Foreign language textbooks should retain local culture: expert

Trew has been in the business of teaching English for over 25 years. He is the author of many books well known to English learners in several countries.

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

Why did you decide to work as a content consultant and animator of English books in a Vietnamese education company?

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

At that time, the country manager of OUP in Vietnam, also responsible for DTP, asked me if I wanted to settle in Vietnam and set up an editorial team with him. I had the opportunity to do things I had never done before with various roles held over the years as a teacher, trainer, research director and author. DTP was a big challenge, as it required not only writing books but also putting in place a specialized editing and publishing team.

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

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

Basically, textbooks reflect a country and its target audience. Most of the international textbooks we see on the market today are made in the UK, USA or Europe. In many cases, these books are designed for different functions. For example, in the United Kingdom or the United States, classes are often small and equipped with devices such as interactive screens, computers and photocopiers; therefore, the content involves intensive communication and discussion.

The environment is very different in Vietnam. The class size is large, which is inconvenient for students to move around and do active tasks, and teachers have to prepare a lot of documents and sheets of paper. That is why the head of the DTP asked me to come here. because it understands the market and wants to meet changing educational needs.

The key point here is that a publisher really needs to “understand” the real teaching and learning situation, such as class size, audience and – most importantly – indigenous culture, when production of a manual.

Grant Trew, English Book Content Consultant and Moderator for DTP Education Solutions Vietnam (DTP). Photo by DTP

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

A textbook should come from the need of teachers and students. Therefore, it is necessary to address questions such as how the book will be used, under what circumstances, for what level and with what class size, etc. Next, it is necessary to define two important things. The first is to create a curriculum based on user needs, such as what teachers want to teach, their purpose, and their understanding of the natural language progression process. We also have standards based on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages ​​(CEFR) to ensure that our program is suitable for every level.

Moreover, we also think about the design of each lesson and unit to make them more attractive.

The next step, which I believe is the core idea of ​​textbook manufacturing, is to get early feedback from the market before completing the book, and then to ensure that the most suitable and quality product is provided to teachers, students and parents.

Making a manual is a long process. The key here is to fully understand the teachers and students.

You said that textbooks should represent the characteristics of the country and convey indigenous cultural factors. How is it done?

On the one hand, culture is a crucial part of linguistic communication, it fundamentally influences almost everything we do. First of all, understanding the culture is very important when traveling or working, or engaging with foreigners. Something you say may be misunderstood due to cultural differences. This is why at DTP we try to present distinct situations and contexts that clearly highlight the differences between Vietnamese and Western cultures.

Thus, once the situations and contexts are identified, the Vietnamese editorial team will review and indicate whether the content is confusing, misleading or interesting.

On the other hand, it’s not just about understanding Western culture. I believe books also teach learners how to present and explain their own cultural traditions and history. When I arrived in Vietnam, there were a lot of strange things around me, so I had to ask my friends and colleagues, “What is this?” and “Why do people do this?” They would reply 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 present their own country, tradition and culture with clarity.

It has been said that Vietnamese foreign language textbooks are still very theoretical and lack practical application. What does mean DTP to do about it?

In terms of foreign language learning, most textbooks in Asia focus on grammar rather than actual communication and interaction. To solve this problem, we research and build a program with 12 levels – from 1st to 12th grade. It is a long and difficult journey. My goal for 12andHigher level students in Vietnam are sure that when they reach this level, they will be well prepared and ready for the IELTS exam, earning scores around 5.5.

Second, we want to instill the confidence to make presentations, express ideas and opinions throughout the 12 years of schooling. Starting at the elementary level, the books will apply simulation and role-playing methods to get children used to such exercises. Then at the secondary level, they will have more opportunities to discuss, to broaden the conversation, and to know how to express their opinions, to agree or not with others.

This process will be phased in, so that by the time they reach grade 12 they will be confident in presentations and comfortable with role-playing. Teachers will also find the task easier.

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

We have a lot of learning tools these days, like great mobile apps for learning vocabulary. However, for me, the real teaching takes place in a proper classroom, and books remain the easiest and most appropriate solution for face-to-face teaching and learning. Of course, in the future, technology may dominate every aspect 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 by combining real interactions and technological applications.

How will education expand with greater technological applications?

I think Virtual Reality (VR) is going to be a game changer for education. With virtual reality, we can literally see each other in the same room, people can engage in activities together, play games, raise hands virtually. Teachers can observe students’ expressions to see if 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 completing “Tieng Anh i-Learn Smart Start” and “Tieng Anh i-Learn Smart World” – a set of 12 English textbooks. We are planning to hold seminars on teaching methods for the i-Learn Smart Start (elementary level) and I-Learn Smart World (middle and high school) textbook series in May.

After going through more than two years of pandemic, we had the opportunity to become more flexible and innovative, which I think is a great advantage for DTP. We are also looking for ways to effectively apply digital technology. Although distance education has been widely applied amid 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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