Waegukin - living and teaching in Korea

Why Korean teachers teach English in Korean

I can't speak KoreanAs this portrait by one of my students suggests, the rules are different for native teachers.
blue dot
Aug 31 2012

I recently read an interesting article by Sang-Keun Shin with the great title “It Cannot Be Done Alone”: The Socialization of Novice English Teachers in South Korea (abstract here, but you need a subscription or university access to read the full text).

The article looks at why young Korean English teachers, many of whom speak English very well and who have been trained in Teaching English in English (TEE, or TETE), nonetheless switch to teaching English in Korean once they get into Korean middle- and high-school classrooms.

The push to have Korean teachers teach English in English began with the revised seventh national curriculum in 2008, which emphasized learner-centered instruction, task-based lessons, and TEE. The Ministry of Education sees it as a path towards Korean teachers being able to teach without assistance from native speakers. As a native teacher in Korea, I’d previously only come across Teaching English in English in the context of foreign English teachers being phased out of Korean schools, such as in this article from the Korea Times:

“It is practically impossible to maintain the current number of assistant teachers, as the city council has already cut the budget. Moreover, the number of young Korean teachers who’ve studied abroad have increased and the certification for Teaching English in English (TEE) is now widespread, so the quality of the English classes will not drop,” said an official.

Perhaps this is why native teachers tend to be pretty hostile towards TEE. Some quotes from eslcafe.com:

“I have to laugh a bit about the TEE theory. While it’s nice – in theory, I wish I had a 1000 Won note for every time I’ve heard a KT give instructions in English that I can’t understand. Or as my KT requests of me, ‘can you check the pronounce?'”

“The younger Korean teachers do have many more among them who can use English well enough to do TEE than in the past – if they wanted to. If they had the desire to do it and the discipline to follow through —- but they don’t. Few of them do.
“The bulk of them still won’t teach English in English — especially at the high school level.”

– or perhaps its just because, by universal agreement, TEE doesn’t get implemented in classrooms. The Korean teachers may be trained in teaching in English, and their English may be good enough to actually do it. But once they get into classrooms, they teach English in Korean.

Shin’s study began with 21 new English teachers selected for their near-native English ability. Of those, three were eliminated because they said they taught in English more than 40% of the time*. *Although truthfully that doesn’t seem like very much at all, to me… 3 others were excluded for other unimportant reasons. The following table lists how long it took for the remaining 16 to give up on the idea of TEE:

korean english teachers study

What I found most interesting about the article, however, were the reasons given for not teaching English in English. Contrary to the perceptions of native teachers, it has nothing to do with it being “too hard”, or their English not being good enough. It has everything to do with school culture and the Confucian hierarchy. None of the teachers cited a lack of English proficiency as a reason.

Some of the critical incidents quoted in the article are heartbreaking. A common problem mentioned was that students were so encultured into a drill-and-memorize method of learning that they complained when their teacher tried to introduce new methods:

A few students came to see me after class and asked if we could stop doing group work. They thought the progress of the class was too slow and wondered if these activities were even relevant to the exam. (Critical incident, Hyang)

In March and April, I taught almost completely in English. In reading instruction, I focused on grasping the meaning of the text. I devised questions in English and fostered cooperative learning. Then, I heard that the students were saying that there was nothing left inside their heads after my class. And they were quoted as asking to please, please,
just make them underline words, study phrases, and memorize vocabulary.
(Critical incident, Sue)

While teaching reading, speaking, and grammar, I at least tried group work. For some reason, certain classes really did not like group work at all and asked for just lecture-based teaching. They did not want to move around and asked to stay in their seats. I was completely deflated. Now I understand why the students acted that way, but at the time it was really hard. (Interview, Hye)

Many teachers describe incidents of hostility from principals and senior teachers:

One day the senior teacher came over to my desk and told me that, after exams, students might complain if my material is different from the other classes. When she asked me, “Do you have enough time to cover the course materials?” the insinuation was “You’d better stop.”
(Critical incident, Soyoung)

Not a single teacher was practicing TETE. I realized teaching in English would be nothing less than a declaration of war, like saying “I’m different from you people” and “I’m good at English.” At first I did it surreptitiously. But the students were unenthusiastic and uneasy and I felt awkward around the other teachers. I started wondering “What have I gotten myself into?,” and could not keep it up for long.
(Interview, Mi)

During speaking instruction, I had an activity where students moved around the classroom interviewing each other. After class, the vice-principal summoned me. I was told I should teach quietly, and that other teachers’ classes had been disrupted. I was almost in tears with chagrin, being regarded as a dumb novice. (Critical incident, Eun)

This last incident strikes a chord with me, because I once saw an almost identical incident happen to my co-teacher. She was an excellent teacher, and had prepared a terrific open class which focussed briefly on revision, before getting the students to make a dialogue by filling in the blanks (controlled practice), then finishing with a twenty minute freeform  role-play where the entire class had the chance to simultaneously activate their English in a natural context. It was a perfect lesson and my CELTA teachers would have loved it – but halfway through it the principal started glowering and complained to the head teacher. I never found out why, exactly – the head teacher, a kind woman, refused to pass on the criticism – but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was for the same reasons outlined here.

