Teaching experiences in Laos

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Two months have passed since I left Germany and said goodbye to my parents and friends for five months. A lot has happened since my „First Impressions“ blog post and I collected many new experiences while teaching and living in Laos.

My two main tasks are teaching my English-tandem teacher Ms Bounpheng at Ban Phang Heng primary school and teaching the “Mopsies” (preschoolers) in the morning, since Jessica, who taught the preschoolers before, had to leave in mid-November.

During the first month I observed Ms Bounpheng’s lessons and offered linguistic and methodological help when she needed it. In our tandem-teacher lessons we practise vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation together. In the afternoon I do the “Activity Time” with the children in the yard of the school. We sing, dance, and play games in English together. My fourth task is managing the Lending Library, where the teachers can borrow diverse teaching materials and also all sorts of novels for their free time.

As Lao teachers (and students) do not read books in their free time much, however, we put this down to experience – this is our own intercultural misconception. To start with, there is not much free time because they have second jobs in the evenings (for example teaching English in private evening schools), or they have to attend to housekeeping (e.g. washing clothes by hand) and family matters. When they do have free time, they do not spend it alone reading, but for spending time with family, or relaxing. This will in 90% of the cases be TV, Facebook, or Utube – there is the real world out there to discover!

We therefore donated the novels – which had been donations by students and staff of the University of Education Karlsruhe –  to the English Department of the National University of Laos, but do not know at this stage whether the offer if more appropriate there. We now understand more fully what it means that “the Lao people have an oral tradition” – they are not used to reading.

Teaching techniques

The other teams already did a lot of work, which you can see when you observe the English lessons of the teachers these days. To counteract the usual frontal teaching techniques, they now use many techniques that they learnt from the former teams. I am always very happy when Ms Bounpheng does „Singlish“ with the children because they have a lot of fun when they can move and do something different than just sitting and copying from the board whilst using the English language.

There are many reasons why the teachers cannot use all the techniques that we are taught to use in Germany.
First: There are around 35-45 children in each class in primary school, which makes it really hard to create material for everyone, as the school cannot cover the printing costs (there is therefore no photocopier for the teachers). It also makes it totally impossible to take differentiating notes of the children who are slower and those who work really fast.
Second: The size of the classroom is limited, so you cannot move around as much as in a German classroom. This makes it difficult to establish different working scenarios like partner or group work because the children always sit in the same place and are not used to moving around. If you try, you lose a lot of time and especially in the lower classes it leads to chaos because nobody knows what to do. Lesson learnt: Establishing a new routine or working format cannot be done at the same time as introducing new language material.

Third: Lao children are not used to speaking alone, with a partner, or in a small group – they are used to speaking with the whole class, repeating what the teacher says. It remains unclear how many children actually understand what they are repeating. Tests and grades accordingly assess rote reproduction, not necessarily understanding.  They also only learn individual words (and not chunks of language), which is why it is not realistic to expect them to speak by themselves or have simple short conversations. As they are seldom asked to speak individually throughout their schooling, they continue to be shy of speaking well into adulthood. When they are forced to say something individually, you can hardly hear what they say because they  speak in a low voice and there always seems to be noise outside (mostly construction work or noise from other classes, while doors and windows are always open). We noticed many of them lose this alleged “shyness” instantly when the teaching technique changes to a more communicative approach.

My first weeks of teaching

I noticed early that it is very hard to work on pronunciation issues because the Laotian language is so different from the English language. It has another sound inventory and is a tonal language. Word and sentence stress as well as intonation are different, too. Stress and intonation interference sometimes makes it hard for Westerners to understand Lao English, more than any possibly wrongly produced sounds. „Rice“ [raɪs] is pronounced „li” or “lice“, for example, because their vocal tract is differently trained than ours (the tongue is a muscle after all) and there is no spoken “r” in their language (but it is still written). “Liver” [ˈlɪvə] therefore may mean “river” [ˈrɪvə] or [lɪvə], and “daily routine”  may be spelt “dairy routine”. We still understand the meaning from the context of the conversation.

A little more difficult is the fact that in Lao no consonant sound is allowed after the diphthongs [aɪ] and [ou], so not pronouncing a consonant after those sounds is a clear interference from the mother tongue and therefore difficult (but not impossible) to un-do. We then simply guess (other si, li stock, ri, piappo, compi, hou, sou). There are no two consonants following each other in Lao, either, so words like “hand” or “left” or “old” are very difficult for our learners.

Also, words with a „th“ are difficult, and this is a difficulty they share with German learners. Our learners’ motivation to improve is remarkable, though, and they say it is good that they have some practice with us every day. Ultimately, the pronunciation problem turns into a concentration problem, and then it starts to get easier.

