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Ways to Improve English Education In Korea(2008 Essay contest)
Ways to Improve English Education In Korea(2008 Essay contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:10     View: 3667  

Ways to Improve English Education In Korea



Hanbada Middle School

Constance Defalco



South Koreans have a strong belief in education that comes from their Confucian traditions.  The government has invested large sums of money on English education.  Many middle and primary, as well as some high schools, currently have foreign teachers to assist in teaching English conversation.  Middle schools have been allocated thousands of dollars to renovate or build English Only Zones. Parents also spend a lot of money on private education.  They send their children to private academies (Hagwons).  There are over 16,000 E2 VISA holders currently in South Korea teaching at public and private institutions. 


Despite the sums of money and time invested in English education, South Korean students continue fair badly on international scores on English tests.[1] In June 2008, “the British Council announced that Korea ranked 19th on the general training module of the IELTS among 20 countries”.[2] What can be done?  The current government hopes to implement English immersion programs.  Middle schools are implementing streaming for English.  This year, elementary students are beginning to learn English in grade 3.  EPIK has challenged its pool of foreign teachers to offer their insights and suggestions about English education in South Korea.


I have chosen to share my views and give suggestions about what I’ve seen and experienced teaching English conversation[3] in a public middle school in Busan.  I am new to the teaching profession.  I’ve been in South Korea for nine months. Having grown up in Canada, Montreal specifically, I’m very familiar with the issues and discussions surrounding immersion programs.  My parents gave me the gift of a second language by sending me to French school.  Even though I only spoke English, I was sent to French kindergarten and continued my primary and secondary schooling in French.  I did my post secondary studies in English.


South Korea is committed to teaching English to its students.  In a country where English is a foreign language the task is formidable, but not insurmountable. I ask myself what are South Korea’s goals for English education?  The basic skills needed to learn a new language are reading, writing, listening and speaking.  Other equally important factors are do students have the need, opportunity and willingness to learn.  Currently, the main focus of English education is learning the rules for English writing i.e. grammar, followed by reading, listening and, lastly speaking. Children on the other hand first learn how to speak and listen.  Reading and writing come next and finally the rules for writing are taught last. What skills does Korea want to promote for its students?


The following points are some of the challenges I’ve noted facing English education in the public sector.


  • What are South Korea’s goals for English education?  If conversation is a desired skill then why give it little or no academic value?  Why only teach it once a week?


  • It’s very difficult to design class material when the level of English knowledge among students varies from almost nil to very high. In addition, the number of students per class makes it impossible to teach conversation.   Unfortunately, the observable reality in public schools is that 80% of classroom talk is usually done by the teacher.  Given that a period lasts 45 minutes, this leaves about 10 minutes of talk time for 37 students once a week. How do we decrease teacher talk time while increasing the student’s?


  • Many Korean English teachers have poor conversation skills. How can their proficiency be increased?


  • English is rarely if ever used outside the classroom.  How do you encourage students to learn for themselves outside the classroom, in other words, become independent learners? 



What are South Korea’s goals for English language education?  Do they want students to be able to converse?  Korea spends a lot of money to have English foreign teachers teach conversation. If this is the goal, then English education should begin at kindergarten.  Most young children are uninhibited.  They don’t care if they make mistakes. English songs, rhymes, and games should be introduced as they are introduced to young native English speakers.  There’s a poster of classic children’s nursery rhymes in my EOZ class[4].  I know them all by heart as would most English westerners, but I don’t remember learning them. They were taught to me as a child.


Conversation classes should be given multiple times a week even if they are just 15 minutes long.  It’s easier to remember and reinforce lessons learned a couple of days ago rather than those learned a week ago.  Simple English picture books should also be introduced. I’m sure Dr. Seuss would be loved by children in Korea.  When students enter middle school, English conversation classes would be routine and the students would be more accustomed to speaking English in the classroom.


As conversation skills increase, grammar becomes easier to learn and remember.  Again what are Korea’s priorities?  If it is for students to learn grammar, then nothing needs to change.  If it’s to be able to communicate in English then class time must be increased for conversation and reading.  Conversation and grammar classes should be held twice a week and a reading period should be introduced once a week.  


