Sunday, May 31, 2009


Check out this book review of Paul Nation's, "Learning Vocabulary in Another Language" for some background information, or better yet, just read the book.

In my own studies of Korean and teaching English, here in Korea I've become increasingly convinced that it's all about vocabulary. The number that gets tossed around frequently is 2000. That is, if you know the 2000 most common words in a language, you can get by with basic conversation and daily life stuff. And of course, this makes sense, because you can know all the grammar but if you don't know the vocab of what you're hearing or reading, you can't make any sense of it. And for writing or speaking, if you don't want to look/sound like a 3 year old, you probably need to know a few more words than they do.

So these days, I've been really into studying vocab, as my form of studying Korean. And now that I know a lot more vocab, grammar is intuitively working itself into my brain as I see and hear the vocab being used around me in the correct grammatical way. I think the best way to learn new vocab is to write out the words on flashcards, with Korean on one side and English on the other. Then start out learning the Korean-English and once you're proficient at that, switch to the harder one, having to reproduce the words in a language that's not your own. Of course, mix up the cards each time you go through them so you don't start to rely on patterns.

And for teaching? I really don't teach vocab in my classes because I'm kind of at a loss as to how to do it. Some stuff comes up in the book each unit, but it's not substantial. And how to test it as well? But I see the importance of it and would like to start. Please help with any ideas!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Oh, how right you are, my Chinese Students...

Yesterday I took my advanced conversation class, that I've been meeting 4 days/week for the past 10 weeks out to dinner because it was their last class. The Koreans students sat on one side, and I sat on the other with the Chinese students and we were talking about life in Korea as foreigners and learning English.

They were telling me that they all started out taking my class as well as a TOEIC class (grammar for a test basically) but that they all quit the TOEIC thing after a week or so. They said that it was a waste of time, because the teachers either spoke in Korean, which they didn't understand so well at the time or that they spoke Konglish (Sounds like English but with a lot of words that only Koreans would use: skin-ship/eye shopping/ pension (referring to a condo), etc).

Now, I really can't believe that the teacher would speak in Korean, if 3 of the students in the class didn't understand it that well. If a teacher (even of TOIEC) can't conduct a class in English, they have no business teaching an English class.

And if the teacher did speak "English", they spoke in Konglish. It makes sense that it's the first I've heard of it, from the Chinese students because the Koreans probably wouldn't notice! They said it was too annoying too listen to. Now, I also can't really believe this, that the program that hired them wouldn't do an English interview, that had a native speaker present. Most jobs in Korea, that involve teaching English don't actually interview the person in English, they just look at the TOEIC score, or how long they studied in the USA or whatever. It's quite disturbing.

Anyway, all this to say: I think a competent, professional native speaker is better than a Korean English teacher. I have no exceptions to this. A newbie fresh off the boat from Canada will likely not be so competent, I know I sure wasn't my first year. But 4 years later, a lot of reading/blogging about teaching and actual time in the classroom, I think I am. I would say this for the following reasons:

1. We can conduct our classes entirely in English, very easily and usually have no other choice. It makes the students actually think. When I learn Korean from someone who speaks English, I get way too lazy.

2. Our accents and pronunciation are perfect, obviously :) Who wants to learn the wrong way to speak when you're learning a language? It seems like a waste of time.

3. Even for grammar, native speakers are better I think because we can teach it in a relevant, simple kind of way that makes sense. My students have studied English grammar since they were in elementary school. But they still don't know the basics, like: "he/she/it (verb)s" or "He (has) brown eyes, she (is) tall." When I teach it to them, I make it very simple, and they often say it's the first time they've actually understood this concept and how to use it in a sentence. Like I literally see lightbulbs going off in their heads, about stuff that they should have learned in their first year of learning English.

4. And finally: the style. Koreans lecture. Foreigners are usually more interactive. Everything I've read about language learning doesn't show that the lecture style works.

What do you think?

