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"Rounding" out English Education (2009 Essay Contest)
"Rounding" out English Education (2009 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-11-24 01:22     View: 2310  


"Rounding" out English Education

 Monique Nicastro

Sangin High School(Daegu)

 The old adage that warns against "reinventing the wheel" may often seem rather clich?.  However, when faced with the task of evaluating the English educational system in Korea, the expression seems apropos. In the past decade especially, the importance placed on this sector of the educational system has increased significantly.  As such, Korea has made tremendous strides in English education that have set and raised standards across the globe.  During a time when learning English seems imperative to success, especially in the business world, Korea’s techniques and ideologies have shown achievement.  Thus, in contemplating possible improvements upon this constantly evolving system, it must not be reinvented,but only refined.  In this case, do not reinvent the wheel, but seek to make it rounder and more efficient.  However, in order to propose enhancements, aspects that are problematic must first be established.  Currently, English education faces troubles inherent to foreign language learning as well as difficulties posed by the Korean educational system overall.  Accordingly, modifications can be made directly and indirectly by capitalizing on the Guest English Teacher - Korean English Teacher relationship, amplifying and focusing on student motivation, and placing greater importance on the practical use of English, with the goal of improved life-long usable English communication skills in mind.

What Could Be Wrong with the Wheel?

Problems Innate to Foreign Language Education

 As mentioned previously, some of the problems that Korean English education faces are the same that are innate to those faced in all foreign language learning.  The most significant and unavoidable of these is that students cannot, under normal circumstances, be immersed in the language.  Perhaps the fastest and easiest way to learn a language, especially for young students, is to be exposed to it in every possible communication encounter.  However, this is practically impossible for Korean students who cannot afford to leave the country.  Therefore, this is a hurdle too great to surmount; ways to go around it must be devised.

 Additionally, the specific goals for learning English are somewhat ambiguous.  It is an undisputed fact that English has become a "global language"and that it is of paramount importance in being a presence amongst world powers.  However, with this in mind, in what ways is it most important?  Do you need to learn English to understand global media and entertainment?  Is English vital because it is the primary language used in international business relations?  The way English is taught should be directly related to why a person wants to learn it.  Amongst the four language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), the one that is stressed should be the one that will achieve a student’s ultimate English goal.  For example, if a Korean university student wants to better their English in order to be the CEO of an international company, their language learningshould focus largely on speaking and listening.  In fact, in most scenarios, students need to learn English for direct communication purposes.  As such, speaking and listening should be focal points of a balanced English education.  One valid criticism oflanguage learning systems is that they lack direction; they do not have specific stated goals and, therefore, often fail to emphasize the most essential language skills in their curriculum. For the purposes of evaluating and improving the English Educational system in Korea, the assumed and stated goals are as follows: bettering communicative English skills, enhancing classroom results, and cultivating enthusiasm for English learning in a way that will perpetuate advancement even after the completion of education.

Obstacles in the Korean Educational System

 Similarly, there are some hurdles within the Korean educational system itself that cannot be changed overnight and must be worked around.  One such obstacle is the testing structure.  Because of the tremendous importance placed on these objective assessments, students often cram for tests, seeking rote memorization, instead of learning the information and gaining the skills to apply it practically.  Furthermore, because of the testing method, only speaking and listening can be tested in this model.  In fact, a majority of time and energy is placed on reading comprehension which is actually one of the least used skills in communication. Consequently, since those are the most prominent skills evaluated, they are primarily the skills taught.  This creates a palpable imbalance in English education which screams to be rounded out in order to create knowledge that is actually practical and usable.  In the same vein, Korean students are tested on proverbs and expressions that are outdated, but they lack the communication skills to appropriately utilize these vestigial and unnecessary items, proving additional uselessness.

 This extremely tense test-obsessed atmosphere also creates an environment of over-correction.  Korean students are often very shy about their English and, regardless of their skill level, will always tell you that they aren’t good at it.  If communication is truly the ultimate goal, as long a student can be understood, immediate correction is not necessary and can actually dissuade students from attempting again.  Students who are over-corrected often lack confidence and motivation, which in turn stifles creativity, only creating greater obstacles in language learning.

