Ajarn Street

No magic bullets

Dave Patterson would most certainly like a word

I noted again recently the shock and dismay expressed as once again Thailand and the Thai education system face the fact they are doing a rather poor job of educating Thai students in the English language ("....tests revealed that Thais have the second-worst English language skills in Southeast Asia...", BKK Post, Aug 11/05 (note - this story appears to be unavailable on the BKK Post site, but you can see it here - http://www.dlo.co.th/news_e.php?news=2109 )). Following which were the usual "By golly, that's just awful! Heads will roll! We'll have to do something about that!!" expressions from everyone in positions of responsibility for this sad state of affairs, and then the equally usual "instant great and magnificent NEW PLAN" to make everything better real soon!! from the Education Minister - all of which is, of course, in reality, the usual "Run around waving your arms and shouting loud and creating a big commotion and LOOK busy and really serious and concerned without actually doing anything!" for a few days pattern we see concerning many things here (and elsewhere of course regarding many things, it's a political thing and this is how politicians behave everywhere), until the story falls out of the news again, at which time we can finally get on to the endgame - back to life as normal, forget all about it until somebody is so thoughtless as to raise this issue again.

And then, as happens regularly, I get a call from some department head at my university - "Teacher! I have student / grad student / some student(s) who go to (some country where they're going to have to speak English to get by) - and they need to learn English! They leave in two weeks, you teach them OK?!?!?! They come for maybe 5 hour - no more than 10!! - and they certainly don't have time to study by themselves! - but you can help them learn enough to get by, yes??"

- and there, in a metaphoric nutshell, lies the root, or at least one major root, of the problem of the poor TOEFL scores, year after year, averred to at the beginning. The apparently hard-wired Thai belief in some sort of Magic Bullet that will enable them to ignore English as much as possible for years, but then learn it quickly and painlessly should the need ever arise, that I have been seeing for the 7 or 8 years I have been involved with English teaching in this country. Nobody I know of has ever produced such a magic bullet (they'd be richer than a guy named Gates if they ever did such a thing), but the belief seems to be that if we just keep changing Education Ministers and teachers and plans, SOME DAY!! we will find that Magic Fountain of English, and all will be well! Haha! With no work!! Won't it be grand!!

It's sure a lot easier than studying, I guess.

But I'm afraid I have some rather bad news, if anyone is ready to listen yet - there is no magic bullet. If you want to learn English - you have to study. Seriously. For several years. And practice, practice, practice. (There is an upside - studying can be fun, and accomplishing something difficult (which learning to speak English decently surely is) can be satisfying.)

Here is what you need to do, for starters, if you want your university students, or even a select subgroup of them, to be reasonably competent in English when they graduate, and be able to deal confidently with TOEFL tests to gain admission to foreign universities, and not consistently find your students near the bottom when compared to other SE Asian countries:

1. Get serious about your attitude, which comes from the top down - meaning, first and by far the most important - get rid of the Magic Bullet mythology - there are no Magic Bullets. If you want to accomplish something, you need to work at it. This most assuredly applies to learning English. Teachers need to teach, students need to study. Paradoxically, perhaps, "being serious" can actually be more fun than "having fun" - there is a satisfaction in accomplishing things (being serious), a true enjoyment and feeling good about yourself, but "having fun" as a goal soon reveals itself to be a pretty empty and ultimately boring pastime, leading to feelings of dissatisfaction and worse. As another example - I was once faced with a course for Medical Residents at my U here - they had just completed 6 undergrad years with NO English courses available, but now, when they were working 60+ hour weeks, with great amounts of practical medical learning to accomplish and worry about, the Administration decided that in response to some government plan that all medical grads should be proficient in English, in a 30-hour course over 30 weeks, these same residents would become proficient, in doing doctor-patient interviews, seminar presentations, writing and reading research papers and all kinds of medical documents, showing visitors around Thailand, writing a CV, writing letters of various sorts, general conversation, and several other things that escape me now, all in English. And many of the students in this very mixed in terms of skill-levels group probably could not attend many classes because they were quite busy, or be expected to do much self-study between their weekly one-hour classes, but they all had to get at least a B, and preferably an A, in the for-credit course - and that was up to me, the teacher, to arrange. In other words, I was going to be the Magic Bullet for this year. We've all of us who teach here seen such things, I think. And that is the sense of unreality that seems to pervade almost everything around the acquisition of the English language in Thailand.

