Lessons learned on teaching EFL.

Okay. Shazam. Advice for teaching English in Korea. Where the hell to begin.

Learn, at the very least, to read hangeul.

Being able to pronounce and use your students' names (which will be on each of their uniforms, in the form of a small name tag written in hangeul) will be invaluable. There's something about calling out that name that turns an ignition key in their little half-formed brains that you can't reach with English otherwise. You've got to remember that you sound, quite literally, like an adult in a Peanuts cartoon to your students most of the time. Wah wah waaaaah wah wah wah waaaaaah. To be able to punctuate all of that static with something as clear and direct and recongnizable as their name can save you a lot of trouble when it comes to getting them to focus and clue in.

Also, I can't tell you how many times I've had low level students who really, really want to learn English, who sit there and work their asses off on their worksheets, even if it means they can only write their answers in in Hangeul: "What do you like to do?"/"컴퓨터 게임." First of all, that's just how you say that one, in Korean. But a lot of the lower level students are still studying their English vocabulary by writing it in phonetic hangeul. Being able to sound it out and write it out for them in English will save a lot of confusion. Of course, it's always best to make them speak their answer to you, but the lower level students especially, until they get comfortable with you, will largely stare straight down at their desks, turn purple and refuse to acknowledge the fact that you're there when you speak directly to them. Being able to come down to their level and help them out will help them to come around to you a lot more quickly.

Have a friend who speaks a foreign language you don't know a lick of try to teach you that language in that language for 45 minutes.

You're going to get frustrated with your students a lot, because it's going to be hard for you to understand how confusing and overwhelming your class is for them. You'll figure it out real quick when someone is standing in front of you expecting you to understand something in a language you don't fucking speak.

This is, of course, most valuable, if you can find a way to experience a professional doing it, so that you can see it done right, and realize what makes things click for you, how the teacher can help you to understand what the hell is going on, even though you don't understand his/her words. But even having someone do it wrong can be a huge help, as you can understand how frustrating you may be for your students if you're not quite getting there yourself.

When I started taking a Korean class in Korean was when my co-teachers finally eased up off the translation in my classroom. They suddenly saw a huge change in my teaching style and materials that allowed for the students to understand me, my lessons and my directions without them having to restate them in Korean. Things were clicking with the students before we even got to the end of my portion of things. I would never have been able to achieve this without seeing it done excellently by my lovely, brilliant (and patient) Korean teacher. And it's not enough to see it done in English by other English teachers -- I think you need to really experience it firsthand, for yourself.

You may try to shoot above their level, writing various things off as 'too easy' and boring, without realizing that speaking a foreign language is an extremely insecure thing, and sometimes even something that seems simple and boring can be quite stimulating and encouraging for the students, if they are able to be successful at it. You won't really understand that, in my opinion, until you experience it for yourself. I surely didn't until I looked up in my Korean class one day and suddenly realized 12 adult human beings were sitting in a circle getting extremely excited because we were forming sentences in Korean, based on cards the teacher held up, about who in the classroom "gave" who what.

This leads nicely into...

Use 'scaffolding'. Often and excessively.

What is scaffolding? It's exactly what it sounds like. You know that lattice work you see holding up parts of buildings that are being constructed, before the actual construction begins? That's scaffolding. And that's what you need to put in place for your students before you expect them to dive in to an activity or task. This means that before I expect my students to engage in a speaking activity with each other or in front of the class, I give them worksheets so that they can practice the structure in writing first, to become comfortable with it. In most cases, really really easy worksheets with lots of "example" answers. This shouldn't be the only thing you are doing -- they're getting plenty of that with the Korean teachers, and your job, ultimately, is to get them speaking English as spontaneously as possible, but it can be really overwhelming for them to be thrown head first into a speaking activity without having a chance to get comfortable with the target language structure first.

For example, last week my portion in the book for the second graders was a question-and-answer session with each other about a goal. If I had simply gone over the vocabulary and introduced the questions, and then set them up in pairs and set them at it, the class would have quickly disintegrated into total chaos. Instead, before we started, I had them complete a worksheet writing in all their answers to the questions first. Then, they had to put the worksheet away, and answer the questions when their partners asked them. Trying to remember what each question meant, after just having them introduced, while also trying to think about their answers and produce them in English all at once would've been the surest way to have them all working together on translating their answers into English from Korean, rather than speaking to each other in English. Or to have them all just instantly give up and start playing "Slap Your Classmate With a Ruler" instead.

