by Alistair Elliott

Life in Vietnam:

As with many developing countries, Vietnam is continuing to make a significant push to improve its English language skills. From the early 1990s, the prevailing theory of teaching English has “slanted towards the view that places the learner at a focal point with the teacher seen in the role of a facilitator who provides creative contexts for language learning”. P10

The Current Situation and Issues of the Teaching of English in Vietnam by Hoang Van Van (pdf) Then, following Government Decree number 14/2001 TC-TTg “The Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) organized the design of the curriculum and the writing of new textbooks for all school subjects”. P10 Ibid. Thereafter by early 2008, there was “…one set of English textbooks for lower secondary schools and two sets of English textbooks for upper secondary schools…” p11 Ibid. Subsequently, English Education policy has further evolved via the new policy of “One curriculum, many sets of textbooks”. This gives more authority and responsibility to the teacher to choose from an increasingly wider selection of textbooks, than in the past. Into this has pitched National Geographic Learning’s Life series. It is this which I will be commenting on.

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Life on the outside

I have at hand, the following National Geographic material; National Geographic Life A1. This has been given to me to teach at grade 6 (lower level ability). I also have Nat Geo Life A1-A2. This is for my use at grade 6 and 7 (higher level ability). And finally, I have Nat Geo Life A2-B1. I am to use this to teach grades 8 and 9 (higher level ability). They were all written by Helen Stephenson, Paul Dummett and John Hughes, with one of them being the lead writer of each book. The covers of the book themselves offer epic photographs of iconic Vietnam; specifically, Ha Long Bay, Sapa Valley and Ban Gioc Waterfalls. In the top right-hand corner are the words Vietnam edition. So, it’s visually good stuff with the appearance of a significant connection to Vietnam. However, are they usable for the purposes of teaching English? Do they help the teacher to be a facilitator, and support us to provide creative and communicative classes? And are they as Vietnamese focused as the front cover suggests. Let’s see.

Life Blurb

The National Geographic Life books have this to say about themselves. “National Geographic learning, a Cengage Learning Company, has a mission to bring the world to the classroom and the classroom to life. With our English language program, students learn about their world by experiencing it. Through our partnerships with National Geographic and TED Talks, they develop the language and skills they need to be successful global citizens and leaders”.

Penultimate page Life books. (No page number) In addition, there is also a bespoke Vietnam Life website which has this to say; “As part of its goal to increase the general proficiency of all students in Vietnam, the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) has approved to use National Geographic Learning’s Life series as the main English textbook across 26 universities*…Life was selected due to its strong focus on 21st century skills, its engaging and global topics, and comprehensive integration of technology”.

Life support

Upon receiving the Life books, I was also provided with Life software. The software “…is an interactive whiteboard application that is intended for classrooms using the Life … Student’s Book”. There are five aims for the software, amongst which include reducing teacher preparation time, increasing the learner’s attention span and saving time during classes. I did think that this was part of the job of the teacher, but, well, let’s soldier on.

Upon opening the Life software, so reveals the front cover of every unit in the book, a resources button and a toolbar at the bottom. Within each unit front cover page, is every page of that unit. Within the resources are all the audios from CD1 and CD2, and all the videos for all the units. The toolbar allows you to highlight sections of the text, undo, erase or clear any text interaction, annotate, customize the page and even create tests or quizzes in the add task feature. This is for every page of every unit. It is quite the support. So, to support the support, Nat Geo Life has also written an e-manual. This runs to 34 pages.

As well as this, there is also the aforementioned cengageasia website
Life. It offers things like lesson plans, communicative worksheets and extra practice activities, but perhaps it’s a work in progress as it seems a little bit incomplete. There is also a Nat Geo Learning Vietnam facebook page. There are seminars in Vietnam and across Asia. There are webinars on the internet and therefore, across the world.

Life in Bloom

Underpinning the enterprise is Bloom’s taxonomy. This is “a hierarchical ordering of cognitive skills that can help teachers teach and students learn”.There is a sextet of a rising order of thinking skills.

These are:1/ knowledge, 2/ comprehension,3/ application,4/ analysis, 5/ synthesis, and finally 6/ evaluation.

Within each cognitive group are the power verbs used to unpack each cognitive level. Google ‘Bloom’s taxonomy images’ to see for yourself what they are and how many. I’ve counted as many as 144 in one image. In fact, Google Bloom’s taxonomy, and you are going to get something like 3,690,000 results in 0.36 seconds. Good luck with that. Perhaps for more fun, watch Bloom’s Taxonomy in action according to Seinfeld.

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