Finally, a comment from one teacher about how different standards are applied to the native speakers:

Unless you’re really prepared to be a lone wolf and have very thick skin, teaching in English is difficult to do. At my school, it seems like the native-speaker English teacher is the only one who can do whatever he wants in class. Everybody thinks, “Oh, he is a native speaker, anything goes….” Sometimes I even envy him. (Interview, Minah)

That English education in Korea has a problem due to a culture of teacher-centric teaching and teaching for grammar and vocabulary-based tests is not a revelation. It is probably the single most common observation native teachers make about English education in Korea. And it usually comes with that attitude of smug superiority that I find so grating when I listen to (most) foreigners talking about Korean culture.

Instead, the thing I took away from this article was different. To me it is a reminder of something like what Liz at I’m No Picasso wrote about in one of my favourite blog posts of hers: your co-teachers have problems you don’t know about, and are also affected by the ignorance and high-handed attitudes of the school hierarchy. “They’re dealing with a lot. And I feel like we really owe it to them to be as understanding in return as we can manage. But you can’t do that without knowing and understanding all of the things they’re up against, as well as a few things they don’t always know how to explain to us properly, because they’ve never experienced our point of view.”

In short, if your co-teacher uses a lot of Korean in class, take a moment before making a snide crack about how they can’t even teach in English – the reasons may be more complex than you have imagined.

Waegukin wrote these 1405 words on August 31st, 2012 | Posted in Teaching |


10 comments on “Why Korean teachers teach English in Korean”

  1. Yule says:

    “[Students] wondered if these activities were even relevant to the exam”

    I guess that sums it up.

    The joke’s on them, of course: Real life is not an exam.

  2. Andrea says:

    So interesting to read this!
    It makes me incredibly appreciative of my main co-t who consistently teaches our classes in English for more than 80% of the time. I’ve always loved her teaching style and ability to get the kids feeling excited and comfortable to speak English. Now, I’m extra appreciative of how rare it is to have a co-t do this.
    I also feel a lot more understanding of my other co-t who teaches completely in Korean.
    There’s so much more at play here. It’s really not something we can throw a quick judgement on. I love this post ~ thanks for sharing something so informative AND helpful for bettering our understanding of working here.

  3. Christina says:

    That’s nice to know, though it doesn’t help me very much. I don’t expect them to do total immersion, just to use simple sentences such as “Turn to page 22” or “Which sentence is correct?” Just use maybe 5 routine English sentences. They tell me they’ll try but they won’t.

    No wonder the students refuse to use English. They’re just imitating the Korean co-teachers.

  4. The Waegukin says:

    If your students refuse to use English, I doubt it is because they are imitating their teachers. Or that your co-teacher using 5 routine English sentences would make any difference.

    Instead of worrying about what your co-teachers are doing or not doing, why don’t you think about what you can do to improve their confidence and verbal fluency?

    I am incredibly tired of foreign teachers in Korea who complain that their ineffectiveness as teachers is because of their co-teachers, Korean culture, or some other external factor.

  5. Christina says:

    I am always working on new ways to engage the students. It’s just extremely frustrating. I’m learning to get better behavior out of them, but I’m still not getting any English out of most of them. I’m still not getting many of them to even respond to simple instructions in English. “Open your book to Chapter 6,” while miming opening a book and pointing to the first page of Chapter 6 which is on the screen, and they still give me blank looks and the co-teacher keeps insisting that they just don’t understand.

    The impression I get is that they flat out resent English and wouldn’t use it to save their lives.

  6. The Waegukin says:

    Hmm. That really should work even if they understand absolutely no English. It does sound, as you say, that the problem is not their English ability but their motivation and engagement. Are you teaching middle school? Technical high school?

    With classes like that I’ve found the most important thing to do is to build up a critical mass of students who are listening and engaged with you on a personal level; then the tone of the class changes and the other students are forced by peer pressure to come along. I would set up a bunch of individual and pair activities that give you time to help students individually in a non-judgmental way. If they decide they respect you, they will listen to you.

    And while I don’t think co-teachers not using English is your problem, if your co-teachers are indicating by things they say or their manner that they don’t consider you a real teacher, then the students will pick up on that, and you need to address it in a polite way. Or, even better, just step up and take control of the class.

    Sorry if I was brusque before. Pet peeve.

  7. Christina says:

    >>Hmm. That really should work even if they understand absolutely no English.

