Curriculum Innovation, Testing and Evaluation: Proceedings of the 1st Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May 11-12, 2002. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Institute of Technology.

EFL curriculum reform in Thailand

by Alan S. Mackenzie (Obirin University)

Why talk about Thailand in Japan

Japan and Thailand have a lot more in common than you might think. Both countries have similarily structured educational systems, both have characterized their students in similar ways, and both have acknowledged a distinct lack of achievement on the part of their learners to attain a reasonable standard of English proficiency. As a result, both are engaged in ongoing curricular reforms at the national level. Although the nature of the reforms themselves are similar and the way in which the respective education ministries are implementing them is similarly top-down, the extent and depth of the reforms in each country differ significantly.
Just as we can all learn from other individuals, institutions and education systems can also learn from each other. It is my hope that by explaining the current situation in Thailand, teachers in Japan might gain a new perspective on their own situation and ideas about directions which educational reforms in Japan might take.

Characterising the Thai EFL teaching-learning situation

Thai curriculum is controlled by the Ministry of Education, the National Education Commission, and the Ministry of University Affairs, which coordinate all higher education in the country – including sixteen state, twenty-six private universities and thirty-six teacher colleges (NIO, 1997).
The state education system has the same basic framework as Japan: six years elementary, three years junior high, three years senior high, and four-year universities. Currently only six years of elementary schooling are compulsory, although since 1987 efforts have been made to widen access to junior high school with the eventual goal of nine-year compulsory education (NIO, 1997). Unlike Japan where there is some choice, in Thailand textbooks are prescribed and the education ministry commissions, edits, prints and supplies all textbooks for all subjects across the whole country.
Thailand also has a large private sector education system paralleling the state sector. Generally, the number of English classes in the private sector is much greater than in state schools. Consequently, private schools (largely run as missionary schools) produce students who have higher English proficiencies and are considered to be of a higher status than the state schools.
In discussions with Thai language teachers, students were repeatedly characterized as:
  1. lacking willingness to speak due to a culturally-based seniority system and 'shyness'
  2. having an over-emphasis on accuracy
  3. having an ingrained attachment to rote memorization

This description could easily come from Japanese teachers talking about their students, but likewise, the following description of English classes by a Thai high-school student could also come from a Japanese student -

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I love to learn English, P.E. and Math. I like to learn about conversation more than grammar but in my school (most schools in Thailand except international schools), they only teach us grammar. Not many schools in Thailand teach students how to speak. If you want to learn conversation, you have to pay a lot of money to learn at a language school. (Daoruang, 2000)

Why change the system?
". . . the main factor motivating educational reform is economics."

The Thai public is very vocal in showing its dissatisfaction with the state education system. Students, parents and industry have repeatedly questioned in the national press why, after twelve years of English education, university students' communicative English level was lower than expected and in many cases non-functional. They also question why private schools can achieve better results than state-run institutions.
However, the main factor motivating educational reform is economics. In business, Malay, Chinese or Philippine go-betweens are often employed to negotiate contracts with Thai companies. The government decided that rather than have these 'outsiders' involved and taking some of the profits from Thai businesses, it would be better if the Thai people could benefit by carrying out their own business negotiations in English.

What happened?

As part of broader educational reform, in the early nineteen-nineties, the education ministry invited EFL experts in bilingualism from the UK and the US to form the CRC (Curriculum Reform Committee). On behalf of the government, they recommended that English education should start as early as possible. Based on this recommendation, in 1995 the education ministry decided that an extra four years of English education would be added starting from first grade, rather than fifth.
This major curriculum change was implemented in 1996 for public schools that were ready willing and able to do so, with all schools given the deadline of 2002 for implementation. The CRC suggested that the elementary school system lead from an initial focus on listening and speaking then reading and writing would be introduced in a theme-based format, after which students should learn in secondary education through content-based English language instruction. At the same time, the national curricular reforms shift away from rote memorization to communicative methods, student-centered learning and the development of critical thinking skills.
Initially, the teaching guidelines for the new curriculum were developed for primary and secondary education by a mainly British team that focused on the communicative approach. These were revised after extensive consultation with teachers on the ground. Next, a new team influenced by the American education system was drafted to develop the curriculum standards. This produced a rough outline of the Course of Study, which stated that courses should include the four C's:
  1. Communication – focus on listening/speaking
  2. Culture – knowledge of and sensitivity to others
  3. Connections – links to other subject content
  4. Community – project work and application outside the classroom

With these ideals, the education ministry set out an ambitious plan for elementary school education, which controlled teaching methodology and thematic content of lessons. For the first three grades, students are to be taught listening and speaking using total physical response (TPR). In the fourth year, students start to learn reading and writing through theme-based methods, as indicated in Table 1.

