Starting his career as an educator in Thailand over forty years ago, Terry Fredrickson cuts to the edge of English skills development with his sharp use of newspapers
Imagine that you arrived in Thailand to teach English in 1968; sent as a new volunteer to a remote mountain range, 13 kilometers from the nearest city! Try visualizing the difficulty in putting together lesson plans for a reading class without access to the Internet, modern textbooks, or even a basic library. How would you teach? What resources would you turn to? Where could you exchange ideas about education with like-minded teachers?
Terry Fredrickson is one man who has faced this exact situation head on. As a Peace Corp volunteer, he found himself working at a small teacher training college near Nakorn Sri Thammarat from 1968-1971. At this time, western teaching methods were nearly unheard of in the country, only four international schools existed, and the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) industry - as we know it - was virtually unborn.
From these humble beginnings, Fredrickson has developed thousands of online lesson plans, published a plethora of books for English learners, and founded an entire newspaper section that focused on education. Read on to see where he is heading within the TEFL industry, and how you can personally benefit as a teacher from what he has to offer.
Getting the scoop
As Fredrickson remembers, "At that time, the teacher training schools in Thailand (the forerunner of the Rajabhat universities) all used a massive grammar-based textbook. It was all grammar explanations and grammar drills ... I had a terrible time with it." Luckily, his Peace Corp training gave him some impressive drills and other methodological skills, "but one day it occurred to me that all that the students were doing was learning structure. Meaning was only secondary."
Lacking alternative resources, Fredrickson started creating his own material, which was quickly adopted by other teachers at his school. This evolved into the creation of his own textbook, "English for College Students", which was once used by half the teacher training colleges in Thailand.
After 13 years of developing curriculum for teachers in Thailand, he left in 1981 to get the scoop on a Master's Degree in TEFL at the University of Minnesota. When he finally returned, he discovered it more meaningful to go straight to the headlines.
Pressing on: North, East, West, and South
Imagine waking up at 6AM to design numerous lessons that would be faxed non-stop on four computers for daily "broadcast" runs lasting four to five hours. Try visualizing the difficulty of promoting this technology in 1993 to encourage Thai learners to develop English skills for understanding newspapers. Keep in mind that most Thai private schools were not even legally allowed to teach English until 1994 and that English had yet to be made a compulsory subject for Grade 1 pupils.
Well, starting on September 17, 1993, Fredrickson did exactly that. "With the Bangkok Post, I had so much material every day to choose from," he explains, but the problem is that newspapers are "likely to be full of vocabulary and topics that the reader has never dealt with before. That is where technology comes in."
By faxing lessons, English became more accessible to Thai readers even if they were located in remote areas. Faxing also helped them get acquainted with the "inverted pyramid" writing style favored by journalists, which stacks the most important data in the first few paragraphs and tapers in the finer details later.
Learning from the Post
Readers' interest quickly took root and, before long, the faxed lessons evolved into a series of weekly submissions that were tucked into the classified section of the Bangkok Post starting on May 19, 1997. The articles included the reproduction of material translated from English into Thai script so that both locals and expatriates could benefit.
Fredrickson and staff produced these education-based articles to such a large degree that the column quickly expanded to a six-page weekly section, and "Learning Post" was officially born on December 11, 2001.
"My main focus was on interesting developments in education here in Thailand. Since many of our readers would likely be sending their children to international schools, " he explains, "I spent a lot of time acquainting them with what the different international systems had to offer. And when English programs began to take off in the Thai system, I quickly added that to my list. I also spent a lot of time looking at what the revised national curriculum aimed to do and how it was to be implemented."
While still working as an editor at the Learning Post, Fredrickson published, "English by Newspaper" - a book of lessons that encourages Thai learners to read. Soon afterward, he launched a series of seminars and workshops nationwide along with teammate Ajarn Sunee Siidao, who also penned the popular and sorely missed column of translations known as "Phut Prasa Thai".
How to Get Thais to Read
It is not easy to persuade Thai readers to enjoy reading, let alone in English. A recent Bangkok Post article points out that 22.4 million Thais do not read in their daily life. The Thais that do read only average about two books per year - compared with 40 to 50 books read annually by Singaporeans and the Vietnamese who average 60. And to make matters worse, the number of public libraries in Thailand is miniscule nationwide and totally lacking in some remote areas. In this environment, how can teachers get students to make the leap toward English newspapers?
On technique is to start with the material that Thais are already reading. Fredrickson has often used cartoons for lessons because they "have clearly defined characters and recurrent themes." He points out that, "If I were teaching, I would assign different groups of students to follow the same comic strip every day for a month, so they can start seeing some of the continuity."
He also notices that even computer games have potential. Children are reading menus, viewing onscreen instructions, using manuals to figure out key commands, and researching on the Internet for "cheats" or tips about how to play the game more effectively. They might even be developing writing skills by asking other kids for information on gaming forums. "For many kids, it is far from mindless," but Fredrickson adds, "The teacher would really have to know the video game to make this work."
To promote learning via newspapers, Fredrickson has turned to the technology that many children love most - the Internet. In recent years, he has spent a great deal of energy into building his website: www.readbangkokpost.com.
The Internet is a tool that young learners are already comfortable with, and they can surf this website in a hurry for material that is appropriate for their level. By going online, these resources have become freely accessible all over Thailand, and the time required for distribution is drastically cut down.
The newspaper's writing style is ideal for learners, Fredrickson believes, because "the inverted pyramid gives them at least three chances to understand the main idea: once in the headline, once in the first paragraph, and at least once in the main body." Although newspapers can be intimidating, "the newspaper is for everyone and there is a huge variety of content." Students can easily browse this website for stories that they would like to read.
Read All About It
Fredrickson is a very prolific writer. Every day, he usually posts 2-3 new lessons online before 11AM, as well as several others that have been already prepared in advance. "Teachers should be aware that when a big news event occurs, there is likely to be a lesson waiting for them to use on our website," he notes.
"Our website visitors go overwhelmingly for the main news story I do each day, plus the simplified story in Easy English News," Fredrickson observes. They already have a background to these stories from the Thai media, which helps them to learn at a quicker rate.
Readbangkokpost.com also showcases news material for learners of business English and a section that adapts stories for younger children. A popular section is called "Mainly for Fun", and it focuses on light and entertaining stories for readers. A heavy emphasis throughout the website is vocabulary development, so news articles are usually accompanied by a list of words, definition, and even some translations.
However, Fredrickson wishes to stress that he is not a reading specialist. "I almost always suggest speaking activities based on the readings. I also have a lot of experience teaching listening, and that is why I include mp3 sound files with most my lessons," he says. Students can listen to an article as it is read while practicing their speaking skills.