The ‘IELTS-ification’ of English language teaching in Vietnam

The ‘IELTS-ification’ of English language teaching in Vietnam

There have been ongoing discussions around the use of IELTS scores in various school entrance exams. RMIT experts evaluate IELTS and how it affects language learning.

Mr Stuart Turner, Senior Academic English Manager (RMIT Foreign Language Training Centre in Da Nang), School of English & University Pathways, RMIT Vietnam 

IELTS is an English proficiency test, distinct from a course of study or an approach to learning English.  

IELTS scores are a potential door to overseas work and study, entrance to academic programs, and one of the most widely recognised ways of measuring English proficiency worldwide. IELTS has grown over the years, together with a whole industry dedicated to offering candidates the best, quickest and cheapest ways to achieve their desired band score. 

As the Ministry of Education and Training and many concerned Vietnamese educators and parents have pointed out, studying for a test is not the same as learning a language. If there is only a focus on achieving the best band score in the shortest possible time, then basic pedagogy is not being followed and candidates are not able to learn English in meaningful, interesting ways. 

More concerning is that younger learners are encouraged to study and take a test designed for adult learners. This leads to boredom with the material, a lack of understanding of the topics, and a feeling of being overwhelmed by IELTS materials (tests are not graded by level, as with all proficiency tests, the same test is taken by all).  

Learning a language should be a slow process that considers a learner’s needs and is adapted accordingly. Material should be interesting and understandable with some effort. This is not happening with the pressure of rushing to attain a band score on a pre-determined timeline. Instead of using IELTS to test English ability, some people learn a bare minimum of English just to take the test. 

Mr Stuart Turner, Senior Academic English Manager (RMIT Foreign Language Training Centre in Da Nang), RMIT Vietnam  Mr Stuart Turner, Senior Academic English Manager (RMIT Foreign Language Training Centre in Da Nang), RMIT Vietnam 

How do we adapt? 

We need to accept the demand for IELTS score is here for now. The IELTS test is a useful tool for measuring proficiency and will continue to be accepted by universities and immigration agencies. The correct approach moving forward is to re-prioritise what happens in the classroom and put the language learning back before the test scores. 

This may not be easy in a market that is clamouring for the coveted band score, with less reputable centres willing to promise those results. In School of English & University Pathways, we find the common ground of best practice and meeting customer needs through language development before test-taking and developing our learners as independent students through tailored learning plans.  

We also develop critical thinking to overcome gaps in general knowledge and empower our educators to focus on areas of a course that best suits their learners’ needs. It is a slow road, but through positive results, we can recalibrate the approach. 

Dr Le Xuan Quynh, Program Manager of Bachelor of Languages program, School of Communication & Design, RMIT Vietnam 

The appropriate use of IELTS depends on the intended purpose. 

If the primary objective is to assess the English proficiency of university applicants, then IELTS stands as a significant measure contributing to the evaluation of candidates' overall cognitive abilities and competencies.  

The thorough preparation for IELTS enables candidates to be well-equipped for academic pursuits at international institutions. 

Throughout this process, candidates refine essential skills in English, ensuring their adeptness and success in an international academic environment. Particularly, it also fosters the development of linguistic and logical acumen. This guarantees that students can effectively navigate study and work environments in English-speaking settings, augmenting their prospects for future success. 


Dr Le Xuan Quynh, Program Manager of Bachelor of Languages program at RMIT Vietnam Dr Le Xuan Quynh, Program Manager of Bachelor of Languages program at RMIT Vietnam

However, it is crucial to approach the use of IELTS with caution to avoid its misuse, often stemming from a limited grasp of its authentic educational purpose. The emphasis should be on nurturing core English language skills, notably communication abilities, which yield greater learning dividends compared to test-taking strategies.  

When considering age-appropriate application, the suitability of using IELTS depends on the English proficiency and familiarity of each age group.  

High school students should evaluate their readiness to take the exam and should be provided with support and encouragement to systematically improve their English proficiency. 

At the secondary level, students in grades eight or nine can begin to familiarise themselves with the exam. Exemplary performances should earn recognition in admissions to English-specialised classes or garner bonus points in high school entrance exams. 

However, at the primary school level, advocating for IELTS study is not justified due to the cognitive immaturity of students, hindering their comprehension and adaptation to the academic demands of IELTS.  

Instead, focus should centre on fostering reasoning abilities, organising information coherently in Vietnamese, and if feasible, engaging in English communication with foreigners. Building language proficiency through Vietnamese-language reading and writing cultivates a robust foundation for continued learning and the subsequent development of English language skills as students progress through higher grades. 

Story: June Pham

27 March 2024


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