Wednesday, April 29, 2009


I find that with some longer reading passages, that if you give the students time to read it in class, many of them won't actually do it, or they'll just skim on through and not put any effort into it and won't be able to remember anything. So I will almost always make it into a game, with some reward at the end. I'll give the students some allotted amount of time to read the passage, and then at the end of that time, they will have to close their books. I will ask questions, based upon the reading and the students will put up their hands if they know the answer. I'll usually pick the first person to put up their hand, and also try to get as many students answering as possible. Correct answer=one point. The one or two students with the most points at the end of the class gets a prize/stamp/whatever reward system you have.

The first time, it's usually only the 4 or 5 top students who will read closely enough to be able to participate. But the next time, almost everyone will be reading closely enough to be able to answer questions.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Some things I wish I had known...

...on my first day of teaching, that I know now:

1. Teacher's books are usually important and helpful. Use them.

2. The teacher should talk far, far less than the students. Do anything you can to involve them and make them the center of your lesson.

3. You don't need to be super-crazy/funny in order for your students to like you. Just be kind, gracious and consistent.

4. When you play a game, have all the steps worked out in your head. And be fair.

5. Don't play favorites. That's not cool at all. And students will try to play you, but resist. All the students will like you better in the end if they know that you will treat everyone the same.

Any other ideas?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Do they have no shame...

...I've just finished my mid-terms exams for this semester. I do a written and a speaking portion of the test. The week before the test, I give the students a study paper with all the possible questions for the test, about 20 in all. And then for the speaking test, I'll pick 3 random questions, one from each unit. Most of the students at least glance over the sheet so they're kind of familiar with it but at least 2 or 3 students in each class don't even bother. They have no idea what I'm talking about and have this, shocked, kind of surprised look like they're never ever heard of this question before. I point it out to them, on the study sheet that I'm looking at when I ask my question. No sign of familiarity.

Anyway, whatever, they'll have to take the class again and it's not my money (of theirs) that they're wasting, but mom and dad. But is there no sense of embarrassment? Or shame? Of not wanting to look like a dumb-ass in front of your professor? Weird. I don't get it. Maybe they really just don't care.

Monday, April 20, 2009


I ran across this article recently entitled, "How to be an entertaining ESL teacher." It was interesting and you should check it out, if only to disagree. He is coming from the angle of a language center, which is usually more focused on profit than education and so from this point of view, entertainment is definitely necessary or little Minsu will just go to the hagwon down the street if it's not fun. And kids of course is an entirely different gig than adults.

From my point of view, in a university setting, a happy balance is required. The students are not kids, obviously, but they're not exactly adults either, at least in Korea. It seems like almost everyone in Korea is sleep deprived so they'll fall asleep at the drop of a hat if it isn't interesting. And they do evaluations at the end of the semester, so the students have some degree of power if they really hate your class. But some things, like a short grammar lesson or whatever or some written exercises to practice the grammar just aren't interesting and there's no way around it. Or things like doing a presentation, in English. I know the students don't like it and think it's boring and not fun but for some of them, it's the only English they will actually speak the entire semester. And when they say they're bored, or the activity is not fun, I think it often means that they actually have to do the hard work of learning a second language and they're not happy about it.

So what I'm saying is this: do what you can to make your classes interesting but don't let the students get off to easy, with no real work or learning happening!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Grades...and big classes

So two things I kind of don't like about my job, despite saying that I loved it all around in many previous posts.

The first one is grades/tests. I know they're necessary in this model of education and I'm not a hippy or anything, but I just don't like giving them out. To the good students who are getting A's, it's all good, you're happy, they're happy. To the bad, lazy, rude students, when they get an "F" at the end of the semester, it's somewhat satisfying because they've usually given me 16 weeks of hassle and don't think that I'll actually give them an F. The situations I don't like are when there are students who come to every class, do homework and try hard but just aren't good at English and I have to give them a C. Or when the rude students are actually good at English and I have to give them an A.

And the other thing I don't like is having 25 students in a class. It's just too many for a language class and it's easy for the lazy, bad students to slip through the cracks and actually go an entire class without speaking English, although I try my best to prevent this. And I don't really get to know my students on a more personal level since I only see them once a week and have 9 classes of them.

