By Linh Phung
Educational and Professional Journey
“Education takes me places because it took me all the way from the countryside of Vietnam to the U.S. and now to the world.”
This is what I often say when introducing myself to others. It is also because education has been such an important aspect of who I am. The desire to excel and to go all the way in my educational journey was what motivated me as a learner in 12 years of school, 4 years of college, and 6 years of graduate studies (MA and doctorate). It is what pushed me pursue doctorate while working full-time as the director of the English Language Program at Chatham University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
When I completed my EdD in TESOL from Anaheim University under the supervision of Dr. Rod Ellis, a world-renowned applied linguist and scholar, I was often asked whether my doctorate helped me to have a promotion or a higher salary. I would respond, “No. It just gives me more work.”
Learning and working have been certainly dominating my life. Indeed, my learner identity lingered with me so long that, after I defended my dissertation in early 2017, I immediately took a Chinese class to fill my time. My father jokingly asked, “When will you stop learning and start earning more money?”
My work history involves teaching three years in Vietnam before coming to the U.S. to pursue an MA in TESL at the Pennsylvania State University. I was fortunate to receive a teaching assistantship during my MA, which gave me the very first experience of teaching international students in the U.S. When I completed my MA, I returned to Vietnam to work for a year or so before coming back to the U.S. to get married. I often say, “Education brought me to the U.S., but marriage made me stay.”
When I came back, I started looking for teaching opportunities. I found a part-time job at Chatham University and another one at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh in 2011. At Chatham, I taught ESL courses to international students while at CMU I helped international teaching assistants work on their English so that they could be more effective instructors. International Teaching Assistants (ITAs) are usually doctoral students who receive an teaching or research assistantship from a U.S. university during their enrollment in their program. They usually teach courses or assist professors in teaching courses to undergraduate students.
After two semesters at Chatham University, I was recommended for the coordinator position of the English Language Program for international students at the university. I applied, got an interview with the Vice President for Academic Affairs, and was hired for the position. Looking back, I feel I was very fortunate to have the position because there are not many full-time ESL jobs at U.S. universities. I was in the right place, at the right time, and maybe showing the right skills and attitude.
To share with you some statistics from the Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education released in November this year, out of over 1 million international students in the U.S., nearly 44,000 are non-degree seeking students, and only nearly 11,000 of them study in Intensive English Pograms. Different from other countries, there are not many jobs for teachers of English like mine.
When I started my full-time position at Chatham University, I was thrown into a management position with many responsibilities, including teaching, advising, supervising, managing, and offering needed support and services to international students. I remember my first day at work involved taking home some dirty linens to launder so that they would be ready for new students! The challenges of a growing program thanks to the influx of Saudi students during my early years as the coordinator pushed my organizational skills to my limit and gave me opportunities to truly interact with the world: through my students, many international partners that I have been working with, and conference and work travels.
It’s a position that has given me joys and also hurt. I use “hurt” without any blame because work has been such an intimate part of my life that “hurt” is something I expect sometimes.
It’s the position where I’ve faced questions such as “Are you teaching Chinese?” “Are you teaching English to Chinese students” from those I introduced myself to. Perhaps there’s something “strange” about the fact that I’m in it. I’ve been labeled “aggressive” and “emotional.” I’ve heard comments such as “She’s just an ESL teacher” or “You’re not an academic. You’re not in an academic department. Research is not part of your job.”
This is because my program teaches English to non-degree seeking students (e.g. exchange students who study abroad for one to three semesters) and is housed in the Office of International Affairs rather than in an academic department. Many comments, I suspect, have more to do with my gender, my non-native English speaker status, and my ethnicity rather than who I really am – experiences that have been reported in research into native speakerism, race and ethnicity in education, and language and gender (Holliday, 2006; Park, 2015; Tannen, 1996).
These comments have affected me deeply but also helped me to realize my place in the academic ladder and the academic world. It has also opened my eyes to the kinds of barriers for advancement that were once invisible to me when I first came to the U.S. and enjoyed the freedom of being on my own in a culture that is more individualistic than mine. This realization, however, does not stop me from doing more outside of my full-time job. I have found ways to carve a small path to academic activities that I enjoy, including research, publication, and materials development.
My Path to Research
My path to research started with my dissertation on learner engagement in performing tasks, which resulted in a journal article with Language Teaching Research. One finding of the project is that when learners perform a task that they prefer, they produce more language, negotiate meaning and form more often, and express more positive subjective responses to the task. These together show a higher level of engagement.
I then continued to research the relationship between choice and task engagement with Sachiko Nakamura and Hayo Reinders. Thanks to the project, we have a journal article published in Studies in Second Language Acquisition, a top journal in the field, and a chapter in the book Student Engagement in the Language Classroom. We found that tasks with less constrained choice encourage a higher level of engagement among learners.
