Steve Schertzer

The Mismeasure of Thais

Teachers rarely take the blame for students constantly failing exams.


This blog is predicated upon three external and indisputable truths:

1) Numbers don't lie; people do.
2) Students do not fail educational methods and systems; educational methods and systems fail students.
3) No one, with the exception of the parents, knows their students better than their teachers.

These three premises will lead me to the conclusion as to why many students fail tests and examinations. And it is not their fault. Let me say that again. It is not the students' fault that they are failing. All students want to pass. They simply don't know how since most teachers have never taught their students how to study effectively and to recognize the pitfalls of taking tests and examinations.

SYSTEMS and METHODS:

Throughout history people have created systems, methods, and ideologies, for all sorts of reasons: To make our lives easier; to facilitate the day to day activities of our existence; and even to change the world. We have created all sorts of systems, methods, and "isms"--political, social, religious, and educational. We join social movements, political groups, think tanks, and study groups. We even attend seminars and conferences. We do this because we think we can change things for the better. And sometimes we do: Every once in a while, we actually get things right.

But ironically, there are times when our attempt to create a system or a method to make things easier for us and for others becomes the very same system or method that fails us and oppresses us. The sad thing about this is that it doesn't have to be that way. The educational system and more specifically, how we choose to teach English as a foreign language is a perfect example of how our methods of teaching are failing the very same people it was meant to help.

Just about every school in Thailand, whether a government school, a bilingual school, a language school, or a Catholic school, has the same problems: An administration that wants to do as little work as possible; a preponderance of foreign teachers who are here mainly for the work visa and the nightlife; foreign supervisors on power trips; too many uncooperative Thai teachers resentful that the foreign teachers are earning four or five times what they are; and a lethargic student population that can sense these problems from 100 kilometers away and responds accordingly.

WHY STUDENTS FAIL:

As we educators all know, there are a multitude of reasons why some students fail tests and exams. I myself was never very good at them. Some students don't memorize things very well. Others don't study as much or as hard as they should. The textbook may be above the student's level. Perhaps the teacher didn't prepare the students as well as should be expected. Most of the students who have failed are probably asking themselves, "What's wrong with me? Am I stupid or something?" I don't believe that these questions can be applied to most Thai students.

Far better questions to ask are,

1) What is wrong with a system that would allow 40 or 50 percent (or more) of the students to fail an English test?

2) What is wrong with the school's method or way of teaching that would allow for such a high failure rate?

While I fully realize that there will always be students who fail, some by their own fault, the major and primary responsibility of a school is to ensure that as many students as possible pass. If the failure rate is consistently 40 percent or higher, then it is not only the students who look bad and incompetent. We must allow ourselves to look at this situation that we created as unnecessary, the method as unjust, the institution full of folly, incompetence, and perhaps, bitter political partisanship, and the system in desperate need of repair or transformation.

Over and over again I have heard foreign teachers say, "Oh those dumb Thais. They couldn't pass an English grammar test if their lives depended on it." Over and over again in several teacher's rooms, I have heard foreign teachers ridicule their students' answers on exams, as if mastering the differences in usage between the past simple and the past continuous were the easiest thing in the world. Over and over again I have heard the condescending laughter of foreign teachers as they read the writing portion of those examinations. I would love to see these teachers attempt to write in Thai! Now that would be something to laugh about.

Of course none of these teachers ever blame themselves. The administration never views itself as part of the problem. The Thai and foreigners in positions of power and authority would never admit, let alone perceive, that perhaps it is their policies or flawed methods that are responsible for an abnormally high failure rate among the students. Lek and Somchai failed because they are stupid, not because they didn't understand or were not interested in the material.

I mean come on, what Thai high school student in their right mind would not be interested in reading about wheat production in Saskatchewan or the history of corn? Why 14 year old Lek and 15 year old Somchai wouldn't be interested in how many people visit Machu Picchu or the Grand Canyon every year is beyond me. Thai teenagers not knowing the four U.S presidents on Mount Rushmore, or not understanding family life in America, or women's liberation in Britain. How dare them!

EFL textbook after EFL textbook, whether from Cambridge University press or Oxford University Press, (used by many schools here), is chalk full of articles and stories not the least bit relevant to Thai students. The history of "Big Ben"; the discovery of Tutankhamen's Tomb; where to shop if you're ever stuck at the airport in Singapore; interviews with exchange students from Mexico; fish and chip recipes.... How can any teenage Thai student possibly be bored with that? It's tough enough for them to learn about prepositions of place or countable/uncountable nouns, especially when taught by apathetic teachers who care not a wit for the students' future.

