Sustainable Professional Development of EFL Teachers in Vietnam Le Van...
Sustainable Professional Development
of EFL Teachers in Vietnam
Le Van Canh, M.A.
A discussion of challenges in context, concluding with five recom-
mendations for national policy on teacher development.
The opening of Vietnam to foreign investment has
secondary education, when pupils are first introduced
placed new demands on the education and training sec-
to the language. Due to a shortage of teachers and
tor, especially for the teaching of English as the major
resources, in some parts of the country the teaching
language of international communication. Politically, the
of English currently starts from lower secondary
government of Vietnam sees the teaching of English as
education, while in other parts from the upper second-
supporting its “open door to the world” policy, and the
ary level.
goal of regional integration and global participation.
Recent evidence highlights the importance of pro-
Economically, English-speaking personnel are urgently
viding an integrated and well-managed range of inputs
needed to work in international trade and joint ventures.
to facilitate effective teaching and learning in schools.
In this context, English has rapidly become the most
The introduction of new curriculum and textbooks
popular language in adult education and the first foreign
needs to be accompanied by a systematic program of
language in schools and universities, well ahead of
teacher training, both pre- and in-service, or it will not
Russian, Chinese, and French. English has been espe-
“take.” Teachers whose English is weak cannot be
cially instrumental in view of the government’s decision
expected to adopt more flexible and linguistically-
to “take a short cut” to national industrialization and
demanding approaches to teaching, but need accredit-
modernization by taking advantage of world expertise
ed training which combines personal language
and technologies. The Central Party Committee meeting
improvement with instruction in methodology.
on education in December, 1996, confirmed English as
Among the factors that determine the effectiveness
the first foreign language in Vietnamese schools. The
of language learning in formal education are syllabuses,
Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training is fully
methodology, teaching materials, evaluation proce-
committed to the reform of general education and the
dures, and teacher training. Probably the most crucial
promotion of English as the first foreign language in
of these factors is teacher training, as has long been
the curriculum.
acknowledged. Experience worldwide has proved that
failures of educational reforms are often due to wrong
The Goal of Quality
investment—that is, investment in things (infrastruc-
ture, equipment, textbooks, educational technology)
The Vietnamese government sees the quality of
before investment in people (including teacher training
teachers as the major factor in improving education. It
and job satisfaction).
is setting targets for the general reform of curriculum
Reform in teacher training is not limited to innova-
and teaching methods in all educational establishments,
tion in training content and delivery, however, since
from primary up to tertiary levels, toward more relevant
teachers’ professional competence is not only affected
content and more active learning approaches. In order
by training per se, but also by many external factors.
to achieve this, the government has requested teacher
The improvement of the quality of English education
training institutions to reform their curriculum to make
thus depends on “first improving recruitment, training,
it more relevant to teachers’ work contexts by linking
social status and conditions of work of teachers” who in
the training curriculum to academic realities, and by
turn need “the appropriate knowledge and skills, per-
adopting a more learner-centered approach to training.
sonal characteristics, professional prospects and moti-
There is an urgent need to improve the quantity
vation” so that they can “meet the expectations placed
and quality of English teachers in lower and upper
upon them” (Delors et al, pp. 141-142).
Teacher’s Edition
— 32 —
November 2002

Teacher Trainer Problems
the entire program concentrates on teaching methodol-
ogy. The methodology and linguistics components are
In Vietnam, English language teachers are trained in
themselves highly theoretical, and trainee teachers are
junior colleges or universities for a duration of three or
not given adequate hands-on teaching practice.
four years, respectively. It has been claimed that the
Furthermore, the content of the methodology compo-
training provided is not focused toward the national cur-
nent is absolutely imported from native-speaking coun-
riculum, and that the teachers-to-be are not given ade-
tries, without the slightest consideration of the great dif-
quate practical training in the application of current
ferences between them and Vietnam.
