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Research Papers in Education ISSN: 0267-1522 (Print) 1470-1146 (Online) Journal homepage:

Research Papers in Education

Research Papers in Education ISSN: 0267-1522 (Print) 1470-1146 (Online) Journal homepage:

ISSN: 0267-1522 (Print) 1470-1146 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rred20

Creating spaces for constructing practice and identity: innovations of teachers of English language to young learners in Vietnam

Chinh Duc Nguyen

To cite this article: Chinh Duc Nguyen (2017) Creating spaces for constructing practice and identity: innovations of teachers of English language to young learners in Vietnam, Research Papers in Education, 32:1, 56-70, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2015.1129644

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ReseaRch PaPeRs in education, 2017 VoL. 32, no. 1, 56–70


ReseaRch PaPeRs in education, 2017 VoL. 32, no. 1, 56–70 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02671522.2015.1129644
ReseaRch PaPeRs in education, 2017 VoL. 32, no. 1, 56–70 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02671522.2015.1129644

Creating spaces for constructing practice and identity:

innovations of teachers of English language to young learners in Vietnam

Chinh Duc Nguyen

language to young learners in Vietnam Chinh Duc Nguyen english department, college of Foreign Language studies,

english department, college of Foreign Language studies, university of danang, danang, Vietnam


The discourse on construction of practice and identity in language teaching has been situated in transnational contexts. However, not all teachers are provided with access to transnational spaces for professional development. Drawing on the concept of ‘multimembership’ in ‘multicommunities’, this study explores how Vietnamese teachers of English language to young learners created spaces for developing practice and identity in their local contexts. Data were collected from narrative interviews conducted with four participants who were teaching English language in four different primary schools in Vietnam. Each participant, as the only English language teacher in each primary school, found that participation in the school community was inadequate for professional development. To develop their practice and identity, the participants, on their own initiative, crossed the school boundary to join other communities, including a separate group of primary English language teachers, English classes for adult learners, an imagined community between local and expatriate teachers and their own families. The findings of the study provide a window into language teachers’ construction of practice and identity in Vietnam and other similar contexts.


Received 26 april 2015 accepted 6 december 2015


Practice and identity; teaching english language to young learners; multiple membership in multiple communities; Vietnam; boundary crossing; professional development; teachers


In the current era of globalisation, language teachers’ construction of identity and practice has been located in transnational milieus (Canagarajah 2012; Menard-Warwick 2008). The predominant model is one in which non-native English-speaking (NNES) teachers from English as a foreign language (EFL) backgrounds constructed and negotiated their multiple identities (national, cultural and professional) during their postgraduate studies or residency in Anglophone countries (Faez 2011; Huang 2014; Li 2007; Park 2012; Phan 2007; Samimy et al. 2011; Zacharias 2010). Under this model, teachers learned new pedagogies and socialised with the local people and other international students using English as the medium of communication. As a result, experience gained both in intercultural contexts and in their own countries led to profound transformations in their beliefs and practices. At this point, though, there arises a question of what percentage of language teachers in general and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) teachers in particular are provided with access to transnational spaces for professional development. Indeed, the majority of TESOL teachers in the world today are non-native English speakers who have spent their lives pursuing careers in their own


chinh duc nguyen

© 2016 taylor & Francis

careers in their own CONTACT chinh duc nguyen © 2016 taylor & Francis chinhng80@gmail.com, ndchinh@ufl.udn.vn


REsEaRCH PaPERs iN EDuCaTioN 57 home country (Canagarajah 1999 ). It is, therefore, necessary for research


home country (Canagarajah 1999). It is, therefore, necessary for research to shift focus towards this group of teachers in non-native English contexts (Hayes 2009). In an effort to gain understandings of language teachers and their teaching in local contexts, this study investigates how teachers of EFL to young learners in Vietnam created spaces for constructing practice and identity. Teaching English to young learners (hereafter abbreviated as TEYL) is examined in this study because it has recently emerged as a new branch of language education in many non-Eng- lish-speaking countries, notably in the Asia-Pacific region (Butler 2014, 2015; Nguyen 2011; Nunan 2013). Compared to TESOL teachers at higher school levels (secondary and tertiary education), TEYL teachers, especially those who embarked on their careers in the initial stage of TEYL implementation, developed both theory and practice by themselves. For the majority of TEYL teachers, access to identity construction and professional development in general, not to mention engagement in transnational sites, is severely restricted (Copland, Garton, and Burns 2014). Therefore, the aim of the study is not only to focus on language teachers’ construction of practice and identity in the local context of Vietnam but also to empower TEYL teachers whose teaching enterprise is not highly valued in many societies (Cameron 2001; Moon 2009). The findings of this study will help to reveal how teachers in local contexts have sought sites for developing their practice and identity.

