By Cheng Chu Hin, Tom (Year 4, 2016-2017)
The Korean Teaching trip was a brand new experience for me: not only was this my first time traveling to South Korea, but this was also my first attempt to teach middle and high school students English as a foreign language. To be completely honest, I had never heard of Daegu before the trip, and I had some stereotypical ideas of Korean students’ English proficiency. From my interactions with Korean students studying abroad in Hong Kong, their English proficiency is close to perfect, and therefore I was a bit surprised to learn that this isn’t the case for most Korean students studying in public and even private schools. I therefore embarked on this teaching trip with an open mind and a curious heart, wishing to learn everything about the Korean education system and especially English education.
Korean and the US culture
Education in Korea is highly influenced by the US. Not only do the Koreans follow the US education system (hence they have elementary, middle and high schools), but they also teach content that is “Americanized”. This can be easily seen in their English education, as they frequently adopt authentic materials from the US, such as short stories, movies, and pop songs, and their textbooks often include knowledge about the American culture. Having a special affection for the American culture, it is therefore no surprise that the students and teachers there speak with features of the American accent, such as flapping, and are familiar with various aspects of the American culture, such as recent Hollywood blockbusters. From what I observe, Korean students generally quite enjoy American pop songs and movies, and I propose that this approach to teaching English not only provides them intrinsic but also integrative motivation to learn English, as those authentic materials are intrinsically interesting and enjoyable to them, and they can learn English in order to immerse in the American culture. I think this is something Hong Kong’s English education is lacking and teachers can definitely introduce American culture and its cultural products to students in order to motivate them to learn English for non-academic and non-instrumental purposes.
Having set low expectation of Korean students’ English proficiency, I used very simple instructions and a lot of body language during my teaching. I find that students could understood my instructions, although observers of my lessons pointed out that my instructions were overtly simple and could appear childish and repetitive to the students. Since I only had one lesson with each of the two classes, I think my approach was well received by the students; but if I had the chance to teach more lessons, I wonder too if my teaching styles would be suitable for teaching those students, who are quite mature. Nevertheless, not knowing how to speak the students’ first language, my goal of making students understand my instructions in English was largely achieved, which should relieve me a lot.
The two lessons’ productive activities were also carried out quite smoothly, and having tried out the approach of driving students to produce what they have learnt immediately in the lesson, I realize the importance of setting up a measurable and achievable lesson objective and designing lesson activities to let the students attain the lesson objective. I learned in this teaching trip that when teaching students of low English proficiency, the presentation-practice-production model can be of great help in assisting students to acquire the target structure of the lesson. Obviously, there are areas I can improve in terms of activity design: some tasks can be too easy for the students (e.g. the information gap activity I used with the junior high students), and I still have to learn to immediately scale up the difficulty of the activity within a lesson; some tasks are difficult not because of language problem, but because they are cognitively demanding or that they demand world knowledge that students don’t have (e.g. the activity in which I ask students to think about what they will do if they live on a lonely island or the activity in which I ask them to think about what they will do if they visit Hong Kong). In this teaching trip, I realize more factors I have to consider when designing an activity.
Exam and washback effect
The presentation on English education in Korea given by Keimyung University students really opened my eyes. In Korea’s university entrance exam, CSAT, only reading and listening ability are assessed, and the mode of assessment is a 70-minute test consisting of only 45 questions. This is very different from the English Language examination in the HKDSE, which consists of five papers, namely reading, writing, listening, speaking, and SBA. A question that immediately comes to my mind is whether Korean’s English education suffers from washback effect, which means that the teaching and learning of English only focus on reading and listening. From my observation, this is largely true, not only from the Korean teachers’ exclusive focus on reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition in the lessons but also Korean students’ low ability in writing and speaking. Despite the Korean government’s push to increase the teaching of writing and speaking in English lessons, unless the university entrance examination includes the assessment of these two skills, I think the exclusive focus on reading and listening will remain unchanged.
English education: South Korea vs Hong Kong
The main teaching methods in English education in South Korea are grammar translation method and the audiolingual method – two traditional ESL/EFL methods that are considered old-fashioned by many teachers in the world. While the drawbacks of such approaches to teaching English are apparent, it is also important to note their merits. Because the goal of grammar translation method is to let students be able to read literature written in the target language, Korean students are able to enjoy written authentic materials in regular English lessons, such as American short stories and poems, which is something Hong Kong pupils can only envy. Most Korean students have an affection for the American culture, whether it be American novels or American pop songs, while rarely do Hong Kong students have an affection for the British or American culture. Korean students also have a large English vocabulary thanks to the curriculum’s focus on vocabulary acquisition; while most Hong Kong students have smaller vocabulary banks because extensive reading is rarely practiced even though it is encouraged within the curriculum. Despite all these mentioned, Hong Kong students still have the edge over Korean students because most of them have better writing and speaking abilities and generally possess a higher level of English proficiency, thanks to the English curriculum’s focus on using Task-based Language Teaching approach to teach reading, writing, listening, speaking and grammar. However, whether it is possible to follow in South Korea’s footsteps and use authentic materials to enhance students’ intrinsic motivation in learning English is something Hong Kong English teachers ought to think about.
Implications for my future teaching
The two lessons I taught in the trip have shed light on areas I can improve in my future teaching. For one, I have to improve my ability to scale up or down the activity in a lesson immediately. Perhaps I can add questions spontaneously to increase the difficulty of a task, or provide guidance on the spot in form of pictorial clues or vocabulary items if students find the task too challenging. Another thing I have to improve is giving instructions to less able students – while my instructions are effective and comprehensible for these students, the simplicity of my instructions might deem unsuitable considering the level of maturity of most students. Though it is obvious that I cannot simply make my instructional language difficult, when I teach the students I cannot treat them as small children. However, this is easier said than done, and I would love to hear from anyone who has successful experience of delivering comprehensible instructions to weaker students that would suit their level of maturity as well. The last problem I had in the teaching tour is that my writing on the board is too big. This has been a consistent problem, which I have experienced even during my primary school’s TP. While this stems out of the fear that students at the back will be unable to see my writing on the board, I have to learn to write smaller words on the board.
I would like to end this reflection by giving thanks to Professor Tang, Professor Park, our ELED alumna Ingrid To, Miss Angel Lam, and anyone else who have helped planned the teaching trip and ensured the smooth running of the tour. I know that the planning of the trip is no easy job at all and I will not take this trip for granted. I have definitely learned a lot in the trip and grown as a prospective teacher. It is hoped that I will be able to make use of what I have learned in the trip to benefit my future teaching so as to pay it forward.