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Back to School for Many English Teachers

The Education Ministry has announced plans to train the country’s notoriously under-skilled English teachers to better prepare them to teach the increasingly important subject.

“We need to train our English teachers to become competent speakers,” said Martha Blanco, director of Multilingual Costa Rica.

“It is very important in many aspects of our society.”

The plan, called Multilingual Costa Rica, represents a joint effort with the Costa Rican-U.S. Foundation (CRUSA) and the ministry, and comes in the wake of a lackluster performance by 3,200 of the nation’s teachers on the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) examination.

“In the Education Ministry, we love giving tests, usually to students, not teachers,” said Education Minister Leonardo Garnier. “Information is the key to change. That was the objective of this exercise, to improve. Giving tests to 3,200 people isn’t easy.”

The 14-week program, encompassing 140 hours of class time between September 8 and December 12 in four of the country’s public universities, aims to improve poor speakers to the intermediate level, and intermediate speakers to fluency.

The group includes 1,212 teachers who tested unsatisfactorily.

“The key to bilingualism is the schools,” Garnier said. “The test was optional. Some people didn’t take it because they were afraid of the consequences of a poor score. But we have made it clear that the only consequence is a study program.”

Of the 3,200 English teachers examined, 38 percent received scores of A1 or A2, representing beginner and elementary level language skills.

“Everyone who took the test … is the master of their results,” said Education Academic Vice Minister Alejandrina Mata. “Only they and the ministry know the results of their tests. (But) every professor who took the test voluntarily signed a contract (that they would be willing to enroll in the program).”

Of the remaining 62 percent, 48.5 percent placed in the B1 and B2, or intermediate ranges, and 13.5 percent placed in the C1, or fluent, category.

However, the intensive courses will pull many teachers out of their classrooms in the middle of the year. So as to minimize the impact on the students of the teachers taking part in the training, the ministry plans to switch up the times of the twice-weekly five-hour classes.

“If one week the courses are Tuesday and Thursday, the next week it will be Monday and Wednesday to minimize impact on the students.”

The ministry had previously said that the class periods would be handed to substitute teachers or cancelled (TT, Mar. 13), although an official decision has not been announced.

The need for English education in Costa Rica stems largely from the influx of businesses and residents from the United States.

“What is the importance of speaking other languages, especially English?” asked Garnier. “In Costa Rica, almost everyone speaks Spanish, so you can understand one another. In Latin America, it isn’t a problem. We can even more or less understand the Brazilians. But in the business world, if you don’t know English, well, it is a real problem.”

Hermann Faith, director of CRUSA echoed Garnier’s sentiments. “The goal of this organization is to improve relations between Costa Rica and the United States,” Faith said. “We can’t do that if we don’t understand one another.”

The groups hope teacher training can be the first step in a sweeping plan to revamp English education and expand the use of the language in the country.

By 2009, they hope to have 35,000 B1, B2 and C1 speakers in the country. By 2012, the target is 40,000, concentrated on the higher end. And by 2017, they hope that 75 percent of secondary school students will graduate with B2 or C1 knowledge, and the other 25 percent with B1 skills, Blanco said.



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