February 2, 2013 is the date for the O-net examination in Thailand (Ordinary National Education Test). This is the day that level 6 and 9 students' are assessed in their proficiency in all subjects. That's why nowadays all Thai schools prepare intensively to improve their students' performance.
Before I came to my school in 2010 the grade 6 students performed last in the administered O-Net in the district. My director wondered why it was so. Were the Filipino teachers assigned in other schools in the district better than the teachers assigned in my school? Or was it because of the students?
So, I asked the Thai teachers in my school why the students did not do well in that assessment. According to them, the students were not very good in English particularly in reading. Other than this, testing did not accurately measure the students' capability because listening and speaking were the focus of teaching yet testing involved a great deal of reading. It was like teaching students science and they were being tested in math. Naturally, students did not fare well.
With that information, I worked on my students' reading skills. Although I was determined to improve our grade 6's performance I couldn't do much for their English level and reading ability again were low. So I used previous test exams, and additional reviewers similar to the given tests.
With so little time to prepare, my students were able to obtain a 15% mean average. It was very low indeed, but what could a not-so-good class do? Anyway I wasn't dismayed because the students did not score well in other subjects either.
With the poor scores of my students, I scheduled a regular review for the next batch. I gathered more review materials, reviewed every week, and asked for three Thai teachers to help me. The batch was quite similar to the first one but the difference was that the students were highly motivated, more confident and better prepared. With the extra effort we exerted, the students scored 25.77%. Compared to the previous test they had improved by 10%.
In February 2013, I am very confident that the next set of students will be able to achieve a 35-40% mean average. You see, the present batch has better English proficiency and has had sufficiently more review time. In addition to this, Thai teachers have helped in the review too. More importantly, I have a lot of review materials, the school gives support, students are motivated, and our Thai English teacher requires them to master at least 20 new words per week.
In order that students can get high O-Net scores, schools simply have to give their full support. There was a school in the Philippines where I taught for 6 years. This school ranked number 3 in the National Elementary Achievement Test in Metro Manila. In the succeeding year, it ranked number one.
One of the factors was the full support of the school via review classes, payment of teachers who helped the review, provision of good reviewers; accompanying students to the testing center, and even praying for the students.
Another contributing factor to the success of this school was their grading system. In order for students to pass their quizzes, long tests, mid-term, and final tests they should get 80%.
One more thing, Thai teachers should team up with foreign teachers in the review. It is hard for foreign teachers to review grammar and difficult concepts when the foreign teacher doesn't speak Thai. Reviewing rules of grammar or analyzing dialogue situations to students who don't understand is a complete waste of time.
Of course, the actual learning of English in the classroom from kindergarten to grade 5 really matters. If the students had better grammar instruction from their Thai English teachers and reading from foreign teachers every year, their English knowledge would be far more adequate whenever the O-Net test was given. That's why after working in the project for nearly six years now, I recommend that in public schools, teaching of reading should be the main focus of English instruction.
I have seen my grade 1 students use the tablet given to them by the government. There are a lot of English songs, dialogues and activities there, but students can't read them. So, the use of the tablet will be more effective if students can actually read.
There should be a paradigm shift from what students were doing three years ago from speaking and listening focus to the integration of the four language skills - namely reading, speaking, listening, and writing.
We foreign teachers are very good at teaching conversation skills. We can continue to do that and we must also be sure to teach the students to read and write what they are actually saying and hearing - individual words first then building structures leading to whole sentences.
This time, the teaching of reading should be the emphasis so students will be prepared for 2015. Once this is done and institutionalized in government schools, high achievement of students in O-Net in the future will no longer be a dream but indeed a reality.