Difficulties in Implementing Communicative Theory in Vietnam Greg Bock,...
Difficulties in Implementing
Communicative Theory in Vietnam
Greg Bock, M.A.
Action research explores the use of communicative language
teaching theory by expatriates in Vietnam.
Recently, a number of studies have been conducted to
A brief mention should be made of the fact that it is
discover the difficulties of implementing communica-
not entirely clear if Vietnam needs CLT or not. A study
tive language teaching (CLT) in EFL environments, but
conducted in China discovered that Chinese teachers
few of these studies have been conducted in Vietnam.
felt that CLT was good for Chinese people going abroad,
CLT is not common practice in Vietnam, but, according
but not for Chinese students staying at home. Chinese
to a 1998 Vietnam News article, it is becoming more and
English majors require the ability to read technical arti-
more common as the government carries out educa-
cles and translate documents. For this, traditional teach-
tional reform. Teachers’ colleges are beginning to add
ing methodologies are preferred (Burnaby and Sun). Is
new methodologies to their repertoire. In addition,
this the case in Vietnam? This question needs to be
answered. In any case, the fact is that CLT has already
many expatriate teachers of English are coming to
been introduced to Vietnam and it is spreading, though
Vietnam, and with them, Western teaching practices,
on a limited scale.
including CLT. Where you find a group of these teach-
ers, you will find “horror stories” of lessons gone awry
Methodology for the Research
and an amalgam of ideas for educational reform, class-
room management, and professional development. For
Project Design
this reason, I decided to investigate the problem, in par-
ticular,Western teachers’ ideas regarding the difficulties
Beginning in January, 1999, I conducted a study on
of implementing CLT in Vietnam.
the difficulties of implementing CLT in Vietnam. I first
ran a pilot study with a group of 13 foreign teachers
Defining “CLT”
teaching English in China. These teachers were part of
a program organized by the English Language Institute
Before we begin, we must formulate a definition for
“CLT.” “CLT starts with a theory of language as commu-
(ELI). The pilot study was a written questionnaire
nication, and its goal is to develop learners’ communica-
adapted from Li, and was intended to furnish ideas for
tive competence” (Li). The underlying assumption of
a final instrument I could use with ELI teachers
CLT is that the goal of language study is to communicate
in Vietnam.
in that language, with a contrasting approach being to
The final questionnaire included both open-ended
approach the language as a study of form rather than
questions and a checklist (Figure 1). This second survey
“function interrelated with form” (Candlin). Meaning is
was administered in February, 1999, to teachers serving
what is communicated, therefore, CLT is tailored to get
with ELI in Vietnam. Eighteen surveys of 25 distributed
at meaning. Learners are given opportunities to negoti-
were returned.
ate meaning in class. A CLT classroom is learner-cen-
Next, I read through the completed surveys and put
tered. “Far from being a ‘transmitter’ of knowledge, the
together a format for an interview. For reasons of cost,
teacher is a ‘facilitator.’ Far from having minimal teacher-
time, and distance, I decided to make this an electronic
student interaction, a communicative classroom holds
interview, and so distributed a list of open-ended ques-
such interaction to be indispensable” (Nguyen).
tions through e-mail in March, 1999, to all 18 subjects.
Characterized by high participation, the CLT classroom
Most questions were given to every subject, but some
becomes a place for students to engage in meaningful
were tailored for specific participants, and some
language use. Authentic materials, functional tasks, and
received follow-up questions from me. I chose to dia-
group and pair work are significant aspects of CLT.
Teacher’s Edition
— 24 —
March 2000

logue with each teacher until I felt that I had a good
specific problems surfaced:

understanding of their perspectives. I asked each par-
lack of motivation for communicative competence.

ticipant to provide as much information as possible, and
resistance to class participation.

in most cases they did. All 18 participants completed
using Vietnamese during group work.

