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English Conversation in Middle Schools (2008 Essay contest)
English Conversation in Middle Schools (2008 Essay contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:16     View: 2818  

English Conversation in Middle Schools

―the Challenge of Making it Happen


Ilgok Middle School/Ilshin Middle School

By Andrew Helberg


A discussion of the obstacles teachers face in teaching English skills and conversation skills to their students; the advantages and disadvantages of the Basic English Certification Program (BECP) in encouraging English conversation; what middle schools can do to help their students develop English and conversation skills.





1.            English Conversation in Korea―Current Realities     ..           ..           ..           ..           3.


2.            Obstacles to Teaching English Conversation Skills     ..           ..           ..           ..           4.


3.            The Basic English Certification Program       ..           ..           ..           ..           ..           ..           .. 6.


4.            Promoting English Conversation in the Classroom     ..           ..           ..           ..           8.


Appendices          ..           ..           ..           ..           ..           ..           ..           ..           ..           ..           ..           .. ..           ..           ..           11.


English Conversation in Korea―Current Realities


con·ver·sa´tion  noun [C or U] (a) talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information are exchanged



A few weeks ago, I was at a meeting with some other foreign English teachers. We had been selected to act as examiners for the Basic English Certification Program, which involved us having one-on-one conversations with over 5,000 middle-school students in Gwangju. At the beginning of the meeting, Mr. Kang, a supervisor from the Office of Education, stated: “We think this test is a very important opportunity for the students, because we’ve heard many people say that although Korean students study English so much, they still can’t speak English.”

             This comment met with a roar of laughter from everyone in the room. Why? For one thing, all of us agreed with him. For another thing, to say ‘Korean students still can’t speak English’ was probably an understatement. A publication issued by the Gwangju Metropolitan Office of Education makes this comment: “Even though we live in a globalised era where being able to listen and speak in English is essential, the reality is that [many Koreans] cannot even greet or introduce themselves in English when they meet a foreigner.”[*]

             More and more, we hear the importance of English conversation being stressed. Unfortunately, in spite of the diligent efforts of Korean English teachers to teach their students grammar and vocabulary―and the diligent efforts of their students to learn these―many students still cannot exchange thoughts, feelings or ideas in basic English conversation.

             This raises a number of questions. Firstly, what obstacles do teachers face in teaching both English skills and conversation skills to their students? Secondly, how can the Basic English Certification Program (BECP) encourage English conversation? How can this program be improved? And finally, what can middle schools do to give their students more opportunities to converse in English? The following will discuss each of these questions to try and find ways to make English conversation happen. 



Obstacles to Teaching English Conversation Skills


There is no doubt that every English teacher would like all of their students to have good English conversation skills. To develop these skills, practice is essential. Ideally, practicing with a native speaker will give students the best opportunity to improve their English conversation ability. Unfortunately, there are numerous things that make this difficult. Consider the following obstacles.

So Many Students, So Little Time: Generally, most middle school classes have about 40 students each. The native teacher will usually see each class only once a week for a 45-minute lesson period. If the teacher tried to give each student individual conversation practice each lesson, it would mean that he would have only one minute and seven seconds per student. Obviously, if students practice speaking English for only a minute a week, they will probably not make any huge improvement in their conversation skills.

             In short, while practicing English conversation one-on-one is desirable, it is also time-consuming. In many classrooms, the only speaking practice that students get is when they answer up during the lesson. The problem with this is that if answers are given voluntarily, the more outgoing, confident students will dominate the lesson (―good for them, not so good for the shy or less-motivated students). Even if the teacher calls on students at random, this still does not ensure that all students will have the opportunity to practice their English conversation skills each lesson.

The Grading System: Another obstacle is the grading system used to assess students’ English ability. This grading scheme puts a lot of emphasis on written tests, a smaller emphasis on listening comprehension, and almost no emphasis on speaking or conversation skills. This means that, even though everyone acknowledges that being able to speak English is important, a student’s grade at the end of the semester does not reflect whether the student can actually speak English or not.

