How it all began
Before my arrival at the LGTC in September 2018, I had an intense and careful preparation phase in Karlsruhe (Germany), many meetings with Prof. Martin, Johannes Zeck, and several volunteers of previous teams, and I read this blog and other literature about Laos. However, I was still not sure what to expect culturally and personally from my time in Laos, and I could not have said how I felt about my upcoming task as a tandem-partner for an LGTC English teacher.
During my preparation phase I was already facing two distinct opinions regarding the English coursebook Technical English 1: My future Lao English teacher-colleagues, who had quite a negative attitude towards the coursebook on the one hand, and Prof. Martin on the other hand, who had spent quite some time in the summer of 2016 reviewing dozens of coursebooks on Technical English together with the first LGTC volunteers Lena Wink and Denise Burkhardt (Team III). They had finally chosen this course book. I was sensing that there was a lot of work to come.
In July 2018, the LGTC volunteers of Team VII (including me) were invited to Weiherhammer (Germany) so as to get to know the responsible persons of the English department at the LGTC, Mr Saythong Insarn and Ms Moukdala Keomixai, who were visiting BHS over the summer. Johannes Zeck chaired the meeting with the Lao teachers, us three volunteers, and Prof. Martin, during which Mr Saythong and Ms Moukdala repeated again that their attitude towards the course book Technical English 1 was still problematic and they had doubts whether the course book would fit their students’ needs.1 By contrast, I was hearing and reading how positively the previous workshops on this topic had been received at the LGTC and why and how carefully the course book had been picked out.2
Shortly after our arrival in Vientiane, we held our first English teachers meeting, in which we did not only talk about our work at the LGTC, but also about the ongoing concerns and struggles of the English teachers in their English lessons which had already been mentioned back in Weiherhammer. Although
the teachers had worked with the international course book Technical English 1 by Pearson for almost one year by then, they still felt overwhelmed and were not satisfied yet. These were their concerns:
- general struggle of the students learning English (Latin alphabet, big classes, understanding the grammar covered in the book)
- some unsuitable topics for Lao students but also Lao teachers, e.g. heating systems, robotic vacuum cleaners (these items are of no relevance to them)
- exhausting preparation for the teachers because of the amount of material provided by Technical English 1. The course book consists of three parts, which does not sound a lot for a person who grew up in a print-based culture, but for people from an oral culture, this is a lot to process.3
At first, the concerns of the English teachers seemed quite reasonable to me, and I thought that the situation would improve as soon as we, the volunteers, started our tandem-teaching and mentoring. However, I soon realised that the concerns were larger than expected. The first English teachers meeting and several other individual talks with my tandem-teacher Ms Moukdala Keomixai made me understand that I would have to provide more than only tandem-teaching and general mentoring for individual lessons.
In addition to the teacher’s book provided by the publisher (Pearson), the teachers would need a well-suited and adjusted guideline for the course book material to make the content of the book more accessible for their students. “Lao oral culture” means that people are simply not used to reading books. This is the reason why it is hard for the teachers to get an overview or quick grasp of the three academically structured books – teacher’s book, student’s book, workbook – that are provided for each level.
Considering the teachers’ concerns, I reflected on our experiences during class and preparation lessons together so far, and we brainstormed how the course book situation during our time at the LGTC could be improved. It was recalled that both Prof. Martin and the previous team had already recommended to the LGTC teachers to use simultaneous time management to plan their school year, to stick to the order of the chapters in the course book, and to write lesson plans.5
As Team VI had not only recommended, but also covered the latter in a workshop, I thought it would be useful to tackle the next hurdle: Creating a course plan with the teachers. This may not sound like a big project to Western teachers who are used to making course plans for the entire year, especially when there is a teacher’s book to follow, but for me it was quite a challenge because it meant a) providing necessary and well-defined support for the Lao students to learn English with this book on the one hand, b) introducing a completely new approach and structure the Lao English teachers on the other hand, whilst c) trying to convince them that it would be worth the effort to invest extra work in this enterprise.
