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English Education in Korea(2008 Essay Contest)
English Education in Korea(2008 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-07-18 01:06     View: 2912  

English Education in Korea Suggestions for improvement


 Bundang Jungang High School

Mark Mace




I am sure at least a few of my conclusions are less than ideal, and others partially correct.  I have had only the past 10 months of experience teaching in Korea, discussions with my co-teachers, a few statistics, and my reasoning in arriving at the conclusions written below.  However I hope it is at least possible that I pose some interesting points for discussion.

To begin I would like to talk about two students I know well. 


First, Yong Hoon.  He is a student at the Bundang area high school where I work, and is one of the first students I taught in Korea. He does not pay attention in school.  He has poor marks, currently falling in roughly the 30th percentile.  Yong Hoon often sleeps in classes, English being no exception.  He is an unmotivated student.  He generally doesn't like school, and doesn’t learn much there.  He has never spent time overseas to improve his English fluency.  Yong Hoon is also one of the most talented English students in the school.  His listening ability ? is within striking distance to that of a native.  Speaking ability ? is within in the top 2%.  Writing ability ? is within the top 3%. 

Gyung Ill is also a student at the same school.  His grades are excellent.  He always pays attention in class.  He is currently ranked in roughly the 95th percentile.  Gyung Ill always studies extraneously for tests, and he seems quite intelligent.  Gyung Ill also cannot hold an English conversation at anything above broken English at 10% speed. 


One student goes through with low marks and still learns fluent English, the other goes through with excellent marks trying his best, and hardly knows English at all. 


This is an odd anecdote, which reflects a few of the short comings of English education in Korea.  The fact that Gyung Ill could in many ways fail in the system, yet Yong Hoon excel from outside of it, is troubling.  Not every student I’ve taught is an example of the Gyung Ill & Yong Hoon situation, and most are not, but far too many are. 


From my experiences teaching English here, conversations with Korean-born English teachers, personal interactions with students, and with the aide of a few statistics, I have arrived at a several concerns. 


The first general problem, and, the problem most commonly cited by both students & Korean-born teachers- is student’s low abilities in speaking, listening, and writing.  Most attribute this primarily to the excessive classroom time spent on reading at the extreme expense of student's other skills. 


The second general problem, as many believe, is that even outside of the hotspots of Speaking, Listening, and Writing, overall English education has substantial room for improvement. 


The third and last problem, which to some extent, may be caused by the above mentioned lack of satisfaction in the Korean public education system, is how much money is spent on English private education in Korea.  An incredible 14 trillion won a year according to Samsung Economic Research Institute  (Hyun-kyung, 2008), averaging approximately 7 hours/week per student. (Byong-Sun, 2004) 


I would like to delve into these three general problems individually.  As mentioned first, the problem foremost on the minds of both students and educators, and in my own classes - is Korean student's relative weaknesses in speaking, listening, and writing.


First, this could be partially remedied by a simple curriculum shift.  However, an obstacle to this is the English section of the SAT.  Though I am impressed with the varied ways in which the SAT tests reading and sentence correction, thus helping insure an accurate appraisal of those abilities, such questions occupy ~66% of the SAT's English questions.  Speaking and writing are ignored, with listening only partially touched upon.


Knowing how pivotal the SAT is to student's success, what teacher would knowingly damage their student’s future by teaching speaking or writing in the classroom?


One is forced to conclude then that any change in curriculum material - including the often maligned lack of speaking, and to a lesser extent writing, must be preceded by a change in the SAT English test.


Secondly, for Korean-born English teachers to teach the most often requested skill - speaking, they must themselves be relatively fluent.  In my experience - most English teachers are, and thankfully, all are at my particular school.  However I have met many Korean-born English teachers outside of my school whose English conversation ability is extremely low.  Significantly lower than that of the aforementioned Gyung Ill, and some who can barely speak English at all.  


Obviously the current system has not caught this, and obviously has not sufficiently encouraged this minority of teachers to gain English conversation skills.  A solution would be a simple yearly hurdle test required for English teaching employment.  As an example, it could consist of listening to a few conversations or passages and then summarizing them verbally, then, listening to a few passages, and summarizing them in a short essay.  Given once yearly, this simple test could set a minimum threshold of the board of education’s choosing, for the English listening, speaking, and writing skills of teachers.


Thirdly, though it may be prohibitively expensive ? smaller class sizes would help, particularly at least when teaching speaking skills.  It is almost universally accepted that smaller class sizes are better.  Since it is therefore a question of budget rather than reasoning, I will delve into this particular topic no further.


