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April 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

South Korean High School Students’ Perceptions of and Performance during University Level English Conversation Classes

Shaun J. Manning holds a Ph.D. from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He is an associate professor in the Department of English Linguistics and Language Technology at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Email: sjmanning@hufs.ac.kr

Jeeyoung Song attended Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, double majoring in Persian language and English Linguistics. She earned a Master of Arts in Branding from the School of Visual Arts. Her interests lie in how people identify with objects, events, and experiences. Email:  ssongjy93@gmail.com

 

Abstract

This study asked: “How prepared are South Korean high school seniors for talking in university English conversation classes?” Three volunteer high school students were invited to participate in a university English conversation class. Pre-study interviews revealed that none of the participants had ever taken an English conversation class. Their previous English learning experience focused exclusively on preparing for their school’s paper-based, multiple-choice tests and on preparing for the national university entrance test.  They said that no class time was spent on speaking activities beyond reading dialogs aloud. The participants then attended a pre-existing university English conversation class.  All their classroom talk was audio-recorded, transcribed, and analyzed. The participants were interviewed two more times: immediately after class, and six weeks later. Before the study, the participants worried about taking English conversation classes in which they would have to spontaneously speak English. This had changed after the class, and their positive self-appraisal of their ability to take communicative classes remained six weeks later. However, the transcripts revealed that the participants’ task participation depended heavily on assistance provided by the university students with whom they were grouped. Broader implications for the high-school curriculum and teaching are discussed.

 

Introduction

There have been many criticisms of the South Korean English education system due to its focus on preparing students to take the English portion of the sooneung (the state-administered university scholastic aptitude test used for university admissions, referred to in English as the CSAT). The major focus of the English portion of this test is on reading and grammar skills, and the claim has been made that this does not prepare students for using English – i.e. speaking and writing after university graduation, or even for university study in which speaking and writing are taught (H. J. Choi & Park, 2013; Kwon et al., 2017).

This lack has usually been shown by Korean students’ performance on international tests (B. E. Kim, 2012; Yeo, 2016). One response to such claims is that most students, upon graduation from university, will not need English in their daily life, except perhaps through email and text-based communication. The argument continues that because it is not essential, only a basic knowledge is sufficient, and the most cost-effective way to get such a large number of students to a basic level of English is through reading and grammar instruction with the school textbook as the locus of instruction (Kim A. R., 2006, p. 1). However, Manning (2016) observed that workers in executive and marketing positions in a mineral-processing company used English frequently; and although most other workers did not use English regularly, when lower-level staff member needed to produce English, their lack of English proficiency often led to negative business and personal outcomes. Based on this finding, he argued that productive activities needed to be included in the general high school curriculum.

Koreans are generally enthusiastic about learning English, and there are numerous studies related to English education. Regarding high school students, research has focused on what is the better way to educate them. Kim A.R. (2006) reported that even though there is a wide variety of sources of English instruction, including: native speakers, web materials, and English academies, the school textbook, that invariably focuses on reading and grammar, was still the main source of English for the majority of school aged students. Also, Park (2015) stated, “In the secondary school English education field, education is mainly emphasized on grammar, not communication. Therefore, students have relatively few opportunities to expand their communication skills through class” (p.1). Lee D.H. (2017) added, “Many students in Korea memorize grammatical knowledge and detailed linguistic parts in a given English texts, not using English as a communication tool” (p.3).  Research has focused on the limits of English education in high school and suggests ways to improve them. However, what has not been investigated is how this ‘reading and grammar limit’, actually limits students when they get into communicatively oriented university classes. Since high school seniors and university freshmen have just a 1-year age difference, the educational gap between them is created by the university. This research investigated how well high school students feel they are prepared for task-based (TBLT) university English classes.