Over the years I have seen well intentioned foreign teachers in Thailand pound their fist into their hand while passionately explaining to their boss in the teacher's room, "I have told my students over and over again that if they don't study hard and pass this exam, they will not get into a good university!" Some pound their fist on their desk, the veins in their neck clearly visible from across the room as they exclaim, "I have pounded into their heads day after day for the last three weeks the differences between the past simple and the past continuous. But do they listen? NO!!! They are still failing. I have even threatened to call their parents."

Wow, threatening to call their parents. Great motivational technique if I ever saw one. What's next, telling the kids that lions and tigers will eat their mommy and daddy if they don't do their homework? Warning the teenage monsters that God himself will destroy their crops and kill their farm animals if they do not apply themselves and pass those dreaded English examinations? Good grief!

There are, however, some foreign teachers here who do care about the future of their Thai students without having to resort to such unnecessary and ludicrous scare tactics. The teachers who use such tactics are doing so not necessarily because they genuinely care about the future of Thai students. While many are certainly concerned about the students' progress, what these teachers who make it a point to pound their fist into their own hand in front of their boss are mainly concerned about is saving their own hides. They are more concerned about themselves looking good in the eyes of their boss than they are with the students doing well in anyone's eyes. Some may say that the students are being used as pawns in a very dangerous game of "Save My Ass." While this game is universal and takes place in many industries, in an educational setting it is demoralizing to the teachers and shortchanges the students when they need good and dedicated teachers the most.

Now let's look at ways whereby we can create a system, a method, situations, and circumstances that will compel us to serve our students better while, at the same time, allow the vast majority of our students to pass their examinations.

"READ, UNDERSTAND, and FOLLOW the INSTRUCTIONS":

Firstly, I'm going to start with a very simple and common sense premise. Most EFL students in Thailand, (and in other Asian nations), who fail their English exams do so not necessarily because they didn't study hard enough or apply themselves diligently enough. Most EFL students who fail grammar, reading, and writing exams fail because they cannot read. Moreover, many of them cannot read or understand the instructions on the exams well enough to do the exercises. It is the same for their student books and their workbooks. I have noticed this with some of my students. Here are a few examples of instructions for grammar and vocabulary exercises from a book some teachers here use:

*** Grammar. (Match the questions 1-7 with replies a-g. Complete the sentences with the correct form of the verb.)

*** Vocabulary. (Choose the best meaning for the underlined expressions from the questionnaire.)

*** Grammar. (Connect the sentences to make a story, using the words in brackets. Change the order of the sentence halves if necessary.)

*** Listening. (Listen to part of a program with various people talking about what they think will help them to live longer. Tick the items in the box which are mentioned.)

While these instructions make sense to those whose mother tongue is English, Thai students who are still at the "See Jane Run" stage of their reading ability won't make any sense of these instructions at all. And if they are on an English test, they have little hope in passing. A class or three each term must be devoted to nothing else but going over instructions: In the textbook and on examinations. The students must never be shortchanged when it comes to this extremely important and much too often ignored task. This is what happened to me recently.

My grade 10 students were engaged in their groups and getting ready to do a grammar exercise from their book. I wrote the instructions on the board taken directly from the exercise. "Complete the sentences using the correct form of the verb in the box." I got the students to read it aloud.

TEACHER STEVE: Okay, what does this mean? (No response. I repeat the question; again, no response.) These instructions will be on your next test. You should know this. Okay, turn to page 123. Look at the regular and irregular verb chart. How many forms of the verb do you see?
ONE BRAVE STUDENT: Seven.
TEACHER STEVE: Seven? Oh, I think you're giving me the numbers of blank spaces in the gap fill. No not seven.
ANOTHER BRAVE STUDENT: 68.
TEACHER STEVE: 68? Can you name them? How did you come up with 68? (She points to the page.) Ah, I think you counted all the verbs on the page.
ANOTHER STUDENT: Ah! Three!
TEACHER STEVE: Yes, three. What are they?
STUDENTS: Basic form, past simple, past participle.

(This is what the board looks like.)

"Complete the sentences using the correct form of the verb in the box."

