[Viewpoint]First, teach the teachers

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[Viewpoint]First, teach the teachers

Last week, the new administration indicated it had practically given up on its plan to introduce English-only classes in public schools after the controversial idea met tremendous criticism from parents and teachers.
Right after Lee Myung-bak was elected president, he proposed a radical English education reform plan. One was to have math and science taught in English.
Another plan was to require all Korean English teachers to teach only in English. Yet another idea was to hire overseas Koreans, people from abroad who hold master’s degrees and more native English speakers as teachers. The first two plans were apparently dropped due to a backlash from teachers and parents, as well as a lack of preparation. The third plan is also unlikely to be enforced, because people with high levels of English skills are reluctant to work in public schools and get paid a low salary.
I was pretty much against the idea that English must only be taught in English. I knew it would not benefit students as much as the government had expected, and it would only put tremendous pressure on the teachers and the students. Korea is not like Singapore, Hong Kong or any other country that uses English as a second or official language. Students here rarely speak English outside of classrooms; it is premature to enforce an “English-only” policy in schools. Students and teachers should be encouraged, not forced, to speak English.
As far as the cancellation of plans to offer English immersion programs goes, I felt both good and bad for the students. Having taught English for a long time, I hope the government will come up with a better way to improve Korean students’ English abilities. Students have resented the educational system in which they study English for many years and yet are unable to communicate in the language. The government should try its best to improve the curriculum and textbooks. They are outdated and not really geared to the needs of students in this era of globalization.
Based on my teaching experience, let me suggest some inexpensive but effective and realistic ways to make this happen.
According to the theory of second language acquisition, you can learn another language a lot faster when you hear your native language as little as possible. Once, I was listening to an instructor teaching a Toeic class and most of his lecture was in Korean. I was puzzled and asked myself, “Is that person teaching English or Korean?”
The same thing is happening in secondary schools right now; teachers need to speak English as much as possible. For example, instead of saying, “It’s a little cold in here, could you shut the windows?” in Korean, it would be much better to say it in English whenever necessary.
If the students hear it many times, they will be able to say it naturally. This way, students can pick up everyday conversational use of the language.
Another problem is the textbooks. They have so many mistakes and teach mainly written English. I urge the Ministry of Education to completely change all the textbooks and to hire native English-speaking experts to revise the textbooks. Bilingual educators need to collaborate with native speakers to teach students real spoken English.
Here are the problems with current English textbooks and my suggestions: First of all, students have to be taught how to pronounce English words correctly. If you mispronounce the word “beach,” it becomes a word you don’t want to say.
I have met so many students who make this mistake. “Fifteen” is commonly mistaken for “fifty.” A lot of students pronounce these two words identically.
Even a lot of English teachers feel self-conscious about their own pronunciation. If they had learned how to pronounce words correctly in secondary school, they would be doing a much better job.
Second, textbooks have to teach grammar and vocabulary for real communication, not just for reading. Throughout my teaching experience, I have rarely met students who could use the present perfect tense such as “I have been to America” and “I haven’t finished my homework.” They know this grammar rule, but when they speak, they don’t know how to use it.
When I was teaching grammar, I combined it with speaking and conversation. For example, I asked students this question: “Have you ever been to Jeju Island?” They had to answer in full sentences like “Yes, I’ve been to Jeju Island many times,” or “No, I’ve never been there, but I’d really like to go.” This conversational approach to teaching grammar works really well and should be part of school curricula.
Third, textbooks have to teach students how to say things in real-life situations. Students often say “I went to a hospital” when they mean to say, “I went to see a doctor.” They don’t know the difference between these two sentences. They are also not aware that native speakers use the word “you” to refer to people in general. For example, if I tell a student, “You need a college degree to be an English teacher,” the student might think I’m only referring to him in particular, but I could also be talking about everyone in this society. Textbooks should demonstrate how native speakers actually talk.
Fourth, high school textbooks have all the difficult topics, but they don’t really have practical and useful ones. Here are some of the topics which I think should be included: “Introducing myself: background, school, interests, future goals, etc.,” or “Describing people’s looks and personalities” and “Comparisons between Korean and American cultures.” Textbooks that demonstrate the use of language in actual situations that students face on a day-to-day basis and cross-cultural issues would be helpful.
Fifth, textbooks should teach common phrasal verbs such as “work out,” “pick up” and “hang out.” Native speakers use these verbs all the time.
Another important factor in improving students’ overall English ability is the teachers. Their roles and how they can affect students are tremendous. Unfortunately, the current college curriculum in English departments focuses mostly on literature and it is not really designed to meet the demands of the job market.
In my opinion, the educational institution that needs the most improvement right now is the university. It is where future English teachers are educated, and the quality of education in elementary, middle and high schools totally depends on them.
The curricula in English departments and English education departments should be set up to train teacher candidates to be fluent in English.
I am a bit skeptical about hiring so many additional English teachers from abroad. The reason parents prefer native speakers to teach their children is because they doubt Korean teachers’ English ability. If they are convinced that teachers educated in Korea can do an even better job than American or Canadian teachers, they will trust and respect Korean teachers more.
Surprisingly, studies show that students can benefit from bilingual teachers more in an EFL (English as a foreign language) learning environment, since they know what their students need to learn, their weaknesses and learning process. The big issue is that Korean teachers need to take their English abilities to a level where they can teach students mostly in English without assistance from native speakers. It is not impossible.

*The writer is an English instructor in Seoul with five years of experience teaching children, teenagers and adults. She can be reached at stkate27@gmail.com.

by Lee Ji-young
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