Language and Vietnamese Pedagogical Contexts Le Van Canh, M.A. How...
Language and Vietnamese
Pedagogical Contexts
Le Van Canh, M.A.
How appropriate and effective are communicative language teach-
ing methodologies in contemporary Vietnam?
The economic open-door policy pursued by the govern-
communicative teaching practices and that to make
ment of Vietnam has increased the demand for English-
English language teaching responsive to the needs of
speaking people who are expected to be competent to
Vietnam there should be some macro-changes as well as
communicate verbally with the outside world and to
a methodological mediation of the use of the commu-
access technology. English has been made compulsory
nicative approach.
in the secondary school curriculum. Moreover, in 1995,
the Prime Minister issued a decree according to which
Communicative Needs of Vietnamese
personnel working in government agencies have to be
able to communicate in English.
Despite the importance of English in the new social
The recent economic renovation, or “doi moi,” has
context, English language teaching in Vietnam, due to its
given foreign language a status as a key to Vietnamese
low quality, has yet to match the demand for competent
regional and global participation. Foreign language
English-speaking people.
New teacher training pro-
now is a compulsory school subject and one of the six
grams—pre-service and in-service alike—are designed
national examinations that students have to pass if they
and delivered with a focus on training communicative
want to get the Secondary School Education Certificate.
teachers in a bid to address the faults of previous teach-
Although schools offer either English or French, many
ing methodologies. Unfortunately, not much improve-
students opt for English due to their perception that a
ment in terms of teaching methods has been noticed in
high proficiency in English may offer more opportuni-
English classes. During the training courses,Vietnamese
ties for employment, and also due to the fact that
teachers show great interest in new methodologies, but
English is “in fashion” among young people. Students
after they return from these courses, they continue
who come from cities, apart from the examinations,
teaching in their own way, using traditional methods.
need either to speak “survival English” to understand
This fact gives rise to the need to question the appro-
pop songs or to use some formulaic expressions to help
priateness and relevancy of communicative language
their parents with small business transactions.
teaching developed in another part of the world to
At the tertiary level, English is taught as a minor
Vietnamese pedagogical contexts.
subject in the training program. There are also some
The communicative approach is discussed here
colleges and universities where English is the major, and
with reference to Canale and Swain’s construct of com-
students learn English to become teachers, translators,
municative competence, which is made up of grammat-
or interpreters. College or university students are bet-
ical competence, sociolinguistic competence, discourse
ter motivated to learn English because they can find a
competence, and strategic competence. In this paper, I
good job with their command of English and because
discuss to what degree such a communicative approach
their institutions are based in cities where students can
fits Vietnamese pedagogical contexts on the basis of an
have access to more input of the target language. If
analysis of three factors: first,Vietnamese learner’s com-
these students, upon graduation, can find jobs which
municative needs; second,Vietnamese classroom culture
require communicative ability in English, they tend to
and discourse; and third, the constraints on the teacher
use English with other non-native speakers from ASEAN
in teaching English communicatively. The conclusions
countries, or from countries such as Japan, Hong Kong,
I will draw are that the pedagogical contexts in
and Korea more often than they do with native British,
Vietnam are both supportive of and constraining to
Teacher’s Edition
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November 2001

Americans, or Australians in their working environ-
(Ellis). This explains partly why Vietnamese teachers
ments. It is difficult for Vietnamese speakers to achieve
focus more on language knowledge than language use,
the sociolinguistic competence defined by Canale and
and more on receptive skills than productive skills. In
Swain because the target sociolinguistic conventions are
this environment,“it is valid to ask how much commu-
unknown to them. On the other hand, they do not nec-
nicative competence one needs to teach” (Paulston, p.
essarily have to achieve this competence in a contem-
291). The requirement to provide learners with “the
porary Vietnamese context.
opportunity to take part in meaningful communication
Vietnamese learners differ in their purposes for
interaction with highly competent speakers of the lan-
learning English.