What has made me realize these things is this other, extra class I'm teaching this semester. There are 3 Chinese students and about 7 Korean ones. It's just straight conversation basically and we meet 4 days a week for an hour. No grades, no hassle. They come because they actually want to practice speaking English. I actually know their names and we all know each other pretty well after 5 weeks together. Yesterday, there were only 3 of them because it's midterms next week so I took them out for dinner to the sandwich shop and we spoke English, for an entire hour with no book in front of us. It was very fun and what I really like about being a teacher. I just wish I had a lot more opportunity to do stuff like this. And I would in my bigger classes if it didn't give off the illusion of playing favorities, which I clearly would be. It makes me wonder if I can find a job with the same vacation, teaching smaller groups of adults more intensively?!?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Listening Activities

I generally don't use the listening CDs that go with the books in my classes for various reasons that I've explained before on this blog. But my Korean teacher does and it has just confirmed for me why I don't. I think they could potentially be an okay thing if done well, but they're often not. How to not do it well:

1. Pop it in and waste 3 minutes trying to find the right one.

2. Then just hit play, without explaining what section in the book the students are supposed to be looking at so everyone has stress of trying to figure out what they should be listening for.

3. Play it 5 or 6 times until the students feel like banging their heads against the wall in frustration and boredom.

4. Play it for the last time and just move on to the next activity without any feedback or follow-up of any sort.

So you can use your deductive powers and figure out how to do it well I'm sure!

Interesting article in the Korean Times

...about the state of English in Korea. Koreans spend more money than any non-native country on English education and yet they are one of the worst countries at English. How is this? Part of it is the unqualified, unenlightened teachers, especially in the public schools, that use the threat of physical violence as their main motivating tool. Another part is that most kids just don't see the relevance of learning English in their daily lives and it's just one of the steps in their endless, daily shuffle from cram school to scram school.

And part of it is culture, which is what I deal with on a daily basis. The whole Confucian shame thing makes it pretty difficult to learn English I think, since students are so scared to make any mistakes in front of their peers. And walking into a class the first day when they don't even know you and they're already sleeping and give you no feedback because the teacher is just there to impart knowledge to students with no interaction at all. And cheating is an entirely acceptable part of Korean culture. Copying homework or on a test, texting answers to friends, it's all good here. Skipping class with fake excuse notes, or on feeble pretenses. Totally acceptable. And very frustrating.

The Korean culture of test-taking plays a large role in this as well. English education in Korea is mostly to pass certain tests: the university entrance exam and then later on, for jobs. So of course they're bad at speaking, and listening and writing if they are only focused on reading for the tests and test-taking strategies.

Anyway, check out the article.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Clear Directions

I'm teaching in this extra program at my uni and the person that is running it can't really speak English. Sure, he can string a few words together but it's not coherent and after he explains something, you really can't understand and don't even know what questions you want to ask because it's all just so confusing. And he kind of gets mad when you ask questions because he thinks he's done an amazing job of explaining. And it's so, so frustrating that it makes my head want to explode and never deal with this person again. And I won't. After this semester ends, I'm totally and completely done with this program forever. The money is not worth the stress.

Anyway, there is a point to all this complaining. I've realized that I need to be extremely clear when giving directions to my students since there is obviously a language barrier and I don't want them to be extremely frustrated with me, as I am with this guy. It's just a bad feeling and very stressful.

I've found the following things to help a lot:

1. Write it on the board as well as speaking. Most students in Korea are good at reading comprehension but kind of weak at listening.

2. If it's a bigger assignment, write the directions on a piece of paper for them to take home. Many students won't write it down, thinking they can remember...but we all know how that turns out in the end!

3. Use extremely simple language, with key points that you want to convey. Forget all the little detail words that don't convey the main point.

4. Actions. Open the book to the page you want them to look at and put your hand on the part you want them to do. For all games, do an example. For all conversations, do an example with one student. This helps me immensely in class.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Teaching Vocab

There are many ways to do it, but here's one idea that works for me.  This past week, I was teaching about places: department store, drugstore, electronics store, etc and talking about what you can buy at which place.

So I wrote all the words up on the board, and made sure they understood each one.  I erased them, leaving only the first letter.  Then, I got them to say the words a few times, by memory.  At the end, I got them to spell the words for me and then I erased them all.  

I made them into 4 or 5 teams and one person from each team came up to the board, in their alloted space.  I asked...."Where can I buy a_____?"  They had to write the place on the board.  The first person to write it, got a point and then they would go sit back down and change writers for their team.

This actually helps students remember vocab and it has the novelty factor.  What student doesn't like writing on the board and playing a game?     

Monday, April 6, 2009

Some Sympathy interesting article from the Chosunilbo about how Koreans "Work longer, suffer more than most in OECD."  Koreans work the longest hours among the 30 countries, spend the most on private education and not surprisingly, seem very unhappy.  And who could blame them?

