English teachers in Vietnam lag behind world standards

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 English teachers in Ho Chi Minh City at a training session designed to prepare them to be tested on their language skills

An ongoing national survey has revealed that the English skills of most teachers of the language in Vietnam are falling behind international standards.

Nguyen Ngoc Hung, chief of the national project of teaching and learning foreign languages through 2020, said 97 percent of high school teachers, and 93 percent of elementary and secondary school teachers failed the English tests that the education ministry drafted in accordance with European standards.

Worse still, 17 percent of elementary school teachers tested only achieved a beginner's level, he said.

The results were recorded in 30 provinces and cities that have taken the tests so far, which were based on either the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or the framework set by the Association of Language Testers in Europe.

Rates were especially low in some provinces. In the Mekong Delta City of Can Tho, "just a few" of 181 elementary school teachers surveyed passed the test, said Tran Trong Khiem, director of the city's education department.

Even in Ho Chi Minh City, which is considered as the hub of high-skilled teachers, more than 84 percent of 1,100 surveyed teachers failed. Many of them are heads of English departments at famous schools.

Hanoi faced the same situation with only 28 out of 150 surveyed teachers passing the tests.

According to Hung, the ministry will conduct tests at other provinces and cities to review the skills of all teachers. However, the outlook for the rest seems dim as well.

Thai Van Long, director of the education department in the Mekong Delta Province of Ca Mau, said the province will conduct the survey this summer, but the results are likely to be much lower than that of provinces which have already been tested, given that Ca Mau is a distant province, where teachers rarely have chance to communicate in English.

"Most local teachers are not good, so the results will not be high," said Tran Viet Hung, director of Soc Trang Province's education department, also in the Mekong Delta.

Who's to blame? 

Asked about the reasons behind such low rates, Hung said in theory, all English teachers graduate from universities and colleges, but in reality, many of them are trained via distance learning or other unofficial courses.

"They have certificates, but their actual expertise is not equal, and a majority fails to meet the requirements for quality," he said, adding that some education (teacher training) universities do not guarantee quality.

Another reason is that previously, English was an "optional" subject, so teacher recruitment did not receive decent care and attention teachers were employed on the basis of their certificates, not through tests which verified their English skills, Hung said.

Moreover, since academic programs focus on vocabulary and grammar only, teachers do not have the opportunity to sharpen their speaking and listening skills, while the ministry's tests cover all the language skills, he added.

"Only when the project was launched, and provinces and cities conducted tests, did we realize that the gap is too wide."

Meanwhile, an official from Dong Thap Province's education department said on the condition of anonymity that it is "obvious" that teachers could not meet the European standards, considering the quality of training at Vietnamese universities and colleges.

"Also, in recent years not many good English students choose to become teachers, but enter the fields of economics and foreign trade, instead," he said.

In Dong Thap, only two teachers passed the tests conducted among elementary and high school teachers.

In fact, teachers did not have a chance to study with native speakers during their training courses, or during their work, according to an anonymous teacher from Trung Vuong High School in HCMC.

It is "difficult" to ask all teachers to meet international standards "all of a sudden," because their training programs as well as teaching programs were designed under Vietnamese standards, said Vu Van Xuan from the HCMC-based Le Quy Don Secondary School, one of the teachers who passed the tests.

On the other hand, Nguyen Ngoc Vu, dean of the Foreign Language Department at the HCMC University of Education, said students probably have good listening and speaking skills upon graduation, but the environment of teaching at schools does not allow them to practice those skills, which become dull after a few years.

"˜Close the gap'

In response to the low rate of teachers who meet standards, educational authorities at various provinces and cities are now racing to improve the skills of their English teachers.

Van Cong Sang, an official from HCMC education department, said the city will organize courses this month which aim to enhance the expertise of its teachers.

The department will also prioritize hiring those with international certificates as it recruits teachers for the upcoming school year, he said.

In the meantime, the northern province of Hai Duong plans to re-allocate English teachers who tested poorly to other jobs, while seeking to recruit teachers through testing, not based on mere certificates, said Luong Van Cau, vice director of the provincial education department.

Other provinces and cities like Hanoi and Vinh Phuc announced that they would send teachers to training courses in Singapore, Malaysia and other countries at the expense of local budgets.

The Ministry of Education and Training is taking action as well.

Hung, chief of the national project of teaching and learning English from through 2020, said they have already finished reviewing pilot programs aimed at getting its elementary school teachers up to speed. They are also in the middle of drafting a new training program for them, he added.

The ministry will continue urging schools that train teachers to renovate their programs in accordance with the project, he said, adding that the ministry will test the performance of graduated students as well.

"I hope that with such positive move, the supply of quality teachers will become better," Hung said.

However, he stressed that "closing the gap" among local teachers will not take place immediately.

In the meantime, a teacher in HCMC's District 1 said teachers are willing to take international tests and training courses, "but after meeting international standards, will we have the chance to apply them into teaching?"

In fact, the current academic programs, including text books, and even exams still emphasize reading and writing, even though it is necessary to teach students all the skills, the teacher said.

Asked about the opinion, Deputy Education Minister Nguyen Vinh Hien said the ministry will only choose schools with standard-meeting teachers and the infrastructure requisite to launch pilot English teaching programs under the national project.

The programs promise to facilitate teaching by creating an interactive environment that allows students to practice their listening, reading, speaking and writing skills, Hung said.

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