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Cablegate: Relo Bangkok Report On English-Teaching in Thailand

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DE RUEHBK #0360/01 0420544
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 110544Z FEB 10
FM AMEMBASSY BANGKOK
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 9909
INFO RUEHCHI/AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI 7629
RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS

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STATE FOR ECA/A/L AND EAP/PD

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TAGS: OEXCSCULKPAO PREL TH
SUBJECT: RELO BANGKOK REPORT ON ENGLISH-TEACHING IN THAILAND

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1. (SBU) Summary. The Regional English Language Office (RELO) in
Bangkok, consisting of a RELO and a RELO Assistant (LES), is
actively engaged in a variety of programs aimed at improving the
teaching and learning of English in SE Asia (Thailand, Vietnam,
Laos, Burma, Cambodia and Taiwan). A diverse region, this continues
to be a place where English teaching is atop the national agenda
(Vietnam), well-developed compared to other countries but still not
adequately supported (Taiwan), tolerated but not encouraged (Burma),
and emerging as a tool for development (Laos and Cambodia). This
report focuses on RELO activities in Thailand, as well as trends in
English teaching and learning. End Summary.

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Monks, TV Spots, and other Solutions
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2. (SBU) Thailand has had a robust educational policy related to
English for decades. As early as the 1950s, USIA's English Teaching
Officers were sent to the Kingdom to provide expertise in the field.
Thailand TESOL, one of the oldest professional organizations for
teachers of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in Asia, was
founded with Embassy and USIS assistance and recently celebrated its
30th anniversary at a conference where tribute was paid to the USG
as its only constant source of support.

3. (SBU) Unfortunately, in part due to frequent changes in
governments, coupled with a weak Ministry of Education, Thailand no
longer enjoys the pre-eminent status it once did among the region's
English language education community. Since the current RELO
arrived in June 2007, there have been 7 Ministers or Acting
Ministers holding the Education portfolio. What was once a symbol
of continuity within the Ministry--the Permanent Secretary of
Education and then Secretary General of the Office of Basic
Education Commission (OBEC), a Harvard graduate--abruptly retired in
October 2009, leaving a sense of uncertainty among Thai English
teachers.

4. (SBU) Signs of Thailand's slipping status in the field of
English have been apparent for some time. One study by Mahidol
University in 2001 showed that test scores of Thai students in
English were inferior to those from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam,
among others. More recent figures on the number of Thai students
attending American universities show that the country has slipped
from number 10 to number 14 since 2006, while Vietnam has jumped
from 20 to 9 in the same period. While there are clearly other
factors affecting this swing, an improvement in the level of English
in Vietnam, among at least some of the population--without a
corresponding improvement in Thailand--is at least partially
responsible.

5. (SBU) Even more troubling are the constantly evolving plans
aimed at improving the quality of English education. On a June 2009
visit to OBEC's English division by the RELO and the Director of the
Office of English Language Programs, the primary focus of
discussions was on a novel plan to use English-speaking monks to
offset the fact that 80% of Thailand's English teachers did not
major in English or English education. Following that revelation,
the Ministry of Education (MOE) proposed a $181 million project to
use distance education in classrooms lacking properly trained
teachers. This proposal was announced by the Ministry without
consulting the Royal Thai Distance Learning Foundation, which for
six years has had an innovative RELO-funded program to deliver
teacher-training in some 3000 schools across Thailand (see details
below). According to some insiders, the MOE disregarded the
Foundation's program because its equipment did not belong to the
MOE. Another recent effort by the MOE to improve teacher training
in all subjects saw $33 million budgeted for a 'Teacher TV Show'
which would deliver teaching techniques, tips and success stories
through 15-minute daily TV programs. This was proposed to replace
"dull" workshops which "fail to meet the teachers' needs," in the
words of the Deputy Minister, who did not explain why there was no
attempt to deliver workshops which do meet the needs of teachers.
Another proposal in 2009 called for 14 secondary schools, 10 in
border provinces, to be turned into international schools in order
to attract pupils from neighboring countries-Laos, Burma, Cambodia.
These schools have no experience offering an English curriculum,
lack qualified teachers, and yet are expected to begin teaching in
English later this year. The stated purpose of such schools was not
to improve the quality of education within Thailand but to provide a
revenue opportunity by enrolling foreign students at non-resident
tuition rates.

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AUA
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6. (SBU) Established in 1952, the American University Alumni
Association Language Center (known as AUA) was a Bi-National Center

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of the USG until 1992 and at one time was the world's largest
single-campus language school. Now with 19 branches around
Thailand, AUA is still considered one of the nation's top private
language institutions, but the decaying main campus cannot compare
to modern schools located in upscale shopping malls that offer
hi-tech classrooms and modern business practices such as '100%
refund if you don't learn English,' which is a major advertising
theme of one competitor. With a RELO or former RELO as the Director
of Courses (DOC) throughout its history, AUA enjoyed a considerable
degree of cooperation with the Embassy until 2007, when substantial
irregularities in several grants were discovered. The departure of
the last DOC in late-2009 left AUA in a leadership vacuum and the
position is currently held by an elderly British national who once
served as deputy director. Should AUA regain its leadership
position among English schools in Thailand, it could once again be
an excellent base for regional language training projects.

