While a vaguely-written core curriculum leads schools and educators to a non-ideal teaching approach to English, teachers say the bigger problem that fails students is the surrounding environment and attitudes toward English.
Thanisara Kaewbuasa, a student at Chalermprakiat 60 Pansa School in Pathum Thani, said she has a goal of being able to communicate in English but her classroom lessons fail to fulfil her needs. Thanisara explained what is taught in class is not for practical use but only for passing the exams.
“Teachers just teach, students just memorise,” Thanisara said.
Another student from Phrae Technical College, Preyanan Jaioua, also said English courses offered at her school are impractical and worthless. Preyanan said there is no point in acing the exams if she cannot communicate.
Despite the effort the education authorities have put into promoting English in Thai classrooms — including a policy to make English the first foreign language students have to learn starting in the first grade, providing training for English teachers, encouraging the opening of international schools and promoting English Programmes (EP) in public schools — Thailand is still ranked “very low” in terms of English proficiency, according to the EF Proficiency Index 2019.
Even though the teaching approach is aimed to pass the exams, it still fails its own national test. The average score of the Ordinary National Educational Test (O-Net) English exam for high school seniors in the 2019 academic year was 29.20 out of 100. It was 31.42 in 2018, 28.31 in 2017 and below 25 in 2016 and 2015.
Problems with the core curriculum
English teacher Mutita U-donphaew from Anukoolnaree School in Kalasin said the core curriculum was well written in terms of completeness but there are problems with applying the materials. Students need to learn listening, speaking, reading and writing skills but teachers cannot apply all the skills thoroughly within the limited time.
Two English teachers, Namchai Saensin from Mahannoparam School, Thonburi, and Kanchanokchon Woodeson from Ammartpanichnukul School, Krabi, both said that the curriculum was written using a one-size-fits-all model, which left teachers to decide how to conduct their courses to meet certain indicators.
Namchai said teachers could design their own ways of teaching but he believes the majority of teachers chose to stick with the traditional way, teaching solely from the textbooks, as it is the easiest way and has been used for decades.
It led to a non-interactive classroom experience with ponderous lectures.
Namchai said he has tried to design his class to make it more interactive and come up with interesting conversation topics, but he said students tend to care only about the grade as they always ask how much certain work will affect their grades and said they would not do assignments that barely affected their grades.
That is because students have no goal to use English outside the class.
“Many Thai kids, I noticed that when they’ve finished learning, they’re finished, meaning when they’re finished in class, they’re finished,” Namchai said.
Limited chance to perfect English skills
While the curriculum is a problem, teachers think that the Thai environment is an even bigger threat.
An important factor in learning a language is being surrounded by the environment of that language. Kanchanokchon said teachers are not well trained to speak English to support students’ communicative English learning experience. From what Kanchanokchon has noticed, every English teacher always speaks Thai and explains their lessons in Thai.
“So that’s not motivating children to come up with the curiosity that if they want to speak at this level, speak English like this, how should kids imitate the teachers?” Kanchanokchon asked. “Kids can’t imitate the teacher because the teacher doesn’t dare to use [English], maybe because of shyness, or unfamiliarity or fear that kids wouldn’t understand what they’re trying to explain.”
When a language is supposed to be learned by learning to listen, speak, read and write in that order, Namchai explained that the majority of teachers skip the order and start with the most difficult skill, writing. It frustrates students’ learning.
Students also have almost no chance to speak English outside the classroom as everything out there is in Thai. Namchai said English is taught for only 150 minutes per week, three 50-minute periods a week, at his school. He pointed out that the 50-minute time frame is less than enough to practice a language when other periods are all in Thai and students speak Thai with friends and families.
“English is only with English language teachers and in the textbooks. It’s hard to access. After that, I tried [to guide them] to practice using it as much as possible, and designed activities for students to come into contact with it as much as possible,” Namchai said.
Namchai said it is important to be trendy and assign things that are relevant to today's world to help students use as much English as possible outside the classroom. He once assigned students to make a 1-day vlog in English.
Kanchanokchon said teachers should apply “language acquisition” theory, in which they provide an English environment for students. The more teachers can do that means the more chance students have to be able to communicate.
Prejudice toward English should change
Kanchanokchon believes that the mindset of seeing English as insignificant because Thailand was never anyone’s colony still exists, and this belief leads to an unsupportive learning environment for students. People need to change that mindset and start to believe that English is the second language of the country.
Teachers and parents need to be supportive of their students learning English by not pointing out students’ English mistakes because that would give students negative attitudes towards English, Kanchanokchon said.
However, the unsupportive learning environment is sometimes caused by the students themselves.
Pinpech Charoenchuea, a recent graduate in English for international communication and a future English teacher, said that as a former student she liked to answer questions and speak English in her classroom but her friends liked to mock her accent and laughed at what she said.
“I think it’s deeply rooted for Thais. When someone speaks English, they see it as affected,” Pinpech said.
Pinpech said Thai attitudes towards English must change. As a future teacher, Pinpech said teachers should change their teaching approaches to make English more attractive, as well as create positive attitudes towards it for students