What do my students think about English?

This is a very quick post to explore some answers to a survey that I gave my students in the first week of classes this semester. It might also link nicely to the recent #keltchat, “Just who are my students anyway?

I asked my students to complete the sentences below using a Google form. 52 of them submitted answers.

  1. In the past, learning English made me feel…  because
  2. In the future, I would like to use English to…
  3. Things I do well in English are…
  4. In this class, I want to work on the following abilities:
  5. The following activities will be useful for developing my English:

Here follows a very rough analysis of the results.

1. In the past, learning English made me feel…  because

Generally positive answers: 16.

Typical statements: Lots of talk here about learning new things and enjoying learning languages. Also contact with “foreigners” and English speaking culture, mostly movies and music. A couple of students talking about how being good at English made them feel proud.

My thoughts: Nice to see that enjoying languages hasn’t been totally beaten out of them by the school system, but not a whole lot of surprise here, and about the number of positive responses that I would have expected.

Answers about feeling shy or scared: 8.

Typical statements: Two main factors here – pressure of getting good grades, and not being good at English. One poor student got railroaded into a fairytale narration competition by their elementary school teacher and clearly still resents it. I don’t blame them.

My thoughts: Perhaps a lower number than I’d expect, and surprisingly no mention of fear of talking to foreigners.

Negative reactions (anger, frustration): 15.

Typical statements: Lots of talk about memorization here, presumably of the never-ending-vocab list kind. Also lots of mentions of the complexity of English (a four-dimensional language according to one respondent).

My thoughts: I wonder if anyone ever gives any of these kids any support in memorizing words, or techniques to help them memorize them?

Apathetic reactions (boredom, tiredness): 13.

Typical statements: Boredom seems mostly to come from students not understanding. Only one mention of boring teaching.

My thoughts: I don’t blame you at all, and a good message to me not to talk too much or at too high a level.


2. In the future, I would like to use English to…

First answers*

  • Talk with foreigners or people from other countries**: 24
  • Travel: 10
  • Work: 10
  • Cultural things (reading, watching movies): 5
  • Teaching others: 2
  • Studying: 1

My thoughts: Very interesting that answers are predominantly about social and leisure activities rather than more self developmental pursuits (studying and working). This would seem to indicate that my students have a good deal of curiosity about the world and its people, which is really healthy. However, I wonder what effect my presence has on these answers, and whether they would be the same with a Korean teacher. It might also be interesting that testing and test scores never make an appearance.

* Some students gave more than one answer, but I took the first as being the most important and only included that.

** Very few students specified “native English speakers” or “Americans” here.


3. Things I do well in English are…

First answers

  • Listening: 14
  • Reading: 12
  • Speaking: 9
  • Writing: 6
  • Nothing: 2
  • Others (vocab, interest, presentation): 9

My thoughts: Once again my students are confounding my expectations. I would neither have expected listening to outrank reading, nor speaking to score so highly. The students who said speaking tended to say they enjoyed conversation with foreigners (and had had some experience of it), and also that they were not very worried about grammar or accuracy when they were speaking. I would guess that this doesn’t fit most people’s profile of a typical Korean student. I wonder what this means, if anything, for my classes. Another thing that I wonder here is whether these answers would be the same had I surveyed the first groups I taught three years ago.


4. In this class, I want to work on the following abilities:

First answers

  • Speaking: 27 (plus 2 for “communication” and 1 for “pronunciation” which might take it to 30) .
  • Writing: 4
  • Listening: 4
  • Confidence: 4
  • Presentation skills: 4
  • Grammar: 3
  • Reading: 1
  • Vocabulary: 1
  • Weak points and error correction: 1

My thoughts: Not a huge amount of surprise here. I think almost all students recognise that their speaking skills may lag behind others as a result of well documented problems with Korea’s English education and its focus on (obsession with?) receptive skills and formal knowledge. This gives me a lot of confidence that a strong focus on speaking is both necessary and wanted in class, and I feel that the desire to speak is there if tapped in the right way. I’m coming to this data a few weeks into the course and I would say that it’s well reflected in the students’ participation so far.


5. The following activities will be useful for developing my English:

First answers

  • Speaking / Conversation: 29
  • Watching videos: 7
  • Listening: 2
  • Games: 2
  • Other*: 12

My thoughts: Again, not surprising but a very positive base for making my classes strongly conversation driven. More interesting is the popularity of video. The cynical part of me wonders if this is students making a play for some nice easy movie watching time in class. The more positive part sees students wanting to connect with culture and authentic materials. I’d be quite interested in some kind of extensive watching program, but sadly I don’t have the time in class to make it work. I’m also heartened by only two students saying “Games”. I sometimes wonder if students get conditioned to games as almost the only way to learn English by their school and hagwon experiences where games are an excellent way to encourage participation**, but this is clearly not the case. I’m pretty anti-games in my current context, so it’s good to know that I’m not crushing student expectations!

* Quite a lot of students seemed not to understand this question.

** I’m not suggesting here that games are a bad thing, or that teachers shouldn’t use them. I have certainly made extensive use of games in other contexts, and believe they can be extremely effective tools for learning. 

Final thoughts

Overall this was quite an interesting experience, especially the questions about students’ ambitions and views of what they do well. I think if anything it shows that freshmen university students may well have had a high degree of contact with English outside of the school system, and in fact do view it as a practical language for social and leisure purposes, rather than just something to study to pass an endless slog of tests. This is an assumption that I am very much guilty of. I’m not quite sure what effect all of this will have on my class yet, but I’ll try to come back to this post before next semester and try to view my next intake of students with fresh eyes.

TBVGBTS: Listening in a second language class

This is another post in a series of posts stemming from my experience taking a Korean class at a university in Seoul. Other posts about the class, which might help with the background, are linked at the bottom of this post. This time I want to share some of my experiences with listening to recorded materials (ie. coursebook listening materials, not teacher talk or other students) as part of a wider discussion of the role of listening materials in the classroom.

