Problems Of Teaching English In Vietnam English Language Essay

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1st Jan 1970 English Language Reference this

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This chapter is concerned with the current situation and issues of the teaching of English in Vietnam. As a way of start, the researcher will first provide a brief history of English language teaching in Vietnam. Then will examine in some depth the current situation of English language teaching in Vietnam, looking specifically at English language teaching both inside and outside the formal educational system. The final section is devoted to a discussion of some of the problems we have been experiencing in the teaching of English in Vietnam in the context of integration and globalization. This chapter also derived the previous research conducted by William F. Hanes, Trang Q. Nguyen, and Hoang V. Van.

6.1 History and Problems of Teaching English in Vietnam

The history of English language teaching in Vietnam can be roughly divided into two periods: (i) English in Vietnam before 1986 and (ii) English in Vietnam from 1986 up to the present. The reason for this way of division is that 1986 was the year when the Vietnamese Communist Party initiated its overall economic reform, exercising the open-door policy, and thus marking the emergence of English as the number 1 foreign language in Vietnam.

6.1.1 English in Vietnam before 1986

English in Vietnam before 1986 had a chequered history. Chronologically, the teaching of English in Vietnam can be subdivided into three periods: the first period extends from the beginning of the French invasion of Vietnam up to 1954; the second period, from 1954 to 1975; and the third period, from 1975 to 1986. Each of the periods will be examined in some depth in the sections that follow.

6.1.1.1. English in Vietnam before 1954

It is difficult to point to a specific date when English was introduced into Vietnam. But what is certain is that the language was taught in Vietnam from the French times and that although English made its presence in Vietnam during this period, it did not become a foreign language to be learned as widely as French.

It is not quite clear either how English was taught in this period for a number of reasons. First, there are no extant writings on the teaching of English in Vietnam. Secondly, there are no extant English textbooks written by Vietnamese authors; what are left today are some English textbooks in use by that time which were written by French textbook writers such as Lʼanglais Vivant: Classe de sixième, Lʼanglais Vivant Classes de troisieme (1942) and some bilingual English-Vietnamese dictionaries compiled by two Vietnamese scholars known as Le Ba Kong and Le Ba Khanh. It can be infer red from the contents of those textbooks that although some attention was paid to pronunciation drills and reading skills, the prevailing method of teaching English in Vietnam before 1954 was the grammar-translation method.

6.1.1.2. English in Vietnam from 1954 to 1975

1954 – 1975 was the period when Vietnam was divided into two parts – North and South. In this period, each part of the country was politically allied with a world superpower: North Vietnam was allied with the former Soviet Union and South Vietnam, with the USA. The status of English, thus, was different in each part of the country. In South Vietnam, English was the dominant foreign language; it was studied for direct interactions with the USA. In North Vietnam, in contrast, although four foreign languages (Russian, Chinese, French, and English) were recognized nationally, Russian topped the list in the formal educational system; and like English in the South, Russian in the North was studied for direct interactions with the former Soviet Union. As Russian dominated the foreign language scene in North Vietnam, English was relegated to an inferior status. In upper secondary schools, it was taught only in some classes in towns and in big cities as a pilot subject (Nguyen Nhat Quang, 1993: 1). At tertiary level, there were two foreign language institutions that offered English as a discipline, namely, The Hanoi Foreign Languages Teachersʼ Training College (currently The University of Languages and International studies, Vietnam National University Hanoi) and The College of Foreign Languages (currently The University of Hanoi). Apart from those institutions, some universities offered English as a subject. However, due to the limited use of English in North Vietnam in this period, the goals of learning the language seemed to be confined only to understanding the USA and to fighting against the US invasion on the diplomatic front.