    It should work, but when they play dumb the CTs often step to their defense and insist that the kids don’t understand. It’s often very difficult to tell the difference between kids who genuinely don’t understand something and kids that are playing dumb. When the CTs make excuses for the dumb-playing kids it makes it even harder.

    I teach middle school. I’ve actually had the head English teacher tell me that Koreans look on middle school students sort of as animals, no longer tractable like elementary school students and not disciplined like high school students, and that therefore the middle-school teachers just ride it out and hope for a transfer to an elementary or high school.

    >>With classes like that I’ve found the most important thing to do is to build up a critical mass of students who are listening and engaged with you on a personal level; then the tone of the class changes and the other students are forced by peer pressure to come along.

    I’ve been working on that, though it’s slow and painful. Again, distinguishing between kids with a bad attitude and kids with no skills is tough. Both kinds of kids just sit with a blank look on their faces during dictation, for example. I’d love to circulate around the room and help the low-level kids to just write one or two letters in a blank, even if they can’t write the whole word, but I get bogged down with the kids who DO know how to write but just don’t care that the low-skill kids don’t get the attention they need.

    I’ve talked to the Head English Teacher about breaking some classes into two groups — the majority who can write and the minority who are clueless — and giving the Korean CT the easy, skilled group and letting me work with the 8 – 10 lowest level students. All I get is excuses as to why it won’t work and besides, if the kids don’t care why should we?

    >>I would set up a bunch of individual and pair activities that give you time to help students individually in a non-judgmental way.

    Now on dictation day I take the last 10 minutes or so of class to have the students bring me their papers to “get your smiley face.” If the kid did the work correctly, he just gets a smiley face and a “Nice work.” If I see that the student made corrections, I put a star next to each correction and try to make a comment about how that was an excellent guess, or that it showed good listening, etc. Kids that make a slew of mistakes but correct most of them when the words are projected get the most praise, told that they are excellent students who work very hard.

    Slowly they’re learning not to fear making mistakes.

    But they still don’t actually USE English, so it’s hard to tell how much of what I say they actually understand. I’m figuring that the stars, my smile, and my tone of voice expressed being pleased with effort.

    >>And while I don’t think co-teachers not using English is your problem, if your co-teachers are indicating by things they say or their manner that they don’t consider you a real teacher, then the students will pick up on that, and you need to address it in a polite way. Or, even better, just step up and take control of the class.

    It’s in their own classes that they use zero English. To me, that sabotages the total immersion I’m aiming for in my classes by reinforcing that English is a specimen to be discected, not a language to be used. It also limits their actual English use to the 45 minutes a week they’re in my room. (35 minutes if you factor in the time they spend straggling in and dragging their butts with getting seated. Getting them to come in on time was such a losing battle that I just made PowerPoint slides with songs like “Spider Pig” and the Sponge Bob theme song with the lyrics on screen as they’re heard. That way they’re at least being exposed to English as they walk in, and I’ve seen some girls mouthing the words while the songs play.)

    >>Sorry if I was brusque before. Pet peeve.

    Meh. I was in a cranky mood and you picked up on it.

  8. Jeppuh says:

    Right on the mark. While I meet plenty of Korean English teacher that make some mistakes, I meet just as many NETs that do the same.

    And unless it is in an immersion setting, the students’ gains will likely be better having the ability to converse with the teacher in their L1 about the L2. Gaining meaning in your L1 and transferring it to your L2 is a valuable tool.

    And concerning the rote memorization and the reliance on that, it is simply the way. As NETs, we can actually use that as a strength because it is one of their strengths. That’s not to say you can’t have a little fun with it as you go, but then again the ‘funification’ of school is a slippery slope. Learning new things is not always easy.

  9. KS says:

    I spent 5 years in teacher training for TEE and know the situation well. Yes, it is true that the system is against them, but they (the new and younger generations) can do a lot to change the system and have some degree of power. Public school teachers have security and unions, which means if they believe strongly enough in an issue they can make a stand. Think about it- how did Korea become a democracy? Most teachers unfortunately love their cushy jobs and don’t want to rock the boat. Every society has corrupt old dictators, and yes Confucianism may help preserve the status quo more but change is always possible.

  10. Cory Dunt says:

    I never thought twice about my KT teaching English in Korean, and actually supported her in it due to the looks of understanding and realisation I saw on our students faces when the English concept, which was new to them, was described in Korea, which was native to them. In my ESL classes in the States, I don’t encourage immersion, as I know the students will have an easier times grasping the content if they can think about and discuss it among each other in their own language. I know I would!

Leave a Reply

Please note: if your comment is a question relating to your personal situation or a request for advice about living and teaching in Korea, please contact me directly, rather than leaving a comment here. Such questions won't be answered in comments.

Subscribe to Waegukin

If you enjoyed this, subscribe to Waegukin to get new posts, links, and commentary: