Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Student Evaluations

My university checks out the student evaluations pretty closely (or at least they tell us!) when contract renewal time comes up so it's a moderate source of stress for me throughout the year. But, each semester I've been working here, they've gotten better and better. My secret is reading the comments that the students leave. They mostly write them in Korean, but I run them through a translator if I can't figure them out to get the gist of it.

My first semester, I essentially had no attendance policy and got very bad reviews for that so I implemented a system where I monitored the situation much more closely and it hasn't been an issue since. Basically, I don't accept that many excuse papers and the students need to personally come check their attendance with me so there is no possible way to cheat for their friends or whatever.

My second semester, I did exclusively speaking exams 1-1 with me and the students didn't seem too happy because such a big part of their grade was based on this totally subjective thing. And they were right of course, so I implemented some written quizzes for a more objective assessment in my classroom to make it more fair.

And I just finished the third semester with very high reviews. My lowest category was, "The teaching matches the syllabus." Kind of strange because I followed my syllabus exactly. I think it's just that maybe the students didn't really understand it because it wasn't simple enough. So I'll make some adjustments on that for next semester.

Anyway, the major thing I think is to not be defensive about it. Some of my coworkers seem to get angry about the whole thing and don't really take the student criticism seriously and look at how they can work to improve their classes. This is to their detriment I think when evaluations come around next time.

Another thing I see in many of my coworkers is a refusal to change their style to suit the unique context of Korea. Some people I work with constantly talk about how university is so different (ie: more difficult!) back home and so they gauge their classes to fit in with this idea of how it should be. And the student's naturally hate it because in their minds, university is this 4 year party time between high school hell and selling out their soul in 16 hour days at some big company for 40 years of their life. There is a happy medium to make it easy and fun enough so that the students like you, but so that some actual learning is happening and you can have some self-respect at the end of the day.

Just a few thoughts for you today.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The doors seem to be opening

After what seems like years of talk and rumors, the Korean government is finally opening their doors to native English speakers from countries other than the big 6 (Canada, USA, S.Africa, Aust, NZ, UK) and allowing those from India, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Check out this post from the Marmot Hole for more information. It seems like the restrictions for people from those countries will be more stringent, in that they actually must be a trained teacher. This could potentially be quite a good move I think in terms of the quality of English education here in Korea.

I'm curious to see how it all plays out...I despair somewhat at the potentially massive influx of teachers from all these other countries who would be much more willing to work for a much lower wage and do essentially the same job that I do. I hope I'm proved wrong :) If not, Taiwan and Japan will be looking a lot more attractive.

Korea doesn't really have many benefits in terms of teaching English, except for the salary, airfare and housing, which are considerably better, all things considered than any other Asian country. I try not to bash on Korea, I generally like it here but let's just say that Korean people and Korea in general don't exactly make it an easy place to live. The dirtiness, corruption, rudeness and Confucianism can start to wear you down after a while I guess. Add to that the almost daily stress of getting screwed out of money at many of the places you work and it's not a pleasant experience for a lot of people. I can't help but think this new development may be the catalyst for an exodus of the big 6. I'm a small thought growing bigger by the day in the back of my mind.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Physical Activity in the ESL Classroom

physical activity
Physical Activity in the ESL Classroom

One of my favorite things to do is make my ESL students stand up and walk around, talking to their classmates. I get them to do surveys, or something along the lines of, "Find someone who can drive a car." Then they have to ask a "W" follow-up question. With the better classes, I'll usually let them pick who they want to talk to. With some of the bad classes who are resistant to speaking in English, I'll often make 2 lines opposing each other and then call "switch" when most of the students are done what they're supposed to do. I do this at least every other class for the following reason:

1. Students will usually pick the same partners every class. Making your students get up out of their seats forces them to interact with some different people and hear different accents, grammar and vocabulary when they're doing ESL speaking activities. People who don't necessarily know each other that well will more likely speak English to each other because it would just be awkward to gang together and go against the teacher's wishes with someone you don't know!

