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Of integers and chloroplasts
secondary students at Yupparaj Wittayalai School in Chiang Mai are taking their math and science courses in English
Pictures by SASIKARN CHANTANA
It is hardly news that English language teaching within the Thai school system has not been a roaring success. Millions of students study English, but few master the language to the extent they can readily use it in an academic or work setting.
What definitely is news, however, is what is being doing to address this problem. The most drastic solution, of course, is to opt out of the Thai system altogether in favour of an English-language international school. Then there are the burgeoning international and bi-lingual programmes within enterprising schools in the Thai system.
But these are very expensive options that can easily cost parents hundreds of thousands of baht a year. Now, a new government initiative is seeking to provide a more affordable option. The English is less intensive than the alternative models and participating schools operate under significant financial and material constraints, but if the programme at Yupparaj Wittayalai School in Chiang Mai is any indication, the idea holds considerable promise nonetheless.
This term, 60 first-year secondary school students at Yupparaj are taking their science and mathematics courses in English. Together with their regular English course, this means they are getting about eleven hours of exposure to English a week. This is not an immersion programme by any means, but it more than doubles what Thai students typically get.
The courses are taught by native English speakers under the close supervision of Thai content-area teachers. Course fees are borne by the students’ parents. The school intends to expand the programme one year at a time until all six years of secondary school are covered.
“This two-language programme is the result of a government policy,” says Yupparaj school director Weerayuth Jongsathapornpong. “It is one of five such programmes which cover areas like math and science, Buddhist studies and modern technology.
“Yupparaj had the opportunity to be considered for opening a two-language programme because the ministry was looking for schools that were ready and capable of doing it,” Mr Weerayuth explains.
The English programme has generated considerable parental interest, he says, and drew more than 300 applicants. One of the big reasons, he says, is that the programme strictly follows the Thai national curriculum, an important consideration for students ultimately bound for local universities.
Government guidelines for setting up the programme were not totally adequate, however, particularly in terms of financing, Mr Weerayuth says.
“The government allows collecting fees up to 25,000 baht per year but that’s not enough. So we met with the parents who were interested in the programme and we said that if we only charge that much, we won’t be able to carry on. We said we might have to charge up to 25,000 baht a term. This was acceptable to the parents.”
To ensure the money is spent efficiently, a board was set up to oversee the programme. It includes four or five parents, Mr Weerayuth points out.
The English programme can only be as good as the teachers who staff it. Here Mr Weerayuth feels that Yupparaj has a distinct advantage over schools in different regions of the country.
“Fortunately, Chiang Mai is a tourist centre. That is a huge advantage. So when we announced the job openings we had many more applicants than could be expected elsewhere,” he says.
As a result the school was able to obtain two experienced American teachers, both of whom wanted very much to be there.
“I’m here until I die or as long as they allow me to renew my visa,” says Hans Swartz who teaches both English and mathematics. “The first place I came to in Thailand was Chiang Mai and I just fell in love with the place.”
Schwartz says he was very excited when he heard of the job opening at Yupparaj and “jumped at the chance” to teach there.
Science teacher Rosemary Boliver was first attracted by Chiang Mai’s reputation as being a nice place to live.
“I wanted to come abroad and travel,” she says. “I was also very interested in doing some service work. I heard Chiang Mai was wonderful, so I moved here.
“Then, as I was looking for a job here in this area to teach, I heard that this school was a very good school. So I decided to put in an application. Fortunately I was the one they selected.”
Since neither Schwartz nor Boliver are certified in the fields they are teaching, they depend heavily on their Thai counterparts for support.
“Math is not my strong point,” Schwartz readily admits. “I let the students know that. I make mistakes. I’m a history major.
“But I also have my Thai counterpart (Acharn Darunee Charoenthip) with me in the classroom. She is invaluable. I consider her the real teacher. I just present the material in English. So if there are questions that I cannot answer, of course, she’s there to step right in and explain,” Schwartz says.
With a degree in biological anthropology, Boliver is more at home with the material covered in her biology and chemistry class. But she, too, welcomes the help of her Thai “master” teacher, Acharn Pranee Limcharoen.
“At this point, it’s more of a monitoring,” Boliver explains. “She gives students assignments and she circulates as well and answers questions and things like that, but I do the actual teaching. If there’s some kind of communication breakdown, she’s always there to help.
“She doesn’t interrupt unless I’ve made a terrible error and then she steps in and say, ‘you might want to point out…’ or ‘may I say something?’ She’s incredibly polite,” Boliver says with obvious appreciation.