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Table 1. Thai elementary school education reform plan.
Grade Skill focus Pedagogic focus Hrs/week
1 (second term) Listening/speaking TPR 2
2 Listening/speaking TPR 2
3-4 4 skills Theme-based 2
5-6 4 skills Theme-based 5
Note: In private schools, students typically receive five hours per week of English instruction from grade one.

Results of the change

Pholonon Elementary School in Chiang Mai implemented these curriculum changes in 1996. Nanci Graves and I visited the school in the spring of 2002 and met some of the students who had been through this six-year curriculum plan. Chutarut Dethwongya (Oai), the head of people management and an English teacher told us that the new plan had made a big difference to the ability levels of the students (personal communication April 22, 2002). To illustrate, she asked three of them to perform their rehearsed presentations, which were the culmination of specific units in the sixth grade course. Typical themes used for these courses are festivals, your hometown, the school and its history.
The students prepared posters with illustrations showing a local temple, their school etc. and a sentence or one or two key words in English. With no preparation these students recited a ten to fifteen-sentence presentation containing much more information than the pictures. They delivered their presentations flawlessly and naturally like guides in a museum describing an exhibit. We were very impressed by the quality of their oral production, their self-confidence and their ability to field spontaneous questions. When asked why they liked English, they noted that it was fun and that they enjoyed the different class activities. One student said that she wanted to become an English teacher because she admired her teacher and wanted to be like her. She added that she thought her teacher was kind, that her pronunciation was good, and she liked that her teacher could communicate so easily with foreigners. The other students we talked to wanted to be a policewoman (because her father was one. This student was the "class boss") and a receptionist. They all voiced a desire to use English in the workplace in the future. Although they are still young (11-12), to have thought about this already at such a young age is impressive.
Other class projects were to go out and interview twenty foreign tourists (Chiang Mai is a popular destination for many nationalities and the tourist population is constantly changing) in order to use English outside the classroom and make it more a part of "real life" for the students.
Our visit caused quite a stir among the students. Before we reached the administration office, we were greeted with enthusiastic Hello's and a few How are you's. This continued through the corridors and while we were talking to Oai. Oai works hard to find new techniques that will stimulate her students and be useful to other teachers. She mentioned:
  1. TPR
  2. theme-based approaches
  3. task-based approaches
  4. whole language learning
  5. project-based techniques

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Large classes (typically around forty students) are no problem for her due to her use of small group work and encouraging students to be peer teachers: putting the stronger with the less strong in each group which also uses the culturally-based seniority system to full advantage. The students are anything but shy and they were willing to try to communicate without being overly concerned about grammatical accuracy. Although this is only one case, it does show that when implemented in a structured, thoughtful manner, these curriculum changes have great potential for the development of the English ability of Thai students.


No curricular innovation is without challenges. This national curriculum plan currently faces two problems: the development of teacher quality and the underlying aim of institutional autonomy. Although both are included in the education reforms and are framed in ideal terms in the government's plans, the problems lie in their implementation and are exacerbated by poor organization and the economic situation in the country.

