TEE slowly gains foothold in Korea

Teachers believe Teaching English in English can work with stronger reform

Published May 15, 2013, on The Korea Herald

This is the third and final in a follow-up series to one which was published in the Expat Living section on March 6 and 13 and covered the ongoing native English teacher phaseouts in certain regions. This three-part series further assesses the native English teacher program as well as the Teaching English in English initiative for Korean teachers of English in primary and secondary public schools. ― Ed.

Teachers, education observers and policymakers alike cannot agree on what is wrong with Korea’s public English education system, or how to fix it.

Students spend about 15,000 hours studying English in middle and high school, but rank lower in English proficiency than their peers in Malaysia and Pakistan, at No. 21 of more than 50 countries on the English Proficiency Index.

The government has pledged to boost the quality of public education. But Korean and native English teachers both complain that policymakers don’t see what’s happening on the ground.

The native English teacher program and the Teaching English in English training program were arguably ambitious and well meaning, but hit snags along the way. Vague assessments and budget constraints lead to questions about whether continued investment in native English teachers is worth the money.

Back to old ways

Even some highly qualified teachers give up teaching English in English in middle and high school just a few weeks or months after TEE training, and revert to previous methods, notes professor Shin Sang-keun of Ewha Womans University.

Teachers he interviewed used English for only 30 percent of their class time on average, he said. And for older pupils, that proportion dropped sharply.

The pressures of prepping students for exams, large class sizes, and differing student proficiency levels all make TEE difficult as well, Shin added.

Teachers also find themselves forced to follow their peers’ examples. For example, as all classes in a grade must take the same tests, classes falling behind in the extensive curriculum have little choice but to conduct classes the same way as other teachers, he noted.

“Because most other teachers focus on lecture-style instruction on vocabulary, grammar and translation, novice teachers must focus on these areas too, making it difficult to teach in English,” Shin added.

Outside the classroom, one native English teacher and former TEE trainer said, the power struggles in school between those TEE-trained teachers and older ones who are less capable of speaking English also force well-qualified teachers to submit to old ways.

“(Older teachers) are terrified that students will realize that their English is poor and their teaching methods are antiquated and ineffective,” he said.

But using TEE methods in daily teaching is attainable, teachers say, after major changes in the education system.

Lee Hyo-shin of Konkuk University suggested in the journal English Teaching that the program was more beneficial for elementary school teachers with no formal English training than for middle and high school teachers. Further improvements can be made if the program focuses more on training than on attaining a certificate, she added.

Seoul Education Training Institute in Seocho, southern Seoul, said it aimed to do that by focusing on teaching methodology and teaching skills.

“The real challenge was (shifting away from) the past classrooms (which were) non-communicative and translation-based,” said a coordinator of SETI.

Optimism

Kim Seon of Howon Elementary School in Seoul said the most valuable aspect of TEE was the encouragement it gave her to study more and to use English to help her students.

“To me, TEE means ‘try,’ because I try to speak English, and students also try to listen and speak in English,” Kim said, adding that she still had to fall back on Korean to teach games or help low-level students.

Being able to teach English in English is a long-term project that happens over a career, not simply through a certification process, she added. She began teaching in 2006, and was TEE-certified at SETI last year.

Choi Hye-jung, a high school teacher in Seoul, said her TEE training was demanding but rewarding and helped her focus more on the students’ perspective.

“Now I try to think of a variety of student activities to match the lesson,” Choi said, adding that several training programs were now available to help English teachers improve.

Observers point out that younger teachers are becoming increasingly capable of taking on the challenge of teaching English through English. In the past few years TOEFL scores have been gradually improving, and students are becoming less hesitant about participating in English-led classes every year, notes Paul Jambor of Korea University.

But one of the biggest underlying structural constraints, teachers emphasize, is the standardized college entry exam that does not test for the skills that TEE helps with.

The introduction of the National English Ability Test, shifting focus from multiple-choice grammar toward listening and speaking skills, will help change the way classes are taught, Jambor added.

Chan-wook Diggs-Yang, coordinator last year for the former TEE training program led by Seoul National University, said plenty of material and resources were available for teachers to teach in English effectively. But they couldn’t be held responsible for the failure of TEE in their classroom if their hands were tied by the curriculum and lack of time, he said.

“Even if they get through the training, the teachers don’t really have time to prepare what they already have. The new books actually have a lot of great things in them for the teacher to teach, but the system doesn’t allow the teacher the time for planning or overloading them with additional work,” he said.

“You really wouldn’t need teacher training if they would just gave the teachers more time to prep. And the teacher training would enhance everything if the teachers just had more time to prep.”

By Elaine Ramirez (elaine@heraldcorp.com)

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