6.1.2 English in Vietnam from 1975 to 1986

The period of 1975 – 1986 was characterized by the dominance of Russian and the decline of English and French, particularly of Chinese in foreign language education in Vietnam. In this period, Chinese was cast away from the formal educational system, and the targets set for Russian, English and French were roughly as follows: 70% of the school pupils would study Russian; 20%, English and 10%, French. At tertiary level, Russian continued to predominate in the North. This can be seen in the fact that the number of students majoring in Russian in this period always far exceeded the combined enrolments of all other foreign languages. In the South, Russian study started to grow very fast: Russian departments with the whole academic staffs coming from the North were established in many universities and the number of students enrolling in Russian both as a discipline and as a subject started to increase. The spread of Russian was further strengthened by Russian aids in education: hundreds of Vietnamese teachers and students were sent annually to the former Soviet Union for both undergraduate and graduate studies. When Russian dominated the scene, English suffered a setback; it was taught in a limited number of classes in upper secondary schools, particularly in towns and big cities. At tertiary level, the number of students enrolling for English both as a discipline and as a subject also decreased.

It was noted, however, that in this period a small number of Vietnamese teachers and interpreters of English were chosen and sent to Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India for graduate studies in English language teaching. The training programmes of Britain, Australia and New Zealand were terminated in 1979 when Vietnam involved in Cambodia. In 1985, Australia resumed its English training for Vietnam under a UNDP Programme until 1992 and from 1992 it was done under a bilateral aid programme between Australia and Vietnam, first known as AIDAB (Australian International Development Assistance Bureau) and then as AusAID (Australian Agency for International Development), 40 Vietnamese teachers and interpreters of English were sent to Australia annually to undertake graduate studies in English language teaching (cf. Do Huy Thinh 2006). This programme was terminated in early 2000s.

The content of English teaching in Vietnam in this period followed both the “adopt” and the “adapt” approach to material development. The prevailing method of teaching English was the structural method with a focus on lexico grammar, reading and translation skills. Students were first introduced to a sentence pattern; then they were taught to use substitution and transformation techniques to drill in this sentence pattern; then they were asked to make up new sentences based on this sentence pattern; and finally, as a form of consolidation, they were asked to translate their made-up sentences into Vietnamese and vice versa. Some attention was paid to the teaching of oral skills, particularly to improving language accuracy, but because the new sentences were created without context, the fluency aspect of language teaching was sacrificed.

6.1.3 English in Vietnam from 1986 up to the present

The period from 1986 up to the present is characterized by the rapid growth and expansion of English in Vietnam. This English boom began in December 1986, when at its Six National Congress the Vietnamese Communist Party initiated an overall economic reform known as Đổi má»›i (Renovation), opening the door of Vietnam to the whole world. In the context of economic renovation and of the open door policy, English becomes the first (and nearly the only) foreign language to be taught in Vietnam. It is one of the six national examinations that students have to pass if they want to get the Secondary School Education Certificate and is a compulsory subject for both undergraduates and graduates at tertiary level. In a new market economy of Vietnam with the growth of international businesses and trades, and the increasing number of foreign tourists, the ability to communicate in English has become a passport to a better job not only in the tourism and hospitality industries but in many other enterprises as well. English is taught in schools, in universities and in evening foreign language centres across the country. There are now more teachers and students of English than of any other subjects. Further, the Đổi má»›i newspaper has created mounting pressures for more and more places to teach English at every stage of the far-expanding educational system. At the same time the fast process of globalization – the strongest external force for English language teaching and learning in Vietnam – has made it difficult to maintain the existing and admittedly low standards in its teaching and use. Increasingly, it was being realized in decision-making bodies that without major changes and sizeable inputs in its curricula and courses, methodology and materials, English teaching in Vietnam would soon ceased to effectively serve the demands being made on it. This has resulted in the current situation of English language teaching in Vietnam which I will be concerned with in the sections that follow.

6.1.4 Problems Experienced in Teaching English in Vietnam

The booming of English in Vietnam has caused the country a number of problems which can be presented below.

First, there is a disproportionate demand-supply. With a population of over 85 million, of whom a sizeable proportion have a strong desire to learn English, the demand for English language teaching far outstrips the supply of native speaker and competent non-native speaker teachers.