Quality of teaching staff and barriers to professional development

The basic problem is that the general quality of teaching staff is low. Salaries are low, which makes teaching an unattractive career option. Rather than become teachers, the most competent language graduates become flight attendants, clerks, receptionists or find other positions in the private sector. This problem is not limited to language graduates, but is endemic within the Thai education system. Another major problem is the poor state of teacher training. Teacher college entrants are predominantly students who cannot get into university and the education faculties at all national universities have the students with the lowest academic levels of all the faculties. Generally, teaching is something that people go into if they are unable to do anything else. Especially at the elementary levels, teachers are unqualified, the classrooms are overcrowded, and the focus is on rote memorization and comprehension tests. There is little communication in classes and teachers know little about communicative approaches to language teaching (Tantayanusorn, S., personal communication, Chiang Mai University, April 21, 2002).
Even if a teacher wants to become more competent, barriers to professional development are high. For example, if a student desires to follow a course of doctoral study, they may apply to a scholarship fund and receive funding for their degree. However, if they take six years to complete their degree, they are then attached to the scholarship- granting body in a teaching role (often in the university in which they studied) for a period of twelve years at a monthly salary of 10,000 Baht ($250 US) – a sum roughly equivalent to the salary of a nurse or a limousine driver for a five-star hotel.
At a different level, if a teacher wishes to attend a free government-run workshop which is held on a school day, since they are not teaching on that day, they do not get paid their regular salary leading to a net loss of income. ERICs (English Resource & Information Centers originally set up by the British Council and the Ministry of Education in the early 1990's) are used sporadically by groups of ten to twenty schools to aid communication and cooperation between schools. Each school takes it in turn to host an event but budgeting constraints make this difficult for local schools. For example, the central government will give a rural school 5,000 Baht ($125 US) for a two-week workshop, but since the teachers cannot collect salaries from their schools this means that teachers must pay a heavy financial penalty for professional development. Although the ERIC Centers should be central to teacher development, especially with the new curriculum looming, as yet there is no sign that this is going to happen.

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Dealing with teacher quality issues

One role that the ERIC centers have taken on is attempting to increase the level of English of Thai teachers. In 2002 Kasama Worawan na Ayutthaya, chief of the General Education Department, told the heads of provincial education offices that the department has ordered English classes at grades 1-3 be conducted in English by autumn 2003. He also plans to issue the same order for grades 4-6. In 2001 about 30% of English classes in elementary schools were conducted in Thai (Bunnag, 2001). In order to change this situation, all instructors would be given courses in English at ERIC centers to improve their proficiency.
In order to implement these ambitious national curricular plans, a local supervisor was appointed for different regions of the country. These supervisory offices are separate from the schools, supervise more than one school and may even cover more than one province. Supervisors were teachers who were selected by employment level within the education system according to qualifications and experience in order that they could have a positive effect on other teachers. The supervisor was given a non-teaching role and it was this person's job to form a team that would produce local materials for three groups:
  1. the "fast lane" students (the top three percent of all students),
  2. the bottom three percent, and
  3. the ordinary students.

These supervisors were also requested to aid the development of cooperation between teachers and schools within their region through the formation of teaching circles and development groups. To this end they were granted a budget by the central government for workshops in their areas.
However, Oai is not a supervisor and does not know who her supervisor is! When she started at the school she was given the job of being 'head of people management', a teacher development role. For her first year in that role it was difficult to get teachers to talk to each other about new ideas and to share information, but after struggling through the first year, her "sharing approach" rubbed off on the other staff and now there are no serious problems that she is aware of.
Oai has produced training manuals and guidelines on her own outlining the curriculum changes and teaching methods that she has found effective in her classroom situation. She has collected data on all of her students that she can show the parents when they visit and uses the PTA budget to fund her teacher development activities. The weekend before we arrived, there had been a lively school festival for the parents, community and teachers from other schools where students had a chance to display the projects they had done in class.
Now she is attempting to broaden the influence of these techniques by contacting other schools and school districts to have teachers come to Pholonon to share ideas and train each other, share experiences and take them back to their schools. This form of cascade training appears to be a successful form of development in that it is not isolated, but ongoing and supported by electronic communication. This is a personal initiative that she has set up by suggesting it to the director of the school who agreed and used the new curricular suggestions from the government as a framework for the project. Officially, the government only supports organized workshops for teachers over one to two days and these are isolated occurrences. This she deems unhelpful because while they are refreshing and interesting these workshops offer little follow-up and are sporadic rather than ongoing.

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In an attempt to meet the personal needs of Thai teachers, the pedagogic needs of the new national curriculum, the needs of the Thai Education Ministry and its own aims, the British Council has set up a series of workshops in Chiang Mai from April 2002 which follow a similar program started in Bangkok in 2001. There is one workshop per month and each one focuses on a specific ELT topic. Information about what Thai teachers wanted workshops on was collected for Bangkok after each of the workshops held and for Chiang Mai at Thai TESOL in January through a questionnaire asking teachers to note five topics that they would like to go to workshops on. Topics in the final selection included, assess and correct student writing, get the most out of task-based learning, use more English in the classroom, and critical thinking. All of the workshops were run by native speakers of English.
Attendees are generally committed, experienced teachers in their forties who do not know how to deal with the new curricular reforms and are seeking information about how to develop their teaching to meet curricular aims. The stated purposes of the workshops are to develop English Language teachers' pedagogic skills and meet two British Council objectives:
  1. To promote wider and more effective learning of English overseas
  2. To position the UK overseas as a committed partner in tackling key reform agendas and promoting sustainable development