methodologies to the secondary school classroom
Communication between teacher trainers and high
(Kennett and Knight).
school teachers regarding appropriate methodologies,
A large percentage of university teacher trainers are,
and cooperation within teacher training institutions, is
in fact, teachers of English. They graduated from the col-
very limited. There has been some feedback from grad-
lege or university where they are now employed. They
uates calling for more relevant training, and the national
were selected in their final year, having been identified
curriculum is strongly criticized by both teachers
as “excellent students.” Though well-qualified and in
and trainers for a lack of communicative content.
many cases highly motivated, they are unable to consis-
However, almost no formal exchanges take place to
tently employ communicative methodologies in their
address this issue.
teaching, and so often do not provide modeling or visi-
Obviously, there is a missing link between training
ble input for trainees.
and the reality of the schools where trainee teachers will
Trainers face crowded classrooms, hidden student
be expected to work. Teaching practice is used to
agendas, and a serious shortage of materials and
bridge the theory with the real world, but too often it is
resources. Coursebooks are often old or photocopied,
separated, superficial, or patronizing because there are
and supplementary resources available at each institu-
no mentors who can provide support and guidance dur-
tion are limited. Specialist trainers for methodology and
ing the practice. Instead, trainees must perform the way
linguistics are employed internally, based on the com-
they are told by school teachers who advocate textbook-
pletion of advanced degrees rather than on actual sec-
based instruction for good grades. Teachers begin their
ondary school teaching experience.
careers as English teachers having had just eight weeks
A further problem is that there is no application of
of such practice.
a formal system of performance assessment for teacher
Consequently, although communicative language
trainers. They are rarely observed, and administrators
teaching is strongly advocated and encouraged by
rely on student feedback to gauge trainer performance.
teacher trainers, and the ideas as well as principles of
this approach to language teaching are overwhelming in
Teacher Trainee and Curriculum Problems
the training materials, teachers are generally incapable
of teaching English communicatively in their real-world
Trainees, that is, students at these colleges and uni-
classrooms. Instead, they spend most of their lesson
versities, have finished their secondary schooling but do
time explaining abstract grammar rules and guiding
not have any teaching experience. They are selected
their students in choral readings.
through entrance examinations in Vietnamese literature,
mathematics, and English. During their education, they
Situation Summary
must improve their language competence in English,
study general education subjects, and develop profes-
The quality of education in general and that of for-
sional teaching skills. Because their entry level of profi-
eign language education in particular has been of great
ciency in English is generally low, most time is devoted
concern to the Vietnamese government. Many senior
to improving English knowledge and skills.
officials, educational administrators, teachers, and par-
Linguistic knowledge and language skills are consid-
ents have voiced support for methodological innova-
ered to be more important than and superior to peda-
tions and have recognized the great efforts by the
gogical knowledge and competence. As a result, the
Ministry of Education and Training to raise the quality of
teacher training curriculum is typically heavily weighted
teachers as a catalyst for comprehensive improvement.
toward the direct teaching of English. Less than 40% of
In the area of English language teaching, these efforts
Teacher’s Edition
— 33 —
November 2002

have been fueled by many international donors who
such a training program they are considered to be com-
have undertaken a wide range of quality-related activi-
petent for lifelong professional practice. Training inputs
ties, such as writing new textbooks which are more
are decided by experts who do not bother to consider
communication-oriented, and holding workshops which
the specific future teaching contexts of the teachers-in-
train teachers to use more learner-centered activities in
training. This approach is characterized by:
the classroom. Unfortunately, the goal of quality remains
• A lack of articulation between training contents and
elusive and many of the efforts at innovation do not
the reality of the teachers’ workplace.
affect day-to-day practice. Teachers who did very well
• A focus on theoretical knowledge without due atten-
during training events return to their schools unable to
tion to practical skills, making transmission of knowl-
use the new methods. “The context is different” is a
edge the main goal.
complaint commonly heard.