Lastly, also in part a result of the necessity to learn the same material for testing purposes, textbooks are overly relied upon in English education.  Textbooks are not normally designed to fit a variety of learning styles or types of motivation. When every class is planned exclusively around the textbook, lesson formats are redundant, students’diverse needs are unmet, and teaching passion is abandoned for systematic, factory- made, learning.  Furthermore, textbooks are also often outdated, repetitive in their layout, and can be incorrect.  Rote textbook teaching can leave very little flexibility throughout the course of the class, but lesson plans should be made with flexibility in mind. Not every class will learn or respond exactly as planned.  English teachers must begin to sacrifice the easy, dependable, safety net of their textbooks in order to create the most advantageous class setting for their students. As aforementioned, many of these problems cannot be changed directly, but must be adapted to and worked around to achieve the most effective learning environment. 

Optimizing the Wheel

 First and foremost, in order to improve upon an English program that has proven itself to be productive and efficient, the objectives must be clearly set and examined in order to achieve targeted progress.  To return to the example of the wheel, let’s say it functions well and accomplishes what it is designed to do.  However, the wheel advancement team at Wheel-Go-Round Inc. thinks that it should be able to turn faster and have a longer lifespan.  Thus, with those goals in mind, they refine the axel to create less friction and adjust the wood hardening time providing greater durability.  But, if the wheel advancement team had not set their specific objectives, they may have gone about absentmindedly adjusting, tweaking, and "fixing things that weren’t broken,"thus degrading the product overall.  While this is a lengthy analogy, it is crucial to the understanding of why it is imperative to set specific language learning goals.  To this end, let’s seek to achieve the following.  Real-world communication skills should receive more focus so that students will be properly equipped and comfortable enough to use their English knowledge.  The classroom dynamic should provide much more motivation for the student.  If lessons are exciting, engaging, and varied, no matter students’ages or levels, they will want to learn English and, accordingly, better results will be attained.  Lastly, practical use should be the target.  If students are prepared with English that they can use in their everyday lives, they will be encouraged to continue learning and utilizing their knowledge long after they have completed their education.  Not only will this serve the individual, but it will spread English use and competency across Korea.  Only with these goals in mind can corresponding refinements be explored.

Capitalizing on Teaching Strengths


 To address the dilemma of imbalance amongst the four language stills, thus creating English education that is more communicative and practical, the roles between Guest English Teacher and Korean English teacher should be adjusted. The four basic language skills (speaking, listening, writing, and reading) are all required in order to achieve fluency and accuracy.  While listening is the skill most used, speaking and writing are both the only productive skills.  Speaking is often regarded as the most difficult skill because it requires linguistic and sociolinguistic competence, but should be studied harmoniously with listening as both are necessary for fluent direct communication.  In conjunction with these, grammar is interwoven and requires accuracy when utilizing any of these skills.  As referenced previously, reading is often relied upon too heavily in English education and is also used as the primary means of teaching grammar.  It is also possible that since Korean teachers’educations also focused very heavily on grammar and reading, that they are less comfortable teaching speaking.  Accordingly, instruction on practical English communication often falls to the way-side to make room for "intransitive verbs" and "passages about the advanced technology involved in cloning."Therefore, in order to refine English education in a way that will achieve more practical, useable, results, there should be a greater balance amongst the four language skills.  Better yet, this balance can be capitalized upon by allowing each teacher, Guest and Korean, to teach what they are most adept and comfortable with. 

 The way in which the co-teaching system is structured should be redefined and adjusted based on each teacher’s strengths.  In this way, students can get the most out of every class, but still maintain a balance amongst the language skills.  Korean English teachers (KETs) are renowned for their grammar expertise, citing rules and terms the majority of Guest English Teachers (GETs) have never even dreamt of.  KETs are also very comfortable with and skilled at instituting the combination of reading comprehension and teaching grammar explicitly.  In addition, writing is a skill that goes hand-in-hand with explicit grammar instruction.  This method of teaching is almost scientific with absolute right and wrong answers and would be well taught by someone who has learned English in this concrete, rule-based way.  By allowing KETs to focus on instructing reading, writing, and explicit grammar, their prior education, fine-tunedskills, and comfort with the material can be taken advantage of.  Likewise, the innate abilities of the GET should be exploited.  These teachers have the unmemorizable, unscientific, gift of natural speech.  This is something that few KETs possess largelybecause they have not had enough exposure to it throughout their education.  However, the more contact English students have with natural speaking and listening, and implicit grammar education, the more likely they will be to possess these talents.  Thus, GETs should primarily teach speaking, listening, and implicit grammar.1In this way, each teacher (KET and GET) will instruct what they excel at, avoiding topics that they may not be best-suited to, with each teaching grammar, a productive skill (speakingor writing), and a receptive skill (listening or reading).  This formula is possible in any co-teaching environment.  For example, if the teachers split each class period, then they can each use their time to focus on their skills.  However, if the scenario is one in which the GET comes to a classroom and teaches the entire lesson once or twice a week, while the KET teaches the same students alone once or twice a week then they can instruct their specific skills at that time.  As such, the KET can maintainresponsibility for standardized test preparation and the GET can effectively evaluate direct communication.  In this way, the testing system does not need to be changed overnight, but can rather be worked around in order to achieve optimal overall results for English students.