this electronic interview.
low English proficiency.
Fourteen of the 18 participants reported a lack of
Project Participants
student motivation for communicative competence.
Most students seem to be concerned with passing
exams, most of which do not test for communicative
The 18 participants were teachers teaching English
competence. The students see employment as the main
with the English Language Institute in Vietnam. All were
goal, and most jobs in Vietnam do not require fluency in
foreigners with various backgrounds in EFL. The fact
English. “They are motivated to pass exams to move up
that the subjects of my research were Westerners limits
some ladder toward a better job, but that does not often
the scope of this study. Further research should be done
(in Vietnam’s employment system) seem to include real
to discover difficulties that national Vietnamese teachers
fluency” [Digory]. Laziness and apathy were also men-
are experiencing in trying to implement CLT. Those
tioned as components of this problem. It appears that
who participated in this study had been in Vietnam for
many students are not applying themselves in their
at least five months prior to receiving the survey. The
English studies.
average age of the participants was 34.5. There were 11
Fourteen of the 18 participants referred to student
males and seven females. Sixteen participants taught in
resistance to class participation. Anxiety, laziness, and
universities, while the other two taught in a foreign lan-
unfamiliarity with communicative lessons seem to be
guage center. Their teaching experience ranged from
the main culprits. Most of the teachers have found
five months to eight years. (For specific details on proj-
group work and discussions difficult to implement due
ect participants, see Figure 2.)
to these reasons. “They worry about what other class-
mates will think or comment about their ability. They
Project Data
are not used to CLT. I think once they develop some
ability and confidence and familiarity with CLT, then par-
I sought to interpret the data using qualitative data
ticipation will increase” [Trufflehunter]. Even with pair
analysis. (For a description of these techniques, see
work, teachers run into difficulties. “My students have
Nunan or Glesne.) I followed closely the example set
no desire to work together in pairs. I can get my class to
forth by Li. I read and reread the data until themes and
participate in class only as a whole, with games involv-
categories emerged. I analyzed the surveys and elec-
ing competition working the best. Every attempt to
tronic interview transcripts until I could recognize
have the students work in pairs fails” [Drinian].
repeating themes. From these themes, I drew three cat-
Thirteen of the 18 teachers reported problems with
egories for results, discussed below.
students using Vietnamese in group work. Anxiety, apa-
thy, and unfamiliarity with CLT are the sources of this dif-
Results of the Research
ficulty. “They find communication easier in Vietnamese
than in English, and they’re often lazy, especially if
The difficulties reported by the teachers fall into
there’s a chance they might look silly to those around
three main categories: those caused by the students, by
them” [Digory]. “Typical class, I pass out a sheet about
the educational system, and by the teacher. While read-
survival on a desert island, you know, the one almost
ing through the data, I discovered 139 total references to
every confused English teacher does at least once in
difficulties caused by students, 89 references to difficul-
his/her career. At first, students point out English objects
ties caused by the educational system, and 65 references
and say the names, then dive into a symphony of
to difficulties caused by the teachers themselves. In
Vietnamese chatter and unobstructed problem-solving.
addition, a number of common themes emerged within
Telling them to stop works for a little while” [Duffer].
each category. (See Figure 3.)
Twelve of the 18 teachers referred to students’ low
Difficulties from Students
English proficiency. Although most teachers were opti-
mistic about the adequacy of their students’ levels for
Most frequently, students were mentioned as a
CLT, most teachers made at least one mention of a diffi-
source of difficulties in implementing CLT.
culty arising from this problem.
Teacher’s Edition
— 25 —
March 2000

Difficulties from Educational System
like humility, each self-abasing remark was perceived to
be a note of frustration or a confession of inability. It is
The second category that caused difficulties for the
difficult to infer why these statements were so preva-
teachers was the educational system. Specifically, this
lent. More research is needed. “I am not good at elicit-
included three specific factors:

ing responses or participation” [Digory]. “My ability as a
lack of conducive facilities.

teacher is a limiting factor” [Drinian].
large class sizes.