•Pre-service as an end—the significance of continuing
There is no denying that teachers are at the center
professional development is completely excluded.
of any educational initiative, and that attempts to inno-
The second approach views teaching as a process in
vate in education will be likely to fail without their com-
which teachers’ beliefs, attitudes, and value systems
mitment, or “teachers’ sense of plausibility,” to use
come into play. The assumption is that teachers never
Prabhu’s words. Investment in teachers would be a wise
change their practices unless they are able to develop
decision, but a sound understanding of teaching is need-
their attitudes, beliefs, and values. Teacher education
ed before investment decisions are made. Teaching is
researchers have found that teachers’ perceptions of
not just knowing how to do particular things in the
teaching have powerful and lasting influences upon
classroom, rather it “involves a cognitive dimension that
their practice, and may be the source of resistance to
links thought with activity, centering on the context-
change (Richards; Johnson; Freeman;Wallace; Clandinin).
embedded, interpretive process of knowing what to do.
This approach views teaching as a pedagogical process
This contextual know-how is learned over time; its inter-
of problem-solving through active and critical inquiry.
pretations shape truly effective classroom practice”
Teaching is accordingly defined as a never-ending
(Freeman, p. 99). To put it simply, teaching is a process
process of learning.
in which thought is linked to behavior, and knowing
From this perspective, teacher training institutions
what to do in this process involves context.
should provide teachers-in-training with opportunities
for inquiry, experimentation, self-evaluation, and theoriz-
Two Approaches to Teacher Education
ing. Review and reflection can help them try out new
teaching methods and make them appropriate to specif-
In the literature, there have been two major
ic situations. Every time this cycle is repeated, teachers
approaches to teacher research and teacher education.
develop their awareness, attitudes, and beliefs, that is,
The first approach views teaching and teachers as “prod-
they develop themselves professionally. If teachers-in-
ucts.” The quality of these products is measured by
training are provided with these skills, they are very like-
observable behaviors as well as by the impact of these
ly to have a positive attitude to their ongoing profes-
measurable behaviors on learning outcomes. Teachers
sional development.
are therefore expected to follow rigid classroom proce-
Undergraduate training cannot be the sole solution
dures defined by “experts” in accordance with a speci-
to the issue of quality, because such training is con-
fied set of effective teaching practices and competen-
strained by time, whereas teacher development is an
cies. In other words, teachers are supposed to operate
continuing process. If a process-oriented approach to
the way a programmed computer does. Effective teach-
teacher education is accepted, it is necessary to assist
ing practices are documented and incorporated into
teachers as they work to achieve the desired results. A
training programs, and once teachers have completed
focus on process requires the development of visions of
Teachers are generally incapable of teaching English communicatively...
Instead, they spend most of their lesson time explaining abstract
grammar rules and guiding their students in choral readings.
Teacher’s Edition
— 34 —
November 2002

the future, which in turn creates aspirations. The first
competence as the most essential characteristic of a
step towards realizing these aspirations is to set observ-
good teacher (Lange) is not accidental.
able and testable goals in order to shift the focus from
In the foreseeable future in Vietnam, communicative
immediate job competencies to the competencies they
textbooks will be introduced in lower and upper sec-
will need for their lifelong professional development:
ondary levels. This will place more pressure on teachers
“There is more to teacher preparation than skill train-
to use English with ease in the classroom. In other
ing” (Richards).
words, communicative language teaching demands a
The development of such “teacherly” qualities
higher level of language proficiency and confidence in
requires activities that move beyond initial training to
using it. Complaints of teachers’ poor language compe-
empower teachers toward effective planning, organiza-
tence are frequently heard, but has anyone asked ques-
tion, and instruction. Additionally, it is vital to consider
tions about what has been done to help them? To date,
changing rigid evaluation systems. This will encourage
in-service training for foreign language teachers in the
teachers to investigate their own classrooms, try out
country is fragmented and ineffective because there has
new teaching methods, and review in order to make
been great reliance on external (and not well-coordinat-
their teaching more appropriate to specific student
ed) expertise and support.
groups and teaching situations.