TBLT emphasizes learner-learner interaction, and the development of language proficiency through interaction. There is a reliance on those who know collaborating with those who do not know, to create a joint performance in which language is used to promote language learning (Samuda & Bygate, 2008). One key element for success in communicative English classrooms is communicative ‘assistance’ (Foster & Ohta, 2005; Ohta, 2001). Assistance can take several forms:

  1. Explicitly inviting a person to speak
  2. Waiting for someone to speak
  3. Asking follow-up questions (content)
  4. Slowing one’s rate of speech
  5. Continuation of a partner's utterance when they could not continue
  6. Encouragement (e.g. ‘you can do it’) and praise
  7. Language related episodes (LREs) – moments during interaction “where students reflect consciously on the language they are producing” (Swain, 1998, 2001).
    1. Ask interlocutor directly (re: language / to repeat or rephrase)
    2. Self-correct one’s language
    3. Offer a correction or translation
    4. Suggest a word or form

The role of assistance is essential in the learning of any new knowledge as it creates a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Vygotsky, 1986). In Second Language Acquisition (SLA), the ZPD is defined as: “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by individual linguistic production, and the level of potential development as determined through language produced collaboratively with a teacher or peer” (Ohta, 2001, p. 9). In short, assistance from a teacher or peer during collaborative talk allows the learner to do, say, and create more meaning than they otherwise could. These acts: doing, saying, and creating provide the opportunity for a learner to associate language with desired meanings and to notice what they do not know, and thereby learn (in short, their knowledge moves from interpersonal to the intrapersonal).  It should be noted that for assistance to function as theorized it must be offered appropriately and used.

So, the research aim of the study was to invite some high school seniors who were hoping to learn English at university to an existing university class and see if:

  1. Are the HS students ready to take an English conversation class taught by a native speaking professor at a university, in terms of: language knowledge, communicative ability, and willingness to accept and use assistance when offered?
  2. Will the university students (CS) offer assistance to the HS students?
    1. In what forms?
    2. At what stages of the lesson?
  3. When assistance is offered, do the HS students use it?

 

Methods

Participants and research context

Three 18-year-old female students in their final year of high school at a high school located in Seoul, South Korea were recruited for the study. In their high school they attend the medium level of a three-tier leveled curriculum for English. Their high school teacher is an acquaintance of the second author. The participants were informed of the general purpose of the study and of the procedure they were being asked to follow. All three participants had expressed the desire to study English (literature, translation, or education) at university after taking their entrance exams later that fall, so they were happy to have the opportunity to visit a regular English class at a respected university. They chose the pseudonyms: Amy, Ashley, and Kathy for use in this study.  

The lead author was the instructor of this class. He is a native speaker of English, with a PhD in Applied Linguistics and has nearly twenty years’ teaching experience in this context. The second author was the interviewer and observer. She was a student registered in the class the participants visited. She was familiar to the other students and teacher, and she knew the class procedures.

The course was an introductory (first year) English speaking class at a university located in Seoul taught by the lead author. The university students were all second-majors in English.  Most had another language as their first major (e.g., Iranian, French, Chinese), but some studied a non-language course such as economics or public administration. There were six male Korean students, seven female Korean students, and one female Chinese international student in the class. All were between ages 21 and 24. The students’ spoken English was a minimum of CEFR B1 level. The students had been briefed in advance about the high schoolers’ visit and were enthusiastic about having them. The visit took place in the twelfth week of the 16-week semester; therefore, the university students were familiar with each other and the professor’s teaching style.

The class met once per week for 100 minutes. Each lesson routinely followed a communicative approach in which students worked in small groups of three or four students to perform four distinct activities: (1) a preliminary small-group discussion (GD) intended to get students speaking about themselves (open-ended, divergent activity); (2) an interactive vocabulary matching (VM) activity (closed, convergent activity); (3) an oral reading-with-embedded-questions (REQ) activity, in which students take turns as they orally read through a news editorial while answering questions inserted between paragraphs (rather than at the end of the reading) (closed, convergent activity); and (4) a values clarification (VC) task (Manning 2014, 2019) (open, convergent task) leading to rotating debates (RD) in which one member of the group goes to another group and defends their team’s VC opinions (open, divergent task). Parts (1) ~ (3) generally take about 60 min of the 100-minute class, and part (4) starts after a 10 min break and runs until the end of the lesson.

