities were required to sit for a test prepared last year by the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET), which used guidelines from the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages to check their listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills.
MoET demands that high school teachers reach the framework’s second-highest skill level (C1), while elementary school teachers must achieve the fourth-highest level (B1) and middle school educators the third-highest (B2).
The shocking result of the test was that a mere 3-7 percent made the grade, and veteran instructors were also among the unsuccessful test-takers.
In Ho Chi Minh City, a paltry 15.5 percent of 1,100 teachers passed the test, even though the southern economic hub has some of the country’s highest academic standards.
Most strikingly, those who failed included seasoned instructors who had successfully trained students at leading specialized schools for national competitions and university entrance exams. Many hold master’s degrees in English instruction.
Elsewhere, just 165 of 1,500 English teachers passed in An Giang Province, in the Mekong Delta, while far fewer passed in neighboring Dong Thap Province and Can Tho City.
The outcome in northern provinces, including Hanoi and Hai Duong, was not much better.
These figures were so “frightening” that 40 percent of a Hanoi district’s English teachers refused to take a similar test in February.
The country’s current testing methods should be condemned first, followed by teacher training schools.
For years Vietnamese schools have focused on English grammar and reading comprehension, so exams have had to be set this way.
It is no wonder, then, that pedagogical colleges would train their future teachers in these areas so that they can teach their students to pass the exams.
As a result, both students and their teachers are trained to be experts in grammatical structures and vocabulary, but not to utilize these skills as a language.
So, a test that includes listening, speaking, and writing would understandably be an ordeal for them.
Standardized testing system needed
MoET has tried to improvise given such disappointing circumstances but has failed in most cases, with the latest bad idea being to ask teacher training schools to provide improvement courses and help these unqualified teachers to achieve the B1, B2, and C1 levels.
It is these pedagogical institutions that are churning out under-par instructors, yet now they are assigned to “re-educate” them.
B1, B2, and C1 themselves are not diplomas or certificates, they are just guidelines used to describe language command.
Speakers of other languages often take common English tests such as TOEIC, TOEFL, or IELTS and get their scores compared to the framework, which has six levels, to know which one they have reached.
In that fashion, Vietnam should design a standardized testing system to assess teachers’ language proficiency like the above tests do, instead of letting separate teacher training schools apply their own unaccredited assessment methods and then deciding if a teacher as qualified or not.
For the time being, TOEIC, TOEFL, IELTS or other international equivalents can be utilized pending such a system.
But what Vietnam should do first and foremost is revamp the way it tests students in English exams by checking their ability to use the English language, rather than their grammar mastery.
About Project 2020
In 2008 Vietnam issued Government Decision 1400, the goal of which is: “To renovate thoroughly the tasks of teaching and learning foreign languages within the national educational system.”
MoET’s National Foreign Language 2020 Project, or Project 2020 for short, was created in 2010 to implement this national renovation.
Among the objectives of the project is establishing regional foreign language centers as a major strategy to address teacher development and language teaching quality throughout the country.
Five such facilities were officially launched in January this year at the University of Languages and International Studies/VNU – Hanoi, Thai Nguyen University, Hue University College of Foreign Languages, the University of Foreign Languages – Da Nang City, and the Ho Chi Minh City University of Education.
Under Project 2020 Vietnam wants most of its students to be able to use a foreign language, especially English, confidently in their study, daily communication, and work by 2020.