Nine of the 18 teachers reported that they lacked
multi-level classes.
training in CLT. These were occasions when the partici-
Fourteen of the 18 participants reported a lack of
pants’ own inabilities were specifically linked to a lack
conducive facilities for CLT. The desks were a common
of training. “I don’t think I’ve had enough training, as I
source of headaches. Many teachers suggested round
had never heard of the concept [of CLT] prior to this
tables or desks that were more movable. Noise was
survey” [Lucy]. “I could use a lot more training in this
another common complaint. The noise levels outside
area…I didn’t go running into the classroom with my
the classroom often made communication inside the
knowledge guns loaded or anything, but I had enough to
classroom impossible. Bad chalkboards, no overhead
get myself into trouble, and I think I would be more
projectors, and missing light bulbs were also problems.
interested in better training now that I have tried
Twelve of the 18 teachers named large class sizes as
to teach” [Duffer].
a major problem.
Most class sizes hovered around
Six of the 18 participants reported that they were
40 students, but some were as large as 105. In general,
not able adequately to assess communicative compe-
it seems the average class size in Vietnam is around
Testing is already complicated enough.
65 students. Often classes are divided in half for subjects
Attempting to assess communicative competence
such as Speaking, but some schools have not caught
makes it more complex. “I have no experience. There
on yet, and teachers are struggling to design appropriate
weren’t any methods given to me in training to help me
get a good grasp of class competence” [Drinian].
Five of the 18 participants mentioned multi-level
classes as a constraint in implementing CLT in Vietnam.
Discussion of the Research
It is not uncommon to have a wide range of students in
each class. It is difficult for students to complete an
Before Vietnam can truly benefit from CLT, a number
exercise if some of them are bored, but others are over-
of changes must take place. These changes must occur
whelmed. It is also difficult to design lessons to meet
not only in Vietnam, but also among expatriate teachers
the communicative needs of every student. “Placing
attempting to implement CLT.
them in classes where all students are at the same level
would be very helpful, but that isn’t going to happen at
Student Attitudes
this university” [Cornelius]. “Some of my students know
enough to be on ‘Jeopardy,’ so I’m not putting them all
First, we need to pay attention to students’ attitudes.
down” [Duffer].
Until CLT becomes a norm in Vietnam, students are
going to resist this way of learning. So, it is up to those
Difficulties from Teachers
who want to use CLT to reorient students to this
methodology. Students need to relearn their role as
The subjects also regarded themselves as a major
learners, the teacher’s role in the classroom, and the
constraint on implementing CLT in Vietnam. Three
basic nature of language. Further research should be
themes that emerged were:

done to discover better ways to introduce students to
feelings of inadequacy.

these new concepts and this way of learning.
lack of training in CLT.

Additionally, student anxiety is an important issue. As
the inability to assess communicative competence.
teachers, we need to be aware of students’ anxiety levels
Ten of the 18 participants confessed to feeling inad-
and take steps to lower them. Until students are confi-
equate to implement CLT in Vietnam. In the interviews,
dent, they will remain reticent. A recent study shows
these were random, self-demeaning comments that were
that problems often attributed to students’ low English
unsubstantiated, unlinked to any known cause (such as
proficiency are actually caused by student anxiety
a lack of experience or training). Sometimes sounding
My findings strengthen that conclusion.
Teacher’s Edition
— 26 —
March 2000

Figure 1. Research questionnaire.
Communicative language teaching (CLT) is a teaching methodology that emphasizes fluency over accuracy.
This approach to teaching stresses the use of language and the ability to communicate. CLT methodology is more
student-centered than the typical Asian methodology. It focuses on practice and production as opposed to the
common “teacher-as-expert-who-always-lectures” model. CLT exercises take the form of group work, discussions,
games, songs, etc. If you are unclear on the meaning of CLT, please ask for clarification before you proceed.
Years Teaching EFL:
Levels Taught:
(1) Have you ever tried to implement CLT in your Vietnamese classroom?
(2) How would you rate your success? (1-10, 10 is most successful, 1 is not successful)
(3) What is the biggest difficulty you have ever encountered in trying to teach communicatively at any school in
(4) Please write a check mark before the following difficulties you have experienced. (Adapted from Li.)
_____ Too little time to develop CLT materials.
_____ Misconceptions about what CLT actually is.
_____ Few opportunities to learn how to use CLT.
_____ Feeling deficient to facilitate a communicative class.
_____ Low student English proficiency.
_____ Lack of student motivation for attaining fluency.
_____ Student resistance to class participation.
_____ Class sizes are too large to conduct CLT.
_____ The school’s grammar-based exams do not justify using CLT.
_____ No money for materials or equipment.
_____ Few people with expertise to turn to for advice.
_____ No information in the research to apply CLT to overseas (EFL) settings.
_____ No assessment tools to test for communicative competence (fluency).
_____ School administration discourages CLT.
_____ Lack of culturally sensitive materials.
_____ Students use the mother-tongue during group work.
_____ Lack of CLT materials.
_____ Lack of conducive facilities.
(5) Are there any other difficulties you have encountered?
Teacher’s Edition
— 27 —
March 2000