 

Research design

This study was conducted in four phases: pre-interview, classroom observation, immediate post-interview, and delayed post interview.

The pre-interview was a focus-group interview conducted one month prior to the participants visiting the class. It was conducted in Korean by the second author who met the participants in a café near their high school. The interview questions were prepared in advance (see Appendix), but as it was a semi-structured format, there were some alterations to the order of the questions and follow-up questions were added. The entire interview was audio-recorded, and it took just over an hour.

The second phase of the research was a classroom observation. The participants were invited to attend and participate in the class. Before the lesson began, the second author took up a position near the back of the room and then, after the lesson began, she moved to a more central area from which she could see the participants clearly. After taking attendance, the instructor divided the students into small teams and assigned the participants to join a different group each (see Figure 1). The instructor conducted a normal class. He moved throughout the room, assisting students, making comments, and observing what was happening at each group. As is his habit, he periodically jotted down notes in a small notebook as he walked – these notes serve as aide-memoires for him. In this lesson, he also paid attention to how the high schoolers (the participants) were getting on with the university students. In this way, the participants were observed by both authors, with the additional support of audio recordings. Each small group had a small digital voice recorder on their desk. The recorders were used every class, for use in transcribing and self-reflection activities post class, so their presence was normal for the university students.  To confirm and extend the findings of our real-time observations, these recordings were transcribed and analyzed for language use and interaction patterns.

Figure 1. Position of students, participants, and observer during the observation (Kathy= P1; Amy = P2; Ashley = P3)

Immediately after the lesson, the second author accompanied the three HS students to a café near the university campus, bought them a coffee or tea and interviewed them about their thoughts and feelings about the lesson they had taken, and whether or not their feelings about studying English conversation in the future had changed. As with the pre-interview, the immediate post-interview followed a semi-structured, focus-group interview format.

During the following vacation, after listening to the class recordings and the pre and post interviews, the second author emailed the three participants a survey (written in Korean) asking follow-up questions. These were emailed back to the second author and translated.

The lead author also interviewed one university student from each team of students containing a high schooler, asking them about their experiences and if the authors’ attributions to them (the university students) were accurate.

 

Results

The results are presented in chronological order: pre-interviews that show the students current learning situations and their expectations about taking a class with foreign professors; the in-class observations and transcripts of audio recordings; and finally, their post-interview data that shows a shift in perception – from apprehension to eagerness.

 

Pre-interviews: perceptions of current and future learning situations

The interview was conducted in Korean by the second author. It opened with the question, “Tell me about your English classes these days.” All three participants stated that they study only for the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT) (in Korean, it is called the sooneung) these days. Ashley’s response (Interview Extract 1) explains their situation.

Interview Extract 1. Ashley: Classes focused on preparation for the CSAT English test

We had various kinds of activities in English classes when we were in the first and second year, however, we just focus on CSAT English after entering third year. Even though we have a textbook as our juniors have, we do not study with it and always do practice exercises from EBS (the authorized CSAT prep publisher) books. (translated by author)

Extract 1 reveals that their English study in high school changed in their final year. They no longer use other materials or activities except those related to the college entrance exam. In other words, they are studying English that is limited to reading and simple listening. The participants also said, that because the listening is so easy, they do not need to spend any time studying it. Therefore, they are studying only the reading part. Although they report spending a lot of time studying English, they cannot afford to spend time mastering other skills such as speaking and writing. Ashley said she “considers them as college education.” The other two concurred. Given that other researchers have pointed out the reliance on rote learning and lack of productive activities in HS English classes (H. J. Choi & Park, 2013; J. Choi et al., 2018; DeWaelsche, 2015) this finding is not surprising.

When asked, “Do you think high school English will help your study at university?” all the participants commonly answered: “No, maybe, just vocabulary could be helpful, but [we’re] not sure.” There was no particular reason they thought high school English would not be helpful, but they were sure that high school and university did not relate strongly with each other (Ramos, 2014).