2. It helps out the sleepy people. Standing up and walking around breaks up the tedium of the sitting and is a good way to have a mini-break in class but still get your EFL students to speak English.

3. It's fun. Try it, you'll see! When students have to walk around, asking their classmates questions and stuff, they get excited about it for some reason. I'm not really sure why but I see a lot of smiles and laughs. Maybe it's the novelty of actually speaking English to each other in a way that is non-threatening and pretty chilled out. And finding out a few random bits of information about their classmates.

4. I can walk around, give some feedback and supervise in a less obvious way.

Usually at the end of the activity, I'll give some group feedback. I noticed by the end of the semester all my classes were much better at this type of thing because I gave them feedback each time (or maybe it was just that they had practiced it!) For example, I would say:

1. You were very good at talking to everybody, but I heard a lot of you speaking Korean!

2. Your speaking was very good but why did you write your answers in Korean? It's time for practicing English, writing and speaking!

3. I saw many people that looked like they were having a good time, making jokes in English. Very good! But a few of you were only speaking Korean I think.

4. I heard lots of English but pay attention to the grammar a little more. Here is one of the biggest mistakes I heard:

Anyway, try it out in your next class. It's a good way to get your students learning and speaking English.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

My Strengths and Weaknesses as a Teacher (Part 1 of ???)

Lately, I've been thinking about my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher and how this relates to the way that I run my classroom. At my school, we're given the textbook and left to our own devices, which is nice because everyone can teach whatever style suits them (or the students!) best.

I know that my major weakness is grammar. I know the basics of English grammar but when it gets into anything intricate I'm a little lost as to how to explain it in a way that students can understand. For example, I taught a writing class once that was a bit of a dud because I just didn't really have the background knowledge required to do it well.

But, I know that my major strength is explaining things in an extremely simple way. My students have commented that my class is the best English class they have ever taken because they could understand everything. Simple grammar things, vocab words, speaking simply to explain games and activities are definitely something I'm pretty good at I think. Like I can take something that could potentially be kind of complicated and break it down for them so that a 5 year old could understand it.

My students are not high level at this university but this seems to work for me. My style, of running my classroom like an elementary school classroom seems to work with where they're at, in terms of the English language. More thoughts on this later!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

An Education

I have no formal education in ESL, which is pretty standard for those teaching in Asia. But, I do a few things to figure out how to do it well.

First of all, I read. I borrow books from friends who are doing their masters degrees in ESL and go through them, with an eye out for practical things. I find the more academic things not so helpful as opposed to the basic, how to teach English textbooks.

Secondly, I cruise the internet site about teaching English. This seems to be the best source for games and activities for in-class. I have some links in the sidebar.

Thirdly, I listen to podcasts. You can do a search for them on Itunes to find them. The ones I like are Edgycation and ESL Teacher Talk. Both are entertaining, informative and filled with inspiration and good ideas for the classroom. I also listen to grammar girls quick and dirty tips and the public speakers quick and dirty tips.

And finally, I use my teacher's books. A lot of teachers don't use them, thinking they can just "wing it." And with some textbooks, it's easy enough to do and some of the teacher's books are crap anyway. But there are some series' out there with some helpful ones.

And something which I don't do, but which could potentially be quite helpful is participating in things like Kotesol or some other professional organization that hosts conferences and workshops.

How do you get a uni job in Korea?

A common question I get from those working at the hagwons/public schools in Korea when they hear of my 5 months vacation and 15 hour work-week is how I got this job. And this is what I tell them:

1. The most important thing is networking. While you can find jobs through places like ESL Cafe, many of the best jobs are not publicly advertised. And for the more entry-level uni jobs here with lower pay or poorer working conditions, they often get filled at the last minute through a friend of a friend of a friend. The semesters start in September and March, so from 1-4 months before is the time to be looking/applying. KOTESOL is a good place to start for networking. Some places even do on-site interviews at the conferences. I got my job through emailing all the people that I knew who had uni jobs and asking where I could send my resume.