“I believe it [students’ English level] is adequate, but I
think my students don’t think so. If they are beginners,
then they can use simple communication. They aren’t
This research has shown that teachers using CLT
confident in what they can do, so that stops them from
face many difficulties in Vietnam. Whether or not CLT
getting into CLT” [Trufflehunter].
should be implemented in Vietnam is a question for
another study. Vietnam should produce its own research
Educational Values
on the usefulness of CLT in attaining its educational
goals. In this study, we have discovered that in trying
Second, we need to look at Vietnam’s approach to
to use CLT, expatriate teachers are running into many
education. If CLT is going to be successful, basic values
problems. The results imply that changes are needed in
in Vietnam’s educational system need to be questioned.
student and classroom orientations. In addition, if we
“In a typical Asian society, where teachers are expected
as Western teachers insist on using CLT in the classroom,
simply to transmit knowledge to students, knowledge is
then we must be adequately trained and we must
seen as being something that can be handed
help Vietnamese students adapt to this new way
down...[This] would appear to hinder language learn-
of learning.
ing” (Nguyen). If a teacher-centered classroom is detri-
mental to English studies, then CLT may be the solution.
Once CLT methodology is prioritized, administrators
will be able to implement needed changes. Simple
Please note that in the article bibliographic references
things such as desks and chairs should be designed with
are in parantheses, while quotes from project partici-
a “new classroom” in mind. The elimination of outside
pants are in brackets.
noise seems basic even in a non-CLT environment, but
noise level problems remain an issue in Vietnamese
Burnaby, B., and Y. Sun. “Chinese Teachers’ Views of
classrooms. Class sizes can be adjusted, with learners
Western Language Teaching:
Context Informs
finding themselves in classes with students of the same
Paradigms.” TESOL Quarterly 23 (2), pp. 219-238, 1989.
level or ability.
Candlin, C.N.
“Form, Function and Strategy in
Teacher Competence
Communicative Curriculum Design.” In Christopher N.
Candlin, ed. The Communicative Teaching of English,
Third, expatriate teachers need to master CLT
pp. 24-44. Longman, 1981.
methodology. CLT methodology is a “Western method.”
Since many Vietnamese teachers are not able to travel
Glesne, C.
Becoming Qualitative Researchers.
abroad to witness this way of learning in its original con-
Longman, 1999.
text, they are going to evaluate this method by watching
us. If CLT is truly what Vietnam needs, then those com-
Li, D. “‘It’s Always More Difficult Than You Plan and
ing from the West must equip themselves with the nec-
Imagine’:Teachers’ Perceived Difficulties in Introducing
essary tools before arriving. At the moment, ELI is send-
ing teachers who feel inadequate. This needs to change.
the Communicative Approach in South Korea.” TESOL
Encouragement may be the missing element, assuming
Quarterly 32 (4), pp. 677-703, 1998.
that all the teachers are capable. But some teachers with
ELI had no prior experience. Many also noted that ELI
Nguyen, V.D. “Cultural Differences in English Language
training was not sufficient in itself to equip them with
Training.” Teacher’s Edition 1, pp. 9-12, October 1999.
the necessary tools to feel competent with CLT.
If CLT is truly what Vietnam needs, then those coming
from the West must equip themselves with the
necessary tools before arriving.
Teacher’s Edition
— 28 —
March 2000