The two Thai teachers say they are pleased by the way things are going, but their workload is turning out to be a bit heavier than they might have expected. Both, for example, have found it necessary to introduce a weekly one-hour Thai language summary session to help students solidify what they have learned from their American teachers.
Science teacher Acharn Pranee, who doubles as programme coordinator, says she is still experimenting with this class.
“We began with Acharn Rosemary teaching the content first and I followed with a summary class, but I had the feeling that students were having difficulty understanding the teacher’s explanations.
“Science is a difficult subject for students, especially technical terms or the understanding of scientific concepts. I’m always worried that the students will develop misconceptions about the science.
“So I made a change and taught the Thai class first. I introduced the topics and basic concepts and then had Acharn Rosemary follow. I think that appears to be working better,” Acharn Pranee observes.
The extra class may also give the students in the English stream a slight advantage over their counterparts in the Thai language stream. “I don’t think our students are at a disadvantage to their peers in regular classes because they get more teaching than the others do. I try to give them a wider understanding,” she explains.
According to mathematics counterpart Acharn Darunee, one of the Thai teachers’ main functions is to ensure that the material taught conforms with the requirements of the national curriculum. This extends to homework and tests.
“We have to make sure the homework assigned is sufficient and consistent with what students in the regular stream are getting,” she says. “And we have to ensure that tests adequately cover the material taught and that they are sufficient for the time allotted.”
Apart from that, Acharn Darunee says they closely monitor the teacher’s classroom presentation and act as a liaison between the students and the teacher.
“For example, if the students indicate that they want material repeated, we tell the teacher. And if the teacher wants to know why a student hasn’t done the required homework, we try to find out. It may simply be that the student doesn’t understand the instructions,” Acharn Darunee comments.
At the same time, both teachers have their regular duties to attend to. “I still teach physics as well,” Acharn Pranee notes. “I did get my regular teaching load reduced from five classes to two, but I still have 17 periods per week. And I have many other responsibilities as well since I am the coordinator of this programme.”
Teacher: “What does a plant cell have that an animal cell does not?”
Students: “A cell wall and chloroplasts.”
Not the most exciting dialogue snippet perhaps, but it is a good indication that the exposure these students are getting to English is profoundly different from the language students in traditional English classes are getting.
And this is English in a realistic context. The focus is on the content of the message rather than its structure. Indeed, if language were the sole target, the students would struggle.
“I’ve got one or two students that I would say are at a low intermediate,” Schwartz says of his students. “But for the most part, they’re beginners.”
His English class, therefore, is mainstream EFL. “Right now we’re concentrating on describing people. ‘He’s tall.’ He’s short’, and so on. And some of the students have difficulty with that,” Schwartz observes.
But unlike most other schools, the English does not end with the English class. In their math class, for example, these first-year secondary students are developing communication skills that most Thai students never master.
“What they are getting,” Schwartz explains, “is the ability to stand up and explain how to do a math problem in English using English vocabulary. Things like integer, numerator, denominator, division – vocabulary that is basically new to them.”
They are also slowly gaining confidence, Boliver adds. “I’m seeing improvement. I’m seeing that there are more people communicating with me and they’re willing to make an effort. They’re showing a bit more confidence.
“They may not communicate with me in the class right away, but they seem to find me afterwards and they will ask me things. That’s where they’re developing their ability to speak and express themselves.”
Since Schwartz and Boliver are essentially their students’ only source of English conversation, they both work very hard to make themselves accessible to their students.
“I think the thing that makes the programme work is the availability to the students outside of the classroom,” Schwartz explains. “I try to make them feel that I’m approachable and they can talk to me at any time, not just during class time.”
The big question now is whether this accessibility can be maintained when the programme expands. There is already some question as to whether the programme can afford to add two new teachers in the second year, for example.
But the biggest challenge will occur when the programme reaches the upper secondary level where specialist teachers will be required. Recruiting them from abroad could prove to be prohibitively expensive, so it is possible that the teachers may turn out to be English-speaking Thais.
For the present at least, that is not a big concern and everyone involved seems remarkably positive about the initiative.
“I’m pleased,” says Boliver. “I’m impressed with the fact that my students are able to understand the English and the concepts because they are very abstract. I know how difficult it is to try to learn science in a different language. It’s very difficult so I’m quite impressed”
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Last modified: July 21, 2003