In many of the units covered in this course, there was a section on “specific problems that may be encountered in the classroom” be it differing pronunciation, mixed levels, behavior, outside forces, age, and from other factors. In Unit 5, this course listed a number of factors that could potentially cause problems in the classroom or for students such as class size, boredom, class arrangement, low self-esteem, family issues, peer pressure, and lack of respect (Unit, 12). In a later unit (20), the course reiterated these reasons with younger learners, the first one being: “Problems at home/outside the classroom: There is not much you [the teacher
] can do about this…” (8). I'm going to focus on this aspect using my experience as a Fulbright english teacher
in South Korea and will broaden it to include cultural issues that impact learning in the classroom.
Before I unpack that, I want to mention some of the grammatical issues that arise with students in South Korea. The first issue is with R/L pronunciation. Having taken some courses in Korean, the sounds that correspond with R/L are virtually the same in Korean. This makes it difficult for students seeing an R or L in a word to differentiate how to say it and produces problems in spelling. A classic example is my name, Lisa. I thought my students had finally grasped the Leee sound and not the Reee sound when one of my students wrote me a note starting with, “Risa.” Another issue comes with pronouns, especially with confusion between she/he. The reason behind this is similar to the R/L issue in that the roots go back to the Korean language itself. A Korean teacher
at my school once explained to me that Koreans don't refer to people using pronouns but either use their full name or reference nothing in particular (the listener knowing who the speaker is talking about by context). Koreans have a Subject-object-verb order (causing word-order problems) and often “personal reference is avoided” (Shoebottom). The last grammatical issue I will mention at present is the Korean tendency to “forget” articles because “Korean does not have an article system…” (Eckert). The use of definite and indefinite articles, vital in english
to clarify, classify, and differentiate is a hard concept for many Korean speakers to grasp. While for native speakers, we use articles without really thinking about why, a non-native speaker will have to think constantly about whether a noun is countable/uncountable or definite/indefinite. Other phonetic issues arise from english
rule exceptions and Hangul to Roman alphabet differences (Shoebottom).
While the above paragraph deals with typical grammatical errors, I now want to shift into struggles arising from outside forces, namely that of South Korean culture and the insane amount of educational pressure placed on young students (starting in middle school). At the end of every student's third (and last) year in high school, he or she takes a test, the Suneung. For thousands of students, this nine-hour long test will “determine their economic and social status for the rest of their lives” (Katzenmeyer). For most students, studying becomes their entire lives throughout high school. Having taught at Yeongcheon Girls' High School (a public school) last year, I am witness to the long hours they remain at school in class, self study, night study, or when they leave to continue at private academies. My students (many of whom lived at school without the support of a family unit close by) arrived at 7:30 am and didn't finish their school day until 10:00 pm, six days a week. The sheer amount of studying and school these young teens are forced to endure because of societal pressure and fears for their future impact their motivation to learn and their energy levels. On the positive side, it increases their motivation to study and learn english
as a significant portion of the test is on english
and society considers having strong english
skills necessary for higher paid jobs and to be competitive in an increasingly global world (market). On the flip side, students are burned out from the intense schedule and want to have some semblance of freedom. This can often translate into a lack of motivation in the classroom due to oversaturation, other demanding workloads, and tiredness. Also, second year students are tracked into either the science/math route or the english
/Korean route. The former category sees less of a need to learn english
as they have chosen the alternative route as one of my teaching friends noted when discussing some especially troublesome second years: “first years were required to select which academic track they would follow—humanities and social sciences, or math and science” (Kerth). The last thing unmotivated and tired students want to do is repetition (rote memorization is popular in their other classes) or study grammar. They view the western world as having more freedom and being more fun, so at times students can come to class with preconceived notions that class will just be “easy” and all they will do is “play.” A good way to combat both tiredness and these misconceptions is to keep class varied and interesting, bringing in lots of authentic materials and “disguising” grammar in various activities or pertinent, engaging work.
Bringing a variety of subjects, lessons, and activities to class also helps to broaden student perspectives, encourage them to think critically, and help them to see beyond themselves. Living in a homogenous society as well as a conformist society can both help and hinder in the classroom. While Korea's hierarchal nature cuts down on classroom management issues, it can seriously alienate students who have “messed up” or have a more individualistic nature. From personal experience, I talked in length to a “problem” student who was clearly smart but wasn't applying herself in the classroom. Through a mixture of english
and Korean (to ensure meaning was being translated) she told me, “No teacher
has ever told me I'm smart. I started off badly and they can't see past that.” She had lost face and she had made other teacher
s lose face, which is difficult to repair and forgive in Korean culture. This contributed to her low self-esteem as well as having family issues contributing to her actions within the classroom. It was eye opening to see what an uphill battle this student would have in education since native teacher
s had written her off as disrespectful and a lost cause instead of just needing redirection and a bit more attention. While this happens as well in other countries including America, Korean society and culture seem less forgiving (and in some schools, still phasing out corporal punishment in the classroom). My personal opinion is that the lack of freedom found in society produces a tendency for students to withdraw from fear of making mistakes, losing face in front of their peers, or causing others to lose face. teacher
s need to be extra aware that it takes a great deal of courage and nonconformity for a student to speak up in class voluntarily. This is why it is so important that the teacher
establish good rapport with the students, encourage participation, and create a safe environment where students will feel comfortable trying even if they make errors.
For more information about the Korean education system, check out this link to a documentary focusing on Korean high schools (directed by Kelley Katzenmeyer).
Eckert, Ken. “Some Help for Teaching Korean esl
Students.” January 2008.
Katzenmeyer, Kelley. “Documentary on Korean High School.” 2011.
Kerth, Anne. “The Curious Case of Class 2-4 and 2-5.” A Fullness of Things. 17 September
Shoebottom, Paul. “The Differences between english
and Korean.” 1996-2012. http://esl
“Unit 5: Managing Classes.” International TEFL and TESOL training
. 2011. (p. 12).
“Unit 20: Troubleshooting.” International TEFL and TESOL training
. 2011. (p. 8).