Originally published in the Gyeongbuk Secondary Living English Association journal for their 11th conference, January 2010.
In Korea, secondary schools typically utilize an approach to English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learning which I call the English Native Speaker Conversation Classroom (ENSCC). The goal of these classrooms is to supplement the school system’s already strong reading and listening comprehension curricula with an interactive class that will also teach the students to speak English. Despite English speaking not being tested on the National College Entrance Examination (대입수능시험, NCEE), schools and parents encourage the use of these classrooms and expect three things from such a program:
1. The students will get into better universities. Top Korean universities are increasingly requiring more classes, programs, and admissions procedures in English making it increasingly difficult for even a student with high marks on the NCEE to succeed.
2. The students will have more job opportunities. Especially since Korea’s economy is so tied to the global market, English speakers have more options for employment after school.
3. Students will do better on the English portion of examinations. The ENSCC should strengthen other English skills (i.e. reading and writing) allowing students to do better on examinations that test those skills.
Typically, a native speaker, if available, will teach this class in order to ensure the students experience what many Koreans assume to be error-free English.
Problems Inherent to the ENSCC
Though these are noble goals, several problems are inherent to the ENSCC. First and foremost is the lack of clearly defined objectives for the English language learning itself. Though everyone knows what the students are expected to be able to do once they acquire a facility with the target language, there is no clear definition of what facility with the language means. In other words, there is no standard for the teacher to teach towards.
A 1995 study conducted by E.B. Zechmeister et al. found that native English speaking high school graduates typically can wield a vocabulary of 12,000 words (Journal of Reading Behavior 27(2), 201-212). I can imagine that many of those words are specialized (e.g. words used in science and math) and so are not typically taught in Korean EFL classrooms. Teaching students to be able to comprehend such a vast vocabulary with 10 hours or more a week of instruction time between school and after-school academies is hard enough for Korean teachers. It is impossible for teachers to accomplish the same during one hour per week supplementary classes. Therefore, having an ill-defined objective for the ENSCC such as “We want our students to speak English,” inhibits the ability of teachers to accomplish that objective.
A second problem is that conversation typically has no contextual clues to aid understanding. This is especially true at higher levels and prevents understanding, which can eventually frustrate the language learner.
For example, If I am in a store with my Korean friend who speaks only a few words of English and I ask my Korean friend to pass me a can of tomato sauce while pointing to the can of tomato sauce, my Korean friend is able to see the can of tomato sauce which I am pointing to and give it to me. In this case, my Korean friend does not need to know any English because it is clear what I want given the contextual clues (i.e. my pointing finger and the can of tomato sauce). However, if a week later we are in the same store, but this time in the produce section and I say, “By the way, that tomato sauce last week was so delicious! I think I’d like another can,” my Korean friend, knowing only the word “tomato,” might think that I am talking about the tomatoes sitting next to us in the produce section we are in. The conversation has been taken out of context, and this creates misunderstanding. This becomes an even greater problem at higher levels when teaching abstract concepts and ideas (e.g. freedom).
For any conversation where the context is not immediately present, the parties must have a common vocabulary between them. Unfortunately, an immediate context is not always possible in the ENSCC, and so there must be a common vocabulary to carry the students through the conversation.
A third problem is the presence of multiple levels in the ENSCC. It is common wisdom that when a class is too difficult, students become frustrated and thus unwilling to learn. When a class is too easy, students become bored and are not learning anyway. Therefore, when deciding the material for a particular class it is important to strike the proper balance between too difficult and too easy. This is nearly impossible to do in a mixed-level class, however. Inevitably, the class will frustrate some students and bore others.
The final problem is the lack of incentive to learn English conversation. Though the vast majority of students would like to go to a good university, have good job opportunities, and do well on the English portion of the NCEE, all of the students are more concerned with receiving good enough scores on the NCEE so that they can go to a university and get a job. Thus, the ENSCC is often seen as either a waste of valuable time better spent studying for the NCEE or an hour long game session to just relax and have fun. This notion is strengthened by the fact that the ENSCC typically meets only once a week. The ENSCC is perceived by students, parents, school administration, and even the teachers who teach them to be, at best, a helpful but in the end unnecessary supplement to student success, at worst, a novelty or gimmick to boost the school’s prestige. To use a metaphor, whereas the standard school curriculum, designed to help the student pass the NCEE, is the student’s rice, main dish, and kimchi, the ENSCC is the student’s after-meal vitamin supplement. Usually, the student will be just fine without it.
A Helpful Method: Teaching Toward a Topic
These, at any rate, are the challenges teachers face when administrations decide to employ an ENSCC in their school. I myself have had to work with these problems for approximately two and a half years. While I have no firm solutions to them, I have developed a flexible method, which I call “Teaching Toward a Topic,” that works well-enough for my school’s purposes.
Step One: Long term goals based on specific topics. It can be for a month or it can be for a semester, but at the end of the given period the students should be able to have at least one or two basic conversations on the selected topic. For instance, if the selected topic is “Our School,” the student should probably be able to talk about their schedule, who their favorite teachers and subjects are, and what they do with their free time during lunch. Do not be too concerned with them answering at significant length. A simple statement of fact or opinion, a supporting detail or reason, and another question are what typical conversations are made up of anyway, so saying, “I like math because it is easy. How about you?” or “I am busy next period. I have biology. How about 7th period?” is adequate for our example topic. Obviously if the students are ready for “Environmentalism” as a topic, the instructor should expect more from them.
At our school, the goal is to help students pass the English portion of their college entrance interviews if they choose to graduate from high school early. Since we know what questions are typically used for these interviews, we use those questions as our topics and design our lessons around them.
