OP-ED: Vietnam's Education Ministry should back off and help schools develop dynamic language curriculum

By Nguyen Van Phu , TN News

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Students learn English at a school in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dao Ngoc Thach Students learn English at a school in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dao Ngoc Thach

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The author of several books on learning English recommends changes for the education ministry, as it looks to revise a national project to improve Vietnamese students’ foreign language skills
Last week, two Ministry of Education and Training officials shocked the country by effectively denouncing the country's foreign language program.
First, Minister Pham Vu Luan told a legislature meeting on June 11 that: “The way Vietnamese people teach, learn and take exams on foreign languages is unlike any other country in the world.”
The minister was explaining why his agency hadn't made English a compulsory subject on the high school graduation exam administered early this month. He said that before the ministry could make any changes to the Vietnamese manner of teaching and learning foreign languages, the “old” method of testing English should not be encouraged.
A few days later, Deputy Minister Nguyen Vinh Hien told Thanh Nien that the ministry is revising the National Foreign Languages 2020 Project--a 12-year plan launched in 2008 to improve Vietnamese students’ foreign language skills -- so it will be “more practical.”
The plan is halfway toward its 2020 deadline and has involved a great deal of investment.
In addition to the VND9.4 trillion (nearly US$66 million) contributed from the national budget, each participating province and city has contributed hundreds of billions of dong in matching funds.
Does this mean that all of that effort and money was wasted?
While the project was expected to help Vietnamese students make “clear progress” in their foreign language skills, by 2015, only 16 percent of graduating high school students opted to take an English test this year .
According to many teachers, the project has been mainly involved the purchase of costly devices like interactive whiteboards and attempting to bring teachers up to speed with European standards. Both projects have obviously failed to bring about their desired effects.
Change is a must but how?
The creation of a practical and economical foreign language education program in Vietnam is obviously a topic that calls for input from the whole society. But, the following are a few points that many people have agreed on:
First, the education ministry needs to give up its ambition to manage everything from teacher training to academic programs, textbook production and updating classroom technology.
Second, it is unnecessary to demand that Vietnamese students speak English fluently, and then teach scientific subjects in English. Instead, we should focus on improving their reading comprehension skills, which should be deemed the first step toward giving students the self-confidence they need to actually use their English.
In short, the ministry only needs to focus on improving the training of English teachers at pedagogical universities and colleges; changing the structure of English tests so that they focus on reading comprehension instead of grammar, and, if possible, adding listening and speaking tests.
The ministry should give schools and teachers the freedom to choose textbooks and design academic programs that enable students to acquire English skills through activities like singing, playing games, watching movies, and speaking contests. Students with good foreign language skills are those who acquire them mainly on their own, inspired by personal passions related to foreign languages.
For teachers, what matters most is not meeting the Ministry's rigid European standards, but their own continuous education because languages are changing a lot.
Teaching and learning foreign languages is now easier than ever thanks to widespread access to the Internet, 3G technology, computers, and smartphones. The ministry should order its experts to gather all resources on the Internet and instruct teachers to use them, which will be much more effective than giving them rigid and costly training sessions.
Nowadays, a massive foreign language curriculum can be squeezed into a free cell phone app. But Vietnamese people still rely on bulky, expensive infrastructure like multimedia rooms to approach foreign languages, which is apparently a waste.
* The writer is the author of many books on English. The views expressed are his own.

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