             In many middle schools, around seventy percent of a student’s grade is determined by how they perform on their mid-term and final exams. Both of these exams are multiple-choice tests that have neither a listening comprehension nor speaking component. The remaining thirty percent of their grade is based on performance over the semester. It is generally up to the English faculty of each school to determine how to assess this remaining segment. Students may be marked on their attitude and participation in class, listening comprehension tests, homework, English notebooks, etc. As a typical example, I teach at one school that uses the following grading system:

ACTIVITY                                                                                                                           Percent of Semester Score


Mid-term Exam (written, multiple choice)                                                                                                     35

Final Exam (written, multiple choice)                                                                                                             35

Performance Assessment

             -            English Listening Comprehension Test                                                                                                      10

             -            Attitude in Class (participation, homework, group work)                                               10

             -            Everyday English notebook                                                                                                                                                 5

             -            Everyday English test (spoken or written)                                                                                    5


             TOTAL SCORE                                                                                                                                                                              100


             Note that the above grading scheme allocates only a tiny amount of the total mark (5%) to an Everyday English test that may be spoken or may be written. This means that theoretically, a student could achieve an excellent overall score for English, and still be incapable of holding an English conversation. Hence, the grading system is in fact directing attention away from speaking. In other words, students may actually be hindered from developing their English conversation ability because of the grading system.

             Of course, schools will often host or participate in competitions or events that highlight English speaking. Certainly, this gives students incentive to practice speaking in English. However, such events still do not contribute towards a student’s grade, and since participation is voluntary, it does not benefit all students.

Finding the Right Motivation: Korean students have been virtually indoctrinated with the idea that English study is essential. In itself, this will not give them the motivation to learn. Ask a Korean student why they learn English, and they will probably tell you it is very important to study English because it is the international language. However, if they have never been abroad and do not know any foreigners, there is no need to speak in this international language. They may tell you that a high English score is vital if you want to get into a good university. However, since this score is based on written tests, there is still no reason for students to speak in English.

Occasionally, students will tell you that they need to study English so that they can speak with foreigners. This is a very good reason to study English. However, ask them why they need to be able to speak with foreigners and they probably will not have a reason (―‘just because’). Here again, a clear motivation is lacking. Language study needs to be motivated by a desire to communicate. People learn another language because they want to be able to travel. They will learn to speak if they want to meet and exchange ideas with people of another nationality. They will try conversing with foreigners if they have a fascination with different cultures and lifestyles of other lands. Without these reasons, it is difficult for students to develop the right motivation to speak in English.

             Furthermore, growing up in the internet/computer-game generation, it is alarming the number of students who lack conversation skills even in their own language. Most Korean students cannot have an interesting conversation in English, but a fair number of them cannot hold an interesting conversation in Korean either. As mentioned earlier, language and conversation is motivated by the desire to communicate. If students have no ideas, opinions, feelings, news or information to communicate, there is no reason for them to speak, in any language.

             In view of the obstacles outlined here, teachers and schools need to develop ways and implement programs that will:

(1) give individual students opportunities to converse in English;

(2) reward students’ efforts to speak English by including this on their grades;

(3) give reasons that will motivate them to speak; and,

(4) develop their general conversation skills, not just in English, but also in Korean.

One program that attempts to do this in Gwangju is the Basic English Certification Program. The following section will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of this program, and how it may promote English conversation even more effectively in the future.



The Basic English Certification Program

In an effort to give students the chance to speak English with a native speaker, the Education Offices in Gwangju have established the Basic English Certification Program (BECP) for middle schools. Native teachers are selected from various schools to form a panel of examiners, and over the course of a week, they go to various schools and interview students one-on-one. Students are graded on a pass or fail basis.

             An instruction sheet given to the native teachers outlines the requirements of this speaking test:

“The main purpose of this program is to encourage students to communicate in English. I hope about 70% of the students would pass. Go easy with the students and try to give them much chance to communicate in English. … Make the communication authentic. You may ask follow-up questions if necessary. … Just answering ‘yes’, or ‘no’ is not enough to get a certificate. The interviewee (student) needs to have some kind of interaction with the interviewer (native speaker) to pass. … You may have approximately 3~4 minutes with each student.”

