This is THE phrase everyone – EVERYONE – knows
(complete with arm gestures!): “I’m fine, thanks. And you?”

Technically speaking, I’m not doing the job I expected to be doing when I began this foray into teaching.

I’m mostly employed as a Listening/Speaking ESL teacher, my syllabus assuming that their regular Vietnamese teacher has taught them reading, writing, and grammar. The consequence of this division of labor is that I rarely get to do ‘whole language’ instruction with my youngest students.

Their two worlds of skills are completely separate, and it’s evident by the expectations of my older private students: “Teach us how to communicate!”

At the same time, identifying student problem areas are difficult, to say the least, in classes where each individual might hope to get a maximum of 2 or 3 minutes of pure one-on-one practice time with me – the sheer volume of learners coupled with the once-a-week instruction work to keep everyone at the slowest common denominator.

Here are the ways that I try to mitigate these circumstances and lay some heavy English knowledge on all these kids…

The textbook I’m currently using in first and
second grades.

The Setting: a medium sized room, with between 45-55 students, in a public school. 7 or 8 rotating fans, none of which hit the podium. Always a TA, either one from my company or employed by the school. Sometimes a teacher correcting work in back. Either first or second graders. Armed with flashcards, chalkboard, and chalk, I open my book and take a deep breath…

The most common and expected form of teaching in Vietnamese public schools is the ‘input’ method. Students have learned to parrot anything you say. This leads to the very frustrating situation where a student can ‘answer’ a question as part of a team, but utterly falls on their face when asked the very same question solo. I surmise that the extreme dearth of one-on-one time results in at least a few kids falling through the cracks. I find the ‘input’ method of instruction fairly flawed, but when in Rome…!

My lessons often involve new vocabulary. If there are 2 or more very hard words, I’ll go team by team (I divide the children into four teams) and ask them to all repeat it, and then, if a new word is REALLY hard (‘lunchbox’, thy art the devil), I’ll go down the rows, while I gently correct and demonstrate with my mouth. This takes some time but it’s the most efficient way I’ve found to personally help with pronunciation. Some of those English sounds are hard! ‘TH’ almost blew some of their poor little minds.

A typical afternoon game with first graders. I have to
make my own flashcards for this school. 

We also play games. This encourages kids to pay attention and help their teammates win points. I’ll tailor games to the area or two that I think the class is having the most trouble with. It varies from class to class – I’ve gotten pretty good at making up games over the last few months (although I’ve tripped myself up a couple times with an unplayable game – always embarrassing!).

One odd thing is the pacing of curriculum between schools, and sometimes even between grades in the same school.

For instance, in a single school that I go to each week, my first graders will be learning in the second semester what my second graders are learning over this whole year. This is amplified by the fact that many English teachers work at several schools over the course of the day, changing between units, books, and syllabus versions with such regularity that it sometimes becomes a blur what did I write down in my lesson plan for this class??

This is a picture of Unit 4 of the
government-issued English instruction manuals.

Overall, the differences in instruction is probably just another side effect of such a rapid adoption of English nation-wide. There’s a lot of demand in Vietnam for English, and particularly for instruction in speaking and listening. The traditional manner of instruction is ill-suited to language instruction, in my opinion, but with classes of this size I honestly don’t know what I would do instead. There’s a limited amount of time, a certain amount of ground to cover in each lesson, and a limited amount of resources at your disposal. Even being able to even stand up and move around would be a great option. Promisingly, one of my schools is moving into a new building sometime soon. Meanwhile, my other school is the only one in the city with a smartboard, which we just learned about last week. If I’m feeling ambitious, maybe I’ll check that out.

The plusses outweigh the minuses, in my opinion. English is a booming business at the moment, and the skill is deemed important by Vietnamese government, teachers, and parents, as well as being functionally useful in an increasingly connected world. Both students and teachers are improving with each year, which makes it a fun and interesting time to be a teacher in Ho Chi Minh City.

Although my methods are tailored to such enormous classes and have proven relatively successful, my one-on-one time with older students is where I feel I really shine, which I’ll document in an upcoming post.