The first thing to say is that listening to recorded materials requires an awful lot of attention, especially if the book that they are drawn from is pitched at a higher level than the students can comfortably handle, as ours was. As a teacher and a student, I believe that listening is by the far most difficult skill involved in language learning, but I think that impression may well partly come from the way we deal with listening in the classroom. Note that I’m deliberately avoiding saying “teaching” here, because this course went a long way to confirming what I’ve suspected for a while: that “teaching” listening is more or less impossible, and my experience of listening to recorded materials on this course might have helped me to understand a bit better why this is so.

The problem is that, if Skehan’s limited attention hypothesis is to be believed, we have a limited amount of brain power to devote to whatever we are doing.  If this happens to be listening to L2 speech above a level that we can comfortably understand, more or less all of our attention is going to be directed at trying to make sense of it. By way of illustration, at times during listening activities I found it helpful to close my eyes and listen; blocking out visual signals seemingly freed up a bit more processing power for decoding audial ones.

So how do we help students to process difficult listenings? The textbook way seems to be to use “listening strategies” (take a look on this page and see if you can find out what even one of the oft referred to “listening strategies” is), or “metacognitive strategies”. The problem for me is that even metacognitive strategies demand cognitive resources, and these, as we’ve seen above, aren’t readily available during difficult listenings. “Then the listening’s clearly too difficult,” I hear you chirp. Well, yes, but if it was easier then we wouldn’t need all these strategies in the first place – we’d just understand it.

I’d also suggest that pre- and post-listening tasks surely are a function more of the contextless nature of listening on English courses rather than anything you’d actually need to do in the real world. “Ah! Here is a picture of a goat in my textbook. I hence predict that I may hear information pertaining to horn configuration, or an anecdote about one of the greedy buggers eating the sleeve of a favourite jumper.” (Goodness, I should write a listening textbook – it’d be amazing!). In the non-textbook world this kind of schema activation is pretty much unnecessary because all of the context is already provided: if you’re listening to something in the real world, you most likely know what it is and what you expect to hear anyway. It’s only when you completely decontextualise a listening, as well as removing all of the visual support that the real world would offer, that you have to spend minutes of valuable class time getting students to reconstruct it before they listen (for a textbook writer’s point of view on this, see @pterolaur’s post here).

All of this ridiculousness might stem from two sources. Firstly, the need for coursebooks to provide listenings as part of a “four skills approach” or a “balanced curriculum”, or whatever.  Fair enough, I suppose, though I’d suggest that in a decently communicative class students will get a lot more useful audial input from fellow students and the teacher, especially with activities like live listenings, which might also be more efficient due to less contextualization, as well as not being contrived to sledgehammer home some arbitrary language point. Secondly, I think teachers feel a certain pressure to “teach”. You have to be seen to be doing something more than just pressing play and saying “listen to this and see if you understand it”. This leads to the kind of teaching that I experienced on the Korean course: teachers getting us to listen for how many points are made in a listening, when it’s pretty obvious even from prosodic cues like pausing and intonation where one point stops and another begins. This is not what I need to know from a listening; I need to know what the content of those points is, and that is a far more difficult proposition. I think it’s also worth saying that listening pieces vary so much in their structures (compared to writing) that, outside of very specific examples, it’s not really worth teaching structure either.

So what do I need from teachers as a second language listener? I see a lot of advice about getting listeners to accept less than 100% understanding. This seems fine, but teachers have to accept that below a certain percentage of words understood (and this will be high number, I’d say at least 80 and more likely above 90), all but the most rudimentary of listening for gist or very specific information activities will be extremely difficult. Furthermore, understanding below this level would more or less rule out any of the input becoming uptake, not that I think that listenings really provide much in this area anyway due to real-time processing making it near impossible to focus much on form.

What might be useful is if teachers could train students to listen in a different way to the L2 than they do in an L1. I’m in the realm of hypothesizing here, but listening to recorded materials reminded me of a really  interesting listening activity from my MA studies. It featured a man talking about a journey (in English), but only at the end did it become clear that he was recounting a time that he was ripped off by a taxi driver. The purpose of the activity was to show how when we listen we automatically construct and update mental representations and hypotheses based on what we are hearing as well as past experience. However, when listening in an L2, this process is fragile and subject to breaking down because there’s not enough understandable input, or because the listener suddenly encounters a word or run of words that are not understood, and so the updating becomes impossible, and the mental representation stalls or breaks down. The disorientation caused by a run of unknown sounds should not be underestimated, and so helping students to reorient themselves after losing the thread of understanding could be an important strategy for learners. It doesn’t, however, seem eminently teachable.

More sensible teaching approaches link clearly to features of pronunciation (Rachael Roberts has a great example in the video in this post) and I could possibly see a role for the learning of common lexical chunks or discourse markers in this vein too. One time I remember my understanding in Korean breaking down was when someone talked about an “angular chin”, a phrase I’d just been taught but hadn’t really internalized the pronunciation of yet, and I discovered this in a second playing of listening at slower speed.

The teachers’ approach to listening on my course seemed to be to play the listening at full speed once, look at our puzzled expressions, and then play it again at reduced speed, sometimes while translating it into more simple Korean for us. My jury is still out on the effectiveness of this because even though I understand much more when the listening is slowed down, I feel like it’s still too ephemeral for any kind of concious learning, though I do wonder if it might be used to develop a kind of listening fluency. What I would have liked, but never got time for, was some time after the listening to read a tapescript, look at the parts that I didn’t understand, and try to figure out why I didn’t understand them. This would have at least led to greater satisfaction, but perhaps few generalizable gains.

It’s difficult for me to see past massive amounts of audial input as the principal development driver for listening skills, and therefore this has been a bit of a depressing post to write, because I want to actively help my students to listen better. There are some interesting suggestions in John Field’s presentation here, though as outlined above I’m not totally sold on the idea that basing teaching on L1 listening strategies is entirely helpful. One example might be listening for the stressed words in an utterance (nuclear stress). It strikes me that there’s a lot of information contained in weak forms: I clearly remember a listening from the course that featured a man and a woman discussing their personality traits. I got all of the traits, but missed most of the pronouns, so had no idea who had which trait. This was all in Korean, which I don’t believe has such clearly marked nuclear stress (though I may be wrong), but it struck me that a lot of the information that I needed would possibly hidden in unstressed syllables and weak forms in native English. One real positive of Field’s presentation however is the recognition that any listening strategies or processes that we teach need to be repeated to the point where they become automatic, for reasons of limited cognitive resources given above.