In one week, thirteen of we native English speakers interviewed 5,336 students. Most of those students passed. Of the nearly 500 students that I interviewed, perhaps ten of them had outstanding English speaking skills. Many students spoke quite well. There were also many students who had very limited comprehension, or were unable to make sentences in English. One thing that quickly became evident was that, while students may have been able to speak English, many were unable to hold an interesting conversation. For example:


Interviewer:                                    What do you like to do in your free time?

Student:                        Play computer games.

Interviewer:         Aha. Well then, when you are with your friends, what do you usually talk about?

Student:                        Computer games.

Interviewer:                                    I see. Okay, can you tell me, what’s your favourite day of the week?

Student:                        Saturday.

Interviewer:                                    Why?

Student:                        Because I can play computer games.


Needless to say, by the end of the week most of the interviewers were sick of hearing the word “computer-games”! Of all the students I interviewed, the student who most impressed me was a girl named Jeong Su-ji. Her interview ended up lasting much longer than four minutes because she was so interesting. She began by telling me that she writes detective stories, and that she loves reading. During her interview she told me why Miss Marple (from the Agatha Christie novels) is her favourite character. She mentioned that she was currently reading Utopia by Thomas More, and that King Henry VIII of England had many wives. Although this student has never studied English overseas, her English was very competent, and her conversation skills excellent.

In discussing with other teachers the advantages of this program, all of them agreed the BECP is useful because it gives students the chance to speak English with native speakers. As one Korean English teacher stated, the students “have the chance to speak to a foreigner face to face; it’s a good chance for them to speak one-to-one.” Another teacher also noted: “At least some students (low-level students) try to memorize useful phrases or expressions to pass the test.”

At the same time, conducting the BECP is a huge task. One teacher who helped to organize the test at her school realistically acknowledges: “That is a big program. … The other teachers (home room teachers) have to help. It requires a lot of effort on everybody else’s part as well.”

To ensure that the effort is worth it, attention needs to be given to the ongoing improvement of the BECP. A number of foreign teachers who conducted the interviews were not entirely satisfied with the scoring system. Regardless of whether students performed brilliantly on the test or ‘just scraped through’, they would still only receive a pass mark. This Pass/Fail marking scheme does not give enough recognition to students who really are capable English conversationalists. One of the interviewers commented: “We really need a multi-level grading system.” In other words, the certificate should indicate whether the student merely passed, was very good, was excellent, or was truly outstanding. It is hoped that in the future, the BECP will give students this recognition and incentive.

Furthermore, participation in this program is not mandatory for all students. It is up to individual schools to organize which students they will enter to be interviewed. Some middle schools enter all of their second-grade students; others only select the better students. It would be good if the BECP was a requirement for all students, possibly even contributing to their overall English score.

At the same time, it must be admitted that one 3-4 minute interview will not help students to make steady, progressive improvement in English conversation. One of my co-teachers remarked that if students are to really improve their English conversation ability, we need “to give students more chances to speak English in class.” Another colleague further stated: “I think we English teachers should help [the students] speak those kinds of conversations naturally, not artificially” (i.e., not just in an interview-test setting). In view of this, the following section will discuss what middle schools can do to help their students develop both English and conversation skills.



Promoting English Conversation in the Classroom

When I walk down the school hallway between classes, I will often be talking non-stop. I would easily have over five conversations with different students just getting from one class to another. In almost every case, the students initiate the conversation with me. However, it seems that once I get into the classroom and the lesson starts, all of a sudden none of the students want to talk. This suggests that in order to promote English conversation in the classroom, teachers need to find a way to recreate the same relaxed atmosphere that students have when they are talking in the hallway.

             As mentioned earlier, one problem is that there is simply not enough time to speak one-on-one with each student during the lesson. However, this problem could be overcome if there were more people the students could converse with. For example, one native teacher could not talk individually with 40 students in a lesson, but if the native teacher and the Korean teacher were talking individually with students, they would have 20 students each. Extending that, if both the native teacher and the co-teacher were to speak to students in pairs (a three-person conversation), each teacher would be able to conduct ten conversations through the lesson.