The construction of practice and identity in multiple communities of practice

Identity has been conceptualised as an analytical tool for understanding the relationship between school and society (Gee 2000). Central to educational research on identity is teacher identity which has emerged as a separate area (Beijaard, Meijer, and Verloop 2004). Although an exact definition of teacher identity that can be used for all cases is unlikely to be possible, the concept of teacher identity employed in this study is generally understood as teachers’ understanding of themselves in relation to others in society (Danielewicz 2001; Milner 2010; Sachs 2005) and the roles enacted by teachers in different settings (Burns and Richards 2009; Varghese 2006). More specifically, two definitions were chosen for understanding teachers’ identity in the present study: ‘our [teachers’] understanding of who we [teachers] are and of who we [teachers] think other people are’ (Danielewicz 2001, 10) and ‘how individuals [teachers] see themselves and how they enact their roles within different settings’ (Burns and Richards 2009, 5). As can be seen from the research literature, the construction of teacher identity has been underlined as a focus of attention (Beauchamp and Thomas 2009; Beijaard, Meijer, and Verloop 2004). Of the conceptual frameworks employed in studies on the construction of teacher identity, the social theory of learning advanced by Wenger (1998) has received growing acceptance and recognition (Barton and Tusting 2005; Clarke 2008; Trent, Gao, and Gu 2014; Tsui 2011). Central to this theory is par- ticipation in communities as social practice by which individuals learn and become who they are. In other words, individuals form their identity as result of participation in communities of practice and the practice constructed by individuals is the obvious expression of their identity. When this theory is employed in the field of language education, the construction of teacher identity is conceptualised as ‘an encompassing process of being active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities’ (Wenger 1998, 4). A community of practice is, basically, understood as an aggregate of people who share a craft or a profession (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998). The property of a community of practice is demonstrated through the interaction of three dimensions: ‘mutual engagement’, ‘a joint enterprise’ and ‘a shared repertoire’ (Wenger 1998, 73). Wenger underlines how these three constituents exist in a dialectical relationship that creates the coherence of a given community of practice. Members’ connection with a community is manifested not only in the above-mentioned constituents but also in ‘modes of belonging’ which include ‘imag- ination’, ‘alignment’ and ‘engagement’ (Wenger 1998, 174). In the present study, the participating teachers’ involvement in their primary school is regarded as their participation in a community of practice which will lead to the development of an ‘identity-in-practice’. This is pivotal to most studies


58 C. D. NguyEN on language teachers’ construction of identity as framed by the social theory

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on language teachers’ construction of identity as framed by the social theory of learning (Kanno and Stuart 2011; Trent 2011; Varghese et al. 2005). According to Wenger, mutual relations of engagement in a given community of practice do not necessarily reside only in homogenisation and collegiality but also in differentiation and resistance. As a result, its members will seek to participate in other communities and, in return, introduce the practices learned in the new communities to their primary community. Following this premise, and as practice is everywhere, the teachers in this study are supposed to engage not only with one com- munity (the primary school) but also with multiple communities. Teachers’ involvement in various communities is participatory and non-participatory. In participatory involvement, teachers engage with their colleagues for ‘shared repertoire’ and ‘joint enterprise’. However, teachers engage in some communities through ‘imagination’ which means ‘creating images of the world and seeing connection through time and space by extrapolating our own experience’ (Wenger 1998, 173). Wenger uses the term ‘brokering’ to refer to ‘the use of multimembership to transfer some element of one practice into another’ (109). The notion of ‘brokering’ employed in this study will impart a sense how the participating teachers transferred practices from other communities to their primary school and vice versa. Following this, the implementation of new pedagogical practices in their pri- mary school and other communities is an example of teachers’ efforts to ‘make new connections across communities of practice, enable coordination, and open new possibilities for meaning’ (Wenger 1998, 109). Alsup (2006) refers to the participation of teachers in various communities as ‘borderland dis- course’, which means ‘the intersection of multiple worlds and multiple ways of thinking’ (150). In his autobiographic form of language teaching research, Canagarajah (2012) looked back on his process of joining a diversity of professional and cultural communities. However, few among the population of language teachers have such a chance of engagement in multicultural contexts. Given that language teachers in disadvantaged settings have difficulties engaging in cosmopolitan spaces, the ‘nexus of multimembership’ in their local context is an alternative source for their identity development. Based on the central concepts of ‘multimembership’ and ‘brokering’ as part of the theory of com- munities of practice, this study will inquire into how the participating teachers, as ‘brokers’, undertook the initiative to cross the boundary of their primary school to participate in other communities, thus creating spaces for professional development. Their participation in various communities of practice reinforces the principle that ‘we define who we are by the ways we reconcile our various forms of membership into one identity’ (Wenger 1998, 149).


The participants

The participants of this study were four English language teachers in four different primary schools in Vietnam. These four teachers were chosen because they embarked on their TEYL careers from 1994 to 2002 when English language instruction was in the initial stage of implementation in primary education. During this period, TEYL teachers constructed their teaching practices by experiential learning (Grassick 2007; Moon 2009; Nguyen and Nguyen 2007). Therefore, these participants’ nar- ratives provide a rich source of data in terms of the initiatives undertaken by the pioneer generation of TEYL teachers for their professional development. Since this study was methodologically grounded on the case study, the four participants are considered multiple cases who provide broader and deeper perspectives into the research issues (Stake 2005; Yin 2014). They are all female because women predominate as TEYL teachers. Two teachers were teaching in reputable primary schools in Vien Dong, a metropolitan city in the middle of Vietnam. The remaining two were from primary schools in rural areas, one from a rural district of Vien Dong City and the other from a village in Binh Minh, a neighbouring province of Vien Dong City. To maintain confidentiality, pseudonyms were used for the participants and the city or province where each teacher was living.

Table 1. demographic information of the participants.


Table 1. demographic information of the participants. REsEaRCH PaPERs iN EDuCaTioN 59













teaching experience

13 years

13 years

17 years

20 years state city tesoL tRFL a

school type

state country

state country

state city

Qualification(s) (B.a)




a teaching Russian as a foreign language.

