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State Cracking Down on Bad English Teachers

The Education Ministry presented a national plan this week to improve English instruction and produce a bilingual workforce for the nation’s growing economy.

Recognizing that many English teachers don’t speak English well, the ministry today begins testing 2,900 English teachers. Those who do poorly will take an eight-week immersion course.

The plan, devised by representatives from the public and private sectors, also calls for better teaching materials, curricular changes, as well as testing for high school graduates.

“The demand for English knowledge is increasing more quickly than our capacity to respond,” said Education Minister Leonardo Garnier. “If we want our country to be successful, not just economically but also culturally… we have to make some headway.”

The plan sets ambitious benchmarks in the short, medium and long terms for turning Costa Rica into a bilingual nation.

By 2017, it states, 75% of high school graduates will be proficient in English, as measured by a European rating system. The rest will be able to understand and write basic texts and have simple conversations.

“(Now) young people spend five years studying English in high school and don’t learn the language,” said Alejandrina Mata, vice minister of education.

Just 10.6 % of Costa Ricans over 18 speak English fluently, according to 2005 data from the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC), and Costa Rica’s rapidly growing service sector has felt the shortage.

The Costa Rican Investment Promotion Agency (CINDE), which works to attract high-tech services and manufacturing investment to the country, helped draft the 103-page plan, together with representatives from the Education Ministry, the Foreign Trade Ministry, the Economy Ministry, the National Training Institute and Casa Presidencial.

Teacher training is central to the plan. The Costa Rica-North American Cultural Center will administer the test for English teachers March through May. Teachers who receive low scores will take intensive language courses during four two-week segments June through December. Substitute teachers will fill in or classes will be canceled, Garnier said.

The ministry will also test some high school graduates this year as part of a pilot program, said Anabelle Venegas, the ministry’s foreign language coordinator.

Students will receive one of six scores – A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2 – based on the European Framework of References for Languages.

Christian Rodríguez, vice president of operations at Western Union, said the standardized scores will help him gauge job seekers’ true level.

“Someone approaches you and says ‘I speak 55% English,’” he said. “Well, what is 55% English?”

The plan also calls for new, high-tech English-teaching materials. The ministry is working with the University of Costa Rica (UCR) on an interactive Web site to help students, teachers and the general public learn English. In the next four years, the ministry plans to donate language labs –with sound systems, video cameras and DVD players – to 600 high schools.

Funding for the plan will come from the ministry, the Costa Rican-U.S. Foundation (CRUSA), and the National Training Institute.

The plan does not impress veteran English teacher and author Gerardo Barboza, who directs the Center for International Education, a private language school in San José. He said he doubts that after years of English classes in high school and college, teachers can become proficient in just eight weeks.

Besides, he said, past administrations have presented similar projects with little success.

“All of this, I’ve heard it over and over in every plan,” he said. “It’s the same Coca-Cola with a different label.”

The plan’s authors countered that the effort is “much greater and more systematic” than past projects.



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