In general, students of English in
guage, i.e., to respond to genuine communicative needs
Vietnam fall into three major categories in terms of
in realistic second language situations” (Canale and
needs. Some view English as a tool for more attractive
Swain, p. 27) is unrealistic and impracticable in most
and lucrative employment opportunities; others need a
Vietnamese settings.
good knowledge of English to study further at a univer-
sity. The majority of students, however, learn English just
Vietnamese Classroom Culture and
to pass the national examinations. These students do not
have an obvious communicative need. All they need is a
sufficiently good knowledge of grammar and vocabulary
Vietnamese society is typically characterized as a
of the target language to pass the national grammar-
collectivist society.The class is a “family” where students
based and norm-referenced examinations.
study and play together. The friendships they make dur-
Currently, the two most important English examina-
ing their years at school are significant and last many
tions in Vietnam are the school final examination and
years after they have left school. This is different from
the university entrance examination. Both are adminis-
Western individualist societies. The educational system
tered at the end of Grade 12 and neither has a Listening
of Vietnam is also characterized as a closed system and
and Speaking component. While the former is norm-ref-
knowledge-centered. The textbook, the syllabus, and the
erenced, the latter is designed to discriminate between
teacher determine the knowledge to be acquired.
candidates who will be admitted into college or univer-
Underpinned by the behaviorist stimulus-response pat-
sity and those who will not.
tern, this educational system expects students to
Holliday argues that “in order to be appropriate,
“return” the desired behavior, which is assessed by
English language teaching methodologies need there-
fore to be finely tuned to the various needs of individual
Central to pedagogical practices in Vietnam is the
classroom cultures: they need to be appropriate to local
traditional view of the teacher-student relationship. This
cultures in very specific terms” (p. 53). Canale and
view supports teacher-centered methods and a struc-
Swain also argue that “a communicative approach must
tured curriculum. The teacher is supposed to be the
be based on and respond to the learner’s communica-
only provider of knowledge and therefore is highly
tive needs” (p. 27). Unquestionably, learners’ needs vary,
respected by the students, students’ parents, and the
depending on external exposure to the target language
society as a whole. What the teacher or the textbook
and personal motivation. It is therefore necessary to
says is unquestionably the standard. This respect for
investigate how much communicative ability
teachers is reflected in a motto that can be read on the
Vietnamese learners need before decisions on teaching
front of every school building:“Tien hoc li huu hoc van,”
methodology are made.
or “First learn how to behave, then learn the subject.”
The English learning environment in Vietnam is
Teachers maintain such a high profile in their function
described as a cultural island where the teacher is
as the norm of knowledge, wisdom, and behavior that
expected to be the sole provider of experience in the
they do not accept their role as “instruments to see that
target language. Due to the lack of exposure to the tar-
learning takes place” (Medgyes).
get language and the pressure to pass the examinations,
In Vietnam, English language teachers are subject
the affective filter is high for most Vietnamese students.
teachers whose responsibility is to provide students
This is clearly demonstrated by their lack of motivation
with knowledge about the English language and to
and high level of anxiety, manifest in a fear of failure in
develop knowledge of it in the most effective possible
exams. Their learning motivation depends largely on the
way. Education is considered “a ticket to ride” and
“teacher’s initiative” and the “learner’s will to succeed”
Teacher’s Edition
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November 2001

certificates are more important than competence.
enough to initiate interaction. In the classroom, they are
Failure in exams is viewed as academic incompetence,
expected to sit in silence unless the teacher calls them
and, therefore, a face-losing misfortune. Not only do stu-
individually to speak. When a particular student is called
dents find it critical to pass the examinations, teachers
upon to speak in class, her response tends to be very
are also very much concerned about the pass rate of
brief, in the form of either a phrase or a short sentence.
their students, since they are assessed based on their stu-
The teacher directs interaction by asking questions to
dents’ performances in public examinations rather than
elicit the reading text; she already knows the answers to
on the quality of their teaching. As a result, no matter
her questions. If a student makes a mistake, the teacher
what the learning purpose of the students might be,
intervenes immediately because she has to make sure
teachers have to make sure that their students achieve a
that students do not make mistakes. Corrective feed-
high pass rate in the examinations. This examination-ori-
back is part of the teacher’s role in the classroom. If the
ented instruction produces students who may “achieve
teacher does not give corrective feedback, students will
the highest scores in the examinations but fail to show
think that she is of poor competence.
their excellence in real-life performance” (Tuy).