Another project that I conducted with a colleague at Chatham University examined international students’ experiences and strategy use, leading to a publication in the Journal of International Students. One finding, among others, is that speaking opportunities give students mixed emotions, including pride, joy, shame, and embarrassment, which highlight the affective aspect of speaking activities inside and outside the classroom. These research findings have informed much of my later work in materials development.
In addition, with these publications, I have occasionally been invited to review research articles, which keeps me engaged in reading academic research and being a member of a research community. I have been reviewing articles for Language Teaching Research, TESOL Quarterly, System, TESOL Journal, Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, Studies in Second Language and Teaching. I was recently invited to serve on the Editorial Board of Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching. I am humbled and excited by the fact that there’s more research into learner engagement and that my research, once published, has impact in the field.
My most recent research project is with my college friend and colleague, Dr. Hoa Nguyen from Teachers College, Columbia University. We have been examining various teaching techniques in the Zoom-based classroom, including output-prompting techniques, input manipulation techniques, multimedia learning, and gamification. This project has been so engaging and satisfying in that we met weekly for a few years, analyzing data and reading literature. It has also given us the opportunities to present at AAAL (American Association for Applied Linguistics) and TESOL to share preliminary findings and brought us closer as friends and mothers of young girls.
Our research findings highlight the need for teaching techniques, learning activities, and materials that take into consideration principles of second language acquisition, such as meaningful input, output, and corrective feedback instead of focusing on the bells and whistles that some ed-tech platforms offer.
Overall, research, as I mentioned earlier, is not part of my day job, but by reading research, joining a research community (such as the Research Methods in Applied Linguistics Facebook group), and collaborating with colleagues, I manage to carve out part of my time for research. I will never be as prolific as those who work in an environment that requires and supports research (as documented in a paper by Way et al., 2019), but I enjoy the intellectual stimulation that it brings and its usefulness in my other endeavors.
Path to Authorship
Being an author does not have to be something fancy, but to be an author, we must write and write regularly. My path to authorship started with a small contribution to the book New Ways of Teaching Adults by Hayo Reinders and Marilyn Lewis. It is an interactive crossword puzzle in which students have to work in pairs and explain the words that they have to solve the puzzle together. I have shared a blogpost and a video about this activity as well as added it to the Eduling Speak app, which I will talk more about later.
I was also invited to write an essay to the book Gần Như Là Nhà (Almost Home), which is a collection of personal essays by Vietnamese students and professionals living overseas like me. In the essay, I write about my integration journey in the U.S. while commenting on experience of a minority and a “stranger” in the U.S. I was invited simply because I sometimes shared my thoughts on Facebook, which drew the attention of an editor of the book.
Small contributions have led to bigger projects, such as my co-authored book Studying in English: Strategies for Success in Higher Education with Hayo Reinders and Marilyn Lewis. We share strategies to improve English to students who want to pursue a degree taught in English either in their home country or abroad. We are now turning the strategies from the book and other strategies into TikTok videos and Facebook reels in channels called Dr Dr Power learning to make them more accessible to the younger generations who favor bite-sized lessons.
The arrival of my now-five-year-old daughter inspired me to engage with language and language development in an entirely new light. Having her brought me so much joy and love that I started to write creatively. There was so much feeling in being a new mother that I couldn’t contain and I started to write poems, which I hadn’t written at all in my life before. Perhaps they are not really poems according to certain standards, but as a language teacher, I enjoyed putting words down on paper, flipping them, turning them, and working them to death.
My first poem for my daughter was titled Translanguaging: Hallie’s First Words, which features her first words in English and Vietnamese. This poem has been made into a bilingual English-Vietnamese picture book to be distributed for free to over a thousand Vietnamese families in the U.S. and other countries by the non-profit organization Stories of Vietnam, which is dedicated to supporting families in maintaining their Vietnamese language and culture through bilingual books.
The very first picture book that I published, however, is Tug of Words, which portrays my multiracial family, teaches young children simple opposite concepts, and helps them to discover the differences and similarities in all of us.
Through this book, I ventured into self-publishing, which means I am the publisher of the book by covering the cost and selling the book myself. This process has been empowering to me, and I have published two more books since: IELTS Speaking Part 2: Strategies, Model Speeches, and Practice Activities and Vietnamese Learning Games. I am in the process of publishing the next children’s book titled Four Seasons Together with H&L Books.
Honestly, the revenues from my books haven’t covered my expenses, but I enjoy writing, creating, and seeing the final product come into being that I have to say that I’m mostly doing this for love and enjoyment. I am trying to create more and see where this path is taking me.
Path to Materials and Product Development
Finally, I have to mention the work that I’ve been doing for Eduling, an organization that I set up to offer more English language services materials to learners from any location. Through Eduling, I’ve created over 100 YouTube videos for the Eduling channel (https://www.youtube.com/@eduling), countless blog posts for Eduling (https://www.eduling.org/news), and recently a mobile app called Eduling Speak (https://www.eduling.org/speak) to connect learners to talk in pairs using communicative tasks.
