Workshop on 16 November 2017 – How should we teach “Technical English” at Lao Vocational Colleges?

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A sustainable English language education in our four Lao partner institutions is a crucial aim of the project “Teaching English in Laos”. We started our project 2 years ago in 2015, and one year ago our fourth and newest partner joined up, the Lao-German Technical College.

While the most important part of our work has been teaching English and methodology to our tandem-Lao-English teachers (15 hours a week), we 3 volunteers  at the LGTC – out of a group of ten –  devote the remaining 5 teaching hours (of our total of 20 teaching hours per week) to the four student groups at the LGTC, who graduated from “our” AfC school, Ban Phang Heng Secondary School, in the summer of 2016 and 2017.

These students (ca. 40 in each year so far), who are between 15 and 19 years old and who received study grants from BHS and were allowed and supported by their parents to begin this training, have now been enrolled either in the Electrical or the Mechanical Sections at the Lao-German-Technical-College (LGTC) since September 2016.

It is therefore important to help their teachers broaden and deepen their didactic and methodological knowledge and skills, apart from their command of the English language, so that they will be able to provide their students with lessons for sustainable English learning without our tandem-support in the future.

Vocational colleges often do not have textbooks for all of their teachers. They sometimes receive one copy of a textbook, for example, from one of the universities, or from the Ministry of Education and Sports. This is then shared by the teachers and usually only used as a guideline. Teachers therefore mostly prepare their own scripts. These are typically around 50 pages long, are worked through in one academic year, and consist of collated material, cut and pasted from unquoted sources and in parts also written by the teachers themseves.

These are then photocopied for the students. The students’ copies are either made by the teachers in the secretary’s office or the class spokesperson receives a copy and copies them for everyone in a copy shop, in which case the students pay for them themselves. This is expensive.

There is never a copy in the library. Sometimes there is no library.

In July/August last summer, Prof. Martin and the first two LGTC-volunteers Lena Wink and Denise Burkhardt spent several weeks researching the “Technical English” course book market and selecting potential future course books for the College’s English classes. They came up with a shortlist of ten titles in the end and then met up with BHS-advisor (and vocational teacher) Mr Bernhard Fürst to discuss the choices, get his advice, and make a plan for the four different learner groups.

The course book chosen for the regular English classes was Technical English Level 1 (Pearson), clearly the best one on the market for our purposes. It has careful progression, three more levels, is attractive on all counts, and avoids some of the usual linguistic and intercultural traps.

One of the other books on the shortlist was the course book Tech Talk (OUP), which was chosen and bought as extra material for the “Technical English” classes. The difficulty with both books is, of course, that they were written for Western students – using, for example, pictures of Caucasian children as well as concepts, activities, and items not commonly known or used in Laos. To name a  few examples: Names (Emma, Ulf), food (cereals, burgers, Coca-cola), currency (dollars).

Similarly, the teacher’s guide/handbook is directed at teachers who received comprehensive (Western) training in ELT/TESOL. It therefore presupposes methodological knowledge or expertise, e.g., which pre- and also post-activities to do when and how so that the students can successfully progress. This knowledge or training is not available to most Lao teachers up to this day.

Lao teachers normally do not yet receive such in-depth training because the English language  and methodology associated with it never played a role in this country until relatively recently (private schools exluded). Therefore they tend to go through such course books word by word, page by page, asking the students to read, copy, and translate. Of course this is difficult enough already, for everybody involved.

From our point of view this is completely understandable, but neither advisable nor necessary. We would therefore like to explore another way with our tandem-teachers.

This is what happened in this workshop:

One more important idea for us teachers to consider in this context and in our daily work is the fact that (language-) learning works better if it has a somewhat personal meaning and a connection to the students’ daily lives. Therefore, in order to use this (any!) course book here in Laos, we need a special didactic approach for adapting it for our Lao college classrooms.

This means we need to come up with Lao or at least Asian examples for some of the topics dealt with in the book, e.g. instead of using a photo of a Caucasian child having cereals or toast for breakfast, we add to it (or substitute it with) a picture of an Lao child eating Lao breakfast, i.e. sticky rice,  grilled fish, or noodle soup. Only changes like these make talking about, e.g., “daily routines”, actually meaningful and true-to-life here. There are countless more examples.

In the long-run, one will also need to adapt the linguistic presentation of language material to the types of learning difficulties experienced by Lao learners. These can (only) be properly understood once Lao pronunciation, grammar, syntax, and morphology rules are understood by us. (This is work-in-progress and will be reported about in the New Year.)

At the LGTC, the students study either in the Electrical or the Mechanical Section. Depending on the students’ field of expertise, they need a deeper understanding of either electrical or mechanical matters – also in English. Therefore, the Technical English teachers now use a mixture of materials from Technical English, Tech Talk, and online platforms and create their own script with all of these to address their particular students’ needs.

