Using non-English materials in the classroom

 Korean Folk Village - 한국 민속촌 - Suwon, South Korea - U.S. Army - IMCOM - 090507

Korean Folk Dancer by US Army on Flickr

As a guest teacher in a Korean high school, I’m constantly faced by the challenge of maintaining not just student motivation, but interest. The unfortunate truth is that my class is the least important hour of my students’ week. It’s almost the only hour in which they are not directly being prepared for the Korean Scholarship Ability Test, then end of high school exam that will have a defining effect on their lives. This isn’t to say they are completely uninterested in class, in fact, most of them are at least willing participants, but I still feel I owe it to them to provide something entertaining as well as educational. 

Videos always work well with my students. I often try to show one at the beginning of the lesson, as it’s usually a good way of getting the students attention and interest. I wanted a video to go with my Personalities vocabulary lesson , both to give students some personality traits to think about and to brighten up an otherwise dry exercise. The problem is that my students are not that familiar with Western culture. If I mention or use a film, typically about 20% of them will have seen it, which makes discussion somewhat difficult. Also, for this lesson my students needed something that was immediately understandable, but provoked some deeper thinking. Materials like this aren’t easy to find. The answer I came up with was to use something from Korean culture and langauge.

The Secret Garden has been Korea’s most ubiquitous drama series since I’ve been in the country. Everywhere I go it’s on TV and I has influenced at least 5 adverts I can think of.  Hyeon Bin , the male lead and a man whose cheekbones are so well defined they should be in a dictionary, will probably never need to work again. Safe to say, there aren’t many people in Korea who are not at least aware of  The Secret garden. If you’re interested, you can watch it here. Stick with it until around episode 6 for a literally unbelievable twist. For my class I chose a 3 minute clip of the infamous “sit-ups” scene and the argument that follows it.

It may seem counter-intuitive to use materials in the students’ L1 in the classroom, but I think my reasons above justified giving it a try, and I think it was a success. Firstly, take a look at the Wordle of vocabulary it produced.

Wordle of vocabulary brainstormed

Brainstormed Vocabulary

This was my principal reason for using it; I don’t think the same depth and variety of character analysis would have been produced if I’d asked the students to describe characters from a film they had limited understanding of. The second reason I’d deem it a roaring success is that motivation and interest soared after the clip. Classes that had started off being difficult to settle, suddenly dived for their phones to dig for vocabulary and the writing exercise to reinforce the vocabulary was pretty well done, despite not being too exciting a task. It’s also nice to hear your students whooping with pleasure (actually, I think it was mostly girls whooping at Hyeon Bin) during an activity, and the clip seemed to leave everyone in a good mood.

As a guest teacher on the EPIK (public school) teaching program here, part of my role is as a “cultural ambassador” as well as a teacher. I’m not quite sure how comfortable I am with the role, nor how I’d go about teaching my students about English culture short of taking them to a Yates’ Wine Lodge. I do try to use a lot of Western source materials in my lessons, but I think that it’s also important to meet the students on their own cultural level sometimes, and let them be the experts. Korean students are usually very keen to show off their own culture, and so bringing The Secret Garden into the classroom initiated a whole range of discussions both in and outside the classroom. The fact that this sparked several extended and animated conversations with my students in their own time is what really makes me glad I tried using it.

I was slightly worried about how my teaching colleagues would react as well, but they were as keen to talk about it as the students. Everyone seemed to view it as a success. I’m really happy with the way this lesson turned out. While it certainly won’t be a weekly feature, and I probably wouldn’t do it with better students, for low level students this turned a potentially boring one into a really memorable one.

So what do you think? Am I breaking the rules here? Is there a place for non-English materials in the classroom? Have you ever used them? Would you? I’d love to hear your comments.



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