Secondly, textbook writing and teacher retraining are the two important aspects to implement its curriculum. As motioned, textbook writing has been completed, but to do massive and long term retraining of teachers in English competence would demand manpower and logistic resources beyond the capacity of the system at present. This problem will be compounded when Vietnam starts to carry out the new 10-year National Plan to introduce English nationally.

Thirdly, despite the importance of English in the new context of integration and globalization, English language teaching in Vietnam, due to its low quality, has not met the demand for competent English-speaking people. The main reasons are that (i) most of the English teachers, particularly those who are teaching at primary and lower secondary levels are disqualified, (ii) most teachers, except some who are teaching at tertiary level, have not had a chance to study in an English-speaking country, and that (iii) many of them do not normally communicate in English and cannot sustain teaching that mainly depends on communicative interactions.

Fourthly, there are classroom constraints: schools are often located in noisy places, with poor ventilation, overloaded beyond their capacity to classes of fifty or even sixty, with poor libraries and poorly paid staff. Better teachers often go to the cities to seek employment in non-teaching fields or leave the profession for other jobs in the country. There are the material constraints too: tape recorders, electronic equipment, and language lab do not exist in average schools except in the cities and in affluent private institutions. The only sure aids available are the blackboard and sometimes a cassette player, and the frequent voice heard is the teacher based on what she makes of the dayʼs textbook lesson. To make matters worse, class contact hours are few (only 2 or 3 hours a week).

Fifthly, although the rhetoric of the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training stresses the development of practical communication skills, this is rarely reflected at the classroom level, where the emphasis is on the development of reading comprehension, vocabulary and structural patterns for the purposes of passing the end-of-school and university entrance examinations into colleges or universities. New teacher training programmes pre-service and in-service alike have been designed and delivered with a focus on training communicative teachers in a bid to address the faults of teaching methodology. Unfortunately, not much improvement in terms of teaching methods has been noticed in English classes. During the training courses, Vietnamese teachers show great interest in new methodologies, but after they return from those courses, they continue teaching in the old methods.

Sixthly, there is a mismatch between testing and teaching in English language teaching in Vietnam. While teaching follows the communicative approach, testing seems to focus on measuring studentsʼ lexico grammatical knowledge. To make matters more complex, at tertiary level, what the Vietnamese tertiary institutions do is to adopt either TOEFL or TOEIC or IELTS as the main yardstick to measure the studentʼs knowledge and skills in English. These instruments, as is known, are suitable for measuring the knowledge and skills of English of those students who are going to study either in Britain or in the USA or in an English-speaking country.

And finally, the fact that English is introduced into primary schools in Vietnam makes some people express their concern about the negative effects that early introduction of English is having on national identity (cf. Crystal 2000, Nunan 2003).

According to Trang (2010) in teaching IELTS at Vietnam National University, Hanoi, this problem can be tackled through answering the following questions:

1. From lecturers’ perspective, what are their biggest difficulties when teaching IELTS speaking to Vietnamese students at university level?

2. From students’ perspective, what are lecturers’ difficulties when teaching IELTS speaking?

3. What teaching techniques do lecturers suggest to overcome those difficulties?

In short, to answer research question number 1 and 2, the following Table 20 sums up the most common difficulties of lecturers when teaching IELTS in different parts of the speaking test:

Table 21. The most common difficults of lecturers when teaching IELTS

To answer research question number 3, various solutions suggested by the interviewed lecturers include:

– To reduce the size of the IELTS class to the smallest if it is possible.

– To make the IELTS classroom environment less formal and more friendly, one where students can make mistakes without looking or sounding inept.

– To choose the topic that relates to the students and that is easy for the students to talk about.

– To encourage students not to be afraid of making mistakes.

– To emphasize the use of graphic organizers to help the students to plan a clearer and more structural.

– To giving helpful feedback on students’ work and assignments through out various methods such as whole-group feedback; assignment return sheets; model answers; posting comments of common errors.