All the participants were experienced and highly regarded teachers in terms of teaching exper- tise and English language proficiency: the duration of teaching experience of members of the group ranged from 13 to 21 years. Three participants achieved a Bachelor’s degree in TESOL. Thom was the only one to achieve two degrees: Russian language teaching and TESOL. None of the teachers either learned English in primary school or took a Bachelor’s degree in TEYL. In addition to the profiles of the participating teachers summarised in Table 1, short portraits of individual cases, with special attention to their motives for entering TEYL careers, are presented as follows:

Thom majored in Russian language teaching in her first degree but the fall of the former Soviet Union shattered her hope of becoming a Russian language teacher. To adjust to the sociopolitical reality, Thom took a second degree in ELT for employment purposes. After graduation, she was recruited as a junior secondary school English language teacher. In the workplace, Thom was not considered competent to teach English because her colleagues knew her first degree was in Russian language. As

a result, she decided to lower her status from secondary to primary teaching level. Hoa went into her TEYL career as her second preference. As a student graduating with commen- dation for high achievement, Hoa was confident in her knowledge and teaching competence to teach English at senior secondary schools. Unfortunately, the unfair selection process shattered Hoa’s hopes after two unsuccessful attempts. In her last attempt, Hoa decided to apply for a position as a primary school English teacher because it was easier to be recruited. Furthermore, she hoped that it would be

a platform for her to teach in senior secondary schools afterwards. Nguyen initially found it challenging to be offered a teaching position at a senior secondary school so she decided to settle in the countryside with her parents. She hoped that job opportunities would come up in the new place where she might be appointed to a senior secondary school or at least at a junior secondary school. However, she was once again disillusioned with the reality at her new home as it was also challenging. Nguyen was eventually recommended to teach English at a primary school on a contractual basis. Thu was also aware that is was unlikely she would be recruited as an English teacher either in junior or senior secondary schools so she compromised herself by accepting to teach at primary school. She contacted the Department of Education and they recommended her for a casual position as an English teacher in a village school. Thu stated her reason for accepting that position: ‘I saw it as a temporary job and then I would move to a senior secondary school’.

Data collection and analysis

Data for this study were collected from narrative interviews, one conducted with each participant. Creswell (2013) suggests that personal conversations or interviews are the best ways for participants to tell stories about their lived experiences. The interviews conducted were semi-structured with guiding questions and prompts developed beforehand. However, the nature of open-ended interviews means that the format was loosely shaped to encourage participants ‘to elaborate on the issues raised in an exploratory manner’ (Dornyei 2007, 136). During the one-hour interview, the participants were encouraged to talk about their professional development in general. In particular, the participants were asked a number of questions about how they engaged in their primary school in order to develop their


60 C. D. NguyEN teaching practice and identity as TEYL teachers. Also, the participants were encouraged

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teaching practice and identity as TEYL teachers. Also, the participants were encouraged to reflect on their participation in other groups or on other ways they performed their professional development. The venue varied between the interviews and between the participants, with conversations occurring in public libraries, cafes or the participant’s home. With the teachers’ consent, all the interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed. Although the participants were proficient in English, the inter- viewing language was Vietnamese because they felt more confident to communicate ideas in their mother tongue. As such, all the details from the interviews used as quotes in this paper were translated from Vietnamese into English by the author who is fluent in both languages. Data analysis in this study drew on an inductive process whereby researchers begin with detailed and particular data and end with categories and patterns (Creswell 2013; Lichtman 2013; Punch 2009). In this way, themes and conclusions are sought from data rather than imposed from pre-existing codes or prefigured categories (McMillan and Schumacher 2010). In terms of the voluminous data collected from the four participants, the basic strategy depended on whether within-case or cross-case analysis would be chosen which, in turn, depended on whether the study was of single or multiple cases (Duff 2008). Therefore, the strategy for analysing the data gathered was a combination of within-case and cross-case analysis, as suggested by Yin (2014) for multiple-case studies. In other words, data analysis started with within-cases and then moved to cross-cases. Drawing on the conceptual framework of ‘brokering’ and ‘multimembership’, data analysis was initiated by the four participants’ engagement in primary school as the principal community. Building on the information provided by the participants regarding their participation in the primary school, the analysis continued with other communities in which they were involved. Of the five communities/groups in which the teachers participated, three were analysed in terms of cross-case. The remaining two were presented through within-case analysis because these two communities/groups indicated distinctive efforts by two of the teachers in terms of seeking sites for professional development.

Findings: multiple memberships in multiple communities

As the only English language teacher in their primary school, each participant found that membership in the school community was insufficient for adequate professional development. This was the major challenge faced by all the participating teachers during the early stage of their TEYL career. Therefore, they undertook practical initiatives to change the situation. In particular, they crossed the school boundary to develop their practice and identity and joined other communities. Hoa understood that TEYL teachers were provided with limited access to professional development. Therefore, she proposed the formation of a group of primary school language English teachers in her district. Leaders in the Department of Education at district level appreciated her initiative which they thought would help teachers have their own space for learning to teach. Hoa was nominated as the group leader due to her proactive role. In addition to this group, Hoa joined an English language centre in which she taught adult learners. By participating in various communities, Hoa was recognised by her colleagues as a highly regarded TEYL teacher in her district. However, in the dawn of her teaching career, Thom was apprehensive that she might forget all of her English knowledge if she spent all her teaching life working with learners at beginner levels in primary schools. As with Hoa, Thom taught evening adult classes in an English language centre. Thom also learned to teach by working with her children at home. That is, she asked her son and daughter to be involved in her TEYL work by preparing and rehearsing lessons together. Participating in these two groups resulted in her gaining in-depth understanding of her TEYL work and herself as a TEYL teacher. Being based in rural areas, Thu and Nguyen were not provided with many chances for professional development. As English language instruction was initially implemented in rural schools, there was almost no space for teachers to learn and share teaching experience with each other. The initiative they each took was teaching middle and high school students who needed private tutoring. In this way, their professional development was limited only to English language knowledge. To build their teaching expertise, they capitalised on available resources and their imagination. Nguyen, for example,