Monday, May 25, 2009


I was eating dinner with some girls in Cheonan last night who work at public schools. A newbie to teaching and to Korea was expressing her frustration at her middle school classes that were apathetic, didn't flow and were very low level. As she talked more, it was revealed that she has a co-teacher (CT) at all times, and so she speaks English and then the Korean CT will just translate what she said. I think this was very revealing at to why her classes don't interact with/respond to her. I don't like translation in a class for the following reasons:

1. I've never taught with a translater, either for kids/adults, beginners or upper levels, so it's just not what I'm comfortable with. This is the complete opposite of my public school friends, who are completely dependant on the translator so they obviously would not feel comfortable going at it alone with a group of kids.

2. Why would you put any effort into understanding another language, if someone who speaks you language is just going to translate anything of importance? In essence, the native speaker has no value within the classroom. Of course the kids have no motivation.

3. It hinders actual communication. In order to speak English fluently, a student must leave Korean behind, at least for a little bit so they can try to think in English, instead of just translating from Korean. Students who just translate from Korean will always remain at the very beginner level and never move to actual communication. If this is the model they have in class, then why would the students ever be inspired to actually learn English?

4. It breaks up the flow of the class, always having to stop to translate.

5. I'm somewhat dubious of the translation abilities of the teachers in public school here in Korea. While some of them are excellent, I've met more than a few who can't even have a simple conversation with me. Like I actually switch into Korean when talking to them, which doesn't say much at all since my Korean is somewhat pathetic.

6. There are ways to make yourself understood, in English even with someone who doesn't know a word of English. I've done it. It just takes a bit more effort and planning. Pictures/body language/speaking extremely simply with no superfluous words.
What are your thoughts? This could be quite the controversial topic I think.

Presentation Update

A few weeks ago, I talked about how I was doing presentations in my classes this semester and I wasn't sure how it would turn out. Today was the first round and I was pretty impressed with most of the students. Out of a class of 20, only 1 didn't memorize the 2 minutes spiel. And the grammar was almost perfect, far better than they'd ever do just speaking in class. It was actually like they consulted their textbooks or something :) And it was not horribly tedious because they could pick from 5 different, general topics and the speeches were only 2 minutes long, so it was all over pretty fast. And because I gave them topics, straight out of the stuff we've studied this semester, it would be glaringly obvious if anyone copied off the internet (no one did!) I'll definitely be doing it again next semester :)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Worth a read...

Another interesting article in the Korea Times about the state of Engrishee teaching in Korea, this time by Michael Breen.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pencils Down!

Thanks to Jinks for this somewhat genius idea. When students are doing grammar exercises in their books, I don't let them use their pens to write in the answers the first go. They have to talk with their partner and work it out together. Sometimes there are over 10 questions to do, and so they have to remember their answers for when I randomly call on them later. I'll let them write the answers in when we're going over it as a class.

This has the following advantages:

1. Speaking/reading practice. It's a whole different world when you must actually produce the language as opposed to just taking it in.

2. A more focused effort. They will perhaps get called upon later to answer.

3. Error correction on the go if you have a good partner. At the very least, more thought put into it if you're doing it together, as opposed to alone and just writing any old crap down to get it done.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Koreans resistant to learning English

Here is an interesting article from John Huer in the Korea Times about how Korean Culture makes it hard for Koreans to learn English.

He points out the problem of Koreans thinking they can master English, without learning any of the cultural things that go along with it, which is obviously crazy. Korean is so nuanced with various forms of addresses, depending on who you're talking to, that I would never try to learn it apart from their culture. Or their greeting, "Have you eaten rice?" If you don't understand the culture, you'd have no idea that this means, "Are you well?" and that you shouldn't literally tell them if you've had rice for breakfast or not. Maybe this is partly reflected in how Koreans will often study English as a subject, learning technical grammar rules and obscure vocab but will have none of the tools required to actually speak to someone in English.