The second general problem mentioned ? is that overall English education in Korea has substantial room for improvement, as many students and teachers believe.  Korea’s low ranking of 110th in worldwide TOEFL scores underscores the need for general English improvement. (Card, 2006)  Two significant ways to accomplish this come to mind:


First - leveled classes.  Currently, unlike the US system, and unlike universities - students stay together as a single homeroom, taking all classes together, despite varying skill levels in each separate subject.  In English class - this can be particularly apparent.  One student may be at near native speaker status, while the lowest 10 students have advanced to only a bit above the "hi, how are you?" phase of development.  I often experience this in my own classes, and other teachers the same.  In this environment, many students will be bored, and many will not understand the material.  Despite small probable cost increases, it is incredibly important for Korean schools to move away from homerooms, and move into subject-leveled classes, in which students are more equally skilled.


Additionally, this system this would allow students to have some choice in the classes they took, forgoing physics for advanced chemistry, or forgoing art for additional classes in English conversation - depending on the goals and interests of the students and their parents.  This would help tailor education to each student, and improve students’ motivation.


Lastly, making the provided English textbooks optional, as several of my co-teachers wish was the case.  This would allow each teacher - if they chose - to develop their own material targeted to both the student's and teacher's interests & abilities.  In such a scenario, it would also be wise to approve several optional textbooks for teachers to use if they wish.  The reason is ? if only one suggested textbook were approved, there could be a strong inclination by SAT writers to tailor the test to that one textbook.


As to the final general problem mentioned - many students, educators, researchers, and citizens are concerned that the time and money spent on private institutes, let alone off the books private tutoring, is excessive. 


I see only two readily apparent solutions to this:  One solution is to reduce the competiveness of Korean society, a monumental, and no doubt, controversial and difficult task.   A second solution is to improve the quality of English education in Korean public schools so parent's feel less need to spend additional time and money on private institutes and tutoring.  This is yet one more reason that changes should be considered, analyzed, and implemented in an expeditious manner.


When considering the difficulty in approaching three general problems mentioned, it is worthwhile to take a step back and view both Korea and the Korean education system in its entirety.  At the end of the Korean War, Korea was among the poorest nations of the world.  The education rate was low, and Korea was among the most disadvantaged nations in the world.  Four decades ago, Korea’s economy was comparable with the poorest nations of Africa and Asia.  (CIA, 2008)


Despite this incredibly difficult and discouraging situation, Korea chose to place an incredibly high emphasis on education.  In the roughly 50 years that have passed, Korea’s education system has taken it  from a significantly uneducated nation, to the number one ranked nation in the world by university degree attainment in persons aged 25-34.  (OECD Ed. Db., 2006)


Korea has also moved to being the 13th largest economy in the world.  (World Bank, 2008)   In perspective, due to an incredible amount of diligence and emphasis on education, if Korea were located almost anywhere else in the world, it would be the regional superpower.  Even in Europe - Korea would be an above average nation.  This was the incredible, 'Miracle on the Han River' as I was taught in my own US high school world history classes. 


Clearly, both Korea and the Korean educational system have done an amazing job thus far.  Looking forward then, whatever obstacles S. Korea may face in education, they should be approached confidently.  Korea should feel that any proposed changes, no matter their scope, can be applied quickly and effectively, as Korea has shown itself capable of doing so many times in the recent past. 


To conclude, English education in Korea has much room for improvement, as is often said by the teachers, students, and parents I have met.  Students need better speaking, listening, and writing skills, as well as an overall improvement ? not only a simple shift to these skills at an equal expense to reading skills.  Additionally, Korean parents spend an overwhelming amount of their finances on private English education, and the students an overwhelming amount of their time. 


However, here are many possible remedies:  A curriculum shift preceded by a change in the SAT, basic fluency tests for the few teachers who need them, smaller class sizes if possible, classes leveled by subject, & greater freedom for Korean teachers in choosing class material are among the viable options available. 


Certainly for a nation, and an education system, that created the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ these improvements in education should be far from insurmountable.

Works Cited

Byong-Sun, K. P. (2004). Struggle Against Private Lessons in Korean Education Context. Gyeongin National University of Education.

Card, J. (2006, December 15). Appetite for Language Costs South Korea Dear. Guardian .

CIA. (2008, November 6). Korea, South. Retrieved November 11, 2008, from CIA World Factbook:

Hyun-kyung, K. (2008, 01 23). New Administration Struggling to Tackle English Divide. Korea Times .

OECD Ed. Db. (2006). Educationa Attainment by Gender and Average Years Spent in Formal Education. OECD .

World Bank. (2008, November). Data & Statistics. Retrieved November 18, 2008, from The World Bank:

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