REsEaRCH PaPERs iN EDuCaTioN 61 resorted to her knowledge of Western education, that is, teachers’ engagement


resorted to her knowledge of Western education, that is, teachers’ engagement with young learners. For example, Thu explored the approaches to teaching literacy to young learners in Australia on television. Although achieving notable success in the eyes of their colleagues, Nguyen and Thu said that they needed to cross more boundaries so that their practices and identities would become more diverse. It is important to remember that the four participants embarked on their TEYL careers as a result of their failure to become TESOL teachers at secondary or high school. Worse than that, their work was not highly valued in mainstream society. In those circumstances, they may well have been demotivated to go further on their professional journey. Indeed, many of their colleagues were unable to continue with a TEYL career due to tensions, stereotyping and ill-treatment. In contrast to the majority, the participants stayed on primary schools regardless of the difficulties which were both material and spiritual. The reward of such courage was their sense of agency, one of the important characteristics of teacher identity (Beauchamp and Thomas 2009; Beijaard, Meijer, and Verloop 2004; Campbell 2012). In particular, Beijaard, Meijer, and Verloop (2004) pointed out, ‘Agency is an important element of professional identity, meaning teachers have to be active in the process of professional development’ (122). As active agents, each participant undertook initiatives for transforming their practice and constructing teacher identity. The initiatives were their boundary crossing for participation in multiple communities. Each of the communities in which the participating teachers were involved is discussed in detail below.

The primary school as a principal community of practice

On the premise of the social theory of learning (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998), the primary school, in which each participant was engaged, is regarded as a community to develop practice and construct identity. According to Wright (2010), membership of a school as a professional community is a key aspect of learning to teach. During their early days in the school community, the participants found it hard to adapt to the discourses of primary schools. From their viewpoint, everything in the primary schools, from classroom practices to administration work, was based on strict and rigid rules and regulations. The reality was different from their expectations inspired by the discourses of foreign language teaching, which presented primary schools offering foreign language learning as ‘liberal’ and ‘authority-free’. The four participants were even afraid they might be transformed into absolutely different people who would be unable to enact the identities ascribed to English language teachers: ‘I wondered whether I was teaching English or something else. I was different from the typical image of an English teacher’ (Hoa). Nevertheless, these participants felt obligated to align themselves to the school community by negotiating their pre-existing identities with the new discourses of primary schools, reflecting the impact of contextual factors on teachers’ identity construction (Beauchamp and Thomas 2009; Varghese et al. 2005). As there was only one English language teacher in each primary school at the beginning of their teaching careers, the four participants had no choice other than to engage with homeroom teachers who taught Vietnamese and mathematics in order to build their teaching expertise. They felt this engagement with homeroom teachers partly reinforced their pedagogical practices and classroom management. In detailed observation of L1 (Vietnamese language) teachers’ classes, the participants paid special attention to the ways their colleagues engaged with pupils and the pedagogical practices they used in primary classes. However, they gradually realised that the procedures of an L1 class would not be applicable to an EFL class: ‘Pupils already know how to say words in L1, so Vietnamese literacy teachers just focus on writing. For English, I have to instruct them from pronunciation to writing’ (Nguyen). They also found discrepancies in classroom practices: ‘Pupils have to study a lot in classes of Vietnamese and mathematics, so the atmosphere is very strict and tense. But in English classes, I need to create something pleasant for children’ (Thu). As the primary school was not conducive for the participants to develop practice and identity, the participants each took the initiative to cross the school boundary. According to Louis (2012), teachers’ professional development is not merely limited


62 C. D. NguyEN to strong links within the school but needs to be expanded to

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to strong links within the school but needs to be expanded to other groups. Their efforts to create sites for constructing practice and identity could be considered an example of ‘borderland discourse’: ‘One must find borderland between two (or more) discourses in a sincere way and speak from this new space, this site of alternative discourse, to enact change in a particular community’ (Alsup 2006, 9).

Hoa’s initiative for a community of TEYL teachers

The community of TEYL teachers formed by Hoa was regarded a practical solution to the problem of limited spaces for professional development in her local context. TEYL teachers in the whole district found the new group efficient and beneficial to their teaching practice. In contrast to the primary school, this new group was a true community of practice for all TEYL teachers to engage with each other, pursue ‘a joint enterprise’ and develop ‘shared repertoire’. From a sociocultural perspective on teacher development (Hawkins 2004; Johnson 2009; Wright 2010), this community is compatible with a critical friend group which has been proved to transform teachers’ professional development (Tasker 2011; Vo and Nguyen 2010).

We did a lot of things in each monthly meeting such as sharing lesson plans, solving difficulties in each teaching unit, developing resources for teaching and learning theories of TEYL. The most important part in each meeting was that one teacher taught a sample lesson for other members to observe and give constructive feedback. The more we engaged with each other, the more we broadened our minds. All the teachers told me that they ‘found themselves’ in the group. (Hoa)

All members in the group acknowledged Hoa’s contributions to the community: ‘Without your ini- tiative, our teaching would be very poor and boring’ one teacher said to Hoa. The most significant action Hoa took for ‘changing the face of primary English instruction in the district’ (a teacher’s remark retold by Hoa) was her negotiation with officials in the Department of Education (at district level) for the implementation of a new textbook to replace the textbook prescribed by the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET). By pointing out the pros and cons of each textbook, Hoa successfully persuaded all the officials concerned to grant permission for using the new one as a shared repertoire for the whole group:

All the teachers agreed that ‘Let’s Go’ [published by Oxford University Press] was interesting, communicative and interactive and attractive to pupils. Actually, ‘Let’s Learn English’ [published by the MoET] did not inspire children to learn. We had to struggle with every page in it. We discussed and concluded that ‘Let’s Learn English’ should be replaced with ‘Let’s Go’.