The interview asked what they imagined their university English classes would be like. They were asked about their thoughts and expectations about native-speaking, foreign English professors (FPs). Amy’s answer (Interview Extract 2) was echoed by the other two participants.

Interview Extract 2. Amy: Expectation and concern about studying with a FP  

I want to try, I mean, I want to meet a foreign professor when I enter a university, but I think I could not understand what he is talking about. Maybe I should take a recording and listen to it after the class. (translated by author)

Here, Amy gives the reason they think they are not prepared for native speakers’ classes: they think they will not be able to understand. While the listening assessment of the CSAT was so easy for them that they did not need to prepare for it, they imagine that the foreign professors’ class will be too difficult for them to understand – so difficult, they would need a recording and have to listen to it again when class had ended. They anticipated a disconnection between high school and university English studies in terms of listening difficulty.

Finally, all three participants said they want to take foreign professors’ classes because they imagined they would “be able to communicate more freely in these classes” (Kathy, interview response) and would therefore feel more intimacy than with a Korean professor. This latter relationship was expected to be more formal and distant.  

All three participants expressed a keen desire to visit the university and to try to participate in a freshman (first-year) English conversation class. So, after the interviews ended, it was arranged for them to come to the university to experience a class.

 

In-class performance: observation and transcripts

A month after the interview, Ashley, Amy, and Kathy came to the university campus to participate in the university class. They were met prior to their visit by the second author and taken to the classroom together so they would not feel awkward or get lost on the way. The class normally follows the following sequence: (1) an open-ended small group discussion task (GDT), (2) interactive vocabulary matching (VM), (3) interactive reading of a passage with comprehension and language-related questions embedded (RC), and (4) a values clarification task (VC) (Manning 2014, 2015, 2019). The lesson was designed in these stages to provide opportunities for all four strands (Nation, 2007), each with a different focus.

Upon arrival at the classroom, the second author introduced the participants to the instructor (lead author) who chatted with them briefly in the hallway, asked their names, their school name, etc. while the other students were arriving for class. He then led the participants into the class and asked them to sit anywhere they wished. After taking attendance and introducing the participants to the class, he randomly assigned all the students and the three participants into small groups (see Fig 1).

 

Small-group discussion (GD)

The class always begins with a few open-ended discussion questions asking about the students’ thoughts on the topic of the reading, ‘Murder, abuse of parents rising in Korea’ (K. Lee, 2018). This reading was a news article about the rise in crimes directed against the elderly by their adult children. This reading was both topically unusual and linguistically challenging – having a CEFR level of C1 (Duolingo, 2020) and Fleish-Kincaid grade level of 11.13 as measured by Coh-Metrix (McNamara et al., 2014). To ease into this difficult topic, the instructor had set some personal-level questions to start the lesson:

1. What do you think of when you hear the term, “Korean Traditional Values?”

2. Which of these values has been changing recently?

3. Are changes in traditional values a positive or negative development? Explain.

Group 5 had one participant, Ashley, and three university students: Helen, Sarah, and Karen (pseudonyms) (See Fig1). Observation note 1 describes how they started their talk.

Observation note 1: Getting started, with help

Group 5 starts quickly after choosing a captain. The three university students look at Ashley and smile. They ask her to answer first: “What do you think about Korean traditional values?” Ashley thinks for a few seconds and then begins to answer. She looks down as she’s speaking. Her voice is soft so the others (university students) lean toward her as she speaks. They all wait for her to finish. When Ashley stops speaking and looks at them, they start to ask follow-up questions. 

Ashely was a little hesitant and did not speak up strongly. However, their body language, leaning in, and action of waiting for her to finish allows Ashley to contribute her ideas. The recording transcripts reveal how the other members of her group created a space, a ZPD (Ohta, 2001; Vygotsky, 1986), in which Ashley could answer the question. (The transcripts use Jeffersonian transcription conventions).  

Transcript Extract 1. Helen and Sarah help Ashley express herself

1

Ashley

uh  ° i’m very proud of korean values - korean traditional values °

2

Sarah

(4.0) why?