The main emphasis of the communicative approach
Constraints on Teachers in Using the
is to develop a learner’s communicative competence
Communicative Approach
through the “negotiation of meaning.” The communica-
tive classroom seeks to encourage learners to initiate
Vietnamese teachers of English, by and large, have
and participate actively in meaningful interaction. Breen
positive attitudes towards the communicative approach,
and Candlin say that participation in the negotiation of
but they feel constrained in implementing communica-
meaning enables learners to interpret and construct
tive teaching in their classroom for many reasons.
meanings for themselves and that this is the expression
Medgyes asserts that “the communicative classroom
of genuine and meaningful use of the target language.
requires a teacher of extraordinary abilities: a multi-
Vietnamese students, except for those coming from larg-
dimensional, high-tech,Wizard-of-Oz-like superperson—
er cities, are slow in adapting to the participatory
yet of flesh and blood” (p. 107). Communicative teach-
approach to education on account of their traditional
ing is too challenging in Vietnam, where the teacher’s
passiveness (Linh). An examination of classroom dis-
English proficiency is low, classes are large, the build-
course reveals that classes are teacher-centered and
ings, furnishings, and other facilities are basic, and only
teacher-led. Learning follows the hierarchy of first lis-
low levels of support can be provided in terms of mate-
tening to the teacher, then repetition, then copying mod-
rials, libraries, and advisory services.
New teaching
els (Kennett and Knight). Classroom interaction is large-
methods require new understandings and skills. They
ly one-way, either between a teacher and individual stu-
often require teachers to spend more time doing addi-
dent or between a teacher and the whole class. When
tional preparatory work, but there are already too many
one particular student is responding to the teacher, oth-
demands on teachers’ time.
ers do not listen. They have their own business to attend
In secondary schools, teachers rarely have access to
to. The traditional analytical learning style informs both
the input and resources of the target language. Not a sin-
the teacher and learners that it is safe to learn and mem-
gle secondary school in Vietnam has ELT resources and
orize rules. “The preponderance of this activity limits
materials available to teachers. The only teaching mate-
other types of practice activities” in the language class-
rials that are at their disposal are a textbook, a couple of
room (Kennett and Knight). Interruption, argument,
practical grammar books, some test samples, and a dic-
seeking clarification, and challenging others rarely hap-
tionary. The opportunity for both teachers and students
pens during class time. By contrast, choral repetition is
to “take part in meaningful interaction with highly com-
a commonly used teaching technique.
petent speakers of the language” (Canale and Swain, p.
Influenced by Confucianism, students feel rude if
27) is extremely rare. In such a poor language input
they interrupt, question, or argue with their teacher.
environment, teachers soon find their English fossilized.
Language activities such as role-plays, problem-solving
They themselves have problems in getting meaning
tasks, or information gap activities are strange to their
across in the target language.
culture of learning. When they fail to understand some-
The predetermined syllabus and prescribed
thing, they are not daring enough to ask for clarification
textbook are also frustrating to teachers if they are
in public for fear of losing face. They are not proactive
Teacher’s Edition
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November 2001

committed to communicative methods. In Vietnam, the
Although Vietnamese teachers take a positive view
Ministry of Education and Training designs the national
of the communicative approach to language teaching,
curriculum and sets the syllabus in the schools. The
they find it difficult to use this approach in their peda-
Ministry also monitors the implementation of the syl-
gogical practice. There are various reasons for this con-
labus and sets the school final examinations. The syl-
straint in using communicative methods, but the most
labus and the textbook, once approved by the Ministry,
important ones are the difficulty in creating “realistic
become laws that must be strictly observed. With the
second language situations” for their students who have
misinterpretation of the principle of “testing only what
no real-life communicative needs in the target language,
students have learnt,” test writers confine the test con-
and the pressure to prepare their students for the exam-
tent to what is covered in the textbook. This again
inations. The claim that Vietnamese students are passive
encourages rote, memory-based learning.
is misleading, because their passiveness in learning is the
The third major obstacle to the implementation of
product of traditional teaching. If teaching methods are
the communicative approach is class size and the
changed more radically, students’ learning styles will
teaching schedule.
change accordingly.