Policy Recommendations
Challenges to EFL Teacher Education in
If sustainable development of language teachers
is a goal, the following recommendations need to
Language teacher education must abide by general
be considered.
principles in education, but it has some unique features.
In language teacher education, the foreign language is
(1) Link Training to the Real World
both the educational content and the means of content
delivery. Language teacher education has, therefore,
Teacher training universities and colleges need to
more challenges. Firstly, teachers-in-training must be
provide a closer relationship between their training con-
able to communicate in a foreign language with stu-
tent and schools’ realities. Methodological components
dents; secondly, they must master a set of professional
of the syllabus must be developed on the basis of needs
skills which are performed in the target language; and
analysis, rather than imposed subjectively by syllabus
thirdly, their future teaching is likely to be long affected
writers. Opportunities for teachers-in-training to merge
by the models of teaching they observed during their
theory into practice need to be provided right from the
own experience as language learners (Britten).
beginning of a training program through changes in
Within a four-year timeframe, Vietnamese teacher
organizing and evaluating the practicum. Teaching prac-
training institutions have to develop language skills and
tice in a real school classroom should be considered as
knowledge about the target language, including gram-
a significant instrument for the development of profes-
mar, phonology, lexis, and cultural understandings, plus
sional competencies as well as lifelong learning skills of
professional competencies. Given the time constraint,
prospective teachers.
these goals can only be achieved by integrating language
improvement activities into activities related to (2) Change to Activity-Based Approaches
professional skills.
The longer language teachers stay in their job, the
It is crucial to change the way courses are delivered
more disadvantaged they become in terms of language
to be more activity-based. There are a variety of activi-
improvement due to lack of opportunities to use the for-
ties associated with pedagogical inputs which provide
eign language. Once they find themselves unable to use
excellent opportunities for communication practice,
the foreign language successfully for communicative
such as materials development and presentation, prac-
purposes, they tend to find security in textbook-based
ticing language in connection with speech acts (such as
approaches to teaching. Unquestionably, good language
asking different types of questions and responding to
competence helps teachers to be self-confident in their
others’ questions and answers), topic-based discussions
professional practice. That researchers rate language
(of teaching-related topics), and question-and-answer
Teacher’s Edition
— 35 —
November 2002

activities related to specific teaching skills. All subjects
(5) Cooperate and Collaborate
in a curriculum should concentrate on the development
of professional competencies of teachers-in-training.
Within schools, it is critical to promote good coop-
The structural incoherence of the current curriculum
eration and collaboration among teachers, especially
makes it ineffective, irrelevant, and a waste of the
teachers from different generations. Senior teachers are
limited time.
not always good models of teaching methodology, while
junior teachers lack experience. An absence of cooper-
(3) Shift Focus from Pre-Service to In-Service
ation and collaboration impedes the development of
individual aptitudes. The Ministry of Education and
It is vital to develop a coherent in-service system in
Training, together with provincial Departments of
order to gradually move the focus from pre-service to in-
Education and Training, should consider devising regula-
service training. The Ministry of Education and Training
tions that require administrators or department chairs to
and provincial Departments of Education and Training
provide teachers with opportunities for such training.
should consider training key local trainers to deliver
These five recommendations are aimed at creating
local training courses. These key trainers could also play
coherent change, from management agencies to teacher
the role of school mentors for practicum students.
training institutions and on down to schools where
The goal of upgrading school teachers can only be
teachers are employed. The goal is quality, as seen in
achieved by capacity-building for schools so that they
educational effectiveness and teachers’ professional
are able to run their own in-service training without
development. Without such changes, efforts to upgrade
reliance on outside “experts.” This does not mean that
Vietnam’s educational quality will fail to bring about the
consultancy provided by a pool of well-trained special-
desired results.
ists is not needed. The Ministry of Education and
Training should consider selecting, training, and employ-
ing such a pool. At the same time, it is necessary to allo-
cate budget funds for the establishment of school-based
Britten, D. “Three Stages in Teacher Training.” ELT
resource rooms.