2. Qualifications. A Masters in anything is standard. In TESL or English or Education is even better. Those with a BA and a couple years experience can slip through the cracks and often pick up the bottom-tier jobs and the last minute ones.

3. Your application. It has to look professional! Do a search on the internet for what is required.

4. The interview. You have to look professional! Wear a suit and tie. Come with extra resumes/passport copies/transcripts, etc. Have a demo lesson prepared even if they say it's not necessary. Phone interviews are extremely rare. Be prepared to be in country. A good way to do it is to work a summer or winter camp to get your feet on the ground with of bit of money and then go crazy applying for the last minute jobs that come up.

5. Unless you're really lucky, you probably won't get the all-star job right off. Be prepared for a year or two of substandard conditions and then you can move your way up in the world of ESL in Korea.

6. Research! Check out the Korean forums on ESL Cafe. This topic had been discussed in endless detail.

Good luck :)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Where exactly are your co-workers from?

An interesting article about where those on E2 visas are from. I somehow seem to end up hanging around with a lot of Americans, despite my previous thinking that there were a lot more Canadians here teaching English than anyone else. The stats seem to support my reality I guess.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Textbook Selection

Textbook selection is one of those things that perhaps gets undervalued by those who don't teach, but I think almost any ESL/EFL teacher would say that it can make or break a class. By way of example, I teach 2 different types of classes. One is my "regular" job consisting of freshman English, for credit classes. These are mandatory. My university also has a for-credit program that is optional and only for those wanting additional exposure to English. We volunteer to teach these classes.

In the first case, at my regular job, the textbook (World Link, Level 1) is amazing. Each week, there is a wealth of good material to teach, such that I can't cover what I think is decent material just for the sake of time. The teacher's manual is full of good suggestions for additional activities. It also has a whole section about teacher development that is very helpful. There is also a teacher's resource book that comes with an interesting, generally well thought-out activity for each unit. Of the 24 units, I probably used about 15 of them in class. This textbook made my life very easy! For a 2 hour class, I was easily able to do all my prep in under 2 hours. The lessons were easy to make interesting and engaging with not that much of my own additional mental energy or effort.

In the second case, we use Touchstone, Levels 1-3 for the various levels. This textbook is quite bad. They focus upon "real" language but in a way that is just weird for any ESL student to use. ESL students at the beginner levels don't neccesarily need to talk like an American teenager I think. Also, the articles and things they talk about are just not interesting for my students. I'm not really sure if it's a matter of a bad textbook, or just bad for students in Korea. Anyway, it just doesn't work. The students don't like the book and neither do I. I've seen motivation just get lower and lower as everyday they study stuff they just don't care about. I can't blame them. I spend an exhorbant amount of time trying to find (or make) additional things to supplement the material but it's extremely hard to work with what they've given me. I think this program is headed down the path to obsolete if the administrators don't take action on this issue!

So textbook...make it or break it in terms of the overall success of a class.


The semester is coming to a close and at this point, I always wonder about how to test my students. The "rule" at my university is that the test must include some sort of oral component, but besides that, they leave it up to us. And...the title of the course is "Practical English Communication," so in my mind, the test should include some sort of test of how well the students can communicate, practically, in English. And so that kind of leaves the following options:

1. A speech of some sort. Some teachers put a big emphasis upon this, but a speech is more an academic thing to me and not a true test of communication skills. Communication, is more of a 2-way thing I think.

2. A dialogue, that two or three students memorize. Many of my fellow teachers do this, but I'm not sure this is ideal either. Generally, the best students will write it, and then everyone will memorize. To me, memorization isn't really a true test of English communication.

3. Question and answers (conversation) between 2 students, chosen at random, not before the test. This seems like a good idea in a class where everyone is the same level. But in my classes, some people are actually pretty good at conversing with me on a variety of topics, while some can barely say their name in English. So I think it would be kind of unfair to the better students.

4. Questions and answers (with me), individually. This is what I do...each student will come to my office and we'll have a 3-5 minute conversation. I think this is basically the only true test of how well the students are able to converse orally about the topics we discussed in class. I wish there was a better way that didn't involve me doing so much of the work though.

