Foreign language textbooks should retain local culture: expert

Trew has worked in the field of English teaching for over 25 years. He is the author of many books that are well known to English learners in serval countries.

In 2006, he left the UK and came to Vietnam to work as a consultant and moderator of English book content for DTP Education Solutions Vietnam (DTP).

Why did you decide to work as the content consultant and moderator of English books at a Vietnamese education corporation?

In 2006, as the project director of Oxford University Press (OUP), I traveled to Vietnam for the first time to conduct training workshops and worked with local teams here.

At that time, the country manager of OUP in Vietnam, also the head of DTP, asked if I would like to move to Vietnam and set up a publishing team with him. I had the opportunity to do things that I’d never done before with various roles taken over the years as a teacher, trainer, research director, and author. The DTP was quite a big challenge, because it required not only writing books but also setting up a team specialized in editing and publishing.

A very young, ambitious company with highly motivated people convinced me to say yes.

You have worked in many countries and regions, including the UK, the Middle East, other countries in Southeast Asia, and Japan. What makes Vietnamese textbooks different?

Basically, textbooks reflect a country and its target audience. Most of the international textbooks that we see in the market today are made in the UK, the US, or Europe. In many cases, these books are designed for different functions. For example, in the UK or the US, the classes are often small in size and equipped with devices like interactive screens, computers, and photocopiers; therefore, the content features intensive communication and discussions.

The environment is very different in Vietnam. The class size is large, which is not convenient for students to move around and do active tasks, and teachers have to prepare a lot of documents and paper sheets. That’s why the head of DTPasked me to come here; because he understands the market and wants to meet evolving education needs.

The key point here is that a publishing company should really “understand” the actual situation of teaching and learning, such as class size, audience, and – most importantly – indigenous culture, when producing a textbook.

Grant Trew, consultant and moderator of English book content for DTP Education Solutions Vietnam (DTP).  Photo by DTP

Grant Trew, consultant and moderator of English book content for DTP Education Solutions Vietnam (DTP). Photo by DTP

What are the most important criteria in the process of compiling and revising books?

A textbook should come from the need of teachers and students. Therefore, it is necessary to address questions like how the book will be used, in what circumstances, for what level, and with what class size, etc. Then it is necessary to map out two important things. The first is to build a syllabus based on the users’ requirements, such as what the teachers want to teach, what their focus is, and how they understand the process of natural language progression. We also have standards based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages ​​(CEFR) to ensure our syllabus is appropriate for each level.

In addition, we also think about the design of each lesson and unit to make them more engaging.

The next step, which I believe is the central idea for making textbooks, is to gather initial feedback from the market before completing the book, then to ensure that the most appropriate and quality product is delivered to teachers, students, and parents.

The making of a textbook is a long process. The key here is to understand teachers and students well.

You said textbooks should represent the country’s characteristics and convey native cultural factors. How is this done?

On the one hand, culture is a very crucial part of language communication, it basically influences almost everything we do. First of all, understanding the culture is very important when you travel or work, or engage with foreigners. Something you say can be misunderstood because of cultural differences. That’s why at DTP, we try to present distinct situations and contexts that clearly highlight differences between Vietnamese and Western cultures.

So once situations and contexts are identified, the Vietnamese writing team will consider and indicate whether the content is confusing, misleading or interesting.

On the other hand, it’s not just about understanding Western culture. I believe that books also teach learners how to introduce and explain their own cultural traditions and history. When I first came to Vietnam, there were many strange things around me, so I had to ask my friends and colleagues: “What is this?” and “Why do people do this?” They would respond that it was difficult to explain in English. That’s why we always want our books to provide learners with vocabulary for specific situations, so that they can introduce their own country, tradition and culture with clarity.

It has been said that Vietnamese foreign language textbooks are still heavy on theory and lack practical application. What does DTP do about this?

In terms of learning foreign languages, most textbooks in Asia focus on grammar rather than actual communication and interaction. To solve this problem, we are doing research and building a syllabus with 12 levels – grade 1 to grade 12. It is a long and challenging journey. My goal for 12th-grade students in Vietnam is that when they reach this level, they will be well prepared and ready for the IELTS exam, getting scores of around 5.5.

Second, we want to instill confidence in making presentations, expressing ideas and opinions throughout the 12 years of schooling. Starting at the elementary level, the books will apply simulation and role-playing methods for children to get used to such exercises. Then at the secondary level, they will have more opportunities to discuss, expand the conversation, and know how to express their opinions, agree or disagree with others.

This process will be built up gradually, so that by the time they reach grade 12, they are confident in presentations and comfortable with role-playing. Teachers will find the going easier, too.

With the internet and smartphones being used to support knowledge acquisition, how has the role of books changed?

We have a lot of learning tools nowadays, like great mobile apps for learning vocabulary. However, for me, real teaching happens in a proper classroom, and books remain the easiest and most proper solution for face-to-face teaching and learning. Of course, in the future, technology can dominate all aspects of life, but learners will still need to interact in person, through live chats, etc., using body language and facial expressions. The best way is to learn with a combination of real-life interactions and tech applications.

How will education develop with greater tech applications?

I think virtual reality (VR) will be a game-changer for education. With VR, we can literally see each other in the same room, people can participate in activities together, play games, raise hands virtually. Teachers can observe students’ expressions to see whether they are tired, hungry, or bored. When the lesson involves a famous place in Vietnam, we can virtually go to that place and interact with each other there.

What are your plans for the immediate future?

My team and I at DTP are in the process of completing “Tieng Anh i-Learn Smart Start” and “Tieng Anh i-Learn Smart World” – a set of 12 English textbooks. We plan to organize seminars on teaching methods for the i-Learn Smart Start (primary level) and I-Learn Smart World (middle and high school) textbook series in May.

After going through more than two years of the pandemic, we have had the opportunity to become more flexible and innovative, which I believe is a great advantage for DTP. We are also researching ways to apply digital technology effectively. Although distance learning was widely applied amidst the pandemic, I believe it has a lot of untapped potentials. Therefore, we will continue to research and explore the best use of digital technology in teaching and learning.

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