This is my first week as a university “professor” in Korea. I’m entirely uncomfortable with the title, and have made my students promise to call me Alex instead, at least until I get my PhD in ten years or so. Anyway, the chance to work with some slightly higher level, and perhaps slightly more motivated students is an inviting one. The course is “conversation based”, so that means lots of student talking too, which is great because then I don’t have to do any.
One of the things that I want to push my students towards this semester is becoming evaluators of each other’s language. This has several benefits for the students and for the class. The first is a practical one – in a class of 16-20, I can’t listen to everyone at the same time – I can wander and monitor, but I won’t catch every individual mistake. With student evaluators, I hope that more mistakes will get caught. Another reason is that it should make the students more linguistically aware, and bring to their attention aspects of performance such as pronunciation, word choice and form that will positively affect their own, and perhaps highlight mistakes that they were previously unaware of.
Judging another person’s language is not always easy, even for an English teacher, and giving constructive criticism is difficult, especially for my freshmen students who hardly know each other, and in whose culture opinions are not always given as directly as in the West. I came up with an activity to help introduce the concept of language evaluation, based on the old teaching maxim “You should never ask your students to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself”. I gave each student the opportunity to ask me a question about myself in Korean, and I would (try) to respond in Korean. Given that we had just done interviews to determine levels, I felt that this was a good way to let them have a little revenge too.
Before the activity, you need to either give or elicit some useful sentences for giving advice to language learners, and also some things to listen for. These are some examples:
” I would say X like this: Y”, “I didn’t understand when you said X”, “X was the wrong pronunciation/grammar/word choice”, “I think you need to improve your X”.
1. Grammar, 2. Word choice, 3. Word order, 4. Pronunciation (sounds), 5. Intonation.
Then, simply give your students the chance to ask you one question each, listen to your L2 output, and then write and read out some sentences giving you advice on how to improve.
I tried this activity with three classes, one at level 1 (elementary) and two at level 2 (pre-intermediate). The first class was not really a success, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I tried to elicit some sentences from them, which was a struggle, but we did get things like “X was perfect” – this turned out to be a poor option to give them, as many of the students took it as a way out of having to say/do anything. I also didn’t ask for specifics, so I got a lot of answers like “I think you need to improve your pronunciation.” (“I know that – but HOW?”). I think that also, many students waited until the end of the activity to do their thinking, which meant that they couldn’t remember examples (this has happened to me as a teacher in the past too, even with notes!). What I ended up with was a lot of compliments about my Korean, and not a lot of awareness raised, or experience of giving constructive criticism.
The second class I worked on ironing out the problems from the first. This class seemed a bit more into it anyway. I decided that I would give them example sentences aimed at helping me to improve only, but gave them the option of creating their own. I also demanded that any statements be backed up with examples, and that they take notes as soon as they heard anything wrong. The response was definitely better – we picked up a misused verb, some pronunciation problems and the fact that in Korean, time adverbials always come before adverbs of manner – at least two things that will help me. However, there were still a lot of blank faces and papers come the end of the class. What I think this shows is that as teachers we need to be aware of how little our learners know about the way language functions, and the possibilities for problems and successes to come about. I like the idea (put forward by Aaron Myers on The Everyday Language Learner, see point 3) that classes should often be language learning theory rather than language itself, especially in the internet age, and I think that increasingly that is where the role of the language teacher lies. It’s certainly a direction that I’m trying to push my classes in.
In the third class I had my first real breakthrough moment (I’d hoped for a lot more). One of the class pointed out that my intonation was wrong on a word. I asked him for an example and he gave me a rendering of the word as I had said it with an English stress pattern forced overtop, and then as it should be said with Korean stress on every syllable. He went on to say that he always heard foreigners talk like this, and he didn’t know why. This lead to a great teachable moment where we discussed the difference (briefly) between English and Korean stres patterns, and the fact that Korean learners have the opposite problem of stressing every syllable in English. At this point I had the attention of the whole class, and hopefully opened their eyes a little to the differing ways in which we speak. There were also some other great pieces of advice, like not taking too much care over my pronunciation of certain words, and just saying them.
Overall, I think I can count this lesson a moderate success, and I think it would work well with the right group. It does, however, require a monolingual and inquisitive group. Also, it requires a rather brave teacher – I am hideously shy about speaking Korean, and have only just stopped blushing now, about 3 hours after class.