Listening to Korean during the course has changed the way I think about listening in my classes as a teacher. I didn’t use textbook listenings that much before, but I might well think about banishing them entirely from the room and relying on my own voice, the students’ voices and anyone else that I can rope in to provide input. I’m hoping it might be sufficiently contextualized by what we are doing in class to to skip pre-listening tasks. Post-listening tasks might involve summarizing or analyzing a tapescript, but really, would it be so wrong just to sit students down and ask them to listen?

Links to to other posts about this Korean course

TBVGBTS: Presentations for learning

I recently took a three week intensive Korean course at a university in Seoul. As part of the class, I had to make two presentations in Korean: a five minute presentation in which I introduced and described a Korean person I had met, and a fifteen minute presentation on some aspect of Korea that I had researched. Both presentations counted towards my overall speaking grade on the course. The English course that I teach each semester also asks students to make two assessed presentations of 3 and 5 minutes, so in this post I want to explore my own foreign language presenting experience and the insights into teaching that I gained from it.

What use are presentations?

The impression that I get from my students is that while they don’t look forward to or enjoy presentations, they do see them as a useful and valid task for assessing and improving their English. My view as a teacher is that presentation skills (in any language) are generally pretty important in life, but that as a language learning tool they may be of less use to my students, who I see as needing much more practice in the extemporaneous speaking department. As a student, I was less than thrilled to see them on the syllabus because a) I was terrified and b) presentations seem to require an inordinate amount of work on a course where the workload was already fairly high. However, I certainly gained several things from my presenting experience.

Firstly, one of the things that I don’t pay a great deal of attention to when teaching presentations is the need to use an appropriate register. Teaching time is short; English register is relatively elusive. In Korean, things are a little clearer: presentations are given using the highest deferential verb endings, and so it is much easier to move your your speech to a very formal register.  This was the one piece of advice we were given pre-presentation, and the presentation was the first time I have ever needed to use that register in a serious way, which was excellent practice.

For the longer presentation, I actually tried to give a proper research presentation, so I created a quick survey comparing Korean and non-Korean beliefs about non-Koreans’ lives in Korea and tried to analyse the results. This was a really useful experience because I could foresee a point in the future where I might have to do this for real. This might be something to think about for my own teaching, where the presentation tasks are much less “real-life” – although how I could make them more so remains a bit of a mystery at present. One reason for making things as realistic as possible is that I felt like I retained phrases like “qualitative analysis”, “objective viewpoint” and “on the other hand” fairly well without having to work very hard on memorizing them specifically.

Planning and preparing

It seems fairly well documented in research into TBLT that pre-task planning time often leads to gains in accuracy, complexity and fluency during the task. This is something that I generally try to leverage during classroom activities, though usually in the form of thinking rather than planning time. Both presentations during the course required me to write and submit a script for correction (no mean feat for a fifteen minute presentation!), and it struck me that this is essentially planning time for an oral task taken to the extreme.

Planning in this way has both advantages and disadvantages. Writing a script definitely increases the complexity of my sentences as well as giving me the chance to think about what “feels” more Korean, rather than just saying the first thing that comes to mind to get my point across. It also gave a useful space for experimenting with and incorporating some of the structures that we had come across that were more suitable for formal contexts. All good so far then, but all of the above then introduce the very real possibility of planning a speech that is much more complex than you’re really capable of memorising or delivering with any fluency. The other surprising aspect that struck me was that having written a script, there suddenly occurred a very pressing need to stick to the bloody thing! This generally doesn’t happen to me when presenting in English, where I’m quite happy to dive away from what I had prepared, but in Korean led to the creation of note cards so detailed that they may as well have been a script. I’m honestly not sure how this affected my overall presentation, but it leaves me pondering things for my own teaching.

I tend to go back and forward between recommending scripting and not scripting for my students. Half of me thinks that creating a presentation from speaking with just notes to guide to gives you a better chance of natural delivery and remembering what to say. On the other hand, I feel like writing a script might benefit clarity and complexity. In the future I’m tempted to outline both approaches and let students decide as to a large extent I think it’s going to depend on what makes you feel more confident as a presenter and what you want out of the presentation.

Affective factors

I referred to confidence (or lack of it) above, and this is just one of a whole range of affective factors involved in presenting. Of my first language presenting experiences, I’d say, to paraphrase a quote of dubious origin, that I prefer having presented to presenting, but in a second language the face-threatening pitfalls are more numerous: memory blanks, worrying about extemporizing and the lack of strategies to talk your way out of problems being the worst of these. Interestingly, the prospect of making grammatical mistakes is among the least of my worries. In other words, it’s the lack of control of potentially embarrassing situations that bothers me, rather than any linguistic deficiency.

Another interesting affective factor was the strange sense of security that using a more formal register of Korean gave me. I have two theories as to why this might be so. Firstly, it may be seeking the approval of the audience (well, the teacher at least): I know I am getting roughly the right register if I am adding the right verb endings, and at the very least I am seen to be making an effort to respect the sociocultural values of the classroom and the target language. Again, I have some control over how I present myself, which makes me feel better. The second theory is that formality breeds distance; we are more polite with strangers than we are with friends, and I wonder if it is the distancing aspect of using a formal register that helps me to feel kind of detached and professional. I certainly find myself channelling every suited and booted, clicker wielding speaker I’ve ever seen give a straight-laced and uptight speech in Korean when giving my presentation.

Again, it might be helpful at this point to try to bring this back to my classroom, and how I can help students feel more confident. Clearly, if I feel the pressure of register given my limited contact with Korean, my L1 Korean students are likely to feel it all the more. Incidentally, I have had students ask me on more than one occasion how to use the equivalent of Korean high speech in English. I tend to fudge an answer, but the simple thing to do here when teaching presentation skills might be to point out that English has no solidly defined higher register, and that presentations are often given in a much more colloquial style anyway. It could be worth looking at general tendencies such as pronouncing every word (“going to”, not “gonna”), and also key phrases with politeness embedded (“Please take a look at…”).