3

Helen

>> what kind of values are you proud of? <<

4

Ashley

um (3.0) because very unique, unique

5

Helen

< can i ask you an example >

6

Ashley

korean clothes

7

Helen

clothes . you mean hanbok ?

8

Ashley

yes

Ashley gives her opinion in line 1 but does not justify or provide a reason or example which the others were expecting. Sarah waits to see if Ashley will add to her idea, and when she does not, she enters the conversation and asks for a reason, “Why?” (line 2). Helen also follows up Ashley’s statement by asking for an example in line 3. However, she spoke rapidly, and it is doubtful that Ashley understood. She answers Sarah, after another pause, in line 4, “because very, very unique.”  Helen, after hearing Ashley speak, slows down her talk considerably and rephrases her question (line 5), which Ashley answers in line 6. Helen still wants more detail and asks if Ashley means hanbok – the traditional Korean costume, which is indeed what Ashley meant. In this short extract, Helen and Sarah both waited for Ashely to speak – allowing pauses of four and three seconds. Helen also slowed her rate of speech and simplified her follow-up question. Through their assistance, although no one ever says their full opinion, the three people have created an understanding of Ashley’s idea: ‘Ashley is proud of Korea’s unique traditional costume, the hanbok.’  Throughout this open-ended discussion, the high school student (Ashley) typically gave her basic opinion, but only added a reason, an example, or details, with the assistance of her university student peers. The assistance in this activity came in the form of explicit questioning (“Why?”, “Can you give me an example?”), confirming (“you mean hanbok?”), slowing their rate of speech, and waiting for Ashley to speak.  

 

Vocabulary matching (VM)

The opening GDT was intended to relax students and allow for latecomers to enter before language focused activities started. The first of these was a matching task in which students had to match a list of 24 vocabulary words with some English-language definitions. The words were taken from the news editorial they would be reading later. During the activity students were not allowed to look the words up in a dictionary, but rather had to talk with the members of their group about each definition and try to deduce the correct vocabulary item if the word was unknown to any of them.  

This task is challenging for the university students as the target vocabulary are in a frequency level of 6000-word level (Cobb, n.d.) or less frequent. The purpose of this activity is to engage the students in talk about language (words) they are not sure about – i.e. to engage in languaging (Swain, 2010); to let them know it is acceptable to ask for help and de-emphasize the self-study approach of high school English (Hwang & Kim, 2019); and to train students to use morphology to guess unknown words’ meanings.

Observation note 2 shows the difficulty Group 5 was having and Transcript Extract 2 shows how the university students aligned themselves with and comforted the participant during their shared time of difficulty.  

Observation note 2: Experiencing difficulty with the vocabulary matching activity.

The four people in Group 5 read the word list and definitions. They are silent. They keep looking at the list, then the definitions, but no one is writing words in the blanks. One student says, “It’s too hard.” The others quietly agree. Karen looks at Ashley and says, “It’s usually not this hard.” They all seem to be confused. They work on a few items, such as ‘filial’, but after matching about six items, there is a long pause. Karen explicitly asks Ashley to help because she might know these words. Ashley says that she does not know them even in Korean – meaning the English definition is causing her trouble as well as the word. Helen tells Ashley that she (Helen) doesn’t know either. Ashley asks for the meaning of something, Helen tells her. Ashley contributes some answers, but is not always correct. … … By the end of the allotted fifteen minutes, the group has correctly solved eight of the 12 items.

Transcript Extract 2 shows how the university students keep Ashley in the conversation and on-task, and how they align themselves (Atkinson, 2010; Atkinson et al., 2007) with her.

Transcript Extract 2. University students praise and align with the high school student

1

Karen

((to Ashley)) if you have any idea, please tell me .

(laughter))

because I think YOU know MORE vocabulary more than me .

((Explicit invitation to speak; praise))

2

Helen

 we also don’t know anything  (laughter) ((alignment with HS student))

3

Sarah

 it’s so difficult today

4

 

(10.0)

5

Sarah

 nothing is for sure right now

6

Ashley

 actually, I don’t know even what it is in Korean

7

Helen

 which one?

