ELT in Korean Primary Schools: Three Common Methods
Yoo Jimin has been a public elementary school teacher in Korea since 2011. Ms. Yoo has several years of experience as a homeroom/multiple subjects teacher as well as a full-time English teacher. She is most interested in working with upper elementary grades and attempts to incorporate the arts across curriculum on a daily basis. Ms. Yoo is currently on maternity leave and will return to teaching in fall, 2020 or spring, 2021. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
John Breckenfeld is a full-time assistant professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS), Seoul. He has been working in ELT in Korea for over seven years, from kindergarten to adults, and now college students. He has been a member of Korea TESOL (KOTESOL) for five years, and has a forthcoming publication in the KOTESOL Proceedings 2018. His professional interests include student motivation through goal setting and incorporating music into ELT.
During my eight years as an elementary teacher and previous sixteen years as a student in Korea, I have directly experienced the three most common ELT methods put to use in Korean public schools over the past two and a half decades (all references to Korea within this article pertain to S. Korea). As a public elementary teacher, this reflection focuses on English education in Korea at the primary level (grades 1-6). Because my teaching experience has occurred entirely within the province of Gangwon-do, my views form a narrow, individual snapshot of English Education at three highly different elementary schools. As there are thousands of schools and teachers across Korea, there are thousands of experiences I cannot represent. But my experiences do shed light on three commonly shared, nationwide ELT methods.
English lessons at the primary level within Korean Public Education, nationwide, occur in one of two settings: instruction given by one Korean teacher or a co-teaching approach that includes one Korean and one non-Korean teacher (hereafter referred to as NET/Native English Teacher). Korean schools have made use of visiting NETs to help smooth over the arduous importation of the English language. The main NET recruitment/placement program is EPIK (English Program in Korea—which will be further detailed within the next section: ‘School 1’). Through EPIK, thousands of NETs have been placed across Korea over the past decade (www.epik.go.kr, 2019). Assigning visiting English instructors to Korean public schools has served two main purposes: to provide English lessons for students, grades 3-12; and to serve as a stop-gap for Korean ELT as domestic teachers acquire sufficient training to occupy the thousands of English teaching posts throughout the country. Thus, Korean teachers like me are ideally intended to replace the NETs currently working in Korean public schools.
Just like other school settings where the lead teacher is responsible for all classroom activities, ELT in Korean elementary schools is directly connected to the background, training, and interests of the lead instructor, domestic or foreign alike. Korean public schools must follow national academic standards by grade level; teachers may also refer to a national database containing daily pacing plans which provide a uniform, standardized curriculum, as well as lesson materials for all mandatory academic subjects, including English. The types of lessons and classroom activities occurring on a day-to-day basis, however, largely depend on the individual teacher’s initiative and strengths. Accordingly, students’ English experiences and learning outcomes are mostly informed by the teacher’s abilities and efforts—in other words, what students in Korea get out of ELT depends on what teachers are qualified and inspired to put into their lessons.
School 1: English Instruction from a Lead Korean Teacher and Part-Time TaLK NET
My first school assignment, from 2011-2013, was located in a rural village on the outskirts of a mid-sized city in Gangwon-do. The school is quite small, just 60-70 students in total, or around ten students per grade level (1-6). Although Gangwon-do has the largest land/surface area of all Korean provinces, it is also the most mountainous and least developed, and has by far the lowest population density of Korea’s nine provinces. Because of its natural environment and broader rural demographics, this type of mini-school has been fairly common in Gangwon-do for several generations. The first school I worked at is one of many that have hosted a TaLK Scholar NET in recent years (‘Scholar’ is the job title given by the program to participating instructors). Incidentally, John Breckenfeld—my husband, the co-author—also taught at the same school, for one year as a TaLK Scholar, where we first met as co-workers during the spring, 2011 semester.
The TaLK (Teach and Learn in Korea) program, a junior version of EPIK, has been operating for more than ten years. To be eligible for TaLK or EPIK, applicants must be a citizen of one of the following seven countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zeeland, South Africa, United Kingdom, or United States. There are also a few notable differences between the two programs’ eligibility requirements, employment contract, and working conditions. For instance, EPIK will employ NETs, whom have completed a minimum of a bachelor’s degree at an accredited university, to give full-time English instruction (a maximum of 22 class periods per week) on a twelve-month, year-to-year contract term (www.epik.go.kr, 2019). TaLK welcomes NETs whom have completed at least two years of college to give part-time instruction (at an average of 15 periods per week) on a six to twelve-month contract term that also may be renewed upon completion. Besides the length of contract and number of teaching hours, the most notable difference between the two programs may be the instructional setting. A TaLK Scholar is responsible for after school English lessons only, but may assist a Korean homeroom teacher during regular school hours. EPIK teachers, on the other hand, work as a lead English instructor during regular class periods, and must also have a Korean co-teacher present during all lessons.
Through TaLK, over 3,000 NETs have been selected, trained, and placed across rural Korea since 2008. “The [TaLK] program’s mission is to strengthen English education in the rural areas by providing a chance [for] young children to interact with a native English speaker” (www.talk.go.kr, 2019). Despite its limitations, it is worth noting that TaLK provides valuable cross-cultural opportunities and classroom experiences for thousands of young students living in relatively rural areas of Korea, which typically have fewer educational opportunities than Seoul and other large metropolitan districts. Moreover, a significant portion of students/schools in Gangwon-do are the precise target of the TaLK program’s aims.
All elementary homeroom teachers (a full-time lead/classroom teacher responsible for giving instruction across multiple core subject areas), who are teaching grades 3-6 at schools where a TaLK Scholar is also present, give English instruction for 1-2 class periods per week. The Korean teacher is the lead instructor in these settings. Accordingly, all Korean teachers must complete various ELT courses within their Teacher Education Department at university. In my experience, I highly benefited from the ELT instruction I received within my National University Teacher Ed. Program. TaLK Scholars may or may not assist Korean teachers in the classroom during lessons that occur within the regular school hours. If so, this would be a pre-determined arrangement made by each individual school’s administration. Finally, during the after school English lessons, a part-time assistant/co-teacher must be present in the classroom at all times with the TaLK Scholar. The co-teacher assisting a TaLK Scholar is most likely a local resident who is not a full-time credentialed teacher at the school.
The current ELT methods in practice have existed in Korea for just over two decades. As a child, my age placed me at an unfortunate cutoff for Korean students. Starting in 1997, Korean public elementary schools initiated English instruction for students in grade 3; I was in grade 4 at the time, one year ahead of the target group. Thus, from 1997, grade 3 students continued to receive English lessons in grades 4, 5, and 6 (1998, 1999, and 2000), until all grade 3-6 students nationwide, as well as middle and high school students, were receiving English Education starting from the year 2000. For several decades leading up to 1996, Korean students, myself included, received English lessons for a total of six years (three years of both middle and high school).
School 2: English Instruction from a Korean Teacher Only
My second job placement occurred in a large school, in the same mid-sized city in Gangwon-do, which had around 2,000 students (six classes per grade of 30 students each). Public school teachers in Gangwon-do are required relocate to a new school every 3-4 years, as a strategy to ensure that smaller, rural schools have enough teachers on staff each year. At this school, and other larger schools across the province, each grade has a full-time Korean teacher who typically gives English instruction to all students/classes