The greatest success of the community was, according to Hoa, manifested in the new discourses and practices established by the members such as collegial relationships, support and mutual respect. The most significant practice Hoa and other members learned from participating in the new community was the practice of giving constructive feedback to each other. This was in marked contrast to the discourse of criticising and showing authoritarian attitudes which they had experienced in their pri- mary schools: ‘We joined the group not to criticise each other’s mistakes, but to share experience and learn practical ideas from peers that [we] would apply in [our] own classroom,’ said Hoa. Beyond the community of TEYL teachers, those new discourses and practices were thus introduced to the general classroom in primary schools and English classes were evaluated by other teachers – those teaching Vietnamese and mathematics – in the primary school community as ‘friendly, relaxed and liberal’ (Hoa). The success of the community surpassed its members’ expectations as teachers in other districts regarded it as a model for peer learning in other districts.

Participation in higher level TESOL communities

The participants’ journeys of constructing practice and identity were not confined to primary schools but were also associated with other TESOL communities wherein they taught English to learners at higher school levels. They originally participated in those communities for two simple reasons: sup- plementing their personal income and maintaining their English competence. In addition to achieving


REsEaRCH PaPERs iN EDuCaTioN 63 the two original goals, engagement in other communities enabled them to


the two original goals, engagement in other communities enabled them to thoroughly understand their practice and identity as TEYL teachers: ‘The more I was involved in higher classes, the more I loved teaching children’ (Thom). By engaging in higher school level TESOL communities in different ways, each participant made specific discoveries about their TEYL work and identity. Hoa was afraid that her English proficiency would deteriorate if she locked herself within primary classes. She saw a way to maintain her English repertoire was teaching adult learners at a reputable English centre. Drawing on her experience of teaching older learners there, Hoa came to an in-depth understanding of her teaching in the primary school. She even felt confident to argue against the assumption that ‘the higher level you teach, the more intellectual you are’. The evidence Hoa produced for her argument was:

Adult learners could understand everything I taught. I didn’t explain everything in detail. With my English rep- ertoire, I found it easy to express any idea coming to my mind. But in primary classes, I had to prepare what to say to pupils at home. Otherwise they wouldn’t understand my complicated English. In classes for adult learners,

I didn’t have to use a variety of activities during one class. But with children, their concentration span is quite short, so I think I had to change to a new activity every ten minutes.

Thom also taught in an evening centre in which most learners were university students. They were motivated to enrol in the evening classes to practise oral communication skills because ELT at uni- versity was grammar-focused and examination-oriented. To help students meet their target, Thom experimented with the pedagogical practices she had developed for TEYL, adapted to suit older students’ learning characteristics: ‘They’re university students but still keen to play games and sing English songs. I was surprised to know that my pedagogical practices for primary English classes were successfully applied in adult classes’. That success of integrating TEYL elements into adult classes brought Thom great joy because she not only maintained her English proficiency as planned but also gained an insight into TEYL. Thu and Nguyen did not engage in other official TESOL communities but taught junior and sec- ondary school students in informal private classes. Working with older students, the two participants argued that teaching English at higher school levels was, to some extent, easier than TEYL because teachers were not concerned about issues such as classroom management, discipline and pastoral care of pupils. Despite the focus on knowledge and the examination-oriented nature of their private classes, they modified some of the activities they used in primary classes when teaching older students. Thu, in particular, integrated storytelling into her private classes instead of constantly teaching grammar and instructing students to do sample tests:

I used storytelling to teach secondary school students. They liked the stories and then acquired grammar and

vocabulary very quickly. Without experience in TEYL, I wouldn’t have had a successful class for secondary students. Many students told me that they couldn’t find a friendly atmosphere and a caring lesson from their teachers at schools.

Since the participants succeeded in teaching older learners, they were asked to predict the likelihood of success if teachers from higher level TESOL communities changed to teach in primary schools:

They would face many difficulties. I’m sure that they can’t at once manage a class of fifty pupils who are not self-conscious about their words and behaviour. They would find it difficult and boring to teach simple English

because they’re used to teaching complicated knowledge to adult learners. A simple thing like giving instruction,

I don’t think they would do smoothly in the beginning. (Nguyen)

Thu argued that it would take her four months to adapt herself to the new discourses of ELT at either secondary or tertiary education. Teachers at higher school levels, she believed, needed at least two years for similar adaptation. Unsurprisingly, all of the participants heard many complaints from English teachers who moved from secondary to primary schools: ‘It was a mistake to move here’, ‘I never thought that teaching primary English would be so difficult’, and ‘I can’t teach! The class is as noisy as a market’. Listening to such complaints provided the participants with incentive to remain in TEYL. The participants did not learn as many new practices and discourses in the higher level TESOL communities as TEYL teachers did in the community created by Hoa (as analysed above). Indeed, they enacted the roles of language teachers to older learners so that they would ultimately find the


64 C. D. NguyEN similarities and differences between their TEYL practice and TESOL practice in higher

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similarities and differences between their TEYL practice and TESOL practice in higher level com- munities. In this sense, they positioned themselves as ‘outsiders’ in order to look into the community in which they were ‘insiders’. From the perspectives of ‘brokering’ (Wenger 1998) and ‘borderland discourse’ (Alsup 2006), each participant, to different degrees, introduced new practices and discourses to the higher level TESOL communities. This can be considered a significant aspect of the participants’ boundary crossing from the principal community of primary school to other TESOL communities.