English is a difficult thing to learn, let alone master, as is any art or science, and can ONLY be accomplished through sustained learning and practice. It simply can NOT be done in a few hours, weeks, or even months. If you want your university or college graduates to be halfway decent in English, they have to be studying it EVERY year of their undergrad days, with good teachers and good courses, one course every undergrad semester, and with lots of speaking - listening practice, which means SMALL classes, not 30+ students per class.

2. Get serious about your teachers - I understand the problems of too many students and not enough qualified teachers for all the rural schools, but you have to come up with something better than teachers who "teach" their students that, just for instance an example from last week, the word "parents" is ALWAYS plural, or that the verb "to have" is always conjugated "have" (yesterday I have lunch, Thailand have beautiful beaches, my boyfriend have nice car, etc and etc), or "same-same", "no have", and "where you come from?" are good English conversational sentences. Such teachers are NOT teaching their students things about English they ought to know - i.e. things that will help them do ok on their TOEFL test sometime down the road - they are actually doing damage, as once ideas like this get ingrained in the young learners' heads they are quite difficult to remove later on (which you need to do if the student is going to pass something like a TOEFL, or speak without embarrassing him or herself in an English country). Again, this will take time - the sooner you start, the sooner you get there.

3. Teach your students to be a bit serious - I understand that "serious" is a major conflict with the idea that all learning and everything else should be "fun" and students who fail aren't going to have much fun - but you can't have things both ways. You can prioritise having "fun" over learning and continue to pass everyone regardless of their ability and then watch everyone do very poorly on TOEFL etc tests (where the examiners regard English ability as more important than whether or not the students are having much fun taking the test) - or you can get a bit serious and actually make them learn some things before giving them pass marks into higher levels (and maybe have them learn along the way that learning can be fun in its own right!!). Things like getting to class on time are another way of showing that you are taking something at least a bit seriously.

4. Get serious about assessment - it is ridiculous that at the language department of my university when I taught there I had to deal with a majority (that would be in the 90% range, rather than a Canadian election "majority", for instance, which usually means around 25%, but that's a story for another day) of first year students who could neither speak nor understand more than a small handful of spoken English words or sentences - and yet they had all "passed" several years of lower school English, PLUS the university entrance exams! It's hard to take anything seriously when you see this going on at the university level - unfortunately, the TOEFL test people don't play along with this system and actually expect some performance from their testees, thus the continually low marks of Thai students, meeting the real world for perhaps the first time.

5. Get serious with what you are teaching - I would not mind teaching these students who come to my institution at any level, I am a teacher who enjoys teaching, and the Thai students I have taught (a LOT in six years) are almost all very enjoyable to work with, by and large, smart and willing to learn - but the things that are taught have to be at some useful and realistic level for the students, based on their current level of knowledge and some realistic expectation of what they can do in the term ahead. At the Language Department at my university, however, those first year students, with at best beginner-level ability, were given a very advanced English course with, further, no cultural connectivity to the situation of most students (the most advanced level of a course for immigrants to America, with cultural situations appropriate to that teaching situation, called Interchange 3). These students have no idea, just for instance, about how to use the simple past tense (Why were you late? I eat breakfast.) - yet they are supposed to learn the future perfect tense (Tomorrow at this time I will have eaten breakfast!?!?) Ridiculous to say the very least. About all that most of these students "learn" from this type of course is that English is far too difficult to ever learn, and they never want to have to go near it again. Very, very bad pedagogy. They need a course that is at least comprehensible to them which, at least at this university, they do not have. (And although 90% of them learn nothing from this course - they all pass it!!! and many then go into second year conversation courses unable to speak or listen any better than they could in the first year course, closer and closer to that TOEFL test they have no hope of passing - see "assessment" issues above...)

