Thailand lagging behind in English

Roberto Scaramuzza - Linkedin profile

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Fulbright expert details five factors in ‘SCARE‘ strategy to boost learning here

Educators and experts gathered recently to share their experiences of reform in English language teaching and learning, implemented in Asian countries like China and Vietnam.

During the seminar, held last month by the Quality Learning Foundation and the Embassy of Finland, much useful information was provided to Thailand’s education academia.

Asst Prof Sa-ngiam Torut, a lecturer at Silpakorn University, said China had already adopted a programme of English-teaching that included comprehensive textbooks and system evaluation.

“Chinese students need to take the National English Exam in Grade 6, 9 and 12, with teacher promotion and bonuses dependent on their students’ achievements in the English National Tests,” said Sa-ngiam, who has published a research paper called “English Language Teaching Reform in Asian Countries“.

Her research reveals that every educational institution in China is required to set up an English corner to offer an environment that enhances English learning. At college level, students need to pass College English tests before they can graduate.

The test covers every English skill, including listening, speaking, reading, writing and also translation.

According to Sa-ngiam, Vietnam has been implementing a 10-year national plan for teaching and learning English, which was launched in 2008 and will run until 2020.

“The consistency is all there – something that Thailand is lacking,” she said at the seminar. Education ministers in Thailand are often changed, which has led to an inconsistency in the country’ s educational policies, Sa-ngiam said,

Speaking at the same seminar, Pattanawimol Israngkura from the British Council said within the Asean region there were indicators that Thailand’s standards of English-language teaching and learning were falling behind the rest of the region. Following 9 to 12 years of English studies at school, exit levels for Mathayom 6 students were comparatively low when compared to key competitor nations.

The quality of teaching was another issue, she said. Limited data collected by the British Council suggested that primary school English teachers in Thailand have, on average, an English level of around “A2” (pre-intermediate) on the CFR (common framework of reference), and those at secondary level have a “B1” (intermediate) level of English. These standards are about one level below teachers in Malaysia and about two levels below teachers in Singapore – though this was only a rough estimate, she said.

“It is interesting to note that even though English teachers in Malaysia are already a step above their Thai counterparts in terms of their own English-language skills, the Malaysian government is currently investing heavily to improve English teaching,” she said.

Pattanawimol emphasised that there was a need for wholesale benchmark testing of English teachers in Thailand and to develop a needs-based training response to improve standards over time.

Sa-ngiam said that in order to develop its English-language educational goals, Thailand should create a national language policy and long-term educational blueprints with the help of educational experts.

Doris Gold Wibunsin, a former director of the Fulbright Foundation and also a prominent figure of Thailand’s English-teaching reform policy, said after living in Thailand for 50 years, she was finding there was an increasing number of students and English-language teachers with poor English skills.

“There are many public and private organisations coming out with poor English language materials. It’s an embarrassment, and social media is actually helping to expand this use of poor materials,” Wibunsin said.

She added that on the positive side, students are braver and more prepared to ask questions, while teachers are more confident. However, a proper reform plan was needed, she said.

Wibunsin also pointed to misspelled English-language signs in public places, as well as English-language publications with grammatical inaccuracies, as examples of poor English language usage in Thailand, which should not be overlooked.

“People who are making signs should have someone editing those signs. Are we allowing this to happen just because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of those who try to speak English?” she said.

To improve English teaching standards, Wibunsin suggested that the reform process hold on to five principles which she called “SCARE“.

  1. Sincerity – one should be sincere and determined in what one does
  2. Continuity of the reform process
  3. Accountability from government, schools and authorised personnel – as teachers and principles should be accountable if students are doing poorly on English tests
  4. REsponsibility of – not just the schools and teachers – but of students themselves “Good students don’t worry teachers, they find ways to teach themselves,” she said
  5. Excellence – meaning that schools and society must put pressure on the private sector, families and the government to make sure all sectors are working towards improving the standard of English-language use in Thailand.

In conclusion, Wibunsin said teachers were the most important link in Thailand’s reform process and steps should be taken to make sure teachers were properly qualified to teach comprehensive English-language skills to their students. The government, schools and communities should support teachers so they are comfortable in their profession and have the resources to teach.

Authorities should also consider compensating teachers with the kind of remuneration they deserve as well as raising the standards for teacher certification, which would in turn, boost the confidence of teachers.

“If teachers become good role models, then they can manage the curriculum and classrooms, and they are going to produce students who are better in English. I hope that all of the support mechanisms will be put in place, enabling teachers to do the jobs they are supposed to do,” she said.

2013 English Proficiency Index:

Total number of Countries: 60
Malaysia: 11th
Singapore: 12th
Vietnam: 28th
China: 34th
Thailand: 55th

Source: Education First