Any thoughts? What do you do?

Friday, December 5, 2008

A modification of 20 Questions

My students are not really high enough level to be able to do 20 questions. I think if I tried, it might just wash over them in a wave of confusion. But I've been able to modify it to make a really fun game. We did a unit on "can" and we talked about questions. Examples: "Can it _______?" "What can it _____?" etc, etc.

So I narrowed it down to animals or things, using "can" questions. You could pick something from one of these categories and then tell the class which category you picked. I started off the game and put them in groups of 2 or 3 based on where they were sitting. Then we went in a circle around the class, going from group to group just to keep it fair and let the quiet people get a chance too. Each group would ask me one question and then get one guess. Eventually, some group would get the correct answer, so they get one point and then it would be their turn to pick something. Make sure they tell you so you can assist in answering questions or refereeing if need be.


1. Fun...it's actually a game that people would play in their native language.

2. Lots of practice speaking and listening to "can" questions in an environment where I could offer correction and help.

3. Apart from the first time where I picked something, it is a student-focused game because they ask and answer each other's questions.

4. Works on critical thinking, in English.

5. Because they were in groups, the stronger students could help the weaker students formulate their ideas into English.

Student Homework Checkers

Last semester, Mirella gave me a great tip on checking homework. Get students to act as homework checkers.

She has students volunteer to be homework checkers for one part of the assigned homework. The checker comes to the front of the classroom and orally checks the work, as a teacher would do it. The checker speaks only English and asks the other students to answer the questions.

Give extra participation points to the checker and one participation point to the students who volunteer answers.

I have found in most classes the students really love this method of checking homework.

Benefits: It is student led. Students have a better understanding of how difficult it can be with an unresponsive class. Students are more willing to volunteer when the student checker is at the front of the room. It's a real situation for communicating in English.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Video to Inspire You

I haven't watched this yet but it comes highly recommended. It's a documentary about an ESL program in Dallas, Texas run entirely by volunteers and showcases the impact they make upon people's lives. Tonight's entertainment for me!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

If you've studied English for 10 years...

...then why can't you tell me your name, where you're from or how much money a bowl of Kimchi Chigae costs at the local Gimbap Nala? The perhaps not so simple explanation is that the Korean Confucian culture makes it difficult to learn a second language for the following reasons:

1. Shame. Unless you speak perfectly, you shouldn't speak at all. Koreans seem to like accuracy at the expense of any sort of fluency. And of course, they only way to get better at speaking is to practice speaking but this just really isn't their style. I hear rumors or teachers in Europe or South America having the problem of getting their students to STOP talking! I only wish :)

2. Shame #2. No one wants to appear better than anyone else. So even if you can speak English well, you can't really show it off in front of other people because you might embarrass them.

3. Teaching style. It seems like the older generation of Korean English teachers (and the newer generation too?) seem to prefer the grammar-translation method as opposed to a more communication-focused approach. This perhaps has its place in certain situations, such as when I was learning Biblical Greek and Hebrew because in no circumstance would I ever be required to speak these languages. But English is a living language that many people speak!

4. Tests. Korea is a test-focused culture. Tests to get into middle school, high school and universites. Tests at companies when applying for a job. So teachers teach for the test...and the more standard English tests don't have a speaking component to them.

Anyway, I was reading the following, "Teaching English as a Second Language" Edited by Marianne Celce-Murcia. In the "Guidelines for Language Classroom Instruction" the authors (Crookes & Chaudron) mention the following,

"Teachers need to remain aware that they are not in the classroom to fill up the time with the sound of their own voices, but to arrange matters so that the students do the talking.... Particulary in EFL (English as a foreign language...eg: learning English in Korea), rather than ESL (English as a second language...eg: a Korean learning English in Canada), class time is so valuable that we believe that the teacher should move on to practice phases of a lesson as soon as possible..."

And so I try to come up with games and activities that will get the students talking to each other. I will usually spend about 10 minutes or less of a 90 minute class, up at the front doing my talking thing. And I know that my students don't like it because of all the cultural barriers previously mentioned, but it's frustrating because intuitively I know it's good for them if they actually want to learn English. How to overcome this?