5a. And then we have getting serious about grammar - stop stop stop STOP trying to spread this nonsense that students learning English don't need to learn grammar!!!! Communication in any language is composed of two things - vocabulary and grammar - one is no good without the other. More importantly, regarding the sad TOEFL scores, TOEFL concentrates a LOT on grammar - rightfully so, in my opinion, although the test in general is somewhat more difficult than it ought to be, I think. You maybe need to change the way grammar is taught - if everyone thinks grammar is just boring and difficult and a waste of time, then there are both teaching and teacher issues to be dealt with.

6. Give the students a chance! - Many of them really want to learn, but when you put 30-60 students in the same class the teacher becomes little more than a babysitter trying to find a few games to keep them entertained for awhile - the amount of English learning is minimal if not non-existent. Beyond the most basic levels, students can NOT learn what is essentially a hands-on art form requiring personal guidance in large classes. You also need to stop putting students of wildly varying abilities in English together in the same class based on some unrelated criteria and expecting your teachers to deal with it - this is just a waste of time for everyone. Poorer students require different lessons than more advanced students, as in every other course that is taught - imagine putting elephants and crocodiles into the same class, and trying to teach them to be tigers. Crazy. Separate them into appropriate levels, they need different things.

So, some serious problems to be dealt with - government bureaucracy, teachers, students, courses, assessment - what about a few possible solutions?

1. MOST IMPORTANT!!!! - first just cease and desist with the Magic Bullet theories - there are no such things, and all the wishing and hoping and blustering in the world is not going to change this. Luck might win you a lottery, it will NOT help your students learn English. The longer you proceed on this course, the more time you are going to waste. Plan and institute some realistic courses, that progress over several years, with realistic teaching and assessment and expectations of the students - and in time, you will start graduating students with good English skills. In time. No "instantly" is going to happen. No next month or even next year. Accept this. You can speed it up a bit with more money and better and more teachers, but not with magic. Learning takes time. Period. The sooner you get on the right path, the sooner you get to the end.

2. Accept that at this time you can NOT teach all students to become good in English - there are just too many obstacles right now, from a lack of competent teachers to many students who don't want to learn English anyways - so stream them. Those who do not want to learn English, let them go, at least for now, it is their decision anyways, do not try to force them to do something they do not want to do! - focus your resources on those students who want to learn, and help them learn properly over a period of years.

3. I know all the arguments about the impossibility of much of what I say, but all we are really talking about is political will and allocation of resources. If you are serious about having your students become proficient in English, you will make it happen, perhaps using some of the ideas expressed herein and being creative about other things. You made the Skytrain happen and the 30-baht health care system, you made the Thai Rak Thai party happen, you build big dams and skyscrapers and airports - and you can help your students become proficient in English by providing a positive, encouraging and realistic learning milieu, if you want to.

4. Show the students that you care about this, really, that it is not just something you say because you are expected to say it. Give them good teachers and courses, give them good and honest assessment, demand good performance (really, this shows you care!) and then reward them when they meet your expectations, such as by getting high marks in the TOEFL test. Maybe you could make better jobs available in Thailand for students who can get good scores on something like the TOEFL test - more money is a very positive incentive these days. Maybe you could make it known that people who are good in English are to be honoured for this skill that also honours Thailand through a better presence in the world community, as teachers or doctors are honoured right now - social standing is a strong incentive.

In the classroom, be creative with "carrots and sticks", rewards and punishments. Maybe you could establish some kind of contest, and for the students or classes or schools that do best in this contest, arrange a visit from some famous person - someone from the royal family, a movie star or pop singer, someone all the kids look up to and thus to meet them in person would be a thrill and honour, good also for prestige in their social group, worth working for - to meet with the best students and talk awhile (in English, of course!). Maybe there could be a dinner or something together, a weekend at a holiday resort - something VERY TANGIBLE that would make them all very happy and proud of what they have accomplished. Students learn better with this kind of incentive - and yes it would cost a bit (although most public figures do a lot of free things for good causes, which this would be) - but how much is the poor English skills of people costing the country right now? How is your prestige helped by continually doing so poor in the international TOEFL tests? Maybe you could look at spending money on English as a good investment in the future.

Well, I guess I've ragged on enough for now. Good luck - although, as they say in the farming community I hail from in Canada, "good luck" tends to follow hard work.

Dave Patterson


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