Teaching middle school students in South Korea (by Dayle Major)

Dayle in KoreaI 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 dayle 1conversation 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.

dayle 2We 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.

Note: This article by Dayle Major originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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12 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks, Dayle, for sharing your story!

    I appreciate the image of the strong cup of coffee after orange juice. I can taste it!

    I think that middle schoolers in Korea must have a lot in common with middle schoolers in Japan. It’s always tough when students HAVE to be in class–different level of (non) motivation 🙂

    Sounds like you’ve done a good job with them!

  2. Dayle,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I work with young language learners in Germany and the focus seems to be conversational here. I continuously get requests from parents for phonics and pronunciation materials. Speaking English correctly is the focus. I have taught high schools students from several Asian countries including Korea and tests are very important! Many told me that most of their English instruction included workbooks and drills. I have seen some of the workbooks and they are quite difficult to comprehend. I am glad to see that in your classrooms there is a mixture of techniques.

  3. Dayle says:

    Barbara, thanks for inviting me to write the post. I recently read an article about good team-teaching practices in Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong and it seems like the educational system is indeed similar in Japan and Korea.

    Shelly, I understand what you mean. I ‘ended up making my own worksheets from scratch as I dislike the textbooks here and most material I came across was too high-level for my students. A few months back Jason Renshaw (@englishraven) introduced me to Englishraven.com, which I appreciate a lot as he has very good materials.

    • Mark says:

      Hey Dayle, thanks for the story, it’s good to see know that someone else is in the same boat as me! I too teach at rural middle schools in Korea. One school I teach at has small classes and smart, enthusiastic kids (most of the time!) The other school has large classes and unmotivated students with a range of abilities. Also, I have no co-teacher help, so I’m pretty much on my own! What activities have you found that work well for large middle school classes? Things that get them talking. So far, I’ve had some success with free conversational questions, but it’s hard to get EVERYONE talking. Do you have any advice on the matter, or any tried and true conversational exercises/games?

      Any advice is much appreciated!


  4. StevenHerder says:

    Hi Dayle,

    Very nice introduction to your schools and your context. Thank you for sharing it all. I’m in my 21st year in Japan and my 16th year in the same JSHS, so I hear you – about all the challenges of young learners who may or may not ever need English.

    After many years of teaching like you do (PPP Method almost exclusively with speaking and listening) I started teaching writing and reading quite by chance about 3 years ago. I immediately noticed it is a whole new world: students were so much more engaged, they were more forthcoming with their thoughts, ideas and opinions about themselves, and I felt a palpable sense of “learning” in the air during almost every class.

    My single, longest, nagging question has begun to disappear, “How can they do a dialog perfectly at the end of today’s class, then seem back at square one the following week – over and over again – seemingly not having learned anything??”

    I look forward to following you on Twitter and hope we bump into each other some day. We ARE neighbors.


    Steven Herder

  5. Dayle says:

    Steven, thanks for your comment – it’s good to know that others also face the challenge of motivating students.

  6. Hi Dayle!

    Thank you for a bracing cuppa joe to remind me of my ALT days in rural Japan! I agree that motivating students who are basically forced to study English in order to pass tests is a huge challlenge, but not without its rewards. The point made about teaching reading and writing in an integrated fashion within a conversation course is an excellent one, too. In my language school, we ask JHS students (and up) to write short diaries, which really helps them to expand their expressions in a coherent manner. In fact, I’ve seen great improvement among my beginner-level adult students with this!

  7. Dayle says:

    Hi Sheila,

    I appreciate your idea about short diaries – I’ll introduce this to my students next week.

  8. Tyson says:

    I taught in Korea for 6 years, only one of which was to young learners. Although I detested it at that time, I think it was largely due to being at a hak-weon after school hours–kids are exhausted, which drains what little motivation they might have during the AM & PM.

    Out of curiousity, what textbook series was chosen for you?

    • Dayle says:

      Hi Tyson,

      Sorry for the extremely late reply. I just saw your question after @barbsaka linked to this post on Facebook. I feel your pain about Hagwons as, sadly, I’ve heard a lot of stories like yours.

      With regard to textbooks, I based lessons off the textbook(s) that the schools were using. Unfortunately I don’t recall the exact titles of the books as it’s been quite some time since I’ve used them.


  1. October 7, 2009

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sue Lyon-Jones. Sue Lyon-Jones said: RT @barbsaka Why teaching tweens in S. Korea is like drinking coffee after orange juice (by @daylemajor) https://bit.ly/nj3IP #beltfree #efl […]

  2. December 2, 2009

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