8

Ashley

 eleven (1.5) indulgent

9

Karen

 ah yeah 

10

Sarah

 me too ((alignment with HS student))

11

Karen

 what is indulgent?

12

Helen

 the meaning of eleven ((confirming Ashley’s problem))

13

Ashley

 yes

14

Helen

 generous – like kind of generous yeah ((gives a synonym))

15

All

(6.0)

(a burst of laughter)

((Karen throws her pen on the desk; no one can answer number eleven))

Note: researchers’ comments are in (( )); numbers in parentheses indicate the length of silence in seconds

During this part of the lesson the university students recognized that the high schooler might be intimidated by the level of difficulty and disengage from the task.  To keep Ashley involved, Karen explicitly invites her to speak and then goes so far as to suggest that Ashley may know more vocabulary than Karen does. This is to make Ashley feel comfortable and willing to contribute as an ‘expert’. Helen and Sarah echo the feeling of difficulty (lines 2 and 3). Helen’s use of “We also” in line 2 aligns her emotionally with Ashely and tells Ashley that any difficulty she is having is shared by the others. This provides emotional support which gives Ashley the emotional security to say, in line 6: “Actually, I don’t know even what it is in Korean.” This lets the others know that she is having difficulty. Helen asks for a specific item, and Ashley provides indulgent as a problematic word. Helen gives a synonym but cannot match it with the target vocabulary item which was lenient. However, even though the activity is above the level of the university students, Ashley – a high-schooler, remains engaged and on task, in part due to the assistance provided by her interlocutors – assistance aimed at overcoming both emotional and linguistic difficulties.

 

Reading with embedded questions (REQ)

The reading comprehension activity was set up in a non-traditional way. Rather than have students read an entire passage (usually silently) and then answer a set of questions at the end as is most often the case (see Nation, 2009 for a critique of the “reading comprehension question” format), the instructor had divided the reading into topical ‘chunks’ of one, two, or three paragraphs and inserted one or two questions between each ‘chunk’. Students were to take turns orally reading each chunk and then had to answer the questions before moving on. This was done to help students understand the background information normally contained at the beginning of an article before moving on. The questions focus on reading skills development more than strictly comprehension per se. The first question in this lesson was a ‘what does what’ style question (Nation, 2009, p. 41).

The text read:

Koreans are taught to uphold the value of “hyo,” a Chinese character for “fulfilling filial duty,” a major source of dispute, especially among couples over supporting their parents as they grow old and become sick and financially needy. (Adapted from K. Lee, 2018)

The question read: “Who disputes what?” and the students then had to work out the relation of the noun ‘dispute’ with people involved in the dispute and the topic of the dispute. Transcript Extract 3 shows their talk.

Transcript Extract 3: Ashley knows the answer

1

Ashley

 ((finishes reading)) who disputes what? (2.0)

2

Helen

 who disputes what?

3

Karen

 couples disputes (3.0)

4

Ashley

  disputes hyo (1.0) is it ?

5

Helen

 yeah

6

Sarah

 yeah (laughter) …

((watching Ashley write the answer))

7

Helen

 ((to Ashley)) I like your writing ((praise))

8

Sarah

 her writing is really cute

9

Helen

 better than mine 

They collaborate on the answer. Karen identifies the ‘who’ – the people involved in the dispute and Ashley provides the second ‘what’ – the topic of the dispute. In doing so, she shows that her reading ability – the central focus of her high school English education, is up to the level of her partners. In addition, Ashley has been assigned the task of writing their team’s answers, and when she does, Sarah and Helen praise her English handwriting. Transcripts reveal that during the entire reading activity, Ashley does not need any language or task-related assistance. This despite the challenging level and topic of the reading. Ashley’s English reading is of a similar level to her university student partners.