His second point is that Koreans are very Korean. They are proud to be Korean and don't have much curiosity or openness to other cultures. They have a designation in Korean, "foreigner" which you'll hear almost everyday and puts up a brick wall between "them" and "us." In Canada for example, we'd never call someone a "foreigner." If you're living in Canada and it's your home, you're Canadian. Naturally, if you don't care about the world outside Korea or people outside your social/familial circle, then why would you care about learning English? In my experience, it's really only Koreans who ACTUALLY LIKE AND WANT TO SPEND TIME WITH foreigners and in foreign countries that become fluent in English.

So, until there is a radical change in the Korean mindset, I think all the money throwing at English education may just be futile, as it largely has been in the past.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Game to Practice Questions

This is a very fun game that I've played with 7-25 year olds and everyone seemed to have a pretty good time. I wrote out a bunch of animals on slips of paper. Then I put them in groups of 2 or 3, and the groups would each get 2 or 3 animals/person. The first person, picks a paper, but doesn't look at it and shows her group members. Then she'll ask yes/no questions about it until she can figure out the animal. Ex: "Does it have 4 legs? Can it swim? Does it eat meat?"

I've also done this with jobs and other things, depending on what we're studying that week or month.

Kids vs. Uni Students

I teach in this extra program at my school for elementary and middle school kids from around Cheonan who have been classified as "gifted." They really are pretty good at English and seem to soak up everything like a sponge. I only teach them about once a month, which turns out to be pretty enjoyable most of the time. The major difference is this:

I have to control their energy. Like they'll actually start yelling and stuff in the classroom if I don't lay down the hammer. And once I do, it will all go quite smoothly after that. I'm constantly saying, "Calm down, quiet please, relax." Uni students, when I walk in the class are already sleeping, irregardless of anything I have done or how boring I have been. I need to liven them up and get them to stand up or something to get some energy going.

Anyway, it's a good break from the normal world. I would suggest this to you, to mix it up a bit if you can. Teach some kids, teach some adults at least once a month.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Writing Activities

Yesterday, in my advanced conversation class I wanted to do some fun writing activities to mix it up a bit, for me and for them. A bit of internet searching provided me with these good ideas:

1. Madlib. The students write down words in a certain order. Example. #1: noun, #2: place #3: number #4: adjective. Then there's a secret story that the words go into. Very funny and a good warm-up activity.

2. Then I did some group writing activities. Each student got a story starter. Example: I can't believe it... The most embarrassing thing happened yesterday.... Tomorrow, I'm going on vacation to.... I just saw a UFO.... Then each student writes one or two sentences and passes their paper on to the next student to continue the story. I did it as well and would check grammar as we went along and to liven up the story if it was getting boring by writing something shocking/funny. Then I read them out at the end. Very funny. If you want to be a super-teacher, you could go over their writing mistakes.

3. List some emotions: Anger/fear/ hate/love, etc. Pick one and then make a poem with the 5 senses. Love tastes like..... Love smells like.... etc. A good time all around.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Book Review: Active English Discussion

The Active English Discussion  series is put out by Pearson Longman, authored by Andrew Finch. He's an expat living in Korea, and the books are definitely geared toward the Korean market. In fact, they wouldn't make a lot of sense to those outside.

I've been using levels 1 and 2 for some classes, middle school students and an advanced university conversation class. They have been amazing for both groups and would work for high schoolers as well.

While there are a couple duds among the 20 topics, the majority are engaging, interesting and relevant and get some good conversations going. The best thing about the series is that they are amazing for multi-level classes. The questions are open-ended enough so that everyone can give an answer according to their ability and feel confident in it. And the readings are short enough so that even the weakest students can get a basic grasp of it and not get lost in the details.

I've been using one chapter for a 50 minute class and this is definitely not enough time. I could easily do 2 hours with all the material.

The students like it. It gets them talking. It's easy to teach because there's lots of interesting, varied activities. That's all I really need for a conversation class!