We, the teachers from the Western world, also finally arrive at the understanding that “correct” pronunciation is a Western concept and, at the end of the day, unimportant for  users of Global or International English: They understand each other perfectly well. There is a problem only when a Lao person works in an international context with Westerners – or is a teacher. It makes more sense at this stage to focus on other skills.

After the last weeks of teaching, Ms Bounpeng and I therefore came to the conclusion that it makes more sense to focus on reading and speaking because it takes a long time to change long-established patterns which were learnt since primary school and carried over to to university – and we should use our precious time together differently. My main goal, after all, in teaching my tandem-teacher is to have „real“ conversations with her and to talk about things that she is interested in. So we read many short stories together and picture books, which is a good way to practise reading out loud and speaking about interesting subject matter, and then sometimes we summarize the story and write it down. From time to time, we also try to play role plays or I tell her stories and she answers questions about it or summarizes the plot. The goal is to increase her own speaking time.

“Hours of coverage”

Additionally to these teacher lessons, we have two “hours of coverage” per week in which we create material or use the Talking Pen to prepare lessons together.
 The “Talking Pen” has different features, but the main one is to record yourself while speaking, e.g. to say words going with a flashcard or a page of a picture book. You save your recording digitally on the pen and then copy this onto a sticker that you physically stick on the flashcard or pages of the picturebook. Then, by touching the sticker or page with the pen, it replays to you your recording of that word or sentence, as often as you need it.
Last week we prepared a lesson with the picture book „Monkey Puzzle“, and in the following week we held a lesson about it in class 5 together. Ms Bounpheng read the book aloud in front of the class. Every animal in the book was portrayed by one student and they did the movements and sounds of the animals when they occurred in the book. The children had a lot of fun  and enjoyed being a part of the story, and understood it. The next day Ms Bounpeng taught the other class 5 alone as we did it the day before and I could see her improvement immediately and how she implemented it. Her reading was a lot better and she was more self-confident than the day before. When I notice things which she could do better next time to activate the children more, we talk about it after the lesson and often I can see that she manages to transfer this to her next lesson already! These are rewarding moments for us both.

The “Mopsies”

In the “Mopsy” lessons  I teach easy basic English to the preschoolers in a playful way.
There are nine groups in the Sikeud primary School, which consist of nine to ten children of class A and B. In total I take care of 85 preschoolers. The groups have a 20-minute English lesson per day, in which we want them to have a first contact with a complete different language than their own. 
In the first weeks, Jessica taught six groups which consisted of 15 children, but the groups were just too big to teach effectively, as Prof Martin had cautioned in an email, and the experiment did indeed promptly ruin her voice and was far too exhausting. It is clear that 5-year-old children are energetic, noisy, and cannot behave in an orderly way yet, so teaching this can of worms is a wonderful experience, but very tiring at the same time, no matter in which country. Additionally, in Laos, this apparently is the first time the children get into contact with any rules whatsoever, or education. The very young ones are left to be.

We therefore divided the groups from 6 into 9 and found that this was more manageable. We have two rituals which we do in every lesson – in the beginning we sing the “Good Morning” song and at the end of the lesson we „rap“ the “Goodbye” song.

„Good morning, good morning, good morning to you. Good morning, how are you? I am fine, thanks, and you?“

„1,2,3,4, clap your hands once more. Stamp your feet, wink an eye, time to say goodbye.”

The children also learnt how to say their name and to name different body parts like hand, foot, ear, eye, nose, and to sing the song: „I“ve got 10 fingers, I“ve got 10 toes, I“ve got 2 ears, 2 eyes, 1 nose.“ This means they also learnt the numbers up to 10 in English.

Last week I taught the “Hokey Pokey” song, which requires that the children know which hand and foot is the left one and which hand and foot is the right one. Not easy for a child of five, as you can see in the video – nothing to do with English! We will use coloured bands around the wrists and ankles next.

Now that Jessica has left I will not co-teach her “Mopsies” in Ban Sikeud Primary School any longer but start lessons in Ban Phan Heng Primary School with the preschoolers there so that they also get their turn.

The next weeks

Over the next weeks I will follow the „Mopsy“ book by Leonora Fröhlich-Ward and Gisela Schmid-Schönbein and my aim is to show the children that English or a second (or third, in the case of the children from a minority ethnic background) language can be a lot of fun to learn and that nobody needs to be afraid of learning it!

Although I have a constant timetable of 20 teaching hours, every day is a little bit different in Laos. This is an aspect that I really like because there is always something new and exciting which does not make each day one and the same. I am happy to stay until February and to get to know everything a little bit better day after day and hope to improve and change some things with many little steps.

Last, but not least, I have come to understand that I can learn at least as many new things about teaching as my tandem-teacher and pupils can learn about learning, or English.

Text by L. Herrmann

Photos and videos by V. Golla, L. Kringe & L. Herrmann


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