So, in my classes I try to have a little sympathy.  This really is the only time in their lives that they get to relax and spend time with friends and date and do whatever normal teenagers in other countries do.  Many of them have come from middle school/high school hell, studying until all hours of the night, every night and on weekends too.   It perhaps even started earlier with hagwons in elementary school.  Then, they have these 4 years of break time before starting jobs where the expectation is that they'll basically live at the office.  Anyone who refuses, gets fired or pushed to the side.  And my students are even telling me these days, that it's harder and harder for college grads to get jobs in Korea, so they're forced to take university a lot more seriously and get good grades.  So even the 4 years of freedom is slowly being taken away it seems.  

How this all works out in my classes?  It's pretty easy.  For a minimum of effort in doing homework and coming to class everyday with an okay attitude, the student will at least get a D.  With a minimum of cramming for the test the hour before, they'll probably get a C.  But I save the B's and A's for the students who are either actually good at English before or, who put in a serious effort towards actually learning.  It seems to work out well and most students are pretty happy with the grade they get.  Or, at least no one has complained to the administration about it!   

It could go either way....

...making students write conversations and present them in front of the class.  A couple times a semester, I'll do this activity based on some short, situational conversation in the book like telling a friend you're sick and can't meet them or you're angry/sad/embarrassed for some reason.  

I will usually have them practice the conversation in the book a couple times and then tell them to make their own conversation.  They can use some things from the book to help them but they can't copy; at least some things have to be different.  I'll give them about 10 minutes to write 8 or 10 lines, memorize and practice speaking.  I'll then give a reward to the teams that are funny, and interesting, as well as good at speaking.  

The good? 
The outgoing students seem to love it.

I like the challenge of trying to get them to be funny/interesting in English.  There are usually at least a couple groups that do a really, really good job of it and it makes my day.  

It's results based, with some peer pressure thrown in.  No one wants to look like a dumbass in front of their classmates.  If it's just the teacher listening, at least a few students just don't care and will do any stupid thing.  

It practices writing, speaking, and listening.  

The bad?

It can be a bit tedious in the weaker classes if no one is funny or interesting.  

The weaker students really hate it.  And I have some sympathy for them.  But then I kind of wonder how they can't memorize 4 or 5 lines of simple dialogue when they've studied English for the last 6 or 7 years.  

The deal?

I'm not sure if this is a worthwhile activity or not.  Kind of a toss-up in my book and I'd like some opinions on what everyone else thinks.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


One thing that I think is extremely important in being an ESL teacher is organization. I'm taking this Korean class and while I like my teacher and think she's generally got her stuff together, I definitely notice when she has the few moments of grasping around for the next thing or filling time. And once that happens, in a big class, the students will just start talking amongst themselves and you've perhaps lost them for the next few minutes. Anyway, this Korean class has made me notice these moments a lot more in my class. Some things I do to stay organized:

1. I keep everything I need for teaching in one bag and I use this same bag everyday. A whole box of markers and chalk, a few pens, my attendance paper folder and the 2 books that I use in class. They almost never leave the bag. This is the best way not to forget stuff you need to teach I think and spend panicky minutes running around before class.

2.I never do the listening activities in the books because I find they take too long to prepare and require a good amount of organization that I'm not willing to spend the time doing. I think my students need the speaking practice more anyway and can get listening practice in other ways besides the CD from the book. And the "rental CD" players are kind of notorious for not working at my uni.

3. I keep my lesson plan on a single piece of paper. This is better than flipping through the book trying to find the next thing you want to do.

4. I come to class early...usually about 10 minutes so I can do attendance, check homework and deal with any questions even before class time officially starts.

5. I'll do the things that are heavy on the "on the board" writing at the beginning. Like if there are vocab words or something that will take a significant amount of time to write, I'll have it up on the board even before the class starts. This is also good because most of the students will read it and look up words they don't know without you even telling them to do it.

6. I'll usually get students started on some sort of group or pair activity and be writing up the next thing on the board that I need for the lesson. This is entirely possible with a little planning and in my classes, students almost never have to wait while I write stuff on the board. It's pretty easy to keep an eye on the activity situation while you write as well.

7. Another time filler is checking answers. I'll often write them on the board while students are doing the same activity. This is much faster and more accurate than going over the answers together.

8. Powerpoint? My thoughts are that it's potentially a time-saver but it could also go the opposite way. It depends on how good your technical skills are and how good the equipment at your school is. It kind of stresses me out to plan a lesson around this in case something doesn't work out with the equipment so I usually think of some backup things I can do, just in case. And it will just take a lot longer to prepare but it's perhaps not worth the time investment in terms of class enjoyment, learning, etc.

Any more ideas on how to make the best use of class time?