Secondary schools
To facilitate innova-
©2001 Hayden Sewall
have an average class
tions in teaching
size of between 45 and
52 students and they
must be some macro-
meet only 3-5 hours a
changes, the most signif-
week for English.
icant of which is to
Inside the classroom,
reform the testing sys-
students sit in long
tem. Definitely, there is
rows with five students
still a long way to go
in each row, leading to
before Listening and
immobility for any
Speaking tests can be
planned communica-
administered nation-
tive activities. At the
wide in Vietnam, for
same time, the teacher
both economic and
is under pressure
technical reasons.
to cover the allocated
However, the traditional
syllabus in the time
test can be changed to
be more criterion-refer-
enced to test grammar, vocabulary, and reading skills
Implications for Educational
more communicatively.
Communicative teaching
Administrators and Teacher Trainers
should be supported by communicative testing. Unless
students are tested in terms of skills to use the language
Over many centuries, Western cultures have influ-
communicatively, rather than a good memory of lan-
enced Vietnamese culture to a great extent. The atti-
guage rules, testing cannot provide any positive back-
tudes of Vietnamese people to these Western cultures
wash on teaching.
vary from time to time—now they resist, now they
McGroarty asserts that “communicative compe-
adopt them—but in either case, in the end they know
tence, as a concept, can mean different things for differ-
how to adapt those exotic cultures to suit their needs
ent groups of students; program planners, administra-
and social contexts.
Historically, when Vietnamese
tors, and teachers will be able to provide better instruc-
scholars became aware of the deficiencies of
tion only after considering the specific purposes for
Confucianism-based education in the early 18th century,
which the language is to be used” (p. 257). This fact
they decided to replace it with a Western-style educa-
should also be highlighted during teacher training cours-
The new educational system enabled the
es. Training should help to develop a teacher’s ability “to
Vietnamese to access new social ideologies and to devel-
adopt a research orientation to their own classrooms
op their analytical thinking.
and their own teaching” (Richards and Nunan, p. xii) in
order to decide the appropriateness, feasibility, applica-
Teacher’s Edition
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November 2001

bility, and practicality of methods against their specific
They have their own experiences, beliefs,
sociocultural and pedagogical situations. It is crucial
and values.
that teachers should be made aware that Canale and
It is certain that teachers’ practical knowledge is dif-
Swain’s model of communicative competence is not
ferent from theoretical and pedagogical knowledge.
applicable to every context. The goal of competence
Their resistance to change often results from their own
should necessarily be modified to meet students’ expec-
learning experience and perceptions of teaching. For
tations and the sociocultural context of teaching and
them, innovations should be judged on the basis of their
learning. Flexibility in using the syllabus and flexibility
usability and practicality. If innovations are relevant and
in deciding how to approach the classroom culture on
applicable to teachers’ specific situations, they are likely
the part of the teachers are essential to the successful
to bring about changes in the classroom. Shaw argues
use of a communicative approach.
that “human beings are generally half in one subculture
Modernization of teaching methods does not mean
and half out of another” (p. 12). Innovations in teaching
Westernization of pedagogical practices. The assump-
methodology do not mean “throwing the baby out with
tion that a language can be acquired not only for the pur-
the bath water.” A traditional approach could be either
pose of communication but also through the process of
improved in the direction of the principles of commu-
communication is not challenge-free in all teaching situ-
nicative language teaching, or used as a kick-off step in
ations. Pica argues that “communication is very critical
the communicative classroom. The teaching hierarchy
to language learning but it is insufficient to meet the
could be first accuracy, then fluency, or acquisition fol-
needs and goals of many learners” (p. 7). It is also unfair
lowing learning, not the other way round.
to think that foreign teaching techniques and materials
From the above analysis of Vietnamese classroom
are all irrelevant. Practice has proved that a culturally-
discourse, it is necessary to accept a hierarchy of nego-
adapted communicative approach can work well in
tiated interaction from choice elicitation, such as show-
Vietnamese classrooms.
ing agreement or disagreement, to product elicitation,
Learning English in Vietnam, students rarely have
such as giving factual information, then to process elici-
opportunities for English communication outside the
tation—for example, giving or asking for opinions. To do
classroom. What they have learned inside the classroom
this, trainers in teacher training courses should provide
is for future use, rather than for immediate use. In
trainees with hands-on experience in how to teach
this context, it is critical to maintain a good balance
English communicatively in the local context through a
between instruction, correction, and communication.
balance of training, practicum, and evaluation.