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Program Successes
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7. (SBU) The English Access Microscholarship Program began in
Thailand in 2004 and some 481 youth have participated thus far.
Most early programs focused on the troubled deep south--Pattani,
Yala and Songkla, where teachers have been killed and schools burned
to the ground-but recently students from disadvantaged areas of
Bangkok have joined. By having Bangkok kids in the program, Post is
better able to integrate them into its activities and Embassy
officers are more able to visit classes. In FY09, a total of 79
students entered the Access program in Thailand--64 in Bangkok and
15 from the southern Thai city of Yala. The Bangkok students were
selected by the Human Development Foundation, an NGO begun several
decades ago by an American priest, and are chosen from disadvantaged
neighborhoods. Students receive their English classes at one of the
best private language programs in the city. In a show of support
for the program this year, the RELO and Public Affairs Section have
completely funded two special intensive English camps for the
Bangkok participants.

8. (SBU) In 2010, Post initiated a unique Digital Video Conference
(DVC) series for Access students, linking programs and young people
in Thailand, China and Mongolia. Through interactive games and
activities, students use English as a means of communicating and
learning about other cultures and plans are already underway to
continue this concept in the future, perhaps including Access
students from a region outside of EAP.

9. (SBU) The English Language Fellow (ELF) Program in Thailand has
significantly decreased in size since a peak of four ELFs in 2004.
Post currently hosts one Fellow, based at the Islamic College of
Thailand (ICT), a combined primary-secondary school in Bangkok. As
ICT also hosts half of the FY08 Access program, the current ELF is
able to work with the students in that program in addition to her
regular duties, which emphasize working with teachers at ICT and
another school to improve both their English abilities and their
knowledge of modern teaching methods. In addition to her many ELF
duties, the Fellow assists PAS in organizing and hosting camps for
high school students around the country and was recently invited to
Laos to help the Fellow there introduce the concept of English camps
to students in that country.

10. (SBU) Thailand has hosted numerous English Language Specialists
and continues to make frequent use of this program. Each year, for
most of the past 30 years, RELO and PAS Bangkok have sponsored a
major plenary speaker for the ThaiTESOL conference, one of Asia's
largest professional development meetings. We also make extensive
use of regional Specialists, so that when one is visiting Vietnam,
Laos, Burma or Cambodia, they might also be asked to conduct
programs in Thailand, a regional air hub. For the past several
years, we have also had several Specialists engaged in workshops via
DVCs. These have significantly reduced training costs as the U.S.
cost of the DVC (staff, facility or studio time, line charges) has
often been donated by the institution. One of these recurring DVC
programs involves the Royal Thai Distance Learning Foundation, which
for six years has been working with PAS and RELO Bangkok to bring
the latest American expertise in the field of English teaching (and
other subjects) to Thai teachers through a network of about 3000
satellite dishes at schools around the country. English-teaching
programs are usually 2 hours in length and are broadcast once a week
for 10 weeks. Recent topics have included: Learning to Read-Reading
to Learn, Critical Thinking in the English Classroom, Project-Based
Learning, Creating a Resource-rich Classroom, and Teaching
Pronunciation. The 2010 program will focus on ways of using
material from different media in the classroom.

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Comment and Trends
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11. (SBU) Sadly, Thailand's rich history of cooperation with the
U.S. in the area of English teaching has produced only mixed
long-term results. In yet another example of the MOE's genuine --
but misguided -- desire to improve the quality of teaching in all
subjects, nearly $30 million was budgeted to conduct new training.
Prior to this training, teachers would be required to take
"professional competency" tests to determine their needs. Yet this
exam-based approach points to one major problem with teacher
training in Thailand--treating teaching as if it were a subject to
be memorized and then assessed in an exam. While this might be an
effective style for some subjects, it has never been proven
effective for language teaching. On the contrary, the
train-the-trainer model, where the best teachers are given training
and then required to pass along their knowledge in follow-up
sessions to colleagues, is a very successful model and was piloted
with English teachers in a short-lived network training project
funded by the USG and conducted by AUA. Unfortunately, there was
limited follow-up and an insufficient budget from the MOE for this
part of the training. The use of this training model, however, is a
welcome trend in a country where much of the education system
continues to be rooted in the lecture format, with students sitting
passively in the audience while the teacher reads from prepared
texts.

12. (SBU) A positive sign in the region is the trend towards
teaching English to younger students, and Thailand has joined its
neighbors in now offering English to students as young as
third-grade. But even this welcome idea is not without problems.
Teaching so many additional students requires a large increase in
the number of qualified teachers, which simply exacerbates existing
training and teacher supply problems. Thailand, like its neighbors,
decided to begin teaching English to younger students almost
immediately, which meant that within a few months, the already
overwhelmed teacher-training system was supposed to provide help to
thousands of teachers who had never before taught English or never
before taught young children English. It remains to be seen whether
this plan will be more successful than a similar one in 1995, which
was enacted despite warnings from the RELO (then at AUA), British
Council, and Australian educational officials, and then never fully
implemented.

JOHN

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