Nunan, D. Research Methods in Language Learning.
Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Tsui, A. “Reticence and Anxiety in Second Language
Learning.” In K.M. Bailey and D. Nunan, eds. Voices from
the Language Classroom
, pp. 145-167.
Please contact the editor to
University Press, 1996.
continue receiving your
complimentary copies of
NA. “Passive Learning Will Be Replaced by More Self-
Teacher’s Edition.
Study.” Vietnam News, p. D5, 8 January 1998.
We have sent you the first
two issues, but will not continue
Greg Bock (M.A.,TESOL, Azusa Pacific University) taught
to mail to you unless we know
in 1997-1998 at Vietnam Maritime University in
that you are interested.
Haiphong, and is currently in his second year at Qui
Nhon Teachers’ College.
(See page 2 for additional
contact information.)
Figure 2. Backgrounds of participants in study.
Participant* Sex Age Years teaching Location(s)
College year or levels taught
Trufflehunter M 28 4
1, 2, 3, 4
M 30 .5
1, 2
M 54 1
1, 2, 3, 4
M 23 1
1, 2
23 2
ages 13-45
M 34 1
M 46 1
52 1
1, 2, 3, 4
47 1.5
M 32 5
Qui Nhon
3, 4
M 49 7
1, 2
22 .5
M 23 1.5
Qui Nhon
1, 3
33 3
M 39 8
Hanoi, Haiphong
2, 3, 4
M 35 1.5
Qui Nhon, Dalat
1, 2, 3, 4
Gwendolen F
24 1.5
1, 2
27 4
Hanoi, Haiphong
ages 17-60
*Pseudonyms are used in place of actual names. In the article, brackets indicate quotations from participants’ electronic interviews.
Teacher’s Edition
— 29 —
March 2000

Figure 3. Reported difficulties in implementing CLT.
Source and difficulty
Teachers mentioning (18 maximum)
Students Lack ofmotivation for communicative competence
Resistance to class participation
Using Vietnamese during group work
Low English proficiency
Educational system
Lack of conducive facilities
Large class sizes
Multi-level classes
Teacher Feelings ofinadequacy
Lack of training in CLT
Inability to assess communicative competence
Resource Bulletin Board
Ideas on the Go
Reading the
Britannica Online
Class Minutes
In addition to AskERIC (page 13), another excellent
Tammy Truitt, M.A.
source of information is Encyclopædia Britannica
Online, opened this past October. The Internet address
Goal: Review the previous lesson, evaluate yourself.
is www.eb.com, though if you know what you are look-
ing for, it is best to go straight to search.eb.com.
In my business English classes,one student is appoint-
The search function is intuitive and efficient to use.
ed to be the “class secretary” each week. The follow-
You can enter a word, a phrase, or a question. Once the
ing week, that student must “read the minutes” from
first wave of results is found, you can narrow your
the previous class. Since students rotate the respon-
search or make it more restrictive. Each result lists sep-
sibility, and since the oral presentation is only a few
arately features such as articles, photographs, and maps,
minutes long, they enjoy doing this. The advantages
and one click takes you straight there. Another feature
gained are simple but important: (1) Key content
is a button to click to prepare the material for printing—
basically, it simplifies or cleans up the layout and high-
from the previous lesson is condensed and reviewed.
lights the citation.
(2) Since the “secretary” tends to emphasize what he
The site also features a Britannica Internet Guide
or she liked or understood, you get feedback on the
and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
previous lesson and can evaluate whether or not you
“Explore” menu focuses on geography and culture,
accomplished your objectives.
famous people, and world history. The “Spotlights” fea-
ture is for the casual browser—on the day I visited,
Tammy Truitt (M.A., Intercultural Studies, Wheaton
“D-Day” and “Dinosaurs” had been highlighted. All 32
College) also contributed a “Lesson File” to this issue
volumes and 44 million words of this venerable
of Teacher’s Edition (page 36).
encyclopedia are available free!
Teacher’s Edition
— 30 —
March 2000