Something that I've just started doing in all my classes is reading out loud. In the book I use (World Link, level 1) there are usually little reading blurbs to read to introduce the topic we are studying. Previously, I would have the students just read silently to themselves until I clued in that they would read but most of them would not really take anything in. I would ask them simple comprehension questions and most of the students didn't even understand the basics....

...until I started getting them to read out loud to their partner, alternating paragraphs or sentences. I think that creating a situation where there is a physical response, such as moving one's mouth and forming words or listening to your partner read helps them to actually take in what they're reading. It just engages more of the senses I guess and a different part of the brain as well. And I actually did notice a big difference in their reading comprehension when I asked follow-up questions.

Additionally, Korea is a very group-orientated culture so anytime the students can do something with a friend, they seem generally happier and less bored. Try it out!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Review Stuff

This week I've been doing review in my classes. And while cruising the internet for fun things to do, I ran across this really awesome game.

You have to make matching pieces of paper with questions/answers or something else that makes them obviously matching. Examples:

1.Scary movie 2.Horror

1.What's your biggest achievement? 2. My biggest achievement is getting into university.

1.What was the last movie you saw? 2. Last weekend, I saw the new James Bond movie.

Then cut them up in strips of paper. Hand them out to the students...about 4-5/student seemed to work well. Then they walk around the classroom trying to find their partner with the matching piece of paper. Once they find their partner, the students play rock/scissor/paper and the winner takes the matching pieces of paper and puts them in their pocket. That's one point. Stop the game when some people start to have no pieces of paper left and the winner has the most points.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Formulating Questions

So I think that one of the biggest problems my students have is formulating questions. They're really pretty decent at answering the basics, like:

"What's your name?"
"Where are you from?"
"What's your favorite_____?"

But once that question is finished, they have no tools for asking a follow-up question. And English conversation, if one can't ask appropriate questions is just kind of awkward and not really a conversation at all. This was kind of a break-through for me and I can't quite believe it took me so long to catch onto this weakness of Korean students.

So, some things I do in order to help my students become better at asking questions:

1. While I still do the question/answer in partners thing almost every class, I get the student who is asking the question to listen to the answer and then ask an appropriate follow-up question. It's helpful to do a couple examples and write the "5 W's + how" on the board for them to refer to if they get stuck. Example:

A. What's something you want to achieve in the next 5 years? (written on the board)
B. I want to finish school and get a good job.
A. What kind of job do you want? ....or.... Where do you want to work?

2. Books often have survey type activities. Like mingling with your fellow students and find someone who can drive a car, or could read at age 4, etc, etc. The book often does not leave space for a follow-up question. When this is the case, I will make up my own worksheets with a column for "one more ?"

3. To help them figure out questions, I will sometimes write the answer on the board for a common conversational idea for the topic we are studying. And then we figure out the question together, using hints from the answer.

How do you move beyond the single question/single answer in your classroom?

Classroom Management

One of the big issues with teaching at a university in Korea is motivating your students. I teach at a lower level uni and so most of my students just don't care about English. The course that I teach, Freshman English is required. And I can't really blame them for not caring. They'll never use English again, outside of this class that they just have to pass to get their degree. So the challenge is how to make my class interesting and engaging enough so that they'll actually pick up a bit of English, despite their reluctance.

One thing that I found that has worked extremely well is using a stamp and ink pad. Kind of like back in elementary school. I give them a stamp in their book for each time they do their homework. If we play a game, I'll give a stamp to the winners. If someone volunteers to speak in front of the class, I'll give out a stamp. If the students are doing paired conversation practice, I'll give out a stamp or two to encourage those who are speaking English and not Korean. These stamps count for %35 of their final grade and each stamp is worth 2%. The best students will have 15-20 stamps in a semester, so they'll end up with all 35 of the points. Even the students who don't really participate in class can get a "B" or so for doing their homework every week.

What do you think? What are you ideas?