[Campus commentary]Better ways to teach English

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[Campus commentary]Better ways to teach English

During the Lunar New Year holiday, my family visited my aunt’s family in Taipei, Taiwan. We stayed at her house and I had the opportunity to observe the daily life of my two cousins, Se-yi and Se-ho.
Se-yi was busy for her college entrance exam, as was Se-ho for his high school entrance exam. Their lives looked exactly like that of typical Korean students striving to make it to a good college.
But their English proficiency was definitely better than most Korean students their age. It surprised me because they only attended public school, without any language courses or private classes. It showed me what speaking- and listening-oriented English instruction, starting from elementary school, could produce.
I have been teaching English in private institutes since 2001 and have taught hundreds. Most students cared only about their grades rather than real development of their language skills.
This is totally understandable because that is exactly what the current education system expects of them. Seven years have passed since I started teaching English to students, ranging from kindergartners to office workers, but nothing much has changed except increasing demands for English classes, which pressure parents with ever larger spending on private instruction. That makes me doubt the new administration’s reform policy for public English education. A big change is definitely needed; expanding English speaking classes from the third grade to the first grade in elementary school will not be a perfect answer to stop the ever-increasing spending on private education.
A fundamental change is required, ahead of any expansion of English classes or any minor changes. The number of students in each class, averaging around 40, should be lowered. It makes no sense to start English classes earlier and to teach English more often with the current class sizes. It will only increase demand for after-class private academies since students will not get enough attention in school.
More varied educational materials are required instead of boring reading-oriented textbooks. One of my students, who just entered high school this year, said, “I would like to learn real English in school, but the teachers are only pressuring us for better test grades and teach us useless things.”
That is the current situation of the Korean public English education system, which was exactly the same when I entered high school 10 years ago.
I, myself, try to use various kinds of materials in my classes, which match the personal concerns of students. It could be anything: American movies or popular TV shows with English subtitles, popular songs by students’ favorite singers, speeches on recent issues by public figures like Barack Obama, Ban Ki-moon — anything that could draw the attention of students. My students enjoy this kind of environment more than regular school classes, and their language skills improve faster than in conventional learning environments. This comes from my seven years of experience in teaching.
I do believe that Koreans should be more proud of their native language; however, this should not be a reason to underestimate the importance of English and other foreign languages, thus depriving ourselves of opportunities in the global society.

*The writer is a dual degree student at the University of Delaware and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

by Benjamin Minsuk Kim
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