1) Basic Form (V1)
2) Past Simple (V2)
3) Past Participle (V3)

TEACHER STEVE: So how many forms of the verb are there?
STUDENTS: Three.
TEACHER STEVE: How many will you use when doing exercise C?
STUDENTS: Three.
TEACHER STEVE: Good. Sit down and do exercise C in your groups.

They do. We finish and put the answers on the board. Damn! Many of them used only the basic form of the verb. I point out the mistake. We do it a second time. We nail it. Practice does make perfect.

These are just three ways to teach "instructions" to EFL students:

1) On a sheet of paper have only the instructions with some space between them for the students to find examples from the book to match the instructions.

2) "Mix and match." Print some examples on another sheet of paper to match the instructions and mix them up. The students then cut them out and match the examples from the book with the instructions on the other sheet.

3) The third time they try this, give the students the sheet with ONLY the instructions on it. They work together (or individually if you think they are ready) and try to remember the examples to match the instructions.

The students must learn how to read and understand the instructions on the tests otherwise having the majority of them pass, and actually do well, becomes little more than an exercise in hope and faith.

EXAM DESIGN:

If the instructions to the exercises weren't difficult enough for the students, many of the questions on the examination itself are extremely complex, unnecessarily ambiguous, culturally ignorant, and purposely tricky. It's as if those who are responsible for writing the tests go out of their way to fool students or "trip them up." Gap fills or multiple choice questions and statements concerning vocabulary are particularly tricky since we are not only dealing with language; we are also dealing with culture: The culture in which we native English teachers teach, and the different English speaking countries we come from. For example:

Steve is going on a _______________ next week.

(a) Holiday (b) vacation (c) journey (d) day off

The answer could depend on many things. If the Thai student was taught by an American, he may put "vacation" as his answer since Americans use the word vacation to describe a trip away from home. If the Thai student was taught by a British teacher, then "holiday" would be the correct answer since the British use the word holiday for the same purpose. The word "journey" is a bit vague here as well. Steve may very well be going on a journey next week. We don't know from the example.

To make things even more confusing, the English fellow who wrote this test question is probably not aware that Thai, and other Asian languages, do not share with English the amount of synonyms to describe similar things. Many Asian languages tend to use the same word or two words to describe a particular endeavor or phenomenon. Keeping this reality in mind should help native English teachers write better exams for Asian students.

LISTENING TESTS:

Listening tests are no different when it comes to tricking the students. Here is a question I recently found from a listening test for Thai high school students:

Speaker B's friend went to _______________ on holiday.

(a) Spain (b) Thailand (c) Maine (d) insane

Spain, Maine, insane. Now that's unnecessarily tricky. The similar sound of those three words makes it extremely difficult for students whose first language is not English; much more difficult than it should be. It's like having a question on a listening test like this:

Student B's best friend's name is _________________.

(a) Harry (b) Barry (c) Larry (d) Moe

Come on now! If you really want to maintain a 40 or 50 percent failure rate, fill your exams with ridiculous questions like that. Anyone who has ever taught Thais, especially Thai teenagers, know firsthand the Harry, Barry, and Larry sound virtually the same. While Spain, Maine, and insane may sound very similar to the native English teacher, they sound virtually the same to a Thai student who is not used to hearing English. Even though there is only one right answer, all three words sound correct. That is just one of the ways in which teachers and exam writers attempt to bamboozle students, whether consciously or unconsciously.

In his book "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire", award winning American teacher Rafe Esquith offers a Mathematical example which also proves the point. Although I'm using different numbers than Esquith did, it goes something like this:

80
20

(a) 60 (b) 100 (c) 4 (d) 1,600

All four answers can be correct. 60 is correct if you subtract 20 from 80; 100 is correct if you add 80 and 20; four is correct if you divide 20 into 80; and 1,600 is correct if you multiply the numbers. Adding the plus or minus or divide symbol would obviously help lead the student to the correct answer, but it doesn't change the fact that all four numbers would be correct depending on the symbol used.

This math problem on an exam would be as unfair to the students as the Harry, Barry, and Larry question. The answers are too closely aligned with one another, thus not giving the students a clear and unambiguous choice. As teachers, we are there to help the students arrive at the correct answer without directly giving it to them; not to make it more difficult for them by putting roadblocks or obstacles in their way.