The course plan would include the following:
- a plan for the academic teaching year(s),
- a structure to follow,
- a collection of various tasks, exercises, and teaching ideas (e.g. games, activities), partly selected from the teacher’s book, partly added by me,
- additional material (e.g. flashcards and picture cards), created by me/us.
This led me to the idea to support the teachers not only by planning their lessons together, but also by collecting and sharing the material within the English teacher group.6
As it took some time to settle in at the LGTC properly and to collect my own impressions about the situation, I started working together with Ms Moukdala on a first draft of the course plan. I also consulted Mr Saythong Insarn to make sure his wishes for the course plan were considered, which was also valuable for me because he helped me to understand the educational system at the LGTC better.7
After creating the first draft, I started meeting up with the English teachers, which also included Ms Viengkhom Phyathep and Ms Akina Yadsadahuky, every Thursday afternoon to forward this project. My goal was to hopefully facilitate and establish satisfaction and confidence in teaching with the Techncial English 1 course book. As our regular workloads increased with this project, I realised it would need more official support and a more general standing, so we informed Mr Khamsavay Gnommilavong, the Acting Director of the LGTC, that we would make the structure of the course plan the topic of a workshop for all English teachers.
The structure of our workshop covered the following questions:
- What is a course plan?
- Why create a course plan?
- What are the goals of a course plan?
- What does the structure look like?
For the workshop, we booked a room on the LGTC campus, prepared a presentation, and every English teacher received a big folder for collecting the material for the course plan.
1. What is a course plan?
A course plan is a plan in which the teacher determines which content is taught in which week. It provides a structure for the teaching year and supports the teacher so he or she can teach and prepare in a more time-efficient manner.
Also, a course plan like ours will not only give the English teachers a structure to follow, but it will also help them to improve their own teaching through having all the material together and being able take out, edit, or add to the given material. In the course plan, the teacher finds the concrete learning goals for each unit and sub-unit of the Technical English material.8 Furthermore, it provides the teacher with a collection of activities, tasks, exercises, and teaching ideas so that the teachers gradually build up a wide repertoire and can adapt lessons every year to their new class.
2. Why create a course plan?
Through our observations, during consultations with the English teachers, and through exchanges with the previous volunteer teams, we identified three basic reasons for preparing a course plan for Technical English 1:
- The teaching content can be adjusted to the students’ needs.
- The teachers get guidance for their lesson planning.
- The teachers all teach the same content.
Firstly, the adjustment of the teaching content to the students’ needs means that we observe and experience a lot of struggles by the Lao students concerning pronunciation, the Latin alphabet, learning styles, and many other issues. The Technical English 1 material published by Pearson is the first level of an international course book series and aims to address a wide range of students, but some of the technical topics would only be known in so-called “developed” countries (e.g. robot vacuum cleaners and solar panels).9
In order to make the content accessible for our Lao students, we need to provide the students with additional material and customise the content. In order to do this, we studied and evaluated each exercise, task, or activity in Technical English 1 to see which struggles and problems could appear, and then adapted those parts accordingly: We decided which parts to leave out and where to provide extra material. For extra material, we used the course book Top Notch, which had been newly chosen by Prof. Isabel Martin for the general English classes of the volunteers, as guidance.
Secondly, the course plan gives the LGTC English teachers guidance for their lesson planning. Through the course plan, they can pick from various and customised material. As an important side effect, this will reduce the workload for preparing lessons and gives the teachers a buffer for stronger students (differentiation through time).9 As the teachers are provided with a variety of material, they can plan the lessons according to the level of the individual classes.
The third reason – that all teachers should teach the same content – was already discussed in the workshop of Team VI (“How to work with Technical English”). There are several arguments to consider here. Tasja and Anna-Lena had pointed out how essential and relevant it is to stick to the order of the tasks and exercise in the course book – as Prof. Martin had explained that language learning is sequential and good course books therefore are progressive. (One can also simply trust the authors and editors of a good series, because they are language and teaching experts with great expertise in teaching internationally and revised the series many times over many years.) Secondly, our predecessors emphasised that timing differences between the different English teachers should be avoided. If teachers worked closely together they could be more efficient and would achieve a steady progression, so all teachers should cover the same content in one particular year. This means that the course plan needs to be the product of team work. Last, but not least, the course plan facilitates fair evaluation and testing, as it provides fixed learning goals on the one hand and a variety of activities, tasks, and exercises covering the four skills – listening, speaking, reading, and writing – in a pleasant balance on the other hand.
