Starting Lao children young on English lessons

VIENTIANE, Laos (Vientiane Times/ANN) - A number of primary schools in Laos have started offering English lessons to the young pupils.

A group of primary students in Laos feel very excited and happy to learn English for the first time; the sound of the ABC pronunciation and laughter can be heard far into the distance.

In the small class room with concrete walls and a zinc roof, a young female teacher can be heard instructing her pupils to read as she points her wooden stick at the English words written on the board.

“Many students still could not read and write Lao so learning English is not easy for them but I can see that they are happy to learn the new subject”, said the 23-year-old teacher Koungnany Bounthavong.

This is the first time that the Donkoy Primary School introduced the English curriculum to the grade three students in accordance with the government policy, which aims to enable students to communicate in a foreign language once they finish secondary school.

The new educational policy gives hope for Laos to integrate itself into the Asean Economic Community, which uses English as the official medium of communication.

Although this is a good policy, it is not easy for many primary schools in Laos to have a perfect English class as there is a lack of qualified teachers and teaching aid materials. Donkoy Primary School is one of the best examples.

According to the Ministry of Education and Sports, about 30 per cent of primary schools around the country are now teaching English since the programme began in 2008.

Most of the schools are situated in the cities, while the programme is lagging well behind in rural areas, according to a recent report from the department.

The Donkoy Primary School’s acting school director said after being informed by the higher educational authorities to officially kick off the English class for grade three students this year, the school management sent the teachers for a short training course.

“The teachers joined the English training course last year but it just was held for only two days,” Khonsun said. “The course did not upgrade their English level because the training lasted only two days, which mainly focused on making lesson plans and basic teachings.”

Khoungnang said that she found it difficult to teach English as she had only limited chances to learn the foreign language while she was a student at the Bankeun Teacher Training College.

However, the lack of the English skills has not become a barrier to prevent them from giving instruction.

She said that the teachers at the school had tried their best at teaching English by having discussions whenever they have a problem, especially when it comes to vocabulary that they do not understand.

“When I confront the difficult words, I try to learn how to pronounce and look for the meaning from an application installed in my cell phone. There are some occasions that we run to each other to consult about the language problem,” Khoungnang said.

What impressed the school visitors is that although the teachers cannot speak English well but they have tried their best in teaching the students. They have put in a lot of effort to make the English lessons interesting. Although it is not the perfect English class, it is the best starting point.

The school director Khonsun said that Donkoy Primary School has 113 students and five teachers and all of teachers are women. They don’t have enough experience teaching English and lack enough educational materials in English. There is also no designated English teacher there.

“The authorities now hold a training course for any teacher who would like to train in English. It’s around 4-5:30pm but it’s not near our school and it’s too early as we still haven’t left school yet, so we could not join them on this programme”, Khonsun explained.

“So we would like to call on the authorities or government to have a training course for us during the school holiday as we have time then,” she noted.

For many students at the schools, the English programme was fun and exciting as they hope to study the foreign language, which they can use as a tool of communication when they grow up.

A student at the Donkoy Primary School, Anousone Xayasone, said that he hasn’t been to any school to learn English and he only started to study the language this year.

“Learning English is difficult but I like it because the teacher always asks us to guess something when we are studying and the teacher often give us some funny games to play,” Anousone said.

It was only a few weeks that Anousone had learnt English for so he could not speak very much as yet, he can only say certain greetings like "how are you, good morning, good evening" and other basic words what he often hears people saying.

But it was a great start to his foray into the world of foreign languages.