One of the goals of reading is to help students to become top down learners.  Learning to understand vocabulary within the context it’s used is an invaluable skill for language acquisition.  For example, take the word “up”[5]. This word, as many other words, can have many different meanings; simply learning the definition is not enough.  The best way to learn is to literally see how words are used within the context of the sentence or story.  Reading material should be easy and fun.  During this period, students should read at their own pace and according to their level minus 1, meaning a little easy so that the book can be enjoyed.  Self study skills will be developed. Students should be evaluated on how much they improve rather than how they fare compared to their peers.


Conversation skills need to be given academic value throughout the students’ school life. Currently, there is no incentive for students to try to communicate in English.  In middle school, the work done in the conversation class is given very little value.  As a result, discipline is more of a challenge.  Further, once students get to high school, conversation classes are usually dropped. These skills are not needed for most university entrance exams.


I understand that streaming is supposed to be implemented in all middle schools.  This is very important because of the wide range of levels that exist in many classes.  With streaming, learning materials can be geared more specifically to the knowledge levels of the students. Class size needs to be reduced to compete with Hagwons and increase student talk time.  Finally, to increase conversation skills, schools must schedule classes at least twice a week, stream students and reduce the number of students per class.


If conversation classes are to be increased and classes streamed, more English teachers will be needed. South Korea can hire more foreign teachers, but it can also increase the number of Korean English teachers that have the advanced level of English needed to teach conversation as well as grammar.  How can this be done?  Teachers should be required to complete at least one year (or about a third) of their teaching degree completely in English.  Korean universities should hire English professors and/or negotiate exchange programs for their students. University students could complete part of their studies abroad for the same tuition. Native English speakers can be hired by the university to assist students with papers and conversation skills.


How do we get students to study English outside the classroom? This is a very big challenge, but I believe much can be done. The sense of community is very strong and can be used.  Currently, English is not needed outside the classroom, but if it can be shown that English can be used in every day life, students will be more interested in pursuing English activities outside the classroom.


Local media must be enlisted to help Korea achieve its English educational goals.  Newspaper, radio, and television media are very influential.  Many American shows and movies are shown on Korean television channels in English with Korean subtitles.  However, when subtitles are added, much less effort is used to understand the English being used.  There are also Korean shows that are produced to improve English language listening skills.  However, English still needs to be brought down to the community level. The programs need to be localized and personalized.  For example, Busan middle school students need to see and hear other Busan middle school students speak English.  They need to see and hear English being used in their own communities.  How can this be accomplished?


In Canada, we had a local television program called “Reach for the Top” where teams of students from local high schools competed against each other.  They were asked questions from many categories.  If this kind of show were produced and promoted, it would increase school pride, celebrate academic achievement, and since some of the questions would be in English, it would take English outside of the classroom. 


Another program could have students interview successful and famous Koreans in English.  Many Koreans speak English very well, and this should also be celebrated.  The media could also host local English contests.  One example could have students create and video tape their own English lessons or sing an English song.  The best lessons or songs are shown on TV, the audience can vote for the best of the best like American Idol.  I like the idea of having students create their own English lessons.  They will learn to appreciate the challenges involved.  The best lessons can be used as teaching materials in regular classrooms.  The key is to keep it local.  If students can see that their efforts can be rewarded outside the classroom, they may be encouraged to put extra effort on their conversation skills. 


Busan is vying for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.  Having a population that can welcome visitors in English will be a great advantage to South Korea.  On several occasions Koreans have come up to me and asked me in English if they could be of assistance.  I was so thankful and touched by their willingness to help.  I think of them as Korean Ambassadors.  My impression of South Korea and Koreans has been positively affected by their kind actions.  If some kind of Korean Ambassador program were created where Koreans who speak English could wear special pins, then English speaking foreigners could easily approach them when lost and confused.  Merchants could also post ambassador signs on their businesses, so that tourists would know they could be served in English.  Not only would this kind of branding encourage tourism, it would make English more visible in the community.  I have offered just a few suggestions, and I know that if there is a will to increase the visibility of Koreans speaking English, Korean’s work ethic and creativity will make it happen.


