English teaching needs a bottom-up approach

opinion September 16, 2015 01:00

By The Nation

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Only teachers and students can forge sustainable progress for Thailand



For a government seeking to boost students’ proficiency in English, one particular statistic underlines the daunting scale of the mission. Half of all English teachers in Thailand failed the national English-language test in 2007, scoring under 50 per cent. That appalling fact represents the main obstacle to the goal of improving the learning of English in more than 15,000 schools nationwide. 
Not a single measure launched by previous governments has effectively tackled the problem. Instead we witness only the routine of each incoming education minister launching a “desperate” policy to help students with their English. True to form, the current incumbent, Dapong Ratanasuwan, has sought help from the University of Cambridge in England to design a programme to improve our students’ English communication skills. The ministry also wants to develop a standard test in English proficiency for the students. 
The plan has worrying similarities to the many discouraging efforts of previous years.
In 2012 the Yingluck Shinawatra administration instructed all educational institutes to establish a weekly time slot in which students practised speaking English. The policy duly made headlines, but after the initial excitement died down, nothing more was heard – and certainly not better English from the youngsters.
Before that, there was a plan to “import” native English speakers to teach in schools, with talk of granting them special visas. It proved to be yet another passing whim. 
The latest initiative is in danger of heading down the same well-beaten path to nowhere. 
The heart of the problem is our simplistic top-down approach whereby each new government starts afresh, scrapping previous initiatives in favour of its own. But what we need instead is a bottom-up approach that will bring about the sustainable change required to turn matters around in the long term. Politicians must also bear in mind that the problem is not a lack of strategy, but discontinuity in its application. So far, no education plan has survived beyond a given government’s tenure.  
Another inherent challenge is to find ways of boosting the level of English proficiency in rural areas, where students have less access to the language through the Internet, music, movies and videos. English learning must extend beyond the classroom into the daily lives of all children. 
Meanwhile both teachers and students can be encouraged to make greater use of the wealth of new learning aids for writing, reading and speaking available via the Web. Gone are the days when learning English required a serious investment of cash. Now, students have resources like Thailand Knowledge Park, which recently introduced an online library that “loans out” e-books, audio books, newspapers and magazines for free. In addition, there is plenty of teaching material on offer from international organisations such as the British Council. 
In this digital and more democratic era, the impetus for improving English education begins with students and teachers.
The authorities can aid this effort by funnelling more of the education budget into improving Internet access for students and teachers. The idea is not to implement yet another top-down plan, but to come up with creative initiatives that harness new possibilities to benefit all students across the country.