I was asked by the teachers to hold a workshop during which we would rewrite the book(s) so that they would have a script that they could work with in their lessons, and to learn to use this new approach on their own in the future. As this would be a project for about a year rather than a workshop, and as a comprehensive 4-level course book had already been identified and bought to serve as a guiding medium, I considered it more useful to give the teachers an insight into how exactly to choose and adapt activities, exercises and tasks from another (any other) book, by going through a page or two in minute detail.

This was to be preceded by an overview of how to organize a lesson plan, how to plan a dynamic lesson which goes with the learning goals set beforehand, and the different phases of a lesson. This way, the teachers would gain the ability to critically analyse any material they would work with in the future, to help them enable the students to reach the learning goals of a(ny) particular lesson.

It was a welcome bonus that on this particular day Prof. Martin was present, who did exactly this with me when I was her student in the half-year-school-internship 2 years ago at a partner school of our University of Education in Karlsruhe.

Therefore, on Thursday, 16th November 2017, the five teachers of the “Technical English” class as well as two “General English” teachers came together to learn to analyse and scrutinize the activities, exercises and tasks in the course book Tech Talk.

During the following 2.5 hours we worked with Unit 10: “Here or there”, and, step by step, filled out a model lesson plan. The unit was chosen because it was the one the teachers were either working with, or it was the next one in line.

The first step was to look at the unit as a whole. Which topics, vocabulary, grammar and chunks does it deal with? The unit contains three different topics: “Locating things”, “Telling the time”, and “this and that”.

In all three parts different vocabulary and chunks are used. The next questions were how or if the topics connect to one another, and which one should form the beginning of the teaching unit. For example, from locating things in general, which includes prepositions of place as in “The paper is on the table”, one could move on to locating specific things in different places, e.g. “This paper is on the table, but that paper is in the bin”.

This means that these two topics can be linked to one another, whereas “Telling the time” is an extra topic. It should therefore either be taught before or after the two other topics, but not, as the book intends it, in between. This would interrupt the unit.

Therefore, when it was decided that we would start with “Locating things”, learning goals were formulated: What shall the students have accomplished by the end of the lesson? We formulated the following “can-do statements”:

The students can

  • read and write the new vocabulary
  • use the prepositions about the location of objects to ask and answer questions

In foreign language-learning these learning goals can be reached by following the “3P’s” pattern of lesson phases: “Presentation”, “Practice”, and “Performance” (cf. footnote 1). This pattern is especially helpful for less experienced English teachers, and it is certainly very helpful for Lao learners. Depending on the length of a lesson, the amount of structures and vocabulary that are to be taught, and depending on the students’ prior knowledge, these phases vary in length and number. They are often followed by a “Consolidation”-phase, during which the students deepen their learning or apply the new language material in a slightly different and more open (“communicative”) way.

Each lesson is always framed by the “Greeting” and “Farewell”.

Knowing this, the next step was to have a closer look at the exercises/activities/tasks to answer the following questions:

1) What do the students do in that exercise/activity/task?
2) What shall the students learn through this exercise/activity/task?
3) When can I include it into my lesson?
4) What do the students need to know to successfully complete the exercise/activity/task?
5) Do I have to adapt it?

The chosen part of the unit uses a) exercises in which certain aspects of language are being practised, and b) activities (playing a game, having a dialogue) during which the new language patterns are used.

Once it was identified what the students should do in an the exercise or activity, it also became clear what they would learn while doing it. So by answering the first two questions, we could determine which phase the exercises and activities could be used in.

Having a dialogue is an activity that requires some vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar training beforehand. Therefore the students cannot have a dialogue about a certain topic using specific chunks and vocabulary at the beginning of a lesson. Maybe the key question in this context is the fourth one: “What do the students need to know to be able to successfully complete the exercise or activity?” – because this is the central issue for a lesson to be successful.

More often than not, when originally observing lessons and getting to know our tandem-teachers better, we noticed that preparing lessons is not something a Lao teacher normally will or can spend much time on. The concept is foreign, the salary low, and there are always other important matters to see to.

Apart from this, Lao teachers (and university lecturers) are entitled to 10 days of vacation a year.

They still devoted their free time to our workshop.

(We, the German volunteer teachers, by the way, also receive no pay for our work here.)

Looking at the material in Tech Talk in detail, the teachers made a few discoveries. They realized that a lesson can include any exercise, activity, or task provided it fits their learning goal(s).

If the exercises and activities do not serve the learning goal, they either need to be adapted or exchanged by something more suitable. A lesson is not about filling it with as many exercises or activities from the book – just to have them done – but rather to use suitable exercises and activities to reach the learning goals of a lesson.