 Students who want to learn English and are excited about it will achieve better results compared to those who feel forced to learn it, as though it is a burden.  Increasing student motivation is paramount to improving English education.  Students are most inspired by teachers who are excited about their material, lessons that are relatable and varied, and information that is graded to their level.  Motivated learners are willing to face challenges, have confidence, place importance in success, are ambitious, and are not discouraged by setbacks.

As a consequence of some the previously mentioned drawbacks of heavily relying on textbook teaching, instructors should seek to use the textbook as a guide and tool to implement their plans while remembering what techniques will best motivate their students.  However, pursuing the somewhat lazy road of teaching directly from the textbook can cheat both students and teachers out of achieving their potential. Textbooks are not normally designed to fit a variety of learning styles, but lessons should be made with the students in mind. Teachers should consider the learning styles, levels, and personalities of their individual students and classes. Many students will be bored by following the same format every class. Furthermore, students are experts at noticing if teachers are passionate about what they’re teaching and if effort has been put into it. Students are usually willing to work harder when they know their teacher has. All-in-all, teachers might be pleasantly surprised to find that they will get a lot more out of a carefully and creatively planned lesson.  They might even find that they enjoy teaching more when they go the extra mile to step out of the "textbook box."

 The goal for motivation should start even before class begins with lesson planning.  Teachers who spend more time creatively making lessons will find that the rewards will be well worth their efforts.  Inspirational, student centered, lessons involve maximizing student talking time, setting clear goals, creating variety among topics and tasks, using visual aids, accessing all learning styles, generating tension and challenge with games and goals, promoting a fun atmosphere, personalizing learning, and regularly assessing students.2 Planning for these things in advance can help to ensure that they are incorporated into lessons, creating an environment where it is fun and easy to learn.

 These ideas should be brought into classroom as well.  Fostering student interest within class can be as simple as giving positive feedback, grading speaking and material based on level, encouraging autonomous learning, and increasing confidence.  Things as basic as giving clear instruction, concept checking, and elicitation, also help tofoster a more favorable learning atmosphere.  One easy technique that will keep students lively and active is varying seating arrangements. After all, the classroom should be molded to fit a teacher’s style and lesson plan, not the other way around. Teachers should use the classroom layout as chance for creative development. Consider dynamics that best utilize rows, pairs, groups, a circle, or a horseshoe. Thinking about it in this light will enable teachers to plan their classroom around their lesson, not their lesson around their classroom, while serving to keep students on their toes.

Despite a teacher’s best, and successful, efforts at maximizing enthusiasm, most students will eventually encounter the motivational black hole of plateaus. For any student, hitting a learning plateau can be an enormous challenge. This often occurs at the intermediate level and amplifies at the advanced level. No matter a student’s level, there are a few basic steps that should be considered for learners who have approached a plateau.  Success is a very powerful external motivator; teachers should be sure to give students regular level assessment testing. Not only will they be inspired to improve, but it will give them a quantifiable measure for their improvement. It’s possible that students may have the perception of having plateaued, when in fact a level assessment test illustrates an improvement.  In this case, students’ learning style should be re-evaluated. Based on the results, teachers could recommend the best ways for them to study, as well as a variety of activities that best suit their ability to retain information.  Specifically for advanced students, increasing real-world application of the English language, such as engaging in encounters with native speakers or watching a movie only in English may diminish the student’s feeling of "already knowing a lot"and motivate them to continue learning.  It’s also likely that in a class of intermediate or advanced students, this feeling of having reached a plateau will be common. Consequently, every class should be geared to this type of student. A reward-based system, personalized learning, and competitions creating tension, would motivate students extrinsically even though their intrinsic motivation may have waned.  In any case, plateaus, sleeping or chatting students, and even behavioral problems can be mitigated by combating these blights with relentless and inspired motivation.  This conscious, and sometimes daunting, effort will create classes that want to learn, achieve better results, and continue their English educations throughout their lives.

