[Letters] Is English speaking class a waste of time?

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[Letters] Is English speaking class a waste of time?

English conversation classes should no longer be necessary in Korean universities. English instruction begins in the third grade of elementary school in Korea which means that students have been studying the language for 10 years prior to entering university.

That decade of study is being wasted if universities must still use textbooks that recycle the same grammar points and conversation topics which were covered in the public school English curriculum. Are we honestly expecting university students to become fluent in one or two semesters when they couldn’t manage to do in 10 years or are we just asking them to jump through hoops for a grade? The sad reality is that many students are not able to communicate in English after high school but the blame cannot be laid on public school English teachers. They are handcuffed by insufficient contact hours and a curriculum which emphasizes grammar and memorized phrases.

However, it is the CSAT, and its lack of a speaking section that is the main culprit for Korean students’ lack of English fluency. Multiple choice tests, like the CSAT, are one of the most efficient testing methods in terms of the manpower required to assess them, but they are not an effective way to measure linguistic competence. The internet-based version of the TOEFL test utilizes an online, asynchronous speaking section but even it cannot gauge conversational fluency like a face-to-face test, such as the IELTS, where candidates sit in the same room and talk with a trained native English-speaking rater in order to be evaluated.

These are the types of tests Korea needs at the end of high school. Instituting testing which requires students to produce the language they are studying should produce a “washback effect” on the curriculum, thereby placing a new emphasis on speaking output in classes. Teaching to the test would mean actually training students to speak the language. Therefore, a massive investment in productive testing and the large number of trained, reliable evaluators it would require is what is needed to change how English is taught in Korean schools.

The time has come to stop simply talking about a change from grammar-based teaching and rote memorization of vocabulary lists in Korean public schools and, instead, start working toward a goal of real communicative competence in English by the end of high school. Incorporating a speaking section into the Korean university entrance exam is a step in the right direction, but established and more effective testing options like the IELTS already exist and are offered year round. Imagine if the budget used to develop the NEAT test was used to partially subsidize Korean high school students’ IELTS registration fee.

Regardless of which tests are used, a commitment to the major changes that are required in the way English is taught and tested will be needed from Korea’s next president. The public school English curriculum must stop recycling the same material year after year and instead build upon itself so that students can be assessed on communicative ability and those who are not proficient at each level can try again and catch up if needed. Public schools must not rely on private education to give students opportunities to speak in English.

Students need to come to university prepared to develop their skills through English instead of wasting valuable time and resources jumping through hoops. Will the Korean government respond to this challenge and use the 10 years of public school English classes to adequately prepare students to use English productively after high school?

by Tim Thompson Visiting professor at Kaist
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