How to Teach English in Korea

There is nothing more deceptively challenging as teaching English.  I majored in Finance and Japanese and came to Corea to, among other things, discover the culture of a nation almost entirely unknown to nearly every American of Caucasian descent; to grow introspectively in patience and understanding in the scheme of the greater social structure of Corean society (primarily that which concerns life in Corean middle schools); to eat Corean food, and—most significantly—to spend time with my girlfriend of then one-and-a-half years and get to know her family, where she grew up, and (with a bit of luck) blossom together in a beautiful and meaningful relationship.  What I discovered was that teaching English in Corea, though on many levels a rewarding and enlightening experience, is a land laced with mines of depression and setbacks, frustrations and stress.  It is a process of self-discovery that needs the very best of one’s personal determination and a mind so free and empty so that all words and daily activities, all information of any kind, can simply pass through your consciousness without maiming it permanently.

Playing in a Stream

Playing in a Stream

When I was asked recently about motivation I realized that the topic and therefore problem of motivating students was one that actually dealt not with the students but with you, the teacher, and your own level of motivation.  Motivating students is not the result of some haphazard timing of topics and fill-in-the blank options that just catches and strikes a chord inside the students’ mind.  No, it is the careful and heartfelt planning of a lesson that makes sense to you first, something that YOU are interested in, have invested time and heart in, but most importantly motivation comes from a level that you can not plan.  Internal struggles and fears, disinterest and boredom, it all comes out in an unspoken botch of body language, tone of voice, the way your eyes look, the sarcasm that you think is going over the heads of your students…it all serves to paint an image and a roadmap for the students to follow.  If you are particularly unmotivated that day then there is almost nothing that you can do to pull motivation out of the students, after all there are 35 of them and one of you.

So what can you do for your students?  In my mind it is clear that there is nothing better that you can do for your students than to just pull yourself together before your class, give yourself that pep talk and pat on the back and pray, because once you get in there anything can happen but one thing you need—even if only for yourself—is the knowledge that you really truly did try your best and the peace of mind that comes with such knowledge.

Pavilion in the Park

Pavilion in the Park

My favorite time of the year is the student speaking test.  Naturally this is the students’ least favorite time of the year.  Six-hundred, that is the number of students that I teach in a week. The number of faces that I really “see” in a, that is significantly less: students that cause trouble are unfortunate to grab my eye time as well as significantly talkative and participatory students.  Of those students that actually participate, the number that are actually capable of communicating at a decent level is frighteningly small.  This is why I like the speaking test.  You see, without the speaking test, the truly amazing students (the ones that have native-level vocabularies and accents that approach my own) will never be discovered.  They will sit silently and well-behaved in the classroom, bored and scribbling on a piece of paper that they have already finished, waiting for the class to end or for someone more outgoing to just please answer the question that the teacher is asking.  The speaking test is your chance to really meet ALL your students and learn about not only their level of English (the more obvious outcome) but about how their minds work as well as their interests and goals in life. It is truly a magnificently rewarding experience.

Having worked through a couple speaking tests I think I can confidently recommend a system of evaluation that works to take an accurate picture of the English speaking level that your students is at AND challenge your students in a way that is self-motivating.  I will present the grading rubric first and then proceed to explain the simple process of test design. (note: total=10points)

Pronunciation: 2 points Clearly the most important part of a speaking test should be its emphasis on pronunciation, right?  Wrong!   The goal of your English lessons should never be to get the students to master English pronunciation.  This is a destructive and frustrating goal that is only made more impossible when you have a dozen different “correct” accents worldwide.  A focus on pronunciation will only discourage your students from speaking, period.  Two points, intelligible communication; One point, heavy error and misunderstanding; Zero points, no speech.

Memorization: 4 points If there IS one aspect of a speaking test that is as important to growth in language speaking confidence as it is to better pronunciation and motivation to explore language further, then it is most definitely a memorized speech.  The reason memorization is so important is because there is not one student that can memorize an entire speech after a single try.  Make memorization a requirement (and a heavy one at that) and your students will spend time reading and rereading their writing (which you have looked over and corrected in advance, mind you) which in turns leads to more time speaking it out loud and therefore almost by default working on pronunciation.

Time: 2 points Give your students a time base and limit which they must fall within to obtain full points.  A good place to start is at a base time of one minute, limit two minutes.  Again, this forces the students to practice speaking at home with a family member (or at least a clock) to try to make sure their speech falls within the guidelines of what is…er…timely.  Anything over or under the time-limits automatically means a point off.  Egregiously under or over-timed speeches (less than 30 seconds, more than 2:30) are an additional point off.

Script: 2 points The speaking test should have very little to do with grading a student’s writing but to say that it is unnecessary is grossly erroneous.  Think about it, there is no way to memorize an unwritten speech!  To maximize the usefulness of the script, have the students write a rough copy, then you (the teacher) correct that copy in class, return it to them, and have them rewrite it.  The rewritten copy is then memorized.  A script has the added benefit of working as a memory recall tool for the teacher during the actual exam: You hold their script as they speak and help them when necessary by referring to their writing.

I hope that all makes sense.  Naturally, you can half or double the points if you need to.

Take care.  Also if you have time, please click on the links to the right to see some videos and dozens of pictures that I have taken during my time here in Corea!


One thought on “How to Teach English in Korea

  1. Your new post reminded me to write a thank you for your previous about teaching English. While all of your posts are very interesting, this one was particularly appreciated. I taught English for one year in Japan, partially as a way to realize a dream from the time I was in college to go to Japan and study calligraphy. Many of my students became my family and continue to be almost ten years and six trips back later though the following trips have all been to continue my calligraphy studies. I often despair of how much time Japanese spend learning English with limited results despite their fine intentions. Would that there were more teachers like you to guide the way. Your detailed writings are much appreciated.

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