Representatives from different schools/school districts come to the workshops to learn about new ideas and pick up learning materials then take them back to their schools and inform their fellow teachers of the content of the workshops. As such this represents a transmission model of education. Although this is framed as "cascade training," whether such a cascade effect actually happens remains to be seen. Currently there are no known studies on how effective cascade training is in Thailand.
The British Council also runs a website support system for Thai teachers of English and an accessenglish mailing list via yahoo groups that acts as a form of online staff- room where teachers can ask for suggestions, discuss problems and generate teaching ideas. This can be seen as a positive step in terms of ongoing teacher development but what seems to be needed is a program that teaches Thai teachers how to teach themselves. Ongoing teacher development in terms of language ability and pedagogical practices, monitoring of that development, and monitoring of the results within individual classrooms and schools would go a long way to helping teachers deal with the heavy demands of the new curriculum.

The issue of institutional autonomy
At the heart of the education reform are: decentralisation of education management; change of learning processes with emphasis on replacement of rote learning; and reform of teaching practices which include the licensing of the teaching profession and the standardisation of the quality of teachers. What really matters most is the quality of education, which is badly in need of improvement if this country is to be able to meet future global challenges, to maintain a competitive edge and to prosper. (The Bangkok Post, 2001)

The 'sweetener' for teachers in the educational reform process is the promise that individual schools will have greater local autonomy. Schools, they say, in the future will be less controlled by the central bureaucracy. However, in order to achieve such autonomy, each school must prove that it is able to run itself in a responsible, accountable manner.

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These reforms seem to be a sweeping way to establish the standard level of quality that universities and other schools will be expected to meet. Nationwide schools have been ordered to set goals and draft plans designed to change learning approaches. They were also told to promote the best teachers and find out how many of them could lead the education reform scheme.A 'quality assurance' program was also set up by the ministry in order to monitor schools and teachers. However, this manifests itself in a basic checklist of administration, punctuality, and time-management, which has little to do with education. Educational quality assurance should focus on teaching practices and student outcomes but there is no standard measure of these as yet in Thailand.
In fact, it appears that the promise of institutional autonomy is not worth the process of achieving it for many Thai teachers. Sadly these reform drives seem to be encouraging many teachers to opt for early retirement. More than 600 teachers in Bangkok alone applied for retirement: about 30 of them from prestigious schools designated to spearhead the education reform process. Reasons given for this exodus include just being fed up with the system, feeling tired, feel like they are working alone and having to work harder under extra pressure from students and the reforms (Bunnag, 2001). Some think the education ministry is not dealing with the real problems within the system and the changes are misdirected. These changes create more work for language teachers who are often already over-worked. By only looking at the core syllabus, they are ignoring student needs and putting the pressure on the local teachers to develop ways of coping with these reforms. However, especially at the high school level, there are so many barriers to getting things done within the English education system and so much central accountability that it is not only difficult to get information, but also to change the way things are done.
Suwanna Tantayanusorn, Assistant Professor of English at Chiang Mai University is very upset with the reforms. She notes that for people like herself who love teaching and do not want to do anything else, these reforms create a phenomenal amount of red tape. She also believes that not enough funds have been put into basic research and needs analysis. They are poorly thought out and do not address the main problems in the Thai education system. They are top-down changes that come from government ministers and dictate language-teaching methodology. Chiang Mai University (CMU) is supposed to be one of the coordinating bodies implementing those changes and is also supposed to be a key responsible research center. However, because the government has put little funding intro teacher development to deal with these changes, the coordinating bodies are just hoping that teachers cope through trial and error. She feels there is not a lot they can do and stated:
. . . because of the amount of time it takes to teach and run the program: teach classes (language teachers have a higher teaching load than other teachers), correct students' work, develop tests and standardize them, coordinate the materials and distribute them, only 5% of our job is research. In CMU, our immediate concern is to deal with daily situations. This year, we ran two general English courses: one for arts majors and one for science majors. In the 2001 academic year, we had one general English course for the first two years, but after that, we need to have ESP courses in September 2002 for all the faculties that want students to develop their academic English ability further and we do not know yet, in March 2002, who wants them!