– To try to correct students only when the meaning is unclear and results in communication breakdown.

– To tell the students to use as much of English as they can, avoid speaking Vietnamese in class.

– The students’ talking time should be more than the teacher’s talking time .

– To make the students aware that they can use the cue card as the structure of the talk.

– To ask the students to use some IT application at home to help them to improve their pronunciation, they can record their own speech, listen to the native speaker and imitate them.

6.2 The impact of adapting the process-oriented approach on EFL learners’ writing performance

Writing in English is a skill that is often neglected in Vietnamese secondary school writing classes, partly because the current textbooks do not have any writing activities and also because teachers find writing quite a daunting prospect in their classes. However, learning to write in English has officially been brought into the curriculum as one of the required skills for Vietnamese students, who are in lower-secondary schools (grades 8 and 9) since the school year 2004-2005 and in upper-secondary schools since the school year 2006-2007.

In the upper-secondary school context, where exposure to English is typically limited to three periods each week, students receive little practice in writing in English, only one period (45 minutes) per unit. When they do write, they find themselves confused with word choice, grammatical use, organization and generation of ideas. They tend to translate ideas from mother tongue into English, express ideas in long sentences, and are not aware of different kinds of writing, thus making them unable to write in real life. Because of limited background knowledge, they often feel bored when doing written work, especially when lacking support and motivation from teachers.

Moreover, students show little knowledge about how to write a contextually appropriate paper and how to develop their process of writing. Unfortunately, the pressures of the formative tests and summative examinations force English teachers to focus their attention on grammatical rules, linguistic accuracy and students’ final “piece of work” instead of functional language skills. Due to students’ low level proficiency, time constraints and low motivation, writing still remains neglected. Teaching English writing in Vietnamese upper-secondary schools is a challenging job for many Vietnamese English teachers because it requires not only high language competence among the teachers themselves, but also the application of appropriate writing instruction. The reality of teaching English writing at Ly Tu Trong specialized upper-secondary school has revealed that most students have problems in writing. Their problems as well as reasons are as follows:

6.2.1 The overview of the development of writing ability

Although writing plays an indispensable role in the four basic language skills, it has long been ignored in Vietnamese secondary schools. According to the national examination format (see Appendix II), reading ability is still regarded as the most important skill. As for formative and summative tests, writing is not included, thus making it difficult to motivate students to write in class. Compared with the other three skills, writing is considered too complicated to teach. Some teachers do not feel confident about their own English and shy away from designing writing tasks or getting students to write more than just grammatical exercises. Sometimes teachers do not have enough ideas to help students.

In reality, most teachers follow what the tasks in the textbook require, and do nothing more about it. They may even let students copy the models from the so-called “How to” book. It could be obvious that writing is not important enough to teach in the class and that it occupies a lower position in Vietnamese upper-secondary English classrooms. It is not surprising, as a result, that this reading-dominated principle and the test-oriented approach bring about negative effects to upper-secondary graduates, who will later receive many complaints about their lack of competence of listening, speaking and writing skills.

6.2.2 Emphasis on language accuracy

Writing instruction in Vietnam is carried out under the authority of a nationally unified syllabus and the national examination system. Although the Vietnamese upper-secondary English Syllabus involves developing four functional language skills, the test and examination formats highly value correct linguistic forms instead of students’ development of creative thought. The desire for high graduation pass rates among upper-secondary schools places English teachers in a dilemma. Under immense pressure, English teachers must focus on teaching correct language forms and test-oriented skills rather than helping students develop their creative thinking and language skills for communicative purposes.