3. What are the goals of a course plan?
The second part of our workshop – “Why create a course plan?” – already included information about the goals. A well-organised course plan facilitates teaching that is structured, consistent, motivating, well-planned, and efficient.
So far, our focus was on the teachers, but a course plan also provides their students with clarity, transparency, and structure regarding their own “learning path(ways)“. This helps students to stay motivated and oriented in their learning.
4. What does the structure look like?
The structure of the course plan is divided into two parts. Part I provides an overview of all the units of Technical English 1 (12 units). The overview can be seen as the “skeleton” of the book: It includes the estimated time, the pages (of each of the three books), the name of the topic, the grammar topics, vocabulary and phrases of each unit. These categories are listed in one table for a quick and broad overview of what comes next and what was already taught.
Part II is divided into sections for each unit. Each section is further divided into two parts:
1.1. Information about the unit and each sub-unit (in form of a table)
1.2. Additional material and lessons plans.
The information part (1.1.) includes goals and lists of activities, tasks, and exercises taken from the course book & workbook, lists of additional material, grammar topics, list of vocabulary & phrases (which is an additional list because we added and took some words out), and possible difficulties.
Teaching goals of the unit, each sub-unit, and sometimes also the goals of a specific activity, task, or exercise.
1.1.2. Activities, tasks, exercises of the course book / workbook
Not all activities, tasks, and exercises are suitable for the LGTC students, so we removed the unsuitable ones.
1.1.3. Additional material
To replace the removed material, we created and added more suitable activities, tasks, and exercises. These are listed in this section. Also, for some grammar topics the LGTC students need a lot more practice than the Technical English 1 book provides, so these additional exercises are also listed here.10
The grammar topics of each unit are explained accurately and in a detailed way so the English teacher can revise the grammar him- or herself, and everyone teaches the same. Of course, the grammar pages are provided in the back of the course book as is normal (for a Western course book), but I figured it would be more helpful for the Lao teachers to have all the necessary information in one place, i.e. in our folder.
1.1.5. Vocabulary and phrases
In this section all the new vocabulary and phrases of the unit are listed (word list, phrases list). It includes the vocabulary listed in the back of the course book by Technical English 1, but we added what the English teachers and volunteers felt was of relevance.
1.1.6. Possible difficulties/ problems
This last section of each unit is very important and needs to be adjusted frequently. Here the teachers write down the struggles they have with the unit or specific activities, tasks, or exercises. It serves as a reflection of the unit and is needed to self-improve one’s teaching for next time.11
The (Part II 1.2.) “Additional material” includes all the material that is created by the English teachers and volunteers for a specific unit to complement the course material. Examples for this are picture cards and word cards for the blackboard, worksheets, grammar sheets, games (e.g. Memory, Bingo), question cards, information cards, descriptions of games and activity ideas, and, of course, all the lesson plans for the unit.
What happened after the workshop?
After the workshop, I met up with the English teachers once a week – normally on a Thursday – to continue our work on the course plan. During the first few sessions, I showed them how to create material on the computer, but I soon realised that they were already quite familiar with this. Especially Ms Akina Yadsadahuk has great knowledge and experience with Microsoft products, as she holds a university degree in Computer Science. Therefore, we had a great time sharing work together. In our weekly meetings, we figured out how to sort the material, and we then provided the English teachers with all the materials that each English teacher had created. We also started filling out the tables for each unit starting with Unit 1. While filling out the templates, we practised forming and fomulating teaching goals – which is not easy! – and which worked better and better with every session. Moreover, it was very productive to go through each activity, task, and exercise of the unit, because in this process we did not only clarify questions about grammar and vocabulary, but also about methodology: Thematising how an activity, task, or exercise could be implemented in class.12 We surely made a lot of progress together!