Engagement with children in family: Thom’s story

In addition to joining other communities, Thom was engaged with her children at home in order to develop her teaching practice. In other words, she took advantage of having children at home to experiment and explore new ideas for TEYL. This way of constructing practice is, according to Thom, exclusive to TEYL teachers because it is more difficult for English language teachers at higher school levels to engage with their children’s English learning in a similar way: ‘Many English teachers at high schools also get involved in their children’s English learning but they often study together in a formal way. They never play a game or sing a song together like we do’. Her children joked about their participation as pupils in a rehearsal for a story she planned for a primary English class: ‘Mum! We’re laboratory rats for you to experiment on for your stories’. In terms of practical benefits, experimentation and rehearsal with her children at home gave Thom confidence in her classes. Many activities and ideas for teaching, without being tried out with her chil- dren, would have been unsuccessful in the classroom. Thom acknowledged her children’s contributions to the success of storytelling in her English classes. All the stories she developed as a supplementary source for teaching were told in advance to her children at home: ‘I just looked at my daughter’s face and then guessed whether or not my pupils could understand the stories’. After rehearsal with her children, Thom changed the plot or modified the language to fit with the English proficiency and cognitive abilities of her pupils. Very often, she asked her children to play the roles of learners so that she could check whether or not the instruction for each activity would be comprehensible to pupils in the classroom. Furthermore, many ideas for the stories she developed for English classes originated from the moments she played with her daughter:

I used animation characters from my childhood such as Tom, Jerry and Mickey. But I observed my kids playing with modern characters like Angry Birds, Pikachu and Pokémon. And then I changed the characters in my stories to suit [modern] children’s taste.

Beyond the original purpose of experimentation and rehearsal, Thom conceived her family as a space for exploring and constructing new theories and practices of TEYL. As teachers in Vietnamese schools have to cover a large amount of knowledge in their classes, Thom could not always observe and access every pupil in a large-sized class so as to reach a thorough understanding of children’s language learning process. Alternatively, she observed her children at home, working out children’s language learning characteristics. By being involved in her children’s English learning, Thom found that children focus on meanings of a situation rather words used to express the message. Accordingly, learning activities she designed for TEYL afterward were all built on this significant discovery of children’s instinct for mean- ing. Additionally, experimentation with her children at home helped her find new ways of teaching:

I taught pupils in Year 4 how to make a negative sentence: ‘I don’t like ice cream’. In the controlled practice,

they all had correct answers. But in free practice, many pupils said ‘I no go to school’. I was a little bit confused, so when I got home, I tried with my daughter … and you know she made the same mistake. Then I created a game … she repeated the correct negative sentence while playing the game. I used that game for another class and pupils successfully produced correct negative sentences.

In a reciprocal relationship, her experiences in primary classrooms resulted in a deeper understand- ing of her children at home. They were not pressured to do as much homework as children in other families because Thom knew that children are unable to sit still or concentrate for a long time. While many families sent their children to private classes after school, her children stayed at home to join her English lessons. In this sense, Thom created a learning space for her children at home. Her experiences


REsEaRCH PaPERs iN EDuCaTioN 65 at home, in turn, contributed to the long-term goal of constructing


at home, in turn, contributed to the long-term goal of constructing practices and identities in the pri- mary community (the primary school). In other words, by engaging with her children, Thom under- stood her TEYL work in terms of what knowledge she needed to have and what roles she had to play.

An imagined community of expatriate and Vietnamese teachers

Unable to engage directly with teachers from other cultural contexts, the four teachers in this study drew on their own experience to imagine their engagement with expatriate teachers in a joint com- munity. The importance of imagination is explained by Wenger (1998): ‘Imagination is an important component of our experience of the world and our senses of place in it. It can make a big difference for our experience of identity and the potential for learning inherent in our activities’ (176). On the premise of imaginary participation, the participants did not assess their own strengths and weaknesses in comparison to expatriate teachers’ in general and NES teachers’ in particular as often seen in the research literature on TESOL teacher identity (Braine 2010; Davies 2013; Holliday 2008; Mahboob 2010; Moussu and Llurda 2008; Selvi 2014). Instead of criticising a dichotomy between two groups, the participants regarded the English language used by expatriate teachers as a valuable source for improving the English language proficiency of both teachers and students in Vietnam. In other words, they believed that expatriate teachers’ involvement in the Vietnamese TESOL community ‘brought winds of change’ (Hoa) in terms of the spread of correct English. Beyond English language proficiency, the participants, to different degrees, found expatriate teachers’ pedagogical practices beneficial to their construction of TEYL practice. According to Hoa, a comment she heard from a parent motivated her to learn from expatriate colleagues even though her engagement with them was imaginary:

How come the kids are crazy about expatriate teachers? Even sick, they asked their parents to take them to expatriates’ classes at all costs. But it’s a struggle to ask them to go to Vietnamese teachers’ classes.

Such a comment gave them an incentive to engage with expatriate teachers on the basis of ‘mutual respect’ (Thom) and ‘peer learning’ (Thu) rather than claiming which group was better. Thu, in par- ticular, explained, ‘we should look at their good points to improve ourselves. If we are still conservative and keep backward norms with us, we will be isolated from modern education’. Through imagination, the participants acknowledged that they learned a lot from expatriate teachers for their own TEYL practice and teacher identity. In other words, each sought a new aspect of the expatriate teachers and then appropriated it for their own practices and identities. Thom, for instance, drew on her learning experiences with native Russian teachers in Russia for one year, envisioning similar positive qualities of expatriate teachers of English from which she would learn for her own TEYL practice. ‘The edu- cational practice in the West is basically the same, so I think expatriate teachers [of English] are also friendly and close to students, not formal and distant like Vietnamese teachers’, said Thom. Given that classroom management is a challenge in a primary English class, Hoa was curious to know how expatriate teachers set up discipline in a class or how they punished badly behaved pupils. She then adopted this way of punishment in her English language classes:

I observed an expatriate teacher’s class in a private English centre. I was impressed by the way he punished badly-behaved pupils in class. He just asked them to sing, dance or do something unusual, but most Vietnamese teachers were very serious with this problem.

