I teach in a rural area of South Korea at a couple of middle schools: one is located about 10 minutes about outside the city and has about 190 students whom I see three days a week; the other school is in the countryside (it’s adjacent to a rice field) and has about 32 students whom I see the other two days a week. The students are 13 to 16 years old and have varied backgrounds and competencies. While some are from white- or blue-collar families, others are from families that farm. What’s it like teaching these students?
A little like drinking a strong cup of coffee after orange juice. I come from a background in the communicative approach, where I trained to teach TESOL to adults and for several years taught adults who were at the same approximate level. By contrast, at the schools where I teach, classes at each grade level are not streamed so students, regardless of how good they are at English, study together. In the same class I can hold a good
conversation with a one student while needing to teach another how to answer, “How are you?”
To motivate these students is sometimes a bit tough. I think English is still very much a foreign language in South Korea so, especially at middle-school level, some students have little or no intrinsic motivation to learn it. Many of the students I teach have little exposure to English outside the classroom – apart from popular media, food labels, fancy shop signs, or the occasional foreigner who may stop to ask for directions or to kindly take a photo. From what I can tell, at their stage of life there is little need nor reason to learn English, except that it is a mandatory subject: From elementary to high-school level, all students must study English. Other than that, English is of little relevance other than being important for tests (and more and more a gatekeeper for good jobs).
Because the education system tends to focus on the teaching to the test, and tests are extremely important in this country, in the eyes of the students the most important things to focus on are that which will be tested. Reading and writing English skills are formally tested within the education system however speaking is not (though this is set to change within a few years) so it can be a challenge teaching conversational English to students who consider English as another subject to be tested. Thankfully, I work with Korean teachers who manage student behavior.
We team-teach conversational English and a typical class is forty-five minutes long. We focus on speaking and listening skills to supplement the textbook that the students use. A usual lesson is systematic: after doing a short warm-up, we review the previous lesson’s material then then move to the new the lesson where we elicit the lesson’s vocabulary and present the grammar structure. After a short listening exercise, which exposes students to the language in context, students practice a dialog which then leads to semi-controlled and more open activities. For better or for worse, teaching tends to be teacher-fronted for a couple of reasons: It’s the educational norm; and most of the students that I teach are of such low-level that they require a lot of direction. Usually, the students sit in rows of desks which face the front of the class, though we do a lot of pair-work activities. From time-to-time students also do whole-class activities, for example a find-someone-who or a survey, which lets them move around the room; however, because these activities can be a bit noisy, we limit them to respect neighboring teachers.
Despite being a challenge – teaching to a different age group, adapting to and accommodating a different pedagogical approach – teaching young learners within this context continues to be an enjoyable experience. I’ve had to rethink, relearn, reflect, and reapproach. A lot.
It’s a great cup of coffee.
Dayle was an ESOL teacher in New Zealand for several years. In 2007 he moved to South Korea and was on the EPIK programme for three years. He now teaches English at a South Korean university and is pursuing an MA TESOL. You can follow him at @daylemajor on Twitter.