by Mai Khuyen
About half of the total of 817,000 students who recently sat for the national high school and university exams scored less than five out of 10 marks for English, one of the three compulsory subjects.
This seems to pour cold water on an ambitious national plan to ensure that all young people leaving school by 2020 have a good grasp of the international language.
The highest number of students who passed the exam had a 2.5 mark for English, compared to 6.5 for maths and five for literature. This further shocked many education law makers.
Like many people, I had high hopes that the younger generation will use English to boost the nation's image to the world.
The unbelievable low mark has revealed the real level of English studies in high schools across the nation, particularly in underprivileged remote and mountain regions where there are few English language teachers. It also reflects the outrageous situation of English language education in Viet Nam.
In recent years, the rush for children to study English is driven by many parents, mostly in big cities. They expect their offspring to become fluent in the language in all its aspects - speaking, reading and writing - so that they get the best chance when they enter the adult world.
Those parents are prepared to pay top prices for their children to learn. There is little questioning of what stage of English their child may be at - or just how good the teacher is.
The situation is alarming, especially in a country where the road to regional and world integration is signposted in English. This year, Viet Nam will also celebrate the 20th anniversary of its entrance into ASEAN, where the language is the common communication tongue. Viet Nam has also vowed to make all efforts to build up an ASEAN Economic Community.
As it has also long been considered the main international language, English becomes an essential part of educational, professional, business and even social success on a regional and world scale.
But let's look at the current situation in Viet Nam by taking a glance at teachers' and students' reactions to this year's low English results at the national exams.
A student from a well-known high school in Ha Noi, who received three out of 10 marks for English, admitted he was totally unconcerned about the low mark because, thanks to higher marks in other subjects, he had survived. (In many Western countries, English is the key subject. Fail it and you fail the whole exam, regardless of marks for the other subjects.)
The student said he was not fond of learning English and that it was not his ambition to study it at university. While he had studied the subject for nearly 10 years from primary to junior and high school, he said he neglected it despite all support from teachers and parents. This year was the first time English was included as a compulsory exam subject.
The student blamed the upper levels of the education system, including the Ministry of Education and Training, which seems to focus more on experimenting with models of education than actually achieving anything.
A project initiated by the Ministry of Education and Training to ensure all young people leaving school by 2020 have a good grasp of the language has forced more than 80,000 English language teachers in Viet Nam's state schools to pass a variety of tests.
Under the project, which includes teaching maths in English, a Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), has been introduced to measure language competency. Teachers need to achieve level B2 in English to gain work, while school leavers must reach B1, a level below.
Since the project was introduced Ha Noi in 2011, the project has instilled fear into many Vietnamese English teachers. The media reports that in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta's Ben Tre province, out of 700 teachers for English, only 61 reached the required score. In Hue, in central Viet Nam, one in five scored B2 or higher when 500 primary and secondary teachers were screened with tests tailored by the British Council.
In Ha Noi, among teachers taking the IELTs test, only 18 per cent have, so far, made the B2 grade. The education ministry said that in one province, which could not be identified, the pass rate for teachers was as low as one in 700.
With this rather dismal background to the subject of English, to expect every graduate to speak fluent English by the year of 2020 is not only highly ambitious plan, but probably highly unlikely, especially if funding does not improve.
To solve the situation, the Government should focus more on training teachers of English at all levels and in all areas of the country. But to achieve this, it needs to encourage the private sector to invest in schools specialising in training English teachers.
Instead of starting to study English language in third grade at primary school, English should be introduced as a compulsory subject at all kindergartens and during the whole five years at primary schools. — VNS