Approaching the usefulness of expatriate teachers another way, Thu watched an educational pro- gramme for children in Anglophone countries. Although it was produced for teaching L1 literacy in Australia, she found it very useful to learn the ways those teachers engaged with children: ‘The teachers were like artists. They sang, danced, drew and did many things with the kids’. This programme had a substantial impact on her beliefs and practices of using artistic components in TEYL. More impor- tantly, she attributed her success in constructing identity and practice to the artistic elements: ‘As a timid girl at first, I had difficulties singing or joining plays with children. But now I’m very positive and dynamic. I can sing, dance, play games or do anything with pupils’.


66 C. D. NguyEN Rather than envisaging what she would learn from expatriate teachers, Nguyen situated

C. D. NguyEN

Rather than envisaging what she would learn from expatriate teachers, Nguyen situated the edu- cational discourses brought by expatriate teachers in the reality of Vietnamese education:

They [expatriate teachers] let pupils say what they think. But Vietnamese teachers force students to think in a prescribed way. The expatriate teachers don’t impose their ideas on students. For example, if students have to draw a cat, you can see that teachers from Western countries may hang many pictures of cat on the wall and students may either copy a cat in any picture or draw their own ones. But most Vietnamese teachers often ask students to draw the same as teachers draw on the board.

Without access to an intercultural working environment, the participants engaged with expatriates in an ‘imagined community’, that is, ‘a desired community that offers possibilities for an enhanced range of identity options’ (Norton 2011, 323). With respect to modes of belonging to communities of practice, they were involved in ‘imagination’ which means ‘the process of expanding our self by transcending our time and space and creating new images of the world and ourselves’ (Wenger 1998, 176). Indeed, the participants were not offered the advantages of socialising in multicultural contexts in Anglophone countries as participants in other studies were (Park 2012; Phan 2007; Zacharias 2010). However, they placed themselves in a community of Vietnamese and expatriate teachers as well as in discourses of other cultures on the premise of ‘peer learning’. The ‘imagined’ identities and practices the four participating teachers ascribed to their expatriate colleagues may not be entirely accurate, being possibly overgeneralised. Nevertheless, the participants drew on this source of imagination in order to create new identities for themselves as well as new practices for TEYL. Looking at how Vietnamese teachers worked with their expatriate colleagues in many private school communities, the participants expected that they would be involved in that way of collaborative teaching in a real rather than imaginary community. Their aspiration confirms the growing trend in TESOL practice suggested by researchers, that is, a collaboration between NES and NNES teachers (Carless 2006; Moussu and Llurda 2008; Trent 2012).


The participants demonstrated their proactive roles in terms of seeking other sites for learning to teach. When entering their TEYL careers, they found self-learning as well as learning from their colleagues in primary schools inadequate for sufficient professional development. As a result, they crossed the boundary, joining other groups to achieve their goals: developing new practices and constructing new identities. The participants’ boundary crossing is considered the most significant aspect of the study because it foregrounded their initiatives of learning in accordance with the local reality. Since there was almost no chance for them to socialise or develop their profession in transnational contexts (study or residency in English-speaking countries for instance) as often discussed in the research literature (Canagarajah 2012; Faez 2011; Huang 2014), they found an alternative: crossing pedagogical and epistemological boundaries in search of new practices and identities. In other words, their professional development was not only confined to teaching knowledge and theories from their colleagues in the primary school but also expanded to pedagogical practices and discourses in other communities. More importantly, they realised that practices and identities would not be framed by their existing knowledge and self-perceptions of themselves. By enhancing their knowledge and transforming their self-images, the teachers were determined to cross their epistemological boundaries. As can be seen in the joint-imagined community between Vietnamese and expatriate teachers, the participants were involved in discourses and practices of a community in which they were not physically present. On the basis of the participants’ success stories, teachers should be encouraged to be involved in two ways of boundary crossing (pedagogical and epistemological) because they can envision their engagement in communities from which they are geographically distant. Successfully crossing boundaries, the participants should be regarded as ‘good brokers’ who transcended limited space for professional development in their primary school, opening new possibilities for learning in other communities. By engaging in four other communities of practice in conjunction with the primary school, the participants experienced multiple membership as Wenger (1998, 159) proposes: ‘An identity is thus


REsEaRCH PaPERs iN EDuCaTioN 67 more than just a single trajectory; instead, it should be viewed