In conclusion, cooperation between government, community, teacher and student is the best way to improve English education in Korea.  The government needs to act on its priorities and enlist media; communities need to make English more visible; teachers need to improve their conversation skills and use them in the classroom; and finally, students need to change from passive learners to active participants and contributors to their education.

Addendum 1










Addendum 2



June 3rd, 2008              The Korea Times

Korean English Fever Betrayed by Test Scores 


By Kang Shin-who
Staff Reporter

Koreans spend a lot of energy and money on studying English but their efforts seem futile as they always remain at the bottom of tests measuring English capability compared with other countries.

The Korean private English education market is estimated at as much as 15 trillion won ($15 billion). On top of students, office workers are bent on studying the language.

About seven in 10 office workers are showing signs of ``English addition syndrome'' where they feel uneasy if they are not studying it, according to YBM Sisa.
The leading language institute surveyed 1,837 office workers and more than 40 percent of respondents said they spend over 100,000 won ($100) per month on English education. More than half of those surveyed answered that they are currently studying the language.

Asked whether they feel the need for English studying, nearly 97 percent said, ``yes.''

Mired at Rock Bottom

Despite this frenzy, Koreans are showing no marked improvement in international scores on English tests.

The British Council announced Tuesday that Korea ranked 19th on the general training module of the IELTS among 20 countries ― Korean applicants averaged 5.21 out of a full score of 9.

IELTS is short for International English Language Testing System. Run by the British Council, University of Cambridge and Australian IDP Education, IELTS has two types of tests: a general training module for emigrant hopefuls and an academic module for students applying to overseas schools. It is on a par with TOEFL in terms of the number of test applicants.

Korean applicants especially showed weakness in writing and speaking tests, the British Council said. South Africa, which has adopted English as a business language, ranked top with an average score of 7.46. Singapore came next with 7.01, followed by Malaysia with 6.9, and Brazil with 6.43. China ranked 13th with 5.77 and Japan was placed 16th with 5.52.

In the case of the academic module, Korea scored 5.71 ranking 15th. Germany topped the test module with 7.16 followed by Malaysia with 6.65, the Philippines with 6.58 and Russia, 6.48.

IELTS test organizers said Korea has to adopt a new system for English education.

``Although Korea spends more money on English education and Koreans are trying to study English at an earlier age the test scores have remained the same,'' the British Council said.





Addendum 3







Addendum 4


Food for thought…                          UP!

There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that is "UP."

It's easy to understand UP meaning toward the sky, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake UP? At a meeting, why does a topic come UP? Why do we speak UP and why are the officers UP for election and why is it UP to the secretary to write UP a report?

We call UP our friends. And we use it to brighten UP a room, polish UP the silver.  We warm UP the leftovers and clean UP the kitchen. We lock UP the house and some guys fix UP the old car. At other times the little word has real special meaning People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses. To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed UP is special.

And this UP is confusing: A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP. We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP at night. ?

We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP! To be knowledgeable about the proper uses of UP, look the word UP in the dictionary. In a desk-sized dictionary, it takes UP almost 1/4th of the page and can add UP to about 30 definitions. If you are UP to it, you might try building UP a list of the many ways UP is used. It will take UP a lot of your time, but if you don't give UP, you may wind UP with a hundred or more. When it threatens to rain, we say it is clouding UP. When the sun comes out we say it is clearing UP. ?

When it rains, it wets the earth and often messes things UP.??

When it doesn't rain for awhile, things dry UP

Fess like this, don’t you.

One could go on and on, but I'll wrap it UP, for now my time is UP, so...Time to shut UP....! more thing:

What is the first thing you do in the morning & the last thing you do at night?


                                                  U - P



[1] Addendum 1: TOEFL test scores  and IELTS General Training Test Scores

[2] Addendum 2: Korean English Fever Betrayed by Test Scores by Kang Shin-who, The Korea Times

[3] When I use the word “conversation”, I’m referring to both speaking and listening skills.

[4] Addendum 3:  Copy of nursery rhyme poster

[5] Addendum 4:  UP!, author unknown

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