 

Values Clarification (VC) task

The values clarification task (VC) is an open-ended, convergent task in which students read a set of opinions, and then discuss the extent to which they agree or disagree with them. They must then collaborate to revise each opinion so that they are worded in a way that all members of the group strongly agree with. The task requires students to understand the original opinion; express and defend their own opinions about the original; collaborate on revising the wording; and manage the task (Manning 2014, 2015, 2019). The university students had done this task in every lesson during the semester, so they were familiar with its procedure. But the participants had never had the opportunity to express their opinions in English.

So, during the VC task, the university students provided assistance by changing their behavior and providing cognitive assistance both of which allowed the participants to remain engaged on task.

 

A shift in behavior

During the first three activities of the lesson, Group 5 had always completed the activity by ‘going to the right’. Because Ashley was sitting on the right of the captain, she always read or answered first (hence her answering reading question 1 in Transcript Extract 3). When the VC task started, the university students realized that Ashley had never have done a VC task in her life (the university students had experienced the Korean high school system themselves). So, to make things easier for Ashley, Helen tells Karen to speak first (Transcript Extract 4) because Ashley is “a little bit shy.” (line 1).

Transcript Extract 4: Reorganized the order of responders

1

Helen

 ((to Karen)) I think you should talk first because she’s ((Ashley’s)) a little bit shy

2

Karen

 okay

3

Helen

 and kind of difficult to stand up for her decision first…

Helen is changing the group’s behavior in order to protect Ashley’s emotional state and keep her interested in the task. She also recognizes that Ashley will have difficulty expressing and defending her opinion first (line 3). Thanks to Helen’s assistance, Ashley now has more time to think of what to say and she can now listen to what the others say and develop her own idea.  In a way, this is opposite to ‘explicitly asking’ as assistance (Ohta, 2001) – it is explicitly waiting by requesting that others speak first.

 

Waiting for and co-constructing Ashley’s opinion

When it was Ashley’s turn to express her ideas during the VC task, the others provide assistance by waiting, providing back-channel cues, and explicitly prompting her. Transcript Extract 5 shows Ashley and the others discussing this VC prompt: “The increasing number of crimes against the elderly is due to people living longer.” This is Ashley’s first attempt to give an opinion on this topic and the others coach her.

Transcript Extract 5: Waiting for Ashley and co-constructing her answer

1

Ashley

 I disagree

2

Others

 ahhh!

3

Helen

 so? now you totally agree –uh you understand them all?

4

Ashley

((nods))

5

Helen

(10.0)

so you can just say

6

Ashley

(7.0)

I disagree

7

Karen

mm    ((prompting Ashley to continue)) 

8

Ashley

(4.0)

because   

(5.0)

live longer is

9

Sarah

 it’s?  ((prompting Ashley to continue))

10

Ashley

 no relationship with crime – with a crime

((self-correcting))

11

Helen

you mean there’s no relationship between the people that lives longer and the crime? ((confirming))

12

Ashley

 yeah no relationship between them

 

Ashely disagrees with the opinion given in the lesson materials, but she does not provide any reasons for doing so.  So, from lines 3 through 12 the university students co-construct Ashley’s reasons. They do this through a process of confirming she has understood the given opinion, (Helen in line 3), prompting Ashley to (lines 5, 7, and 9), and finally reformulating and confirming (Helen in line 11).  In line 12 Ashley reiterates part of what Helen said to confirm that this is what she meant.

Of interest here is the amount of wait time the university students give the high-school participant to speak, and the intelligibility of the participant’s (Ashley’s) idea. In this short extract, there are approximately 26 seconds of silence. The students sit and wait for Ashley to give her ideas. This causes uncomfortably long pauses, but the university students resist any urge to re-explain, to cut in and give their own ideas, to re-phrase the question, or to add any more talk. They simply wait for Ashley to say something. This indicates to Ashley that she must speak, or no one will. So, finally she does. Moreover, when she does give her opinion, it is spread across several turns and interrupted by long pauses. However, she gives “I disagree because live longer is no relationship with crime” (sic).  The idea is intelligible and understood by the others as indicated by Helen’s confirmation check in line 12. Ashley has the requisite language knowledge to express herself, but she could not retrieve it and formulate it into a sentence in real time without the assistance of her peers – waiting, prompting, and checking their own understanding of her.