Researchers such as Lightbown and Spada support the
view that exclusively form-based or meaning-based class-
es are less effective than meaning-based classes with
some focus on form and corrective feedback. It is
On its progress to regional and global participation,
incumbent upon teacher trainers and teachers to have
Vietnamese traditional culture is facing challenges from
insights into Vietnamese pedagogical contexts to decide
incoming exotic cultures. The current global trend is for
which aspects can be changed and which can be accept-
national and international elements to both coexist and
ed. In teacher-training projects, there should be a part-
be interdependent. This trend gives rise to the need to
nership between teacher trainers and teachers to
reconsider some traditional values that have become
address the challenges emerging from the constraints of
out-of-date and unsuitable to the new social contexts.
the local culture and educational system with good
Needless to say,Vietnam has decided to maintain its cul-
understanding and adequate creativity.
If we agree
tural integrity while integrating into the international
that learners are not “empty vessels,” we have to accept
community. To be successful in this goal, Vietnamese
that teachers in training courses are not empty vessels,
people know that they should be wise enough to adapt
By reform, we do not mean throwing away all traditional values
and practices. Practicability and applicability to specific
teaching situations are factors of success in educational reform.
Teacher’s Edition
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November 2001

what comes from outside but is thought to be suitable
Holliday, A.
Appropriate Methodology and Social
to their needs and their settings, and then create some-
Context. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
thing of their own. There is ample historical evidence to
Linh, D.K. “Nhung ghi nhan to hoi thao khoa hoc ve
support this.
phuong phap giang day dai hoc” [Notes on the seminar
Vietnam has decided to “take a short cut” to the
on teaching methodologies in higher education]. Giao
industrialization and modernization of the country
Duc Va Thoi Dai [Education and Times newspaper],
because of its comparative advantages. In this strenuous
p. 56, 1999.
endeavor, reform in the educational system in general,
and in the area of language education in particular, is a
Lightbown, P. and N. Spada.
How Languages Are
crucial factor. By reform, we do not mean throwing
Learned. Oxford University Press, 1993.
away all traditional values and practices. Practicality and
Kennett, P. and J. Knight. “Baseline Study Report on
applicability to specific teaching situations are factors of
Lower Secondary English Language Teaching in
success in educational reform. A piece of furniture that
Vietnam.” ELTTP Project of the Ministry of Education
looks good in the showroom may turn out to be ugly
and Training and the Department for International
when it is not compatible with the space and other
Development, 1999.
existing material of a particular living room. An appro-
priate technology should be one that fits local condi-
McGroarty, M.
“Some Meanings of Communicative
tions, local needs, and local purses.
Competence for Second Language Students.” TESOL
Two essential factors support the use of commu-
Quarterly 18, pp. 257-271, 1984.
nicative language teaching in Vietnam. First, the govern-
Medgyes, P. “Queries from a Communicative Teacher.”
ment sees proficiency in communicative English as
ELT Journal 40, pp. 107-112, 1986.
essential for business and commercial contacts, as well
as for access to information on technological develop-
Paulston, C.B.
“Linguistics and Communicative
ment. Second, teachers have a favorable view of this
In Developing Communicative
approach. However, the sociocultural context of the
Competence in a Second Language. Ed. R. C. Scarcella,
country creates some challenges. The communicative
W.Anderson, and S. Krashen. Heinle and Heinle, 1990.
approach should, therefore, be “culturally attuned” to be
Pica, T. “Tradition and Transition in Second Language
effective in Vietnamese contexts (Ellis) in order to help
Teaching.” In Second Language Teacher Education. Ed.
English teaching in Vietnam to respond better to the
J. Richards and D. Nunan. Cambridge University Press,
vision of national development. Efforts to decide what
1990. (Accessed on the ERIC database, 1997.)
is the right balance between traditional methods and
modern methods according to learners’ needs and
Richards, J., and D. Nunan. “Self-Observation in Teacher
learning environments and to facilitate learning and
In Second Language Teacher
teaching should be encouraged among all stakeholders:
Education. Ed. J. Richards and D. Nunan. Cambridge
administrators, syllabus designers, teacher trainers, and
University Press, 1990.
teachers themselves.
