Megan Swanick

English program pitfalls

What are the disadvantages of being an English program teacher

Since I've been teaching in Thailand, I've by chance and not necessarily choice - always been placed in English Programs. 

English Programs are immersion-based ‘special' educative programs placed within government schools. 

My school is a government school. But within that government school is a separate learning curriculum geared towards fluency in English.

My students pay extra to be in that program, and take their classes in a separate building with the majority of their instruction given to them in English. My students, who are in Prathom Five, have been taking the majority of their daily classes completely in English since they were in Prathom One. (Or, ideally they have.)

English program objectives

The idea is that the immersion into English-only classrooms allows students to not only learn English faster and at more advanced level, but that the students will be more confident engaging and speaking in English with foreigners beginning from a very young age.

There are certainly students in my classroom who are perfect examples of the success of and motivation for the English Program system. I have, as a result of The English Program system, students who are nearly fluent by the age of ten and with whom I can have extensive conversations in English.

But not all of my students fit that ideal, and I can't help but believe that in some cases participating in an English Program hampers the educational progress of the student. 

I feel that is true especially for the students who have lower levels of English, but I also find it can also include the students who speak English well.

The downside?

The drawbacks of The English Program, as I see them, fall into two distinct categories. 

The first category is the problems arising from the vast array of English levels in one classroom. Some of my students joined the program later in their educational years after being admitted via some test I have never seen. These students are often at a disadvantage in terms of their language ability.

In one classroom, there are students who are nearly fluent and confident in their English alongside students who have an extremely limited vocabulary and an understandable hesitancy to practice and improve in front of their far more advanced peers.

Of course, there is always a range of ability in any classroom. But I find the abilities to be particularly extreme and limiting, especially when the extreme level in ability tangibly affects the student's performance in their other subjects.

Two very different students

An example of the extreme disparity in English proficiency as a result of lax and late admission to the program: I have one student who wrote me an elaborate essay about global warming in a class with a student who labeled a face as a textbook in a standardized test. 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the latter student's abilities, he just started later and is at a lower level. But they don't belong in the same classroom. The problem is, nobody will tell that to the parents. 

And so it continues, the gap in levels often only growing wider as the students move on in their years. The students who are behind in English simultaneously fall behind in Math and Science because, well, they don't understand what their teacher is saying. 

This often leads to discouragement and lack of motivation in the student as well as understandable behavioral problems (If I was eight I would not want to sit there listening to somebody talk to me in Russian all day. I'd start talking and go bezerk, too.)

Teaching obstacles

So, I often find myself teaching alternating lessons tailored to one group or another- because while teaching to the middle level is the ideal; like the economic classes in America, the middle ground is increasingly non-existent. 

I constantly feel that no matter how the lesson is tailored: to the group of kids who can write essays about global warming or to the students who need to study more basic vocabulary and sentence structure, some of my students are getting a disservice in the classroom.

The second issue is that the students get many of their core subjects primarily in English. That means Science and Math are taught to them in English. For some of the students, it isn't a problem. But often even the students who have high levels of English might have a learning difficulty with math in particular, and could really use more explanation in their native tongue. (Though they do get each subject in Thai once or twice a week).

For the students whose English is at a lower level, sometimes I wonder if they are learning anything at all in the 5 classes of English-Science they receive and feel quite certain that the one class of Thai-Science is not enough. Not to mention, and I include myself in this, the TESOL teachers teaching these children are certified to teach English as a foreign language - not Math or Science. We do our best, but make no pretence that we are in any way certified or qualified to be teaching children about Math and Science.

English program advantages

I do not mean to say that English Programs have no success or are terrible, useless things. I quite enjoy the environment, coworkers, and students who I work with. I find that I am able to get to know and better help many of my students because I teach them multiple subjects and see the same handful of children on a daily basis.

But even for all of that, I feel that there are some serious pitfalls in The English Program system. Most notably, I find problems in the extreme difference in English levels in one classroom, unqualified teachers (myself included) teaching Math and Science, and students who do not have a firm grasp on English being taught Math and Science in that language.

If you would like to see more of my writing and photographs, etc then please pay a visit to my blog 'Nomadic Megan' 


There are no 'gaps' in abilities in govt EPs. As long as the parents are willing to pay both the tea money and high tuitions of EPs, there's no difference among the cash cows, is there?

By Guy, Bkk (29th November 2013)

I agree with many of your points Megan. I too work on 'special programmes' and often see a huge range of abilities. I get the impression that some of the students are only on the programme because their parents can afford it, not because they have a talent for English.

I also teach on the regular programme at my school. Again, like your situation, these kids are in different buildings with hugely different facilities; the 'special' kids get AC, small class sizes, clean and pleasant classrooms, projectors, computers, new desks... the regular classrooms don't have doors or windows, broken fans, old crappy furniture and are generally unpleasant learning environments that 50 students are crammed into.

I often encounter students on these regular programmes whose English is far superior to some of the students on the special programmes, but as they cannot afford to pay the tuition fees they miss out on the opportunity to develop the talent that they have.

I think that having a separate English programme is great to develop the potential of students but the way that those students are selected (like the invisible exam that you mention) seems unfair.

By Kylie, Hat Yai (20th November 2013)

The success of an English Programme relies heavily on the school's management and leadership.

I've worked in schools in BKK & CM that successfully deliver this programme and the keys to success is employing qualified teachers especially for core subjects such as Mathematics and Science - because regardless of the weakness of the Thai education system - Maths & Science in Grade 5 & 6 gets pretty advanced.

It is also essential that the school has an entrance test and only students with a solid foundation in English be admitted... (could you imagine studying photosynthesis in Japanese?)

One of the greatest benefits for students able to study in an English Programme is that they are usually taught by western teachers using 'student-centered' approaches which help develop the students' critical thinking skills.

Check on the YouTube video below to watch a speech from a Thai student that studied English Programme from P1 and then you'll see how much students can benefit from an well managed programme.

By Daniel, Chiang Mai (19th November 2013)

Another very worrying aspect of the Thai system of not streaming classes and passing every student is that there is absolutely no provision for detecting students who have learning disabilities. For example, I am certain that there must be many students with dyslexia but there is no way that this problem could ever be discovered as students are permitted (often encouraged) to copy all their answers and no matter how terribly they may do in 'exams' they all go up to the next level.

By Tony Mitchell, Pathumthani (19th November 2013)

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