University English classrooms
Pham Hoa Hiep
In her article ‘University classrooms in Vietnam: contesting the
stereotypes’, Phan Le Ha (Phan 2004) observes that Vietnamese teachers
locate themselves within two identity umbrellas: a teacher of English and
a Vietnamese teacher. As teachers of English, Vietnamese teachers assert
that they like to be their ‘students’ friend, a facilitator, a companion, but
not a controller’ (p. 54). But as good Vietnamese teachers, they ‘need to
perform their duty as behaviour educator or moral guide’ (p. 55). Drawing
on the espousals of beliefs and practices of two Vietnamese teachers of
English returning from training in Australia, the author claims that
‘[their] ways of doing things demonstrates a harmonious combination of
global and local practices’ (p. 52). The author concludes that these
Vietnamese teachers ‘have succeeded’ in their work.
The two identities Phan Le Ha observed are all pertinent to Vietnamese
English language teachers. However, the author seems to ignore the
conﬂicts between these identities and the real dilemmas Vietnamese
teachers confront in their aspirations to resolve them.
Vietnamese teachers, especially those who have been abroad, may have
learnt interesting things about Communicative Language Teaching
(CLT). Many are convinced that CLT enhances the learning process; it
puts focus on learners, assuming that learners’ needs and aspirations are
the basis for elaborating instructional goals (Savignon 2002). Thus,
teachers feel inspired to use CLT in their classroom. But adopting CLT
principles such as ‘calling for learner involvement, allowing learners
choice, changing teachers’ and students’ roles, and breaking down
hierarchic barriers in the classroom’ (Larsen-Freeman 2000: 66) would
challenge the basic Vietnamese cultural and educational values. As
Kramsch and Sullivan (1996) point out, at the heart of the pedagogical
practices in Vietnam is the traditional view of the teacher-student
relationship in which teachers are considered mentors and masters of
knowledge in the classroom. Teachers thus have the responsibility to
guide students not only in academic matters but also in moral behaviour.
Furthermore, whatever the long-range purpose, English teaching in
Vietnamese universities is always part of the formal education of the
country. Hence, teachers of English must not neglect the educative role
of their institutional system.
ELT Journal Volume 59/4 October 2005; doi:10.1093/elt/cci063
q The Author 2005. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
The ‘in theory’ points suggest that a perfect teacher must be the one who
knows how to combine global and local practices, to perform his or her
work in a way that can satisfy his and her students’ global and local
needs. Following this principle, Vietnamese teachers need to integrate
traditional teaching methods with the new teaching methods they have
learnt in the West. Many teachers, like the ones in Phan Le Ha’s study,
can easily make statements like ‘I am ﬂexible in my teaching’,
‘I encourage my students to do things by themselves and ask questions
instead of pouring knowledge into their minds’, ‘I never impose my ideas
on my students’ (p. 52).
However, the real issues ‘in practice’ are not that simple. My research has
shown that to resolve the conﬂicts between what teachers want to do and
what they actually can do is often a less-than-satisfactory experience
(Pham 2004). Many Vietnamese teachers are conﬂicted, feeling that
their circumstances oppose, or at least, militate against attempts to use
communicative practices. For example, they have to prepare students for
a grammar-based examination, and have to ﬁnish a certain content in the
textbook in a certain amount of time. They may have classes of 60
students, many of whom are more concerned about the immediate
goal—to pass exams, to get a degree, rather than the long term goal—to
develop communicative competence. It is thus uncommon for teachers
to take a binary approach to teaching: it is to be teaching grammar or
teaching communication; one thing has to be done at the expense of the
I am afraid that Phan Le Ha’s article may add to Vietnamese teachers’
disappointment, rather than illuminate possible ways out of their
dilemmas. Although the author claims that the teachers in her study
were successful in harmonizing their two roles, the data she provided are
not convincing. For example, the teacher called Mai recounted that in one
class, ‘she spent the whole lesson revising, explaining, or teaching some
grammatical structures’. In the other class, she has ‘more freedom’, so
‘she felt she had more ﬂexibility to design her own syllabus . . . to create
more [communicative] activities’ (p. 54). I was left wondering what other
things this teacher could do in the ﬁrst class to harmonize the two roles
she expounded, given that she did not have freedom, and had to teach
according to a prescribed syllabus. Didn’t she resign herself to the feeling
that the only way she could do it was to ‘spend the whole lesson revising,
explaining, or teaching some grammatical structures’?
In the other case, the author argues that a teacher called Lan successfully
harmonized her two roles: the facilitator and the moral guide. Lan says:
Normally I only educate my students when they don’t behave properly
. . . I mean I don’t give them moral lessons but do tell them how to
behave . . . (p. 55)
We [teachers?] always select what we teach. We tend to select works that
have moral or ethical lessons to teach students . . . we direct our
students to ‘good’ behaviour in life . . . (p. 56: my emphasis)
It is surprising that while the author describes that Lan ‘saw herself as a
friend of her students’, the above quotes seem to reveal this teacher’s
didactic role. Was Lan ready to give her students the opportunity to
participate in the learning process? The way she saw her role as that of a
moral guide conﬂicts with the role of ‘a friend of a students’.
In studying teachers’ beliefs and practice, it seems insufﬁcient to ask
them to say what they believe, or even to recount what they say they do.
Borg (2001) suggests that we need to distinguish ‘espoused beliefs’—
what is said—from ‘beliefs-in-action’—what is done. Argyris and Scho¨n
(1974) has also made this distinction, using the terms ‘espoused theory’
and ‘theory-in-use’. According to these writers, when someone is asked
how he/she behaves under a certain situation, the answer given is his/her
‘espoused theory’ of action, but the theory that governs his/her actual
behaviour is his/her ‘theory-in-use’. Argyris and Scho¨n stress that
someone’s ‘espoused theory’ may or may not be congruent with his/her
Observing teachers in action, many other researchers (e.g. Sakui 2004;
Sato and Kleinsasser 1999) show that while teachers may easily espouse
principles such as ‘use appropriate methodology’, or ‘combine teaching
grammar and promoting communicative activities’, many fail to realize
these principles in practice. Ambiguities and tensions are characteristic
of teachers’ ways of thinking and acting. Without acknowledging and
making explicit their contradictions, teachers can hardly reach the level of
‘success’ that Phan Le Ha claims.
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Pham, H. H. 2004. ‘Trained in the West, teaching
Pham Hoa Hiep is a lecturer in the English
in the East: Vietnamese teachers returning from
Department at Hue College of Foreign Languages.
TESOL courses abroad’. Victoria: University of
His experience includes training teachers at the
Vietnam-Australia Training Project and teaching
Phan, L. H. 2004. ‘University classrooms in
EAP to Vietnamese scholars who are granted
Vietnam: contesting the stereotypes’. ELT Journal
scholarships to study in Australia.
58/1: 50 –7.
Pham Hoa Hiep