This realization led to an animated discussion about how vocabulary and chunks can be taught in an interesting way so that the students can practise them many times, in many varied ways.

We then collected specific examples for the lesson at hand: The unit starts with a picture of an office in which a number of items are to be located while listening to a recording of a description of places. This picture can be used to have the students work in pairs, in which one points at an object and the other one says what it is, or they ask and answer each other where certain objects are located. This will also be of help when they solve a written crossword following the same kind of clues/language, i.e. “This item is on the table, in front of the computer, next to the papers”.

(Editor’s note: 90% of the students were clueless at first when asked to do this during one of my hospitation lessons. They are not used to this kind of activity yet. After ten minutes or so, everybody had understood the instructions – to speak as partner A to a partner B in a gap-filling dialogue using prepositions of place – and there was animated English dialogue in the classroom. It took another little while until the crossword procedure was understood. By this time, the first 10% of the students had finished everything, and then patiently waited. “Differentiation” would be a good next workshop topic, and something we will be able to address now in our tandem-teacher-lessons, in which we do lesson planning together.) 

This topic was found to be so important that another workshop will be offered next month specifically on how to teach vocabulary and chunks in a meaningful and communicative lesson.

By the end of the workshop we had a complete lesson plan with exercises, activities, and games for each lesson phase. However, the previously set learning goals needed to be revised. Thanks to the profound work done on the first part of the Unit, it became clear that the learning goals were set too high for one lesson. Therefore they were reduced to:

The students can

  • understand, pronounce and use the new vocabulary to identify the items in different locations
  • use the prepositions about the location of objects to ask and answer questions in speaking

In future lessons these lesson goals can be expanded further to include one more skill: writing.

This workshop has been one of the first steps to develop the teachers’ knowledge of didactics and methodology as well as their critical evaluation and planning skills. Before we could start with this, we first needed to work on English speaking skills, also to discuss attitude. Now it is quite possible to have discussions in English with the entire group, at this relatively abstract level, but this was not the case one year ago.

Future short and long-term workshops in this area will follow from here, i.e. workshops on specific topics which are relevant for foreign-language teaching and learning, as well as from the area of general didactics.

Saythong Insarn, at the end of the workshop, came to this conclusion: “This workshop has been very useful for us because it gave us a very detailed scheme for how to structure a lesson, set lesson goals and use the materials from the book wisely. Personally, I learned how to put my lesson on one page only and still know what I have to do during the lesson.”

Text by J. Adelberg & I. Martin

Photos by S. Uhlig & I. Martin

Bonamy, David (2008). Technical English 1 – 2. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Bonamy, David (2013). Technical English 3 -4. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Hollet, Vickey (2003). Tech Talk Elementary. Oxford: OUP.
Richards, Jack C.. “Communicative Language Teaching Today.”, p. 8-24 (online 17.12.2017)

Note (1):
The grammar-based “3-P’s” methodology is one of the traditional approaches to language-teaching which were popular (in the Western TESOL world) until the late 1960s. It is a deductive approach to teach grammar in which the students are presented with a new part of language and are then given the opportunity to practise it.
Starting in the 1970s, it was argued that language ability involved more than grammatical competence. This led to shifting the focus towards more functional and skill-based teaching. Here, drill and grammar practice are substituted by fluency activities that are based on interactive small-group work to promote the students’ communicative competence.
From this the communicative language teaching approach was derived. Current methodology uses activities and tasks that seek to develop students’ communicative skills by creating a need for communication, interaction, and negotiation of meaning. It includes authentic materials such as newspaper articles and connects the learning content to the students’ lives.
For this, tasks that either focus on fluency or accuracy shall balance each other out. Fluency work can either come before or after accuracy work. A fluency task focuses on getting meaning across in the course of which accurate grammar or pronunciation recede into the background. However, accuracy work is necessary to complete the fluency tasks (cf. Richards).
A traditional 3-P-structure of a lesson helps our Lao teachers to follow learning goals, but it certainly does not prevent us from teaching in a communicative way. This way includes a variety of social forms and settings that Lao teachers – and therefore learners – are unfamiliar with. A typical Lao lesson is teacher-centered, and the teacher speaks 90% of the time. Students are accordingly “shy” of speaking. In order to leave this traditional teaching approach behind it is necessary to introduce both teachers and students to these “new” types of activities and tasks so that step by step the students can learn how to speak English by actually speaking during classes.
Everyone understands the logic when Prof. Martin demonstrates that you cannot become a good footballer by staring at the ball. You have to kick it (many times) and exercise your leg muscles. “Same same but different for your tongue”: It, too, is a muscle, and you must train it to hit the new sounds and words.

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