Nonetheless, from my presenting experience, the best way to tackle teaching register might simply be through a process of trial and error. My second presentation went way over time, and I had to run through the final few slides completely off script. This required the use of quite a few communication strategies to buy some thinking time and signal that I was summarizing, one of which was (over)using the Korean word 그냥 (Geunyang, “Just”). The feedback afterwards was that this was where I’d departed from the formal register. The lesson here perhaps is it’s very difficult to predict what elements of a complex performance might come off as in the wrong register until you see an actual performance. The key thing here is to make sure that the feedback comes as part of the process, not at the end. It really annoyed me that I used a lot of lower register connectors ((이)랑, Korean fans) rather than higher (와,과). I had no idea, and to my further frustration a classmate confessed that she had incorporated that feedback into her presentation directly after mine (“That’s my feedback! You can’t use it!”).


All in all my presenting experience was considerably less terrifying than I thought it would be. It helped that I was familiar with the audience and the surroundings, and that I got to present twice (the second time was much better). In terms of what I learned in terms of teaching, I would aim for more options of how to prepare (though reading should still be heavily penalized), as well as a good practice stage with useful feedback. I should also try to ease student concerns about register as well as teaching a few more stock phrases, and perhaps some strategies for what to do if it all goes wrong. Presenting in a second language is rarely going to be easy, but this way it could be a bit less stressful for everyone.

TBVGBTS: Teaching Grammar/Lexical Chunks

A word of warning: if you’re looking for clear and definite answers about whether we should teach discrete items of grammar and/or lexis in this post – or anywhere for that matter – I both fear for your sanity, and suspect you will be disappointed. However, if you’re interested in a few anecdotal experiences from the Korean class I took recently (see below for links to other posts), read on.

Let’s first be clear about what we’re discussing here. It’s been pointed out, quite rightly in my opinion, that the line between grammar (more often than not meaning verb morphology) and lexis (meaning words and phrases) is a thin and blurry one. The theory goes that when teaching polite offers, it is probably easier to define the underlined part “Would you like to go to dinner with me?” as a whole chunk of language, rather than breaking it down into a modal plus a main verb with infinitive complement (if those are even the right terms). However it is defined and taught though, this is what I want to discuss in this post: a pre-selected, discrete item  presented for learning by the teacher or the syllabus, the kind of which makes up the majority of general English courses. For the moment I’m going to leave aside single words and very short phrases – those are for a future post.

My Korean course seemed to be organised around topic and text; judging by the somewhat scattergun approach, discrete items seemed to be selected based on their appearance in the texts rather than any linguistic developmental theories. Items were presented in the book as a kind of gloss below the reading with a formula (interestingly using English word classes – something like “N을 통해” /”Through [noun]”) and a couple of example sentences in Korean, which I often found fairly unhelpful is ascertaining the function of the item.

If the items were selected on the basis of appearance in texts, there would seem to be one major disadvantage: items will tend to appear more in writing than speaking. In a general course this leads to a serious imbalance between written and spoken registers, and for a learner like me who is much more focused on speaking, there is an inevitable switching off when the teacher says “written grammar”, leading to a serious lack of will to try to use it, not to mention a similar lack of opportunity. However, I do notice one of my classmates trying to use this grammar in speech, and I presume she is doing it for practice purposes and not because she doesn’t realise, and I wonder how helpful this might be.

One thing that I found unhelpful with the presentation of grammar functions was when they were presented in terms of a simpler function. Female teacher was very fond of presenting items like this: “you can say this easily as [something that we already know]”. She’s trying to be helpful and connect us to existing knowledge, but at this point my brain says something like: “if I can say it easily like that, why should I bother to learn to say it in a more difficult way?” (Wait, I’m just a rubbish language learner, aren’t I?) Maybe not, because for me there needs to be a comparison between the simple form and the complex form and their subtle differences, but this is not forthcoming. I will refrain from being too critical of the teacher here though, as I can think of times where I have done similar, for example presenting three different ways of expressing the same function at the same time, without pointing out how they might be different or considering that learning one might be enough for that class.

The teaching of grammar and chunks on my course could best be described as PP (the P that’s missing is produce), but there’s not even much presentation going on. Female teacher (sorry to keep picking on you, but you were the worst offender here) vaguely directs our attention to the example sentences and expects us to guess from context, but I am frequently unaware of the fact that I was even supposed to be looking in the first place. Even if I was, two example sentences with no explanation is simply not enough to grasp the concept, especially when there may be unknown vocabulary in those sentences, and the sentences are essentially decontextualised anyway (with hindsight, I realise I could just have looked back at the text to see the sentence in context, but it didn’t occur to me at the time). The result of all this is that while I’m still trying to grasp the basic meaning of the sentence, the class has moved on to the controlled practice stage.

Practice is facilitated by the workbook. We are given parts of sentences, and sometimes have to complete a matching exercise to establish the semantics. Then the task is to write out the sentence including the language item we are practising. Except it isn’t, because every teacher asks us to speak our answers immediately. Now, I like to think I’m ok at grammatical manipulation, but when the presentation stage has left me with such a thin grasp of the concept, this seems rather unfair, and I wish for some time to sit down and figure out quietly just what is going on. A further grievance is that of the half-personalisation that forces you to start a sentence that you really don’t want to complete. To return to my previously published diary extract:

“There’s a horrible moment where as a personalization thing I have to create an example of the difference between Korean and English girls. I struggle for something inoffensive, fail and settle for a fat/thin distinction. The girl opposite me sighs.”

Again, I can remember more than one occasion where I have asked students to do an exercise first orally, and I’m sure I’ve set similar half-personalisation exercises too. In future I’m at least going to consider the difficulty and newness of an item while deciding how best it might be practised, and also give students the opportunity to change or completely rewrite practice sentences.