Giving mock tests within a week of the real thing is always a good idea. This gives the students the opportunity to work within the specific and demanding conditions of the exam. Esquith calls this "creating the conditions for the test."

SPEAKING TESTS:

A speaking test can be even trickier for the students. Given that many Asian students, including Thai teenagers, are painfully shy (and afraid) to speak English in class, we as EFL teachers and supervisors don't make it any easier for them when it comes to the most difficult of the four English components.

For starters, in my experience in Thailand, speaking tests are usually held outdoors; out of the classroom amidst the noise of other students walking by, having lunch, and playing basketball. This is certainly not a professional atmosphere in which to conduct a speaking test. In my three years of teaching English and conducting English speaking tests in the South Korean public school system, these tests where taken in the school library, (or in another large room), away from the prying eyes and ears of other students who were not supposed to be there.

Secondly, the subject matter of many of these speaking tests is at the very least uninspiring, lacks creativity, and is downright dumb and insipid. Depending on the level of each grade, teachers are expected to ask the students questions like, "What's your name?" "How old are you?" "What do you do in your free time?" "What is your favorite TV show?" and, "What did you eat for dinner last night?"

To make matters extremely comical, the students tell their friends the questions (in order) so that they can memorize the answers, again, in order. So when the teacher mixes up the questions, you get non-sequiturs like this:

TEACHER: How old are you?
STUDENT: My name is Somchai.
TEACHER: What did you eat for dinner last night?
STUDENT: I'm 14 years old.
TEACHER: How old are you?
STUDENT: I like to play basketball.
TEACHER: What do you do in your free time?
STUDENT: Chicken and rice.

The problem here is not any lack of creativity or independent thought on the part of the students. The fact that the students took the time and effort to tell their friends the questions and answers shows initiate, thought, and how easily they can make their teachers look like incompetent fools. While we pat ourselves on the back thinking we're so clever for mixing up the questions and "tripping the students up", the students walk back into the classroom thinking, "what a dumb teacher, he can't even put together a good speaking test." In the end most of the students fail and nothing is accomplished. The speaking test was worthless and useless.

Third, these speaking tests give precious little time to the students for practice or rehearsal. We ask them questions or give them a card with questions printed on it and tell them to speak. News flash for educators! That doesn't work. It shows the students that we are disorganized, lazy, and incompetent. A far better way to test the students' English speaking ability would be to do this:

*** Conversations (in pairs or in groups.)
*** Theatrical skits (in pairs or in groups.)
*** In class oral presentations (individually for stronger students; in pairs or small groups for the weaker students.)
*** Speeches (individually and only for the stronger students.)
*** Question and answer sessions (in pairs.)

For this to be successful, it has to be done in class and away from others who are not taking part. There must not be any interruptions. Students must also be given ample amounts of time to practice and rehearse. The whole class, (including the teacher), must be involved at the same time and some students can play the part of judges and graders. These are not only individual tests; they must also be treated as a class effort.

A PARTING SHOT:

By writing and creating tests and examinations that most of the students will understand, learn something from, and pass (whether listening, reading, grammar, or speaking tests), will show the students that we are educationally competent, emotionally involved, and clearly on their side. We are not here to "trip them up" or fool them in any way. Students know through years of experience when their teachers are being unhelpful and are not doing the best they can for them. Do many of my students fail? Yes, too many of them in fact. But we are working on it. Through experience and trial and error, the students and I work together so that together we can succeed. That's all anyone can ask for. By showing the students that I am clearly on their side, by showing them how to study, how to work hard and how to help others, we are putting ourselves on the road to success.

Challenge your students, yes. Expect a lot from them, certainly. But remember this: When it comes to testing your students, keep the instructions clear and very simple; make the questions to answer and the problems to solve clear and unambiguous; and make the speaking, reading, and writing portions of the exam interesting and engaging for the students. This will let the students know that you are there to help them do their best, not get in their way. Most of all, know what you are serving up to the students.

The tests and exams that we native English teachers have our students take may or may not accurately measure the English ability or educational acumen of our students. If most of them pass and do well, great! If many do not pass these exams, it is more a measure of our lack of educational prowess. It is not their fault. It is not the students. It is our lack of ability as teachers to accurately measure Thais. It is, in essence, the mismeasure of Thais.




Comments

Thai Teacher:

"Steve is going on a _______________ next week.‘

A native English speaker would never use this construct."