The app is a culmination of my research in task-based language teaching, experience in creating materials for language learning, and a “just do it” attitude. It is also a passion project in that I’ve been working on it obsessively with a team of IT developers for over a year now. Working on certain projects with some level of obsession is perhaps how I get things done.
The app has more than 1,000 tasks in over 30 types to engage learners in listening, reading, and speaking through tasks. Tasks are understood in a technical sense in Task-based Language Teaching, which is defined as an approach to language teaching to develop learners' communicative competence through the performance of tasks (Ellis & Shintani, 2014). To develop tasks, I often follow four criterial outlined by Ellis (2003): a primary focus on meaning, learners using their own resources, a communicative gap, and non-linguistic outcomes. You may learn more about tasks from Dr. Rod Ellis in a webinar that I hosted as well as my presentation with the U.S. Department of State.
In my app Eduling Speak, there are picture-based tasks, crossword puzzles, scrambled sentences, speeches, interviews, and more. I’ve developed the majority of the tasks, but teachers and students from various countries have also contributed diverse content to the app.
Currently, we are working hard to release the next version of the app with a completely new user interface and organization of the content. We have set the launch date to be December 23, and you’re invited to join the party.
I am also happy to share that the app has been selected to advance to the next phase of the biggest competition in ed-tech with 1,700 global submissions.
Although I don’t have an ESL textbook that is published globally, I can call myself a materials writer because of all of these lessons and activities that I write and create. I believe that all teachers are materials creators because of the work we do to bring materials to life in the classroom for our students. I strongly believe that it is important to create materials that are familiar and relevant to the students we are teaching (Phung, 2017). What I am doing differently is that I start to share more albeit through non-traditional channels.
As a final comment, I’d like to encourage everyone to do more of what makes them happy. I’d like share what I learned about the concept happiness in a Ted talk by Martin Seligman, usually credited as the father of positive psychology (also see Seligman, 2002). Happiness has the three dimensions of living a pleasant life, an engaged life, and a meaningful life.
Having a good meal, watching children play, or walking on the beach on a beautiful day give us pleasures.
When you use your strengths to work on a challenge that is achievable and are absorbed in it, you may experience what is called flow, an optimal state of engagement, and feel a sense of exaltation and joy. I’ve been certainly engaged in my work, which gives me satisfaction and comfort in something that I always have for myself (work). To me, it is liberating to think of my identity as not intertwined with my daughter, my husband, or my family although they are, of course, important to me. My identity is what I always have for myself, and work is such a big part of it.
Meaning and a bigger purpose, however, are something I’m still searching for. Sometimes, I feel it is because I sometimes focus so much on the moment and going through the motions of life and work that I don’t see the bigger picture. Being connected with teachers, colleagues, and human beings will, I believe, give me a sense of bigger purpose.
As an update, I am actually in my career transition as I am no longer at Chatham University. However, I trust that the experience that I've had, the learning that I've done, and the skills that I've developed are not wasted. Nothing's wasted. Trust that the dots will connect in the future, and there's always more work and learning to do.
Questions to Readers:
What paths have you been on?
Where do you see you're going?
What do you want to do more of or less of?
What are the two most important things for you in your career path?
Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, R. (2022). Addressing problems in Task-based Language Teaching [webinar]. Eduling International: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWTT6HmbVYc
Ellis, R. & Shintani, N. (2014). Exploring language pedagogy through second language acquisition research. Routledge.
Holliday, A. 2006. Native-Speakerism. ELT Journal 60(4), 385–387
Institute of International Education. (2023). International Students by Academic Level, 1999/00 - 2022/23. Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from https://www.opendoorsdata.org
Park, G. (2015). Situating the discourses of privilege and marginalization in the lives of two East Asian women teachers of English. Race, Ethnicity & Education, 18(1), 108–133.
Phung, L. (2017). Task preference, affective response, and engagement in L2 use in a US university context. Language Teaching Research, 21(6), 751–766.
Seligman, Martin E.P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.
Tannen, D. (1996). Gender and discourse. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Way, S. F., Morgan, A. C., Larremore, D. B., & Clauset, A. (2019). Productivity, prominence, and the effects of academic environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(22), 10729-10733
Bio: Dr. Linh Phung is a dedicated international educator, innovator, and leader with a proven track record of directing successful educational programs, fostering academic excellence, and driving innovation in language learning. With Eduling, she leads a cross-functional team of IT developers, content developers, and designers in the development of Eduling Speak, an app that connects learners to talk in pairs based on 1000+ communicative tasks and games.
She's also a published author and expert in language education with publications in high impact journals, experienced in leadership roles, and committed to enhancing educational experiences and outcomes. She currently serves as an English Language Specialist with the U.S. Department of State.
Note: A version of this story narrative has been published in the open access book: Empowered Women in ELT: A Collection of Worldwide Stories, which can be downloaded here.