Practical Use

 The importance of the practical use of English cannot be overstressed.  What good will having memorized environmental terminology in English, if a student cannotcommunicate their opinion about it when asked in an English university interview?  How can knowing all the irregular verb forms by heart, but lacking the confidence to have a conversation in English, benefit a person who is in a business meeting with an English speaking client?  Has a student’s English education really benefited them if they have received ‘A’s on all of their English exams but cannot understand what the bank teller is asking them when they say "D’you wanna set up a direct deposit?"  There are infinite ways in which an English education is beneficial, but few of them can be realized if students do not learn the skills to communicate practically.

 One way to focus on usability is to avoid rote memorization in the classroom. Simple memorization is actually contradictory to the definition of "knowing" a word and rote memorization could even inhibit a learner’s ability to achieve the complete requirements for truly "knowing"and understanding a word. The most basic requirements for "knowing" a word are pronunciation and spelling. As such, rote memorization may alienate the proper pronunciation of a word, and lends itself more to the Grammar Translation Method. On a deeper level though, much more than spelling and pronunciation must be understood about a word in order to use it properly. Students should know the form, denotation, use, if it is countable, the style in which is it used, if it is informal or technical, and what environments it is used in. Furthermore, for fully comprehensive knowledge of a word, students should know the denotation, connotation, when it is appropriate, some word relationships (i.e. synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms, and superordinates), if it can be used in various word formations (with prefixes, suffixes, or in compounds), and if it is used in idioms, collocations, or lexical phrases. While this may seem excessive, it is imperative to the overall development of a student’s lexicon and fluency can only be accomplished using teaching techniques that access a variety of these concepts at once. When students communicate in meaningful ways about topics that they can relate to, they are more likely to learn grammar and vocabulary inductively. Lastly, many techniques, such as: miming, substitution, matching, and gapped dictation, offer more comprehensive ways of learning vocabulary. They teach not only spelling and denotation, but also pronunciation, use, context, style, word relationships, and word formations. In reality, vocabulary learning is not as simple or unimportant as rote memorization; it is the cornerstone of fluency and a usable lexicon.

 As noted before, English learners cannot be immersed in the language.  However, with the goal of attaining practical language skills in mind, after school programs can be created that mimic the experience of immersion.  While clearly the same results cannot be achieved when comparing the two experiences, such programs will ultimately increase students’encounters with real-world English and create an environment that both reinforces and fosters practical education.  One example of such a class is a Situational English Class.  The class would build upon what students have already learned in their everyday English education, and force them to put it into real life application.  Lessons would take place wherever the experience would occur in reality.  For example, one class might be Grocery Shopping.  A small group of students would go with their teacher to the store with the goal of buying everything on their list.  All interactions would take place in English.  Therefore, if a student needs to find something, they should ask another student or the teacher in English.  When checking out, the teacher would stand at the front of the line asking questions encountered in normal shopping experiences.  "Paper or plastic? Cash, credit, or debit?  The total is 20,568 won."  An appropriate follow-up lesson would be Cooking.3Students would use the ingredients they purchased in the previous lesson to cook using a provided recipe.  They can then sit down toenjoy their meal making sure to engage in conversation, and manners, appropriate to the dinner table in English speaking countries.  Another variation of this idea is an Entertainment club (movies, music, books, or even PC games).  Students would watch, listen to, read, or play the assigned English material and come to class prepared to discuss it only in English.  One benefit of this type of club is that students will intrinsically learn grammar, vocabulary, and practical application.  There is also the tremendous benefit of motivation.  Students will be excited to discuss the assignment because it is relevant to their lives and interests.  Either activity would promote using English outside the conventional classroom, would foster autonomous learning, and most importantly, give students a venue to apply their English knowledge practically.

There Is No Perfect Circle

 Tom Peters, author of Re-imagine, wrote "I imagine a school system that recognizes learning is natural, that a love of learning is normal, and that real learning is passionate learning. A school curriculum that values questions above answers, creativity above fact regurgitation, individuality above conformity, and excellence above standardized performance. And we must reject all notions of 'reform' that serve up more of the same: more testing, more 'standards', more uniformity, more conformity, more bureaucracy."This attitude corresponds directly with that which is required for rounding out English education in Korea.  There must be reform in a way that is tailored to the needs of students; change must occur in a way that upholds the best of the current system and simultaneously embracesthe promotion of the individual.  Teachers! Plan, instruct, and lecture to capitalize on your individual strengths.  Keep in mind those individual needs of your students.  What motivates them? Why do they want to learn English? What are their learning styles and levels?  How can you incorporate practical English into your classroom?  Use these answers to cultivate a balance, refining and rounding out the current system.  Remember, the wheel needs not be reinvented; identify its weaknesses and create new solutions that will only serve to complement its genius.

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