Step Two: Review necessary structures; discover vocabulary. This is the instructional portion of the ENSCC lessons and units. If the ENSCC instructor and the normal curriculum instructors can coordinate well, a minimal amount of time should be spent learning new structures and vocabulary in the ENSCC. The time restriction simply does not allow enough time to make instruction in these areas feasible and the main goal of the ENSCC should be practicing already learned material.
It is important to note that, while structures are reviewed, vocabulary is discovered. This helps deal with the problem of having 12,000 vocabulary words to study. The students know which words they know, which they do not, and which they need to complete a given assignment, so it is better for the students to discover these for themselves than for the instructor to assign words to be memorized hoping they will be useful. (As a student uses the discovered vocabulary during the practice activity, other students begin to acquire the discovered vocabulary as well, see below.) To implement this strategy, the instructor uses activities with open ended prompts (e.g. interviews) and sufficient time should be allowed for students to find the vocabulary they need to answer those questions whether by asking the teacher, asking fellow students, or looking in a dictionary.
I should note that during this phase, which can take up whole class periods in longer units, I allow the students to use a significant amount of Korean. From personal experience, I know the frustration of a foreign language instructor trying to teach me the target language through the target language and wasting 20 minutes just to teach me how to say one word, when it would have been a much more efficient use of time to allow me to look in the dictionary or ask a friend for the definition of the word in the my native tongue. To my mind, English only classes are for practicing old material, not for learning new material.
Step Three: Practice, practice, practice. In step three, the students participate in some sort of structured activity or game to practice the target structures and discovered vocabulary. If possible, it will be helpful to provide a context for the activity as well to enhance understanding. As a student uses vocabulary that is unfamiliar to another student, the other student begins to learn the vocabulary through repetition and sometimes through the far less subtle means of asking a classmate, “What did he say?” I still allow some Korean to be used at this point to aid quick understanding, but the goal is to begin phasing out as much of the student’s native language as possible and replacing it with the target language.
The Internet is a great resource for activities that will allow students to practice target structures and discovered vocabulary. I often use board games borrowed from other teachers online and modify the text to my purposes.
Step Four: Test. In this stage, the instructor assesses the student’s ability to perform in the selected topic. However, the test should be non-contextual and as conversational as possible. A good example is the following activity I used for a unit on descriptions:
1. Divide the students into small groups.
2. Have each group pick one student to be the artist. This student will draw a picture while the other students describe it.
3. Ask one student from each group to come to the teacher’s lectern.
4. Show the students the picture for 5 seconds.
5. Tell them to return to their group and describe the picture to the artist without using their hands.
6. Repeat steps 3 through 5 at regular intervals until all students have participated. Use the same picture throughout.
7. Show the pictures to the class along with the original. Decide on the most accurate picture.
Since the student artist has never seen the picture, he or she has not context for the conversation. They must rely on their group members to give them an accurate description. For this, the students must have an adequate command of the target structures and vocabulary, and the students must share a common understanding of the target structures and vocabulary.
Final Thoughts on Incentive in the ENSCC
Though I have found this “Teaching Toward a Topic” method effective in dealing with three of the four stated problems inherent in the ENSCC, it does not address the key issue of incentive. How are ENSCC instructors to motivate their students to learn English conversation when there is seemingly no immediate benefit.
At our school, we have a definite incentive built into our goals; students who can pass the English interview portion of their university entrance procedures are one step closer to graduating a year early to one of the finest universities in Korea. We are fortunate to have that incentive, but other schools are not so lucky.
ENSCC instructors often turn to in-class rewards (e.g. candy, raffle tickets, etc.), but these are sometimes not enough to motivate students if they would rather study for their math examinations or even just sleep rather than spend 50 minutes speaking English for a piece of candy that they can get from a store for 100 won.
In the end, I believe that the only way to create real incentive for the ENSCC is to make it an integral part of the curriculum rather than supplementary to it. Though this is difficult to accomplish given the pressure to focus on studying for the NCEE, what follows are a few suggestions.
One way would be to include the ENSCC in the school’s internal grading and evaluation standards. In other words, students would receive grades and rankings based on class participation and performance. Students who know that their class performance will be recorded on their permanent school record are more likely to pay attention during class and to take the class seriously.
Another way would be to increase the number of times students meet with their ENSCC instructor. The usual method is to hold ENSCC classes once a week which makes it nearly impossible for the ENSCC instructor to teach effectively and for the students to learn. Instructors and students inevitably feel that their classes do not matter if the students forget all of the learned material between meetings. Meeting more than once allows the instructor to teach actual lessons and build on and review material from previous lessons.
A final, more drastic way would be to integrate the lessons into the normal reading and listening comprehension curriculum; in other words, to take a more holistic approach to language learning where each lesson includes some practice in each of the four skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Students would naturally pay attention during the speaking portion of the lesson if it were combined with the other portions that are designed specifically to aid their success on the NCEE. This may mean the elimination of the ENSCC as a model, and if implemented, there will inevitably be some concern as to what role native English speakers will play in the school curriculum. Alternatively, the ENSCC could remain as a sort of laboratory class where students apply the conversational patterns learned in a real and meaningful way. The ENSCC would remain supplemental in this case, but it would reduce the pressure of teaching the whole of English conversation in one-hour sessions once a week. Regardless, integrated the speaking curriculum into normal classroom activities would inevitably allow students to have a better grasp of the language as a whole.
Jeremiah Dost has a B.A. in history and is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. He has been the native English conversation teacher at Kyungbuk Science High School in Pohang, Gyeongsangbuk-do since August 2008. He taught previously at Pyeongchang High School in Pyeongchang, Kangwon-do for one year. He can be contacted at email@example.com.