Journal 42 (1), pp. 3-8. 1988.
Clandinin, D.J. Classroom Practices: Teacher Images in
(4) Cultivate Distance Education Programs
Action. Falmer, 1986.
Given the unique features of language education
Delors, J., et al. “Learning:The Treasure Within.” Report
and the fact that language teachers, especially those in
to UNESCO of the International Commission on
rural areas, do not have access to opportunities to use
Education for the Twenty-First Century. UNESCO, 1996.
the foreign language, the Ministry of Education and
Freeman, D.
“Redefining the Relationship Between
Training should consider developing a language
Research and What Teachers Know.” In Voices from the
improvement program by distance education as a matter
Language Classroom. Ed. K.M. Bailey and D. Nunan.
of urgency. Such a program should gradually move the
Cambridge UP, 1996.
focus from language improvement alone to a combina-
tion of language improvement and the development of
-----. “Learning Teaching:‘Interteaching’ and Other Views
teachers’ abilities to deal with problems related to
of the Development of Teachers’ Knowledge.” Plenary
methodology. The existence of such a program, togeth-
paper presented at the Annual Washington Area TESOL
er with credit or recognition for participants, will help
Conference, 1991.
to upgrade both teacher language competence and
Johnson, K.E. “The Emerging Beliefs and Instructional
methodological innovation.
It is critical to promote good cooperation and collaboration among...
teachers from different generations. Senior teachers are not always good
models of teaching methodology, while junior teachers lack experience.
Teacher’s Edition
— 36 —
November 2002

Practices of Preservice English as a Second Language
-----. “The Dilemma of Teacher Education in Second
Teachers.” Teaching & Teacher Education 10 (4), pp.
Language Teaching.”
In Second Language Teacher
439-452, 1994.
Education. Ed. J. Richards and D. Nunan. Cambridge UP,
Kennett, P., and J. Knight. “Baseline Study Report on
Lower Secondary English Language Teaching in Vietnam:
Wallace, M.J. Training Foreign Language Teachers: A
ELTTP Project.” Ministry of Education and Training of
Reflective Approach. Cambridge UP, 1991.
Vietnam and the Department for International
Development (U.K.), 1999.
Le Van Canh (M.A., TESOL, St. Michael’s College) is the
Lange, D.L. “A Blueprint for a Teacher Development
Director of the International Relations Office of the
Programme.” In Second Language Teacher Education.
College of Foreign Languages, Hanoi National University,
Ed. J. Richards and D. Nunan. Cambridge UP, 1990.
where he also teaches. He has been involved in English
Prabhu, N.S. “There Is No Best Method – Why?” TESOL
education since 1979, and has written for many news-
Quarterly 24 (2), pp. 161-176, 1990.
papers and professional journals. He contributed the
article, “Language and Vietnamese Pedagogical
Richards, J.C. “Teachers’ Maxims in Language Teaching.”
Contexts,” to Teacher’s Edition 7, November 2001.
TESOL Quarterly NA (2), pp. 281-296, 1996.
Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.
– John Cotton Dana
Spot Photo Give this photo and exercise suggestions to students desiring extra
practice, use it in tutoring situations, or collect it and other photos for
classroom use.

Photo by Brad Baurain
Create and role-play a
brief dialogue that might
have taken place between
the woman selling pot-
tery and the family.
This picture is from a local
arts festival. Write a para-
graph describing an art
form that is popular or
unique in your hometown.
Why are art and beauty
important? Prepare a
speech in which you pres-
ent and defend at least three
answers to this question.
Teacher’s Edition
— 37 —
November 2002