Location Matters for EFL Teachers: Modifying English Content to Match Local Context

“To know and not do is to not know.” – ancient Jewish proverb

Directing a private international high school in Vietnam last year provided many lessons. English might be the subject, but the context, as so often, became paramount.

As English teachers, we often begin by asking simple questions as we prepare our classes. Who are our students? What do they expect from their English teacher? What are their motives, goals, and fantasies? What barriers do they face to improve their English? How will their lives change if they speak fluent English? Do they really need to speak fluent English or just get a high TOEFL or TOEIC score? Context, as so often, determines the most appropriate approach.

Yet the most important question, especially while teaching abroad, might be overlooked. Where are you teaching? Local culture and laws can determine both the substance and style of teaching English. Censorship often exists. Location often matters most in teaching English abroad.

This truism has become exceptionally clear to me during the last few weeks. I’ve been revising an ESL conversation textbook originally developed for international graduate students and adult American immigrants for advanced adult Vietnamese English language learners. Vietnam, which has one of the fastest growth rates in the world, has embraced the study of English with a surprising fervor. The quality of EFL and ELT materials, however, remains rather low, and seldom includes authentic materials for both professional and social conversation. Grammar and listening skills receive far more focus than active language skills like writing and speaking.

This book project, which started over a year ago, has also kept expanding. Writing any book, of course, remains a tricky task in a still opening country ruled by communist dictators. On the other hand, many of the obvious revisions and taboo topics apply to many still opening societies from UAE and Saudi Arabia to China and Russia. You can’t talk about “choosing leaders” and “corruption” in socieities where politics are verboten. While you might be able to discuss personal lifestyle choices in Russia or mention a required holy book in Pakistan, commonsense indicates a similar list of “don’t ask” subjects ranging from almost any activity that is a social taboo, controversial, or illegal in many societies. You might be surprised how long those taboo lists remain.

Perhaps out of both professional judgment and personal aesthetics, I always try to tailor materials to meet the individual needs of my actual students. Given the strong nationalist flavor inside the country, it’s striking how few pedagogical English materials used in Vietnam even mention the country’s existence. That seems disappointing and a missed opportunity.

We can at least include local cultural and national references as we continue to open doors and minds by teaching English to students around the world. When I teach students from eight countries in a university class in Los Angeles, I give a nod to those eight cultures in my course materials while emphasizing American culture. Likewise, tailoring course material to meet the actual adult English language learners in our classrooms while teaching English abroad seems natural. Whether discussing national holidays, geography, or cultural traditions, adding local references can only empower English language learners to share their life experiences more effectively in English.

Teaching students to ask questions – in English -remains a vital critical linguistic skill. Many students find the grammar of asking questions in English quite difficult and hard to master. Let’s remember, however, that some questions, risk opening minds and shutting school doors. Modifying English materials, therefore, poses some significant challenges, and creates many possibilities for developing greater rapport with students. Balance, as ever, remains key.

And location, as most real estate agents and EFL teachers know, often matters most.

Ask more. Know more. Speak more.
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3 comments

  1. Thanks for link!

  2. This is amazing, its been only 2 hours I am searching the concept of CSC and I have figured two very good posts relevant to the topic. I am teaching English from last 2 years and need to work on techniques to make children learn the language in a more easy way. Your post is certainly very helpful in the same direction. Thanks a ton for sharing it with us.

  3. Steve – Thank you for stopping by and sharing your experiences. The combination of greater social understanding and vastly improved technologies make it far easier to individualize content for our students – wherever we teach – than ever before. While the major EFL (English as a Foreign Language) textbook publishers continue to promote “one size fits all” international textbooks. more and more English teachers are trusting themselves to modify materials to better fit their students needs and desires. We might even reach the point where learners’ interests become paramount in EFL classrooms!

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