It’s after the controlled practice stage that the teaching process ends. Just like that. This is partly because there are three or four short grammar points to cover from each unit, and so we rush on to the next one in order to fit them all in. On reflection, I don’t think the grammar was that important to the course designer; it’s only there to facilitate understanding of the texts. Ironically, I have often not even noticed the grammar/chunk when reading the text and have instead just skipped over it. This might explain some of my lack of interest in the grammar we are being taught – it doesn’t have enough semantic or functional weight to be worth learning. Here, I think, I’ve come to the point. There is very little recognition that the language that we are being taught could or will ever be used to do anything, nor that production of a feature is in any way important for understanding it or incorporating it into my Korean. This is partly the fault of the book, but some blame must also lie with the teachers. All the things that I might associate with this kind of language work –  goals, planning time, feedback, contextualized examples – are missing. In short, there is no teaching.

It is no surprise, then, that I can’t think of a single discrete item that we were taught on the course that has subsequently appeared in my spoken Korean. However, I have found myself using several features that I encountered in reading and listening texts; features that I was previously dimly aware of. Perhaps this tells us that language acquisition is a gradual process of becoming aware, noticing and finally using. Maybe the production stage of a PPP lesson and its various equivalents are superfluous. Still, I would like to have been given the opportunity to find out; I feel strangely cheated by not getting the chance to experience a single lesson with a grammar focus and clear output goals, even though I don’t believe that’s a particularly effective way of teaching.

I want to finish with a note on my teachers, who I have been fairly critical of in this post. All of them seemed to me to be to be friendly, patient, enthusiastic and wholehearted people with excellent content knowledge, and I was very happy to be taught by them. I am very much unaware of the forces in operation outside the classroom such as time or institutional pressure. I’m also aware that I see the classroom very much through Western eyes and there are all kinds of lurking prejudices that colour my perceptions. Thus, I hope you read this post in the spirit of honest enquiry, and I will leave you with some questions to ponder.

  • Is teaching like this enjoyable for the teacher? (How) do they think they are helping the students?
  • How representative is my classroom of other language teaching contexts in Korea? I am thinking in particular of English taught in schools.
  • I know that two of these teachers have MAs in foreign language teaching. I presume that they must have come across communicative approaches, PPP and the like? What stops this filtering into their practice?
  • Am I just being unnecessarily critical here?



Links to to other posts about this Korean course

TBVGBTS: A quick course overview


If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you have read my previous two posts here and here, and I hope you might continue to read future posts about my Korean class. The aim of this post is to contextualize everything that is to come by providing some background on the class, the students, the materials and anything else that might be useful in understanding what happened. I’m sticking to description here, and avoiding giving too many details of the institution*, the teachers or my fellow students. The juicy analysis is coming in later posts.


I took a three week course which was billed as “intensive” at a university in Seoul. The class met for four hours a day from 9am until 1pm every weekday, for a total of 60 hours of instruction. This was delivered in blocks of 50 minutes, with 3 breaks of 10 or 20 minutes between. Teachers were pretty exact in keeping to break times. There were also 5 short writing homeworks, as well as 2 longer presentation scripts to write outside of class time. We were also expected to learn the day’s vocabulary (generally 30 to 60 words, at least 50% of which were new to me)  after each class in preparation for a quiz the following morning.


Interestingly, the course is taught by three different teachers. All are native speakers of Korean, and I believe that all majored in Korean at university. On Monday we are taught by an older male teacher, who I’ll call “older male teacher”; on Tuesday and Wednesday we have a female teacher, who I’ll call “female teacher”, and on Thursday and Friday it’s a younger male teacher who I’ll call… well, you get the idea. The reason given for the mix of teachers is that men’s and women’s speech styles in Korean are very different and so it’s helpful to have exposure to both.

All the teachers seem to be experienced and qualified. All sound like they have been at the university for at least five years. The two male teachers have MAs in foreign language teaching (female teacher doesn’t say), and all hint that they speak at least one other foreign language. Classes are conducted entirely in Korean, save for the odd English word or Chinese character. Students are also expected to speak only Korean, and this is largely adhered to.


I am placed in level 5 of the course (the highest level), presumably by virtue of scoring highly on a pre-course level test of grammar, reading and writing. This seems about right for me in comparison to my classmates’ abilities and the materials (just about!). There are only five people in my class, and I am the oldest and the only male. The four others are another western English teacher, a western undergraduate student on vacation, an East Asian post-grad exchange student, and an East Asian lady who is married to a Korean and lives here.


Our classroom is quite plain. There is a world map on the wall, but not much else. There is a projector hooked up to the computer, which teachers use every day. They also use the whiteboard, but less so than the computer. One thing I notice is that things written on the whiteboard are often deleted quite quickly, rather than being left there. Desks are on wheels, and so younger male teacher rearranges us into two rows facing each other, and side on to him. This is the shape that we stay in for the duration of the course. We tend to sit in the same places, expect when I move from back left to front right because, one, I suspect it’s causing the pain in one side of my back (it isn’t) and two, because I keep falling asleep. This is a function of our classroom being too cold without the heating, and too hot with it. There seems to be no happy medium.

The shape of a class

The teacher comes in at nine every day and starts the first of four sessions. Invariably they greet us, and often ask us what we did the previous evening. After a quick chat, it’s vocabulary quiz time. Quizzes are all of the definition matching and gap fill variety, and usually include a couple of questions about the day before yesterday’s vocabulary too. With this done, the teacher introduces the day’s topic, either by explanation, a teacher led discussion or a powerpoint presentation. Our textbook includes a “talk about these pictures” kind of activity for introducing the topic, but this is never used. The rest of the 50 minute session is taken up with vocabulary work: teachers generally explain key terms and nuance either verbally or using Powerpoint. Female teacher often leads us through a listen and repeat of all of the vocabulary for that day. Generally the section finished with a vocabulary exercise (usually definition matching) and a short listening.

The second section is based around a reading passage. Teachers use different strategies for teaching reading. Older male teacher tries to get us to notice structure, female teacher likes to pre-teach vocabulary and then let us get on with it, and younger male teacher shows us cartoons of a couple of the stories before we read, then takes us through the reading line by line. In the book, comprehension questions follow the text. The male teachers largely ignore these; female teacher has us do them as pair work.