We have potentially to develop seventeen different ESP courses by fall and find teachers who can teach these specialised courses. This is as well as running the program in its current form. It is a losing battle in way.
- Personal communication, Chiang Mai University, April 21st, 2002

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The knock-on effect

Since 2003 is the first year that students from the re-vamped elementary school curriculum are going to enter the high-school system, the issues of teacher development have become an urgent problem for many more teachers in Thailand. Also, there is a problem for schools who are going to receive students from different elementary schools, some of whom have had six years of English and some who have only had two.
If all goes according to plan, in another six years, the university system will be hit with a wave of students with generally higher English levels than they are used to. In fact, the ultimate aim of the education ministry is that all university classes in all subjects be conducted in English, which might seem advantageous until you consider the English level of the instructors. As Suchada Nimmannit president of Thai TESOL notes (personal communication, Chulalonkorn University, April 18th, 2002), it is difficult enough to get the instructors in the graduate school of Chulalonkorn University to teach in English, never mind raising the level of all university teachers in the country to the point where they can conduct English medium classes. She notes that the idea in and of itself is not bad but the practical barriers to making it work are enormous.
Nevertheless, when educational leaders met in Bangkok in April 2002 to talk about the proposal to make English the medium of instruction in universities, it was phrased "How should we proceed in order to make this happen?", rather than "Should we . . . ?"
". . .the ultimate aim of the education ministry is that all university classes in all subjects be conducted in English . . ."

Spurred by the number of international programs increasing enrolment, competition from the private sector, educational pride, and parental desires, this idea may yet see its day. Assumption University, academically one of the strongest universities in Thailand, teaches in English. Entrance exams are tough and they have intensive English courses to bring the students up to standard (10,000 Baht per month, $250). Many believe that if you want the students to speak English, you should teach them in English and to this end, many wealthier parents are sending their children to international schools and many public schools are starting international programs.
The British Council in Chiang Mai currently has around 600 children enrolled in their weekend program. When you consider the massive financial commitment this entails in what is still a relatively poor country, you will realize just how much emphasis parents put on their children's English competence and its importance for their futures.


Since the Thai education ministry has not yet fully implemented the current curriculum reforms, we must wonder why they are already making plans for another one. Already teachers are thinking about how to cope with the huge task of making university classes English-medium. First there is a jump to textbooks: the textbooks need to be translated, we can use textbooks from other countries, Singapore, Hong Kong etc. Practicality is the key word. Some schools may be willing to implement these changes by choice while others may choose not to take part. Some schools could elect to hire Burmese, Philippine, American or Indian teachers to teach content classes in English. But there is still the problem of teacher salaries being low.
On the other hand, for teachers who embrace the changes like Oai, the new English curriculum is a boon. She likes the structure and aims a lot and thinks that it will improve education and force teachers to be more accountable to their students, their schools, parents and the government. She sees the government's aim of discovering who the "top ten" teachers in the country are as a positive move since, once they are found, they will train ten people each and the cascade will start. She believes that teachers need to be more autonomous and that these curriculum changes will encourage that. Teachers need to change to be able to implement the changes and this is good.

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However, this can also be seen as the government conducting a 'trial by fire', introducing changes and then seeing who survives through them and then use those people to train the ones who failed.
Oai sees the government acting like cog-wheels: the government moves make the teachers move, and that moves the students. Taking a whole-school approach to this change is important. Each school has different problems and they need to tackle those problems locally. If schools solve these problems by themselves, the hope is that it will lead to more local autonomy with a focus on development. As the school develops, accountability is built in. Teachers are accountable to the school and the parents. Students are accountable to the teachers and their parents. Schools are accountable to the government and the parents. When parents see progress in their children, they tell other parents and the school becomes more popular: its reputation grows.
Pholonon school is likely to continue to develop in a positive and effective manner with Oai in charge of human resource development. It was the happiest school we have found in either Thailand or Japan, and was obviously the center of the local community as all schools should be.


The National Identity Office under the Office of the Prime Minister, Royal Thai Government. (1997). Education: Historical background. Retrieved on June 21, 2002 from

Daoruang, N. (2000). My timetable in Thailand. Retrieved on June 21, 2002

Bunnag, S. (2001, July 4). Reform drive discouraging top teachers: Many opting for early retirement. Bangkok Post. Retrieved on July 15, 2002 from

The Bangkok Post. (2001, April 17). Editorial: Education reform hostage to politics. Retrieved on July 15, 2002 from

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