             As another possibility, teachers could also make use of advanced students. In many classes, I have found that there are usually at least one or two very good students (―usually, not always). When this is the case, these advanced students could be briefly coached prior to the lesson, and then assist the native teacher and co-teacher in holding conversations with the other students. This could be done in such a way that the native teacher could still monitor how the other conversations were progressing. (See Appendix A.)

             If native teachers are approachable, students will want to talk with them. If they make good use of their co-teacher and advanced students, they will be able to conduct conversation practice sessions with many students during class time.

             Implementing such a conversation program would take time and some prior organizing to ensure that things run smoothly. This would include arranging students into pairs, selecting topics for the conversation session, making up score sheets with the students’ names (if they are to be graded on their performance during the conversation), and so on. Even so, once such a session has been held for the first time, it will be easier to run similar sessions at regular intervals.

             This is not to say of course that every lesson should be a conversation practice session. However, there would be benefit in having such classes perhaps once a month. For example:


Week 1:      Normal class with native teacher

Week 2:      Normal class; start to build on material that can be used in conversation

Week 3:      Normal class; spend some time preparing students for conversation session

the following week―list of topics students may discuss, short demonstration of a good conversation, students pick speaking partner, etc.

Week 4:      English Conversation Practice (or Assessment) Session


If such a program were followed, students would have four or five individual conversation practice sessions throughout the semester. If organized properly, all students would have the opportunity to talk with the native teacher on at least some of these occasions. It would also be helpful if the Korean English teacher consolidated this by briefly reviewing material for upcoming conversation sessions in their own lessons. Students would thus be much better prepared to be assessed on their English speaking ability.

For such assessment to be of any value, however, the grading system also needs to be adjusted. Rather than speaking/conversation being relegated to a tiny percentage of the overall semester grade (as it currently is in most schools), this aspect of English should be given a higher percentage. Since speaking is one of the four macro-skills of language (the other three being reading, writing and listening), it stands to reason that speaking ability should account for twenty-five percent of a student’s English grade. Appendix B illustrates a possible way the grading system could be revised to put greater emphasis on English conversation.

In order to give students a desire to speak in English, they need the right motivation to learn. Just because English is ‘the international language’ is probably not going to be motivation enough for students to try and speak it. Hence native teachers should always be alert to try and advocate an interest in countries where English is spoken. Students should be helped to develop a curiosity about Western cultures and a desire to visit these countries in the future.

Additionally, it should be remembered that if someone really has no opinion about a topic, or no interest in it, they will probably not bother saying anything. This is especially true if they have to try and express their non-opinion in another language. One of the greatest motivations to speaking is having something to say. Therefore it is important to try and cater to what the students are interested in. This can sometimes be a major challenge (particularly if students are only interested in computer-games!). Still, native teachers should make an ongoing effort to find out what their students are interested in, and focus their lessons on such. At the same time, they should also be alert to broadening their students’ horizons, and encourage them to consider topics which they may previously have thought little about.

To promote English conversation that is interesting, teachers should give some attention to students’ general conversation skills, not just in English, but also in Korean. This is not something that can be easily assessed. Students should be encouraged to constantly improve their daily conversation ability. Regularly ask students if they have had any interesting conversations lately. Then try and have them relate that conversation in English.

Students will develop their conversation ability more quickly if they converse not just with their peers, but also with adults. They should be encouraged to try and have conversations with other teachers in between classes, at lunchtime, or whenever possible. In this way, they are developing their conversation skills in Korean, which will enable them to have better conversations in English. Other teachers should be willing to cooperate with such an initiative, as it is contributing to the students’ overall development.

             One way of helping students to be more conscious of bettering their conversational ability would be to have them keep a Conversation Diary. This need not be a huge task, merely a record of who they have spoken to, and what topics they have spoken about. This record could be included in their Everyday English notebook. (See Appendix C.) By occasionally reviewing these Conversation Diaries, the teacher can commend students as they broaden the scope of their conversations.


             Ultimately, promoting English conversation in middle schools is a challenge, but it is not impossible. Already a huge amount of effort is being put into English education in Korea. If this effort can be more focused on speaking and conversation, it will produce a better result overall. People will not be saying, “Korean students still can’t speak English.”