Session three is mostly be finishing off the reading and working on grammar. Again, there’s varying degrees of presentation (book, Powerpoint, board) and explanation (register, similar points), and then some basic manipulation exercises in the workbook. We are usually asked to do these out loud, and there is little time to write the answers. There is nothing that would equate to a “free practice” stage of a PPP lesson.

The final session includes listening and discussion. Discussions are usually teacher led, with the teacher asking questions to each student in turn and requiring answers out loud. However, on occasions discussion takes the form of a kind of round-table meeting. Here the teacher participates and is still heavily involved in the discussion. There is little feedback on errors, though teachers help us to phrase something if we are having difficulty and are happy to answer questions. The class usually finishes with a longer listening (around 2-3 minutes, I’d guess). There is rarely much of a pre-listening stage – we generally go straight into it. After we listen once the teacher usually comments that it’s very difficult, and plays it again with reduced speed and pauses. Again, there are comprehension questions to follow. Older male teacher tends to tell us the answers, younger male asks us the answers, and female teacher has us ask each other in pairs. This usually marks the end of class.


The class uses a textbook that was written by the institution. It has 6 chapters based around a general theme (people, work, education) and each chapter is comprised of 3 units of 8 pages. The first two pages of a unit cover vocabulary and discussion, the second two reading, the third speaking and listening and the final two writing. There is also a workbook that provides written practice of vocabulary and grammar. One of the things I really like about the book is that it has a glossary for each unit with the vocabulary words presented with an English translation, their Chinese characters (no use to me, but good for others in my class), and a definition and example sentence in Korean. It also has tapescripts in the back, which is really useful as the listenings are really difficult to understand.


In order to get the certificate of completion, students are required to pass assessments in reading, writing, speaking and listening. We have a daily vocabulary quiz (possibly included in reading score – actually I’m not sure), two formal presentations (speaking), five writing homeworks, and then at the end reading, listening and writing exams. Reading and listening exams are comprehension based multiple choice exams. The speaking exam consists of a semi-prepared five minute speech followed by five minutes of questions from classmates.


There’s not really much to conclude here, but I hope that this post will serve as a useful reference for forthcoming posts.



* I am a little twitchy about Korean libel laws, which seem to be both strict and nonsensical (that’s a bit libellous in itself!), hence the non-disclosure. If you’re interested in where I studied, feel free to drop me a private message.

TBV goes back to school: Selected diary extracts


This post is intended both as a preview of some upcoming posts for the 2.4 people who are waiting for news of my recently finished Korean language class, and also a way of reviewing my notes from the whole experience in preparation for writing more detailed posts. During the course I was reasonably diligent about writing for 30 minutes a day about things that I noticed in class and how I thought I was progressing. The extracts below are from those writings, and might give you an idea of some of my raw reactions to the course. Apologies for any unpolished language, shouting and insensitivity that may occur.

Day one:

“It strikes me on the way in that language classes are MENTAL! You can forget as a teacher that gathering in a place to speak in another language is a fairly extraordinary thing to do, and learners often don’t have a clue how they are supposed to behave in this context. When I get to my classroom, there are two girls sat in the dark. I smile and issue a greeting in two languages, which gets little response. Silence and awkwardness descends, probably because nobody knows what language to speak. We are well outside our comfort zones before the teacher even enters the room.”

“One thing I note is that there is no effort at all to create a sense of a group, and no talking to each other initiated by the teacher, though thankfully at least four of us manage to get some chatting done in Korean and get to know each other a little. This to me is a big negative and maybe something that Korean teachers don’t consider so much in class?”
“Oh yeah. Paying 26,000 won more for a textbook when I’ve already paid 700,000 won for the course? Piss off.”
Day two:
“I feel like someone has tried to make Foie Gras by stuffing my brain so full of stuff that it explodes.”
“We quickly got sidetracked onto a discussion about whether nose shape was as important to Japanese people as Koreans (it isn’t). There wasn’t any feedback or sense that the teacher was listening. In fact, she went out of the room for a time.”
Day three:
“I’m feeling quite humble today. One thing you are maybe not aware of in class is quite the level of confusion amongst your students. Perhaps it doesn’t happen to you, but if it does are you wont to blame the students for not doing paying enough attention or not checking with you? I have been guilty of this in the past, but no more! This morning everyone turned up with different versions of what we were supposed to have done and we had to check with the teacher exactly what we were supposed to have done. We were almost all wrong too!”
“I’m finding myself becoming more and more of a fan of ICQs, just because they’d give us a chance to go over what was said one more time. Even asking “Do you understand?” would be a nice chance to say ‘no’.”
Day six:
“The teacher explains all of the vocabulary first, and then asks us to read aloud, filling in the blanks on the hoof. This is near impossible and really annoying, especially as I’m discovering that reading aloud focuses all of my energy on making the sounds rather than understanding the words and therefore is not helpful at all. I wonder if reading a phonetic and non- phonetic language aloud is a different cognitive process?”
“The whole segment is basically a disaster for me. The teacher assumes I will know words like 특징 (point of difference), which I don’t, and I spend the whole time struggling to stay afloat. I imagine the same is true for others, but the teacher never stops to find out. Once we’re through the reading, there are some comprehension questions that he asks and then answers straight away. At very few points are we left alone to read or think in peace.”
“Then again, I’m yet to experience a lesson structured around a clear target, at least one based on spoken output.”
Day seven:
“One thing that’s bothering me today is the sheer burden of the vocab learning on this course. Every day we are given 30 to 40 vocabulary words to learn, most of which are new (to me at least), and every day we are tested on them. The effort to get all of those into my memory is severely affecting the amount of work that I can put into other areas of language learning such as re-reading or pronuciation and it feels limiting. It’s bad enough having to get up at 6 am without having to study all of the way to school too.”
Day eight:
“We do some listening, and she breaks us into groups to discuss the answers. This is difficult because the people I worked with didn’t really say much. We fudge with the tapescript until the teacher tells us the answers. We then listen one more time with the teacher repeating. This is helpful in terms of making sense, but I would surely like to work a bit harder on the things that I didn’t know or didn’t hear.”
“There’s a horrible moment where as a personalization thing I have to create an example of the difference between Korean and English girls. I struggle for something inoffensive, fail and settle for a fat/ thin distinction. The girl opposite me sighs.”
Day nine:
“I would say that the big improvement has been in using Korean for the purposes of being a member of my class. I’m feeling noticeably more confident about speaking in public and using the respectful style and honorifics to other class members, even if I’m the oldest and these could generally be skipped. The confidence though could easily be ascribed to a getting used to new environs as to any meaningful language development.”
Day ten:
“I’ve found that I’m not very good at remembering to use stuff in general in class, unlike another girl who seems to be able to remember to jam things we’ve learned into conversations in class. Part of the reason is that a lot of the grammar we do is pointed out as more written and formal register, but this shouldn’t be an excuse. Still, some planning time would be great and I feel like I’m being denied the chance to create anything with language. I feel like a lot of the speaking that I do in class is not oriented towards language development, but more towards sharing ideas.”
 “I’m beginning to think of fossilization not so much in terms of errors, but in terms of ways of getting things done in the language, and I think that written input might be the best way to destabilize it.”
Day eleven:
“I think if I hear another unrelated anecdote I am likely to sink deep into a pit of incomprehensible despair. But at least I’m understanding, right?”
“In fact, I had got a bit lost towards the end of the first point, and it was the pause, not any structural knowledge that alerted me to the fact that something new was coming. And here’s the thing: do we really, really need to teach people to listen for pauses? Am I just such a go-getting, switched on language learner that I don’t have to be taught this stuff?”
“A final question is how much teachers of English and other relative majority languages should hold teachers of relatively minor languages to the same professional standards. I have almost effortless access to a raft of literature, blogs, conferences and colleagues from which and whom to learn.”
Reading those quotes back they actually paint a fairly accurate picture of my experience: really fascinating, yet not always for the right reasons. However, it did yield a fair amount of learning and confidence in my second language, and provided some really interesting insights into teaching and learning too. Writing this post has helped me develop a long list of things to blog about in longer form over the next few weeks, so stay tuned if you’re interested.