All in all, I think the workshop was very satisfying for both the volunteers and the English teachers. Their attitude to the course book also changed through our cooperation.
Of course, the course plan needs developing further by the subsequent teams – by revising and consolidating. However, I think the course plan is a great first step in the right direction. After the workshop and a few weeks later, I could already feel the effect of a change because the English teachers appeared more motivated and confident to plan and prepare a lesson. I am sure that the future teams will continue successfully with this topic until all the teachers’ initial worries are dissipated.
Text by N. Wiesa, with notes by I. Martin
Photos by D. Erdogan, P. Hopp & N. Wiesa
1 I believe this attitude arose for several reasons, which are quite normal for such a huge step in the project. First of all, working with an international course book that includes three different books was a new concept for the Lao English teachers. Also, there was a misunderstanding on the German side, and the wrong book was used at first, which really was unsuitable. In my eyes, this just points out how important intercultural awareness is, and it shows how much time, effort, patience, and perseverance of all teams involved it has taken to settle the Technical English 1 course book in this College routine.
2 Editor’s note: Our thanks go to Ms Angela Bauer-Seekings from ELT Pearson Deutschland GmbH for the discount on the book order and many other book donations (e.g. “Easy Readers”) for the LGTC. Quality-wise, we think that “Technical English” is the best series in the field.
3 Also, some of our partners did not study TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), but completely different subjects, which also may not have been teaching degrees, e.g. Computer Science.
4 Simultaneous time management means that the teachers work on the same number of units within roughly the same time frame as their colleagues – which would facilitate the transition of classes to the next teacher, the next year, or block of units.
5 Editor’s note: This had also been suggested at the outset, but there were too many new concepts or suggestions to process at one time. However, step by step and tandem-team by tandem-team the desired changes and learning processes on both sides started to materialise.
6 Mr Saythong Insarn was the Head of the English Department at the LGTC at that time.
7 Each unit in Technical English 1 is divided into three sub-units, e.g. “Unit 4 Movement” has “Unit 4.1 Directions”, “Unit 4.2 Instructions”, and “Unit 4.3 Actions”.
8 “Buffer” in didactics means time for extra material, used when one finishes early or to keep stronger students busy.
“Differentiation” within a classroom means that different learning opportunities are provided on different levels – typically three – for the different learners. One aspect is “differentiation through time”, which means that every student works on the same material but the stronger students get the chance to work on further material as soon as they finished the first task, activity, or exercise.
9 Editor’s note: “The common usage of the word developed implies that there is a gold-standard for ‘development’ overall, with a desirable (refined, superior) state of development at one end of the scale and an undesirable (‘raw’, unrefined, primitive, inferior) one at the other. The binary of ‘developed countries’ and ‘undeveloped’ or ‘underdeveloped countries’ is a value statement rooted in eurocentricism and colonialism; the criteria by which a country is deemed developed are chosen by those who deem themselves to be developed” (in: http://www.thelaosexperience.com/2019/03/01/interview-with-a-chilean-expat-in-vientiane-the-bacan-cafe/).
10 Editor’s note: For EFL Beginners, Unit 1 is already most challenging. Students coming from rural areas often had no English language lessons at school, and the Latin alphabet is entirely different from the Lao alphabet, as are the English sounds. Lao learners are also not used to a stress-based language-system (Lao is time-based and tonal on top), which makes it extra-hard to pronounce English words (word stress) and sentences (sentence stress).
11 After the workshop, in our tandem-time, we discussed possible struggles and problems of a Unit. Initially, our partners had a hard time to identify and name the problems, but after a bit of practice, it became a lot easier.
12 It was very important to clarify the vocabulary together, because we realised that Lao-English dictionaries are not very precise, especially when it comes to ambiguous terms or words with several meanings (which is normal in the English language). Sometimes we also discovered intercultural misunderstandings in the process.