I've found that there are a lot of good sites with a lot of good material, and a lot of good books out there -- EFL Classroom 2.0, Lanternfish, and MES English, to name a few (Books: Totally True by Jann Huizenga and Easy True Stories by Sandra Heyer and the Interchange books by Cambridge are my favorites, although these only work for higher level students -- much higher than you'll be dealing with in most cases working in a public school) -- but I've also found that I can rarely introduce the activities found in these places into the classroom without doing some serious re-structuring to them first, by creating a number of powerpoints for introducing the vocabulary more thoroughly, and a number of worksheets and exercises for the students to complete beforehand so that they can do whatever the task is with any kind of hope at success.

One of the students' favorite games is a good example -- Eigomon. The boys fucking love this shit. They nearly wet themselves when they see the cards. But they can't play this game without some serious practice in the target language first. We go over comparitives and superlatives first, so they've got the concept down, and then they have to practice by completing a worksheet using the target language for their group, ie "Seungwon is stronger than Hyeonjoon. Taesoon is the strongest." Explaining the game, handing them the cards and setting them loose is the fastest way to assure that they'll take all of thirty seconds to work out a way to play it in Korean, or without speaking at all (simply slamming down the cards and observing the numbers), and you won't hear a word of English all period long.

It's better, in all cases, I've found, to assume that if the students are not participating in an activity, or if they are using Korean to complete the activity, that it's not because they are simply lazy -- it's because they don't know how. And there's something I haven't done to prepare them for the task at hand, that I need to work out for next time. Of course, that's not always the truth, but I've been shocked to find out how often it is.

Make the language real for them.

You're already going to do this every single day simply by being there and being a person they have to interact with in English. But it's important to push this home in the classroom as well.

Almost any amount of dabbling around in second language acquisition literature will tell you that language is best learned when it is made personal. What does that mean? It means that, in order for a word or series of words or structure to lodge itself in your students' brains, you need to try to find a way to make them apply that word to something in their personal life. They get plenty of language practice using the vocabulary and structures for things that don't have any actual, personal meaning to them at all -- "What does Sarah do when she wakes up? Sarah brushes her teeth when she wakes up." Who gives a fuck about Sarah? Not your students, that's for sure. And they won't give a fuck about remembering what "wake up" or "brush your teeth" mean when they only ever use it in relation to Sarah, either.

Design your lesson plans around having your students talk about themselves, their interests or their knowledge. Give them a chance to apply English to themselves. Or if you really want to get them excited, give them a chance to apply English to their classmates. When you get to the "I heard..." chapter in the book, design an activity that has them inventing and spreading rumors about each other. Have them convey actual information to the class, in English, when they stand up to read their answers, and you've got them doing your work for you -- not only is the student who's speaking speaking English, but the students who are listening are understanding and reacting to English -- reacting to my English! Did you see that? The whole class just laughed at my joke, even though I made it in English and not Korean! They understood me. English is a language, I can use it to communicate with other people -- it's not just some words in a book I have to memorize.

Be encouraging.

I always say that I feel like 75% of my job is not teaching English -- it's teaching confidence. You have an absolute responsibility to work your ass off to make sure your students feel as understood as possible when they're speaking English, no matter how bad their English may be. This includes familiarizing yourself with both the "Korean" pronunciation of many English words, because that's largely what your students are going to come out with, and also familiarizing yourself with the subjects students tend to speak about, such as current pop stars and events in Korea, the most popular computer games, the sports figures and teams they are most obsessed with. There is nothing worse for your students than to actually get up the nerve to try to tell you something in English, only to have you stare back at them in utter confusion. Failure. I can't speak English. I can't even say an English name and have the teacher understand. I am so fucking stupid and I'm never trying that again.

Also watch yourself with the, "What?" I have explained to every one of my classes over and over and over that, just because I say, "What?" in response to something they've just said, doesn't mean that they didn't say it right or that their English is horrible. I say, "What?" all the time to native English speakers as well. Sometimes, pretty babies, you mumble. Or you turn your face into your coat when you speak. Or I'm just not paying that much fucking attention, and there are 40 of you trying to talk to me all at the same time.

And. Sometimes it's my fault. Okay? Sometimes I just don't understand, because I'm old as hell and I don't follow the WWE as closely as you might. I don't know all of the names of the characters in Starcraft, or whatever the fuck it is you're trying to tell me about. That doesn't mean that you're stupid and horrible at English. We have to work together. Okay?

Even if all your students can do is repeat a pre-written sentence in English, word by word, directly after you say it, you plaster a huge smile on your face when they're finished and tell them how unbelievably amazing at English they are. Give them a high five and kick up a fuss about how beautiful they just sounded saying something in English, and how you can't believe what geniuses they are. And watch as they slowly begin to open up and try. As they change from tucking their chin and speed-walking past you in the hallway, to cheerfully calling out, "Hello Teacher!" when they see you coming.

