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Thai Schools urged to Boost English Language



Class communicator ... Tony Blair leads Thai school children in an English lesson during a visit in January. Photograph: Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters


CHIANGRAI TIMES The Thai government has embarked on an ambitious nationwide programme to teach English at least once a week in all state schools as part of the new 2012 English Speaking Year project.

The initiative is intended to ease Thailand‘s entry into the Asean community in 2015, when southeast Asia becomes one economic zone and a universal language is required for communication and business.

The project will focus on speaking English rather than studying its grammar, with teachers provided training through media modules and partnerships with foreign institutions, including English-language schools, according to Thailand’s education ministry.

The initiative, which started in late December and is still being ironed out, is a formidable task, aiming to reach some 14 million students in 34,000 state schools across Thailand from pre-primary to university age, said Ministry of Education permanent secretary Sasithara Pichaichanarong.

“Our goal is to reach students all across Thailand – from the remote, far-reaching villages to the capital – by teaching them English through educational tools on TV, the radio and internet, and conversations with native speakers,” said Sasithara. “Obviously the students are not going to be fluent immediately, but the idea is to get them speaking English better today than they did yesterday.”

While the ministry aims to incentivise teachers to create an “English corner” in classrooms containing English-language newspapers, books and CDs, the programme is in no way mandatory and will rely instead on a system of rewards. Those who embrace the project may receive a scholarship to travel abroad or be given extra credit at the end of term, Sasithara said.

The programme saw a recent publicity boost when former UK prime minister Tony Blair, who visited the education ministry as part of a three-day trip to Bangkok, taught some 100 Thai students basic English and called the Speaking English Year project a “brave … and sensible decision for Thailand”. Now the ministry is discussing a partnership with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation for assistance with the project in upcoming months, Sasithara said.

To date, government-run language programmes have focussed on rote learning that makes for poor improvisation when it comes to having conversations in the real world, critics argue. Recent university admission exams show that Thai students scored an average 28.43 out of 100 in English, according to the National Institute of Educational Testing Service.

Native speakers will have a role to play in the project, said Sasithara, who expects to start recruiting teachers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and US, as well as from countries where a high level of English is spoken, such as Singapore, the Philippines and India.

School director Panya Sukawanich said his Bangkok school would go ahead with Speaking English Year modules but that they may not reap the benefits the government was expecting.

“Many of our students have poor English – some Mathayom 1 [first-year secondary school] students still can’t write A-Z,” he recently told the Bangkok Post. “We have to teach them the fundamentals again and again.”

Final-year student Rossukhon Seangma, who has been learning English for the past 10 years, explained, in Thai, why that was the case. “Thai students don’t speak English in their daily life, so we are not familiar with using it,” she told reporters. “When the class finishes, we switch to Thai.”

If English fails, perhaps Mandarin will succeed – as the Ministry of Education has also been in discussions with China about creating a similar “Speaking Chinese Year Project”, Sasithara said.

“Chinese officials were very interested in the English programme and offered to create a Chinese version – where they would send over 1,000 Chinese teachers to Thailand and provide scholarships to 1,000 Thai students to study in China,” said Sasithara. “I told them, ‘Yes, why not?’ If we can learn both, it would be a great success.”

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