Some feedback from my students (and what it might mean)


This semester I found time to send my students a survey about things I was interested in class – basically how I did/could:

  • help students to learn.
  • help students to enjoy.
  • help students to get better grades.

I made the survey using Google Forms, which is a really wonderful tool for collecting feedback. You can see a copy here. I kept the questions open-ended because I didn’t want to push the students towards any of the things that I thought I was trying to do in those areas, but rather I wanted to work back from their answers to what I tried to do, or didn’t do. That process provides the content for the rest of this post: selected student feedback is given in italics and my reactions are in plain text.

Things that students said improved their English

  • Many situations, what is right word, pronounce etc
    real meaning words
    board is very helpful

This group of comments is pleasing. I’ve worked hard on providing post-task feedback to students, boarding it and trying to work on and assess it later, and I would say this has consituted a large proportion of classwork this year. I think this group of comments might reflect that. The words “real” and “right” are interesting. I suspect that this might refer to my highlighting of English (and German) loanwords in Korean that may not be understood in the same way by speakers of other Englishes, and other connotations that students might not be aware of (my male students mis(?) use “boyfriend” quite often to mean “male friend” or “friend who is a guy”). Students seem to appreciate this kind of feedback, and this is something I would like to do more of. One challenge is how to extract language for further examination when 17 students are doing a task at the same time. There’s only so much that one teacher can monitor.

  • “interactions with classmates”
    “Many chance for talk”
    “No using of table, and a lot of talking improve my English”
    “I can speak English more fluency.”
    “Talking English other students”

Good! I’ve worked hard this year on maxmising the amount of conversation, or at least something close to it, that happens in class. I’ve done this by setting loosely defined conversational structures and giving students a while to do them. I’ve also made four person conversations the center of teaching and assessment in the classroom, and tried to teach the skills and phrases necessary to take part in them, including introducing topics, summarizing to check meaning, disagreeing politely and closing conversations. The great thing here is that these can be recycled multiple times using different topics, and I have found that knowing/being given structures of conversations helps students feel more comfortable exploring whatever topics happen to come up.

  • “many kind of activity”
    “quiz(even i’m not good at quizes)”
    “writing,speaking quiz”
    “speaking test”

Now this is really interesting and heartening. In the past, students have really complained about the number and kind of quizzes. This semester I moved from doing six or seven speaking quizzes to four written quizzes and two longer speaking quizzes. In the time I saved not doing speaking quizzes, I did more non- assessed but quiz-like conversations with the aim of fluency building. I would like to say that students left these comments because they a) felt that the speaking tests were useful and valid and b) because they felt well prepared for them. The other interesting thing was that written quizzes (and these are very much discrete item, vocab/phrase kinds of test) seem to have drawn positive comments despite some of the scores being considerably less than marvellous. I am hoping that these comments mean that my students found this semester’s assessment fairer and less arduous.

  • “presentation”
    “prepare presentation”

Students are not giving much away about what helped them improve here, but making the presentation project more something where I taught skills and structures, rather than just saying “do a presentation”, helped a bit (unsurprisingly!). It might also tell me that, while they are rarely popular, presentations do tend to be seen as useful by students. I’d like to try to push this project even further next semester amd incorporate more practice and feedback before the event. Incidentally, I did give my letter to students this semester and things did improve.

  • “Not boring”

I should think not you young whelp! I should change your grade to an F for even thinking I needed to be told that.

Things that students said didn’t help:

  • pronunciation

I would love to hear more than one word about this as it’s a matter close to my heart. Here are some pronunciation features I have looked at this year: word stress and production of schwa in unstressed syllables, intonation in tag questions, use of lower tone for serious topics, and general corrections for mispronounced words. I wonder what the comment might refer to? It could be tonal features, which were not as interesting as they seemed in the coursebook. It could be that corrections applied to a few students at most, and weren’t useful to the majority. It might be that pronunciation is about the only time that I employ genuinely mechanical drilling in class and this student didn’t enjoy it. It might even be a wider factor that students generally understand their Korean L1 influenced pronunciation pretty well (especially once they have had a few weeks to familiarize themselves with it if they hadn’t before) and therefore don’t see work like this as necessary. I don’t want to guess at this too much, but it’s all worth considering in preparation for next year, as pronunciation was something I was thinking of including more of, not less.