Overall, the observation and transcripts reveal that the participants could participate in the university conversation class, particularly in phases of the lesson that prioritized vocabulary and reading. In such activities, the university students often assisted the participants through praise. However, because the vocabulary activity was so difficult for everyone, the university students went to great lengths to indicate they were feeling the same pain the high schoolers were feeling. In the discussion-type activities, the high schoolers had more difficulty. The difficulty was not linguistic. The participants’ performance in the vocabulary and reading activities was similar to the university students’ performance. One university student, Karen, even suggested that Ashley’s vocabulary knowledge was superior to hers (Transcript Extract 2, line 1). Rather, the high schoolers had a problem of output – they required longer than normal time to generate and express their opinions. Their university peers assisted them by waiting silently, prompting for more, and confirming – both by explicitly asking and by rephrasing what the participants said.

 

Post-interviews and delayed post interviews: ‘It was okay’, ‘I can do it’

After the lesson, the second author conducted a brief unstructured interview to ask how the students felt. They were asked whether it was difficult to participate in English speaking class and whether they would take this kind of classes later.

Kathy answered:

Extract 5. It was different from my imagination

I thought [before class] I would not be able to understand anything, but it was not that tough. If I enter the university next year, I will try to take classes run by foreign professors. (Translated by author)

Even though I studied hard for getting good score in English subject, it was totally different from the real conversation. I thought I studied English a lot, but I was depressed that I could not make conversation well. (Translated by author)

Amy concurred, but added that working in groups was helpful for her.

Extract 6: Amy thinks it was not so difficult because they worked together.

Despite being in English only, it was not as difficult as I thought. Also, I realized that speaking English together rather than solving a problem alone can help me improve my skills. (Translated by author)

Ashley felt that talking in class showed her how important it was to participate, to actively learn, rather than be taught.

Ashley

In the past I thought being taught English (by a teacher) is important, but after participating I changed my mind that expressing own thinking in English and speaking are more important. (Translated by author)

 

We expected the students to say that it was hard to participate in the lesson yet, but they answered they enjoyed the class.

 

Discussion and conclusions

In conclusion, even though the students originally said they did not have confidence to take foreign professors’ class at the university when asked in the first interview, they understood a great deal of the speaking class. They were shy due to social constraints, but they realized that when they, too will be university students and among peers their own age, they would be equipped to participate.

Although this study was done in South Korea, we feel there are many contexts where students study in teacher-centered lessons in high school and then move to tertiary EFL educational situations which focus more on conversation, presentation, and debate – i.e. communicative and/or task-based learning situations. Teachers should not assume that students from teacher-centered high schools cannot communicate, but rather, assume there is an underlying level of English ability that through interactive assistance, can be deployed by students to meet their communicative and learning needs. Classroom instruction, observation, and feedback can develop an atmosphere where assistance is freely given and accepted by peers. This will allow even a shy stranger to enter the room and learn for a day.

 

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Appendix

Pre-interview questions (translations from Korean)

  1. Tell me about your English classes these days.
  2. Why do you want to learn English at university?
  3. Do you think the English you study in high school will help your study at university?
  4. Are you ready to meet a foreign professor at university?
  5. Are you ready to take classes with foreign professors at university?
  6. What kind of class do you explect for a foreign professor?
  7. What, if anything, are you worried about when studying with a foreigner?
  8. Do you think there will be any difference between studying with a foreign and a Korean professor? If so, what will be the main differences?
  9. Is there are foreign teacher at your high school now? If so, what are your impressions of his/her classes?
  10. Have you had any classes with a native speaking teacher: in elementary, middle, high school, or at a private academy?

 

Please check the Creating a Motivating Environment course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Practical Ideas for Teaching Advanced (C1-C2) Students course at Pilgrims website.

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  • South Korean High School Students’ Perceptions of and Performance during University Level English Conversation Classes
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  • How to Increase Participation in the English Classroom
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