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A failure to communicate

A teacher gives an English class at Wat Koh High School in Phnom Penh
A teacher gives an English class at Wat Koh High School in Phnom Penh. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport has suggested that up to 7,000 more English-proficient teachers may be needed for a new primary school language program. Heng Chivoan

A failure to communicate

At the beginning of the school year, Mony Vutha was handed a new, mandatory addition to the grade four curriculum that neither he nor any of his colleagues were trained to teach: English.

Vutha’s two years of English lessons more than a decade ago made him the only teacher at Mondulkiri’s Poula Primary School who could even read the new textbook.

“This is the first time English has been introduced in primary school. I have never taught English before,” he said, adding that he has no idea how the other grade four teachers at his school could possibly implement the new language requirement.

Looking to boost English fluency and reap a corresponding economic boon, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport began rolling out an initiative this year to expand the language program from lower secondary schools into primary schools, starting with grade four.

“We are thinking about the skills needed for the ASEAN integration, and we want to expand English into grade one. But that’s impossible right now, our human resources are too limited, so we will start step by step,” Lim Sotharith, director of the Education Ministry’s textbook department, said.

But the government’s first step at expanding English education may have already taken a leap too far.

Vutha’s school isn’t the only one where the newly printed English textbooks were delivered to tongue-tied educators unprepared to teach the foreign language.

Already experiencing a critical shortage of primary school teachers, the classroom personnel gap is only set to widen as the government looks to add grade five English classes next school year, with grade six to follow in 2015-2016.

The language program alone could require retraining and recruiting as many as 6,000 to 7,000 additional instructors, Sotharith said, almost triple the annual 2,000 primary school recruits needed just to replace teachers who retire, die or leave the workforce.

“We are doing research now to locate the number of teachers who can currently teach English; we’re not sure exactly how many we’ll need to add yet,” he said.

Meanwhile, grade four teachers are already plunging their classes into the ABCs as best as they can with limited training and once-a-week lessons.

“At the moment, the secondary school English curriculum assumes a certain level of proficiency in the language, so it’s absolutely essential for students to start learning the basics early,” said Pamela Hughes, a volunteer at VSO International, which assisted the ministry in developing the new language curriculum.

For many parents, the promise of English classes in public schools is welcome news, sparing them private lessons that in the provinces can top $80 per month and in the capital can run upwards of $20 an hour for one-on-one tutoring.

“Even the poorest families still try to send their children to English classes. The perception is that it’s a skill that more than anything else can lead to good jobs,” said Lim Sophea, executive director of PKO, a Battambang-based NGO helping to train primary school English teachers.

But before the pupils can benefit from mastering English, the government will first have to start by equipping teachers with the bilingual basics, Sophea said.

“They have the curriculum, but no way to implement it right now,” he said.

“We will be helping to recruit volunteers who can train the teachers. It will take time, but we want to make sure we can successfully offer all students the opportunity to learn English, not just the wealthy ones.”

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