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EL Asia Pacific: Korea adapts to change


Brian Dean, Robert Dickey and Kathleen Kelley describe the constantly shifting world of South Korean English language teaching.

Korea Tesol (Kotesol) was established in 1992 and is an independent national affiliate of the US-based Tesol International Association, as well as an associate member of UK-based Iatefl.

The membership of Kotesol includes elementary school, secondary school and university English teachers and professors, as well as ELT teachers-in-training, administrators, researchers, materials writers, curriculum developers and other interested people. Approximately 30 per cent of our members are Korean nationals.

Families in Korea pay more for English language learning than residents of other countries but don’t get comparable results. Much of the education process – for all subjects, not just English – is driven by the demands of the university entrance exam (Su-neung), with the Korea Scholastic Aptitude Test university entrance exams for English taking place across Korea over a single day. This year it’s on 17 November and listening is now included (see the December 2015 Gazette for the latest exam reforms). Rote memorisation is still a key element of success.

Grades are important and competition is extreme, with many young people complaining about ‘Joseon Hell’ (Joseon being an ancient name for Korea). The suicide rate for young Koreans is the highest among OECD countries.

Korea also has among the lowest birthrates in the world – schools are closing and hiring is being reduced in all fields at all education levels.

Among the many private schools and independent educators in Korea, even at pre-school level, there is a focus on ‘testable’ English – or at least completing workbooks (‘tangible evidence of learning’).

English is not allowed in primary schools during the first three grades (the first two years of primary) as part of a pledge by government to mitigate the ‘negative impact of excessive private tutoring’ (see the April 2016 Gazette for the Constitutional Court upholding this ban on early-years English). Grades 4–6 are conversation-based, while in middle and high school the focus is on multiple-choice test preparation despite a curriculum that leans more to communicative activities.

The national government, meanwhile, strives to improve education and results. Attempting to combat the perceived need for expensive private schooling, the government has created an educational television channel which covers all the material needed for the university entrance exam.

The government has also created ‘English Villages’, where students can spend a week in a simulation of a town of English speakers, with the first one, Ansan English Village, opening in 2004. Most English Villages were run by non-profit organisations under the control of national or local government. The goal was to save parents the cost of sending a child overseas. In another attempt to improve ESL, native-speaker English teachers were hired to work in most elementary and middle schools.

Whatever the value of the ideas, the results were not satisfactory. Government-funded teaching positions for foreign native-speaker teachers (the English Programme in Korea, which recruits native speakers for public sector classrooms, and similar) are being replaced with recent Korean university graduates as part-time instructors in after-school programmes. Most of the English Villages have closed or drastically reduced their throughput. Ansan closed a couple of years ago and another major English village, in Gyeonggi, shut its doors after ten years in May 2016.

Even in private language schools and universities, the number of English teachers has dropped significantly, with English teacher visas issued falling from 30,000 in 2008 to less than 15,000 in 2015.

Korea is the most internet-wired (and wireless-accessible) country in the world, but online English education has not grown much beyond video-on-demand lectures and interactive web pages driven by a ‘fill the gap’ approach to learning.

Conversation instruction is often oriented to job interviews or job-related functions. The traditional general English conversation classes that were taught for many years are now seen to be no longer good enough.

All this change has been a key focus of teachers and leaders in Korea Tesol. The principal theme for Kotesol’s 2016 international conference is ‘Shaping the future with 21st century skills’. This follows from the theme of last year’s conference, ‘Transitions in education’.

Brian Dean is professor of ESL at Dongseo University, Kathleen Kelley is president of the Busan chapter of Kotesol and teaches at Andong National University, Rob Dickey is a past president for Kotesol and professor of public administration at Keimyung University in Daegu.


Korea Tesol: 15–16 October 2016

The 2016 Korea Tesol International Conference (https://koreatesol.org/ic2016) will be held 15–16 October at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul. Speakers include Thomas S.C. Farrell of Brock University in Canada, author of many books on reflective practice for EFL teachers, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa, teacher on the Neuroscience of Learning course at the Harvard University Extension School, William Littlewood, honorary professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and Chuck Sandy, teacher trainer with the International Teachers Development Institute, educational activist and co-author of the Connect and Active Skills For Communication textbook series and of English for Scammers.