Shaw, P. “Variation and Universality in Communicative
Competence: Coseriu’s Model.” TESOL Quarterly 26,
pp. 9-25, 1992.
Breen, M.P., and C.N. Candlin. “The Essentials of a
Tuy, H. “Co gi can ban them ve tinh hieu hoc” [Learner’s
Communicative Curriculum in Language Teaching.”
fondness for knowledge revisited?]. Giao Duc Va Thoi
Applied Linguistics 1, pp. 89-112, 1980.
Dai [Education and Times newspaper], p. 79, 1999.
Canale, M., and M. Swain.
“Theoretical Bases of
Communicative Approaches to Second Language
This paper was originally presented at the Fourth
Teaching and Testing.” Applied Linguistics 1, pp. 1-47,
International Conference on Language and
Development, “Partnership and Interaction,” held
October 13-15, 1999, in Hanoi, Vietnam. It has been

Ellis, G.
“How Culturally Appropriate is the
published in the conference proceedings, also entitled
Communicative Approach?” ELT Journal 50, pp. 213-
Partnership and Interaction, edited by Jonathan Shaw,
218, 1996.
Diana Lubelska, and Michelle Noullet, published in
Teacher’s Edition
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November 2001

2000 in Bangkok, Thailand, by the Asian Institute of
Technology. Used by permission.

Ideas on the Go
Since We All Have
Le Van Canh (M.A., TESOL, St. Michael’s College) is the
to Eat...
Director of the International Relations Office of the
College of Foreign Languages, Hanoi National University,
Hayden Sewall
where he also teaches. He has been involved in English
Goal: Students learn to write opinions
education since 1979, and has written for many news-
on a topic of practical interest.
papers and professional journals. This month, he is pre-
senting a paper entitled “Breaking With Traditional
Have your students write a restaurant
Practices? Issues in EFL Teacher Education in Vietnam” at
a conference in Edinburgh.
The street our school is located on has at
least twenty, low-priced “com binh dan” eat-
ing venues. Each has a different personality,
clientèle, and history, but all are well-known
Resource Bulletin Board
to my students. Many of these places do not
have a name, so the street address (for exam-
Internet Listening
ple, Number 8, Lach Tray Street) is sufficient.
I start by assigning students to eat at
restaurants of their choice. In addition, they
must find out two interesting facts from the
The following three Websites have been designed to
owner. Other topics of interest include envi-
help ESL/EFL students practice their listening online.
ronment, types of customers, food quality
They use free audio software, such as Real Player, that
and variety, staff appearance, cleanliness,
nowadays comes preinstalled on most computers.
location, price of the food, and size of the
portions. They could give an overall rating
This excellent site features a large
using stars or another symbol.
and varied array of listening selections and exercises,
Before students are sent out, we study spe-
graded by skill level. Put together by Randall Davis, who
cific restaurant words, review the basics of
currently teaches at the University of Utah, it also
paragraph writing, and look at some exam-
includes pre- and post-listening exercises, as well as
ples of reviews written by me about other
scripts of the selections.
restaurants in the city.
When everyone feels good about their
This is a fine guide to
review, which will no doubt require several
practicing listening on the Internet, and features a good
drafts and revisions, I put together a book to
listing of sites on which authentic and educational audio
distribute to any and all students—their own
resources may be found. There is also an explanation of
dining guide!
how to listen to radio stations with Real Player, and how
(Note: You probably need to ask your
school for permission to do this. It may also
to play common formats such as MP3.
be useful to have a school official read your
reviews and write a short introduction. This
will guarantee that it is okay to distribute
While the listening
your restaurant guide on campus.)
resources of the previous two sites are for online use,
this Website has a free World News Review program that
Hayden Sewall,
the ELI Curriculum
can be downloaded and used offline. Maintained by the
Director for Vietnam, is in his fourth year of
Intensive English Language Center at Wichita State
teaching at Vietnam Maritime University.
University, the software (Windows 95 and higher)
He is currently finishing an M.A. in TESOL,
includes 12 news stories in normal English read at nor-
and has eaten at all 20 “com binh dans” on
mal speed, plus comprehension exercises.
Lach Tray Street in Haiphong.
Teacher’s Edition
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November 2001