Oh really? That's funny, I hear that 'construct' all the time in real life. As an American in particular, I generally hear it with the word "vacation" or "trip" in the blank (Journey is just too fancy for informal speech or writing an email).

Incidentally, I was born and raised in the state of New York and got all my degrees in the US. Please explain to me why I'm somehow unqualified to be considered a "native speaker."

While the author of this post may not get every aspect pitch-perfect, he makes a generally valid point, at least in my opinion as a teacher (and alleged native speaker of English).

By Buzzz Hazzelda, Bangkok (16th August 2010)

The fundamental points in this article certainly correlate with my own experiences teaching in universities and private language schools in Thailand. The failure of Thai students to do well on tests in my experience had more to do with their lack of preparation and the difficulties within the tests themselves. Students are frequently given tests with elaborate instructions or poorly formulated questions that would baffle even the most advanced native speaker. Some important tests (CUTEP and other MOE tests)were obviously written by Thais who have learned English as a Second Language as the language patterns make poor or no sense in English.

A crucial issue raised here is students' preparation for testing. My students often did not understand test instructions and had no experience of basic test-taking skills like "skim and scan." Critical thinking was a foreign concept to them. Most of my university English language majors when asked would report they had studied "grammar" for 15 years or more, but they claimed never to have heard of parts of speech, the basics of sentence structures, and could not use even simple punctuation. They had few tools for study and clearly did not know how to evaluate and improve their knowledge of a second language. Further, I have taught Thai teachers of English who had not acquired these basic tools, much less any of the skills that a one-month TEFL course could provide.

I believe the point is well-taken that it is not the students' fault that they do not do well on tests. Until their Thai teachers are given better training, Thai students will fail to measure up in their English and other foreign language skills (and other subjects as well). While foreign teachers are usually required to have TEFL training, Thai teachers of English are not -- and therefore there is a huge difference in the ways English is taught. The whole field of TEFL / ESL / EFL has made important discoveries about how a second language can best be learned and taught. The MOE should send all Thai teachers of English to TEFL school.

By TV, Malaysia (15th August 2010)

By Hippolite, Bangkok - have you even seen the Thai national exam for English ? See if you can find a copy.. Or during the next "state exam" see if you can have a peak.. It's pathetic.. Now you know the real educational system in Thailand. A few years ago, I was able to look at one. I asked " who wrote this". I was told the MOE. I asked did anyone of them attend school ? The grammar, spelling was pathetic !

By Kanadian, Jiangxi, China (8th August 2010)

'...PRIMARY RESPONSIBILITY OF A SCHOOL IS TO ENSURE THAT AS MANY STUDENTS AS POSSIBLE PASS.'

Not sure about this one. Isn't their prime responsibility that Ss learn? Passing AS MANY students as possible will surely mean lowering standards.

'OVER AND OVER AGAIN I HAVE HEARD FOREIGN TEACHERS SAY, "OH THOSE DUMB THAIS. THEY COULDN'T PASS AN ENGLISH GRAMMAR TEST IF THEIR LIVES DEPENDED ON IT." '

I've never heard any teacher say this. Would this be a slight exaggeration?

'chalk full' = chock-full

Harry, Barry, Larry… This is basic phonics. If even that is not allowed, what the hell is? BTW, generally foreign teachers don’t write exams, Thais do.

If trying to trip up a student shouldn’t be allowed, try taking a TOEIC or TOEFL.

Also, what is wrong with the pyramids, the USA, Machu Picchu and Beijing in an international course book? Should we have a book focusing on Nong Khai and Chiang Rai then? Not sure if that would work… Never heard of supplementing a course book or rejecting some items?

Although I do agree that exam questions can be overly complicated, it has to be said that often an example is given.

I think you just failed this test, Steve.

By Hippolite, Bangkok (8th August 2010)

By Thai Teacher, Bangkok - I think Mr Schertzer was trying to make a point.. I guess you missed it ..

By Kanadian, China (5th August 2010)

'Steve is going on a _______________ next week.'

A native English speaker would never use this construct.

As for the listening questions, differentiation of minimal pairs is a key component in learning a foreign language, so why are they deemed to be inappropriate?

Furthermore, the multiple choice examples cited are fundamentally flawed; both contain a distractor that is all too obviously incorrect.

Time for some study in test writing and item analysis, Mr Schertzer.

By Thai Teacher, Bangkok (5th August 2010)

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