English teaching is big business in Vietnam, where it seems everyone wants to learn the world’s most widely spoken language. But it can be a challenge for a novice instructor.
Anyone who thinks teaching 4- and 5-year-olds is easier than lecturing to 20-year-old university students obviously has never spent much time around young children.
When I committed to an English-teaching job in Vietnam, I did so with the naivety of a jellyfish. I hadn’t planned on teaching at the kindergarten level, but if that were to be my temporary destiny, I figured the kids would all be like Sponge Bob. They would simply absorb the new language as I showed them pictures and drilled the vocabulary.
Guess again. Every one of these kids has a personality as unique as my brother, my sister and I. Who knew? There may be a couple of sponges in each class of 10 to 12 students, but every day I find myself wrestling with tears, misbehavior, clinginess, hyperactivity and attention deficit (big time). Some children won’t let go of stuffed animals. Others don’t want to lose sight of Mommy.
Thankfully, I am assisted at the younger levels by bilingual Vietnamese teaching assistants, young men and women with some expertise at soothing childhood anxiety.
Classes are 90 minutes, twice a week. I regularly devote a large part of that block — 30 minutes or more — to short videos, singing, and arts-and-crafts activities. I learned quickly that I must entertain as well as educate, to maintain any level of attention.
The course material provided by APAX Leaders, my parent English education company, is very phonics-oriented. The most basic level (“Cocoon”) starts with learning the alphabet: “Letter ‘A’ sounds like ‘ah.’ Letter ‘B’ sounds like ‘bah.’” It’s easy to confuse the sounds of “b” and “p,” of “d” and “t.” And how do I explain that “C” can sounds like either “k” or “s”?
Some of the quietest kids are the ones who grasp the material most quickly. Some of the loudest kids have the greatest struggles with phonics. I don’t want to say they seem hopeless, but, well, take Sarah, for instance. Please, take her. She is an impudent little princess, but after several months in class, she still can’t recite a letter. Yet impish Ben and teeny, tiny Mimi have the right answers nearly every time.
Yes, the children are encouraged to take common English names. Most of the choices are American or British. But in my various classes, I have girls who go by Sky, Pink, Mori and Xuka, and boys named Coco, jindo and Yasuo. Food names are popular: Strawberry, Sushi, Cherry, Mint, Candy and Apple. So are superheroes and their ilk: Spiderman, Conan, Sonic.
Now, not all of my students at APAX Leaders are this young. Indeed, my classes span all age categories up to about 15. The youngest, after progressing through two levels of Cocoon, move up to Caterpillar and Butterfly. The older students, most of them at least 8 years old, progress through the levels of Seedbed, Seed, Sprout and Sapling as their knowledge expands and their fluency improves.
As a teacher, I emphasize listening, speaking, reading and writing. A typical lesson will begin with vocabulary review, followed by the recitation of a picture story. Next comes a series of questions designed to test comprehension of the material. It’s easy to tell who listens and who doesn’t.
Among the older kids, in classes that top out at 16, talking is the biggest disciplinary problem. Our first classroom rule is “Speak English!” and many youngsters gradually learn to adhere. But there are exceptions to every rule. When my irritating toy bicycle horn fails to produce a degree of silence, I have a booming voice: “Be quiet!” may shortly be followed by “Shut up!”
Prep and progress
There’s a substantial amount of “prep” (class preparation) that goes on for an hour or so before classes begin. At the conclusion of every three- to four-week unit, I use a tablet to video the class, creating short movies for parents to observe their children’s progress. (I like to ask the students, “How are you?” One girl responded, “I’m fucking great!”)
And several times a year, I write individual critiques of each of the kids whom I instruct.
This has been the general program since I began teaching English at the end of December last year. For about six weeks in March and April, when fear of the corona virus crested in Vietnam, I stayed home and conducted online classes via Zoom.
That was sufficient but far from ideal. My shouts of “Be quiet!” were much fewer in number, but online teaching did not provide a practical method of drilling and follow-up.
I’ll talk about the virus (COVID-19) and its impact on Vietnam in my next blog.
Next: Here comes COVID-19