Moreover, most writing activities in the Vietnamese upper-secondary syllabus, especially Tieng Anh 10, are designed on the basis of the product-oriented approach, in which students are encouraged to mimic a model text, which is usually presented and analyzed at an early stage. This discourages students’ creativity because they cannot use their own experiences to express themselves. All they have to do is to answer comprehension questions, to fill in the blanks with the provided information, or to build complete sentences using the given cues in order to make a meaningful letter, and so on. This controlled writing format hinders teachers in trying new approaches to writing instruction. Teacher feedback focuses more on grammatical and lexical errors instead of meaning-oriented exploration. In brief, under such a syllabus, students are mainly evaluated by their test scores.

6.2.3 Lack of variety of assessment

In Vietnamese upper-secondary school context, it has long been the tradition that teachers are responsible for correcting their students’ writing. Thus, students write for the teacher, not for themselves, and as a result, teachers are the only audience for whom students gain experience writing. One result of this is that writing teachers are often overloaded with the task of giving feedback to and correcting students’ writing. This has led to the situation in which teacher-controlled feedback still remains dominant in Vietnamese English writing classrooms.

It is widely held that upper-secondary school English teachers mainly concentrate on the correction of grammar and spelling mistakes. They assume that such errors need to be eradicated immediately, and that the best way to help students is correcting all the errors in their writing in order to help students make progress. However, this traditional treatment is said to have no significant influence on students. From my observations, some good students do not like such a way. They feel discouraged and humiliated when having their writing papers marked with a lot of suggested correction. In some cases, some students just take a glance at what the teacher has corrected, while many others may not even look at the corrections.

It is also found that upper-secondary school students are never asked to revise their work for improvements based on the teacher’s feedback. The first drafts are always the final ones. It is simply because there are too many students in a class, and most classes are mixed ability; revision may become a burden to the teachers as marking and correcting is time-consuming. They could not manage it when they have only 45 minutes allocated for each writing lesson. They sometimes feel guilty because they are unable to correct all errors for students or to work through all their written work. This results in a mentality in which students fail to think carefully and deeply about their errors.

Due to the fact that students are passive in the classroom, they naturally feel uncomfortable with cooperative interaction that requires them to take an active role. Most students are likely to think that writing in English, just like writing in Vietnamese, is individual work, not a collaborative effort. They are not accustomed to pair work or group work when they do the writing. They never share their written texts with their peers in order to get feedback as well as to learn from their friends’ written products. Consequently, the teacher-led assessment makes writing meaningless and unproductive; student creativity and activeness are hindered, and thus motivation and proficiency in writing remain low. 

On realizing students’ problems of English writing, I assume that the product-oriented approaches and the teacher’s traditional treatment of writing, to some extent, have now been disproved, discouraging students from writing in English in writing classrooms. Therefore, what English writing teachers in upper-secondary schools need to do is to improve the quality of students’ pieces of writing, to give them a more cooperative learning environment, and to encourage them to share their written products with their peers’.

The researcher has been making an effort to seek pedagogical methods which could help deal with the mentioned problems. And assume that adapting the process-oriented approach could be a more effective strategy. Many studies on the effectiveness of this approach have proved that it can be applied in EFL writing classes to solve the above problems. Theoretically, this process approach calls for providing and maintaining a positive, encouraging and collaborative workshop environment (Silva & Matsuda, 2002, pp. 261). Related to my students’ problems, so the researcher would like to conduct an experimental study in order to test whether adapting the process-oriented approach could have a positive impact on upper-secondary school students’ quality of writing.

6.3 Case study and program for teaching EFL scientific writing to Vietnamese researchers

The market for English in Vietnam is immense for a variety of reasons. Culturally speaking, the extensive importation of English-language films, music, games and TV series, not to mention international social networking, has created a generalized source of palpable social pressure.

Academically speaking, English has become a turnkey to opportunity. Entrance to many Vietnamese postgraduate programs, even in areas where such a link would seem improbable, such as nursing, is highly dependent on performance in tests of English reading comprehension. Moreover, being the language in which the overwhelming majority of technical journals with higher impact factors publish, English follows the Vietnamese researcher throughout his career, adding the requirement of competent written production to breadth of reading.

