Phil Roeland

TOEFL woes

How Thai English speakers measure up

It was recently made public that Thais came eighth in the nine Southeast Asian countries rated by ETS, the company that organizes the TOEFL test. TOEFL is the Test of English as a Foreign Language that students usually take when they want to study at a North American university or at a local university which runs an international programme.

The 9000 Thais who took the test scored an average of 201 out of a possible 300 score, just one point above the Cambodians (200) and far behind the Singaporeans (252). To enter most universities, a minimum score of 213 is usually required (213 for the computer-based test or 550 for the paper-based test).

A lot has been said and written about this poor result, but I doubt it a lot has been done so far. The Education Minister was very quick to react. He announced that there would be a major overhaul in the English language teaching programmes. Grammar and learning by rote will be replaced by a more communicative approach with a focus on speaking, listening and writing. He gave the schools one month to implement these changes.

Yes, dear readers, you read this correctly. The Minister of Education apparently thinks it’s possible the revamp a whole educational approach in just a month. It made me wonder if he’s got any idea at all what he’s talking about. Everyone with more than a pea-brain should know that change – especially a change of this magnitude – is always a slow process. Moreover, people usually don’t like change. Thai teachers of English especially.

I found proof of this reluctance in the fact that officials of the ministry stated that they had tried to persuade schools to change their teaching methods before the crushing outcome of the TOEFL survey, but that the schools and teachers usually refused. Although I suspect they released this statement in order to cover their collective asses, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually true. This raises the question why school administrators and educators would be opposed to a change for the better.

I can think of a couple of reasons. As I already mentioned, people don’t like change. Changing the old ways of doing things requires an effort. This probably means extra work and added insecurity. Thai teachers aren’t paid well enough to expect a lot of them. I also suspect that a good number of local educators are simply incapable of changing their old habits. Not only because they’ve been using their methods for so long, but also because their spoken and written English is of such a poor standard that a change would be very demanding, if not impossible for them.

The other day I spoke (or rather tried to speak) to a Thai teacher of English during a British Council workshop. To my astonishment, even a very simple conversation was far beyond her possibilities. Most of what I asked her drew a complete blank. I had the impression it was the first time she talked to a foreigner. I wondered how the hell she ever got a degree to teach English.

Let’s face it. Many Thai teachers are quite good when it comes to teaching grammar and learning by rote. They master the art of talking about a foreign language (English) in their own language (Thai). The result of this is that students are often capable of passing a (not too difficult) multiple-choice grammar quiz, but their active knowledge of English is virtually non-existent.

We all know something has to be done to improve the English skills of Thais, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister wants this beautiful country to become the Detroit of Asia, the Kitchen of the World, the Fashion Capital etc. To become an international player on this stage, entrepreneurs will surely expect to be able to do business in English. Furthermore, it is very important for university graduates to be able to use English fairly fluently in order to secure a decent job.

So, is change necessary? Of course it is. Can change be achieved in one month? Of course not. We all know that it will take a much longer time. Giving schools a month is simply ridiculous. It will take at least six months to one year before anything will occur in the field. Teachers will have to be (re)trained. Resources will be needed, as well as a lot of planning and brainstorming. I just hope someone with more than half a brain will be put in charge of this master plan instead of some politically appointed pencil pusher who can barely utter three words of English.

I could go on writing about all this, but I won’t because I feel I might get depressed. I will nevertheless end on a positive note. At least something seems to be moving in the Thai ESL world. People start to realise that something needs to be done urgently in order to improve the English skills of Thais. This is good. Change can actually be very rewarding and give people a new drive. Let’s just not think that change can occur within a month. A dramatic change will probably take a whole generation.


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