more than just a single trajectory; instead, it should be viewed as a nexus of multiple membership’. As such, the four teachers, to various degrees, engaged with multiple discourses which contributed to the diversity of their identity and practice (Alsup 2006; Danielewicz 2001). In this way, they experienced ‘borderland discourse’ as recommended by Alsup (2006). From a holistic perspective, two concepts – practice and identity – were at the core of the participants’ multiple membership in multiple com- munities. In other words, new practices (doing) and new identities (being) are constitutive of teacher learning in multiple communities. In terms of practice, the participants entered their TEYL careers without any theoretical or practical knowledge of teaching young learners. When joining the community of primary school, each partic- ipant sought to equip herself with new knowledge and practices of primary education. In addition to new techniques and methods for the classroom practice learned from the multiples communities, the participants explored specific aspects of TEYL such as the mechanism whereby children learn a foreign language, textbooks used for TEYL and the importance of artistic components integrated into TEYL. Similar to the findings in other studies (Akkerman and Meijer 2011; Alsup 2006; Canagarajah 2012), the participants in the present study did not passively acquire knowledge but introduced new voices into the multiple communities in which they participated. Perhaps more importantly, they introduced diverse practices and discourses existing in other communities to their TEYL practice which was still in the stage of exploration in Vietnam. For example, the discourses of friendly atmosphere and mutual respect, which had been developed in the community led by Hoa, were transferred to English classes in primary schools. In a mutually supportive relationship, the practices, notably creative and artistic activities formed in TEYL practice, were successfully implemented in English classes for adult learners. The participants’ introduction of practices from one community to another is known as ‘brokering’, that Wenger explains to be ‘the use of multimembership to transfer some element of one practice into another’ (1998, 109). The products of brokering were ‘boundary objects’ (Wenger 1998, 107), which included the pedagogical practices and educational discourses transferred across communities by the participants. More significant were the new discourses they transferred from other communities to the primary school, especially their English classes. In this way, they not only pursued their original goals of learning new practices but also strove for educational and social changes. As well as new practices, the participants constructed their new identities as a result of their engage- ment in multiple communities. Teacher identity, as elucidated by Burns and Richards (2009), is the roles teachers enact in different settings. On this premise, the roles played by the four participating teachers in multiple communities were indicative of their multiple identities. The shared point of departure of all of them was a novice TEYL teacher who showed limited understanding of themselves as a teacher teaching a new language to young learners. Being ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the primary school community, they enacted their core identity as TEYL teachers as well as their new identities in multiple communities (teachers in higher level TESOL communities, TESOL teachers in intercultural settings, mother teachers at home, teacher learners). In this way, their identity conforms to one of the features of teacher identity pointed out by Beijaard, Meijer, and Verloop (2004): ‘A teacher ‘s professional identity consists of sub-identities that more or less harmonise. The notion of sub-identities relates to teachers’ different contexts and relationships’ (122). As teacher identity, basically understood as teachers’ understanding of themselves and their work in relation to others in society (Danielewicz 2001; Varghese 2006), the multiple identities constructed by the participants are manifested in their ‘selves’ in multiple communities. In the nexus of multiple membership, the participants experienced ‘multiple selves’ in support of a thorough understanding of their ‘core self ’ as TEYL teachers. In other words, they were in the position of TESOL teacher in other communities, looking at themselves and their work in the primary school. By placing themselves in various communities, they were able to identify their own strengths, weaknesses and multiple identities. Furthermore, the participants saw their ‘selves’ in the ‘others’ and the ‘others’ in their ‘selves’ (Gomez and White 2010). Drawing on their engagement in multiple communities, they perceived TESOL teacher identity as ‘we’ in contrast to teachers of other subjects as ‘they’. They also used the pronouns of ‘I’ and ‘they’ in order to distin- guish themselves as the only English teacher with other teachers in the school community. Further,


68 C. D. NguyEN the participants positioned themselves, TEYL teachers, as ‘we’ in relation to teachers

C. D. NguyEN

the participants positioned themselves, TEYL teachers, as ‘we’ in relation to teachers in other TESOL communities who were ‘they’.


This study explored TEYL teachers’ construction of practice and identity through their membership in multiple communities. In the dawn of their TEYL careers, the four participating teachers found that their engagement in the primary school community was inadequate for teacher learning. Therefore, they crossed the boundaries, joining other communities which included a group of TEYL teachers in a district, children as learners at home, higher level TESOL communities and the joint imagined community of Vietnamese and expatriate teachers. Their engagement in multiple communities resulted in new practices and identities. The system of new practices and identities helped them understand themselves and their teaching in the primary school as well as in other communities. The findings of this study make a significant contribution to both research and practice in language teaching. Firstly, the practices learned by the participants contribute to the knowledge base of TEYL which has recently emerged in both research and practice in TESOL. In particular, the pedagogical practices, teaching methods and theories of teaching young learners built by the participants can resource TEYL practitioners in Vietnam as well as other similar contexts where TEYL is a new and developing programme (Butler 2015; Copland, Garton, and Burns 2014; Nunan 2013). Secondly, in line with sociocultural approaches to teacher development, this study reinforces the premise that teachers’ pedagogical knowledge and teaching expertise does not necessarily develop only from formal training courses but also from their participation in sociocultural life (Burns and Richards 2009; Johnson 2009; Wright 2010). When the participants first entered their PELT careers, the shared departure point of all of them was almost ‘zero’ in terms of pedagogical knowledge about teaching young learners. As such, the system of TEYL knowledge they possess now has been the fruit of their experiential learn- ing and their engagement in social communities. Thirdly, the research findings make a substantial contribution to situated learning or social theory of learning in the sense that learning is embedded in everyday life contexts (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998). The four teachers’ participation in multiple communities is considered ‘social participation’ or ‘engagement in social practice’ which is theorised as a ‘fundamental process by which we learn and so become who we are’ (Wenger 1998, i). The findings of this study show the effectiveness of situated learning in terms of a conceptual tool for exploring teachers’ construction of practice and identity. When situated learning is seen from a practical perspective, the experiences, especially the initiative the four participants undertook to transform their teaching practice, would be beneficial to language teachers in many disadvantaged contexts. That is, they can make use of available resources, creating their own spaces for constructing practice and identity.


The author would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their critical reviews that greatly improved the manuscript.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

Notes on contributor

Chinh Duc Nguyen is a lecturer of language education in the College of Foreign Language Studies at the University of Danang, Vietnam. His main research interests are second language teacher education, identity in language teaching and sociocultural issues in language education.


Chinh Duc Nguyen

ORCID Chinh Duc Nguyen http://orcid.org/0000-0002-7015-2064 REsEaRCH PaPERs iN EDuCaTioN 69 References Akkerman, S. F.,


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