Things that students said I could have done to improve their English:

  • “Thinking time”

Really? This is something I generally try to do, but I might forget/reduce it as the semester goes on. A reminder to myself to include it in most activity designs might be helpful. One thing that I hope is that the student got the idea because I did give thinking time for a lot of activities, and he or she simply missed it where it wasn’t given, and maybe shows that it is important and helps at least one student.

  • Cheer up some students who feel uncomfortable in class

This is a really tough one to judge for me. I wonder what kind of cheering up the student would want? At the moment I try to give some of my less confident students quiet encouragement through backchannels like Kakao Talk on the basis that I didn’t think they’d want to be singled out for praise in front of their peers, especially on the basis that they feel less comfortable. This could be totally wrong though- maybe that’s just what their confidence needs. One other way might be sitting down and working with the less comfortable students, particularly when two of them are paired up, and trying to give praise while the rest of the class is working.

  • Talking time with alex (not english cafe) personal (1:1)
    English cafe* reserve is hard with you

In my ambition to remove myself from the center of class as much as possible (I’m wondering if my ideal class might be me monitoring everything from some kind of remote, high tech control room and simply shouting instructions in over the loudspeakers once in a while), I can sometimes forget that students might want to talk to me as well as each other, especially as a big reason that students list for taking Global English is overcoming a fear of speaking to “foreigners”. I didn’t really bring a whole lot of my life into the classroom this time for fear of taking away from student talking time. This might not be a bad thing, but it is worth remembering that to my students, I am perhaps the most interesting person in the classroom (goodness that sounds horribly arrogant!) and that this might be something I need to build on and leverage a bit more in the future.

* “English Cafe” is our 1:1 conversation program. Students can sign up for a 10 minute slot to talk to one of the teachers here on a topic of their choice.

  • “culture understand”
  • “let us know uk music (culture)

I tend not to work too much with culture in class, particularly not ‘target’  culture, firstly because ELF (I will save those who know me from another intercultural competence diatribe), secondly because I think, like grammar, it leads to nuggetism (Koreans people take their shoes off in the house! Americans eat turkey!), and thirdly it often leads to teachers explaining ‘culture’ (my scare quotes key is really taking a hammering here) to students, but not a lot of actual language learning happening, or in fact in terms of navigating culture, any useful learning at all. Even where it can be tackled discursively, there are often issues of race bound up with culture, and this can be a difficult topic for teachers and learners. What I am getting at here is that tackling culture in a classroom is not something that should be undertaken lightly, or seen as a one way process, nor dealt with in occasional chunks of information. Therefore dealing with it properly might take a lot more time and thought than I can give it in the space of one semester. I am however, possibly dealing with student expectations about culture and the way it should be taught, and that actually cultural nuggets might be exactly the way they think that they should be taught. Dealing with those expectations should be something that I prioritize.

  • listening individual group speaking

I’m not sure why I got this feedback. I spend as much time as possible wandering around and giving feedback and help individually and as a class during speaking activities. I wonder if it might mean that I needed to give more feedback on an individual level. This is something that I would like to do, but I am restricted by class sizes. It’s not really feasible to provide individualized feedback to 17 students each class. However, maybe this comes from a sense that I am interacting more with some students (those who ask for help) than others. A goal for next semester could be mapping my interactions in the classroom to ensure I’m giving everyone more equal attention, and making an effort to talk more to those who are less happy to ask for help.

Things students said I could have done to improve their enjoyment:

  • “Answer and feedback”

Again, I am not so sure what this means, or how it relates to enjoying the class. I do try to minimize the amount of teacher fronted, whole class question and answer sessions on the assumption that most students don’t want to yell their answer in front of the whole class for face reasons, and that they might be better off talking to each other. However, I shouldn’t (and don’t) discount this.

  • “Use more visual education. Like video or audio. And i am intrestrd your ppt (cricket) talk more fun thing to us. Something like why you hate man.utd.”

Two things happening here. One is my previously discussed tendency to remove myself as much as possible from the classroom, the second is my somewhat “materials light” approach (still refusing to say the D-word on this blog). Yeah I don’t use video, I guess because I find it time consuming to find something suitable and then figure out how to use it. This might be something to think about, but not high on my list of priorities. But should it be?

  • “our seats array very helpful”

I’m glad this got mentioned. I am a big fan of the “horseshoe” seating arrangement with no desks. Why? Firstly it is part of the message that I want to send to students – no desks means not much writing, not too much book, and more talking. I find that desks put a bit of a barrier between students and me, and student to student during discussions (and this is barrier that can have phones hidden under it, or drawn on, and is one that is generally distracting – I get much better attention from students without them). Finally it makes the space much more flexible – seats can be easily moved into groups of three or four, or the space in the middle is excellent for mingling. I’m always happy when students notice this.

Other things students said:

  • “Board”

I used a kind of interactive whiteboard (on my computer – no touchscreen) this semester. I would like to get better at doing it, but I do feel it was an improvement on a whiteboard and taking photos. It was easy to send to students, and to bring back the following day. One thing I would like to do is work on putting more post-class info on there, but this might be something I could do with students as part of a review session in the following class.

  • “i want talking to next semester students.
    Don’t ignore the writing quiz even not good at quiz.
    i always study writting quiz hard. but always not good at quiz because of many mistakes. my friend kidding me because his score is better than me although he don’t study. but quiz is very helpful when ready to written exam. and exam makes me A. so i want to say.
    please study hard in quiz.”

This is one of the more interesting comments that I received. I was slightly frustrated by my students’ low scores on written quizzes this year, and I felt like they were perhaps not studying especially hard for them. I tried to base them much more on the phrase/sentence level than individual words, and this proved really challenging for students. Interestingly, I didn’t see much use of the phrases we learned in class discussions either, which suggests they were either not learned, or they were not ready to fit into a student’s repertoire (is there an internal syllabus for lexical chunks?). Anyway, this comment made me glad that, even with the low scores, the quizzes were in some way helpful to the students.


This is already a very long post and needs to be finished. What conclusions I drew are largely in the body, but I hope to follow this up with some clearer goals for next semester.