             For this to happen, both native teachers and their Korean co-teachers constantly need to be looking out for ways they can speak with students individually. Every possible occasion should be used to help students have a meaningful exchange in English. As students make progress in their English conversation ability, this should be reflected on their grades. In the end, the goal should be to make English conversation happen.


Organizing Conversation Practice Sessions During the Lesson


To effectively organize a conversation practice session during the lesson, it would be preferable to have two classrooms available. The students could prepare themselves for their conversation practice in the normal classroom, while the teachers could be set up in an adjoining room so as to minimize noise and distraction.

                  To make best use of the lesson time, each teacher could have a three-person conversation (one teacher, two students) as in Example 1. This approach would be best when students are being assessed on their English conversation.

Example 1:

                                               Native Teacher                                                                    Co-Teacher


                  As another alternative, to give students one-on-one conversation practice, the native teacher could make use of the most advanced students in the class (e.g., students who have studied overseas, or have had exposure to English-speaking environments in some other way). In order to do this, the native teacher should prepare the advanced students for their role prior to the practice session. It would be good to have student-interviewers within earshot of the other teachers to give them occasional assistance if needed. This approach would not be used when assessing students on their speaking skills.

Example 2:

                                                                          Native Teacher                              Co-Teacher

Advanced student

Advanced student



A Revised Grading System for Middle School English


The following outlines a suggested revision of the grading system for Middle School English. By comparing this suggestion with the grading system shown on page 3, it will be noted that here the mid-term and final exams account for less of the overall mark, and an English Conversation Assessment Test counts for 20 percent. This test effectively includes assessing a student’s listening and speaking skills. The Conversation Diary, kept in the student’s Everyday English notebook, while not accounting for a large percentage of the score, will nonetheless encourage students to improve the scope and quality of their conversations, thus contributing to a better result on their English Conversation Assessment Test. The Everyday English test would be spoken only. In this way, English speaking ability would account for 25 percent of the student’s overall grade.


ACTIVITY                                                                                                                           Percent of Semester Score


Mid-term Exam (written, multiple choice)                                                                                                     25

Final Exam (written, multiple choice)                                                                                                             25

Performance Assessment

             -            English Listening Comprehension Test                                                                                                      10

             -            English Conversation Assessment Test                                                                                                      20

             -            Attitude in Class (participation, homework, group work)                                               10

             -            Everyday English notebook and Conversation Diary                                                       5

             -            Everyday English test (spoken)                                                                                                                              5


             TOTAL SCORE                                                                                                                                                                              100



Conversation Diary


The purpose of the conversation diary is to help students be conscious of improving their general conversation topics. If, after a week, the student has only had conversations about their favourite singer or computer games, the teacher would recommend that they try and talk about a wider range of subjects.

                  This conversation diary is not meant to be an extensive record. Students do not need to write down every single conversation they have had, but they should set a goal of trying to have at least two interesting conversations a day, and write down the topic of those conversations. The record could be kept in the student’s Everyday English notebook so that the teacher can check it periodically. Teachers could perhaps give students a minute or two at the beginning or end of each English class so that they can update their diary.

                  The following example was compiled from actual conversations that some of my students have had. Note that conversations were not only with school friends but also with teachers. The range of topics is also quite good.


THIS WEEK’S CONVERSATIONS                                                                                                                   Name: 김가은


Who I talked to

Most interesting topic we talked about





How to take a photo of our shadow …

BIG BANG’s new album!!



My homeroom


  Japanese TV dramas

(teacher likes watching them!)



Andrew teacher


How to get a good score in my test

민정s boyfriend … so handsome! ¤ ㅋㅋㅋ





Lunch menu.

(No interesting conversations today)



Science teacher


아라 and 채은

Obama can solve the problems for black people

in America.

Holiday to Switzerland next year!!

Teacher check _________


[*] This quote is translated from Korean. The original text reads: “이러한 국제화 시대에 영어로 말하고 듣는 능력은 필수적임에도 불구하고 외국인을 만나도 간단한 인사나 자기 자신의 소개조차도 할 수 없는 것이 우리의 현실입니다.” ―Publisher’s Note, Everyday English 365, 중학교 2학년.

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