Another quick warmup game: Boggle

So maybe you've heard or seen the game "Boggle?" You can make your own version for a quick game in class to use as a warm-up. Make a grid on the board, maybe 6x6. Then fill in the squares with common letters. Then the students make words, with at least 3 letters. Each word can only use each letter once and the letters must be touching. You can go diagonal, up, down, whatever.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Warm-up game

A simple game you can play for a warmup when your students already know a lot of the vocab. without you having to teach it.  I will put them in teams of 2 and have them write the alphabet on a piece of paper.  Then you can give them a topic.  Today, mine was "Words to describe a city."  Examples: B-Busy, E-Exciting.  

Give them 3 or 4 minutes, collect the papers, check for the crazy answers, add up the points and you have a winner!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Running Dictation oldie but a goodie. You put a selected passage outside the classroom or around the classroom, hidden so the students can't see it in plain sight. They will be in teams of 2. One person is the reader, one is the writer. The reader gets up and reads a bit of the passage and comes and tells it to the writer. They go back to remember more of it and so on and so on. About halfway through, I'll yell stop and change up the reader and the writer. When they're done, I'll check their writing and circle any mistakes for them to modify.

I change it a bit, and don't allow yelling as some do. I say that if I can hear their voices, it's too loud and inconsiderate to those teaching next to me and they won't get whatever prize I'm offering. I had one experience last year where a teacher did not state this and it was impossible for me to do anything in my class until the game was done. This was not cool and I don't want to be that teacher that pisses off their coworkers!

Free: 40 Tried and Tested ESL Games and Activities


So I've never really been one to do presentations in my classes. I did it the first semester and it was a bit of a flop, mainly because I think I didn't set out the ground rules clearly enough. And they were too long and the students were in groups, which didn't really work out so well in last-minute Korea. But I've brought them back. The students will each do a 90-120 second presentation, alone on a topic chosen from a list that of things that they've already studied. They will have to memorize it and can't use a paper to just read from. It will be worth 15% of their final grade.

I guess it will remain to be seen how it all goes down. It could potentially be really good for the following reasons:

1. The students will actually have to speak English, there's no way around it.

2. They could actually be quite interesting for the students to listen to, if they put effort into it.

3. It's quite an easy day for me, since the students are on stage and not me.

And the bad:

1. It could be horrible and tedious if the students put no effort into it.

2. The shy students will have nightmares I'm sure.

What do you think? What's your experience with this been?


So my coworker and I were eating dinner and discussing testing. My school doesn't have standardized tests, which in my coworker's opinion, is a good thing. He cited the following reasons:

1. The teachers will start to teach to the test, because schools/administrations will be unlikely to change it from year to year. This puts any new teachers at a serious disadvantage since they won't know what's on the test but all their coworkers will.

2. There will be serious competition among the teachers, for who can get the best testing scores. And I can imagine that those who aren't actually that great of teachers would be pretty angry, and not so happy working there. And defensive and blaming their students and coworkers, etc and it could perhaps not be a pretty sight.

However, I think it could be good for the following reasons:

1. Some of my coworkers test on some crazy stuff and it warps my mind to even think about it. Like making their students memorize the American constitution or tongue twisters. Basically, testing them on crap that is not in the book that we've been assigned to teach. It makes sense to me to test on what you've been teaching all semester. But not to all people it seems. Standardized testing could make it a lot more fair for the students I think.

2. The good teachers would be rewarded. Or at least get some positive reinforcement. The bad teachers, who are ineffective at teaching could be weeded out.

3. The testing would be a lot more objective, versus the somewhat subjective speaking tests that most of my coworkers and I do.

4. It would take a lot of stress away from the teachers. University students in Korea expect to pass every class, even if they're put no effort into it. If you fail them, they'll often come to you at the end of the semester, begging to pass. But a big standardized test, say worth 50% of their grade takes a lot of the power away from the teacher and puts it in the hands of the administration. It could actually be a good thing I think.