Obviously, there's a lot more to say on this subject, but I think this is enough for now. These have been the most important things I've learned over the course of the last year and a half. The most important thing to remember about teaching EFL in English is that it is largely refinement by fire. Your first few months (possibly years) teaching are going to be the biggest help to you in learning how to teach effectively. Training courses, literature and advice from others all help immensely, but the biggest help to you is going to be getting into the classroom and getting ready to learn yourself. You're going to have to be even more patient with yourself than with your students. You're going to make horrific mistakes, have lesson plans that completely tank, and it's going to take a while before you understand how to make things work. None of these are reasons to give up trying or to write the task off as impossible. And they certainly are not reasons to turn on your students and blame them for everything, although you're going to have moments when it happens (God knows I have had plenty).

When you have one of those awful weeks when you weren't able to quite get there with your lesson, and you've had to endure 22 rounds of utter failure, just calm down and remind yourself that you are still learning, too. And it happens to ALL teachers, the Korean teachers included, not just the foreign teacher. And certainly not just you. Next week is a new week and you've got a whole new lesson you've learned about what just doesn't work. It's a process, and it's going to take time. That's okay. Just because one lesson bombs doesn't mean you're an awful teacher who will never be able to accomplish anything in the classroom. Take a deep breath, review what went down as objectively as possible, learn from it and move forward. You will get better -- I promise.


Burndog said...

Lovely stuff! I'm giving a Teaching Tips lecture for GEPIK Orientation...a lot of what you said sounds like it was lifted directly from my speech! It's amazing how much of teaching EFL is the same for each level (I teach Elementary, and have the same troubles and joys it would seem).

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot said...

Alright, so I've been reading your DIVIDE BY ZERO MASSIVE backlog of posts (which has been extraordinarily educational by the way) and I'm up to about January '09 so far. You're quite the clever little monkey. I was wondering if you would be willing to share the more advanced English books you use as I'll be teaching adults when I get there. I had more to say, but it is now drowning in the Styx of a Scotch induced fog. Maybe I'll remember the rest of it tomorrow.

I'm no Picasso said...

Burndog -- It's good to hear that some of this is on point for others as well.

Mr. Foxtrot -- Oh, god. Some of those earlier entries make me cringe with shame. But doesn't everything anyone's ever written years down the line?

The Interchange books have been quite kind to me with my adult classes. They allow for working in a lot of "free talking", which Korean adults will carry on and on and on about doing during class time, while giving them the vocabulary necessary to actually make conversation. There's also a great site called Breaking News English -- http://www.breakingnewsenglish.com/ -- it has great little edited down current event articles that are good for discussion. They'll bawk up a storm when you hand them out, but if you go about it the right way, and choose easy articles, they can get it down. The activities attached I've found to be largely worthless, but some of the stuff is good for classes that are more reluctantly to just jump into discussion, and the discussion questions are a good jumping-off point.

Also, you better bring the scotch with you, buddy. It'll cost you an arm and a leg over here. I used to be all about the whiskey until I got a gander at those prices....

I'm no Picasso said...

There are about 75 spelling/grammar/I don't even know how to classify them mistakes in that last comment. Forgive me -- it's nearly midnight, which is about seven hours after my bedtime these days.

Lauren Forde said...

Thanks for all the great tips! I look forward to paroozing those websites and checking out some of those books. I really appreciate how much time you put into answering that question!

Kel said...

I totally agree about doing the worksheet with the same sentences before turning it into speaking...I kind of just figured that out a few months ago and it has made a huge difference in my lowest level class. We do things a lot slower but it's worth it. Also, WRT the card games, very important, bc yeah, they will really find any way to turn it into gambling/casino time! ^_^

MH said...

Some great advice there.

The problem I'm having at the moment is that the material that the NGO I work for wants us to teach is far too complicated for the students and requires complex abstract thought that, put simply, is too complex for the students. Add in to that the material being in a different language and difficulties galore. Frustrating to say the least. Worst of all, I have no idea how to alter it to make it more accessible without changing the courses altogether which I can't really do due to the nature of the NGO. Nonetheless, some great advice posted there. Do keep it up.

I'm no Picasso said...

MH -- I know you left a response here, although Blogger is cocking up at the moment and I can't see it.

It sounds like a genuinely rough situation they've got you in. I had to teach things like Nietzsche to my ESL students back in New York. That was... even one at a time, that made for some really rough days sometimes. It sounds like you're doing the best that you can. Just try not to get defeated by the fact that they've set a nearly impossible task for you. There's nothing you can do about that, except your best.

Mohammed Rhalmi said...

Thx for sharing.
Working on structures before using them in speaking sounds logical. I would also suggest to use a text, a dialogue, to serve as a starter. Students answer Qs about the text and then work on featured structures. Only later one can introduce speaking activities.