Science and social science authors who want to publish internationally but have not acquired the necessary level to write directly in English must shop around for a translation service. Investment in such a service, which is often pricey, may be rewarded with surprise when journal peer-reviewers comment on the lack of scientific or even English language competency in their articles. Such authors have little recourse but to keep hunting for a better service in an expensive trial-and-error process while their articles collect virtual dust as they fall behind in research quotas and funding competition. Those authors able to represent their research clearly in English frequently seek out help in the form of a text editing or revision service to conform language and style to appropriate levels. Such help, however, is not a guarantee of success, which ultimately lies in the strength of the original text that is being corrected.

Although Vietnamese scientific output and its impact are clearly multifactorial issues, for good or for ill, English language education has become a functional prerequisite for Vietnamese scientists. Nevertheless, the type of education currently available in the Vietnamese EFL market does not lend itself to academic production although test preparation courses, generally in the form of VIP private tutoring, may be found at a limited number of schools. Thus, despite assertions that “the second-language learner who actually achieves native-speaker competence cannot possibly have been taught this competence” (Selinker, 1972, p. 212-213), the development of an academic writing course who goals include written expression on a level acceptable for publication in the international scientific literature should be seen both as a necessity and an opportunity. In this context, such a course, although involving an exportable concept, must be firmly rooted in the structures of Vietnamese Portuguese and English to such a degree as to shun the involvement of international publishers and any ambition of “monoglot materials…without regard to students’ L1” (Cook, 1998, p.118).

The program involved three modules that are outlined in more detail below: a basic or background module on consistently troublesome grammar elements, an editing module consisting of various group exercises involving the correction of previously submitted articles from their research group, and a translation module in which the students translated segments of articles they or colleagues had written and presented them to the group for analysis.

6.3.1 The Background module

As previously stated, the Background module was not a ground-up approach because of the students’ more advanced reading level. Another important factor weighed into the approach was that because there is enough similarity to warrant scholarly debate whether English is actually a romance language (Gachelin, 1990), the language pair lends itself to a complimentary teaching structure, i.e., one that emphasizes differences (non-similarities) between the languages instead of treating them as rigidly discrete and foreign systems. Thus, this module focused on areas in which the two language systems clashed, where, observed from my experience as a text reviser, Vietnamese researchers assume and impose fossilized L1 structures on English that can violate anything from good style to basic comprehensibility. Such topics, which follow with a minimum of explanation, are outlined in Table 21 below:

Table 22. Content of Background module of EFL science writing course

6.3.2 The Editing module

The Editing module represented the beginning of the practical component of the course. It consisted of group exercises involving manuscripts that had been previously corrected for the study group. An uncorrected text was projected on a screen with a video projector and a progression of group exercises was carried out. Exercises began with sentences singled out to highlight specific problems covered in the Background module, such as preposition use or word order. A sentence was given and students were asked if there was anything wrong with the sentence. If no one perceived the mistake, the problem word or words were pointed out: “What about this?” The weaker the response by the group, the more detailed the explanation and the stronger the reinforcement would be.

Beyond the black-and-white cases, more subtle miscollocations were dealt with by having the students take turns revising sentences. A student would rework a complete sentence without having been prompted about any possible errors and his version would be entered on the screen below the original. The group would be asked to compare the sentences, describing the changes made and the possible reasoning behind them. The student would be given a chance to explain his choices and then the version I had prepared was compared to the other two, if necessary. Valid alternative phrasing suggested by the students was encouraged; they were reminded that the goal was to stimulate their own more authentic English production, and not to simply imitate another writer’s style. The idea was to use sentences that could be resolved and explained by logic rather than by concluding “it just sounds right/better”. Even if aesthetics was appealed to, the mechanics behind it were stressed as much as possible to demonstrate that they could achieve naturalness by reasoning in places where native-speakers relied on “instinct”. This type of exercise was expanded to the paragraph level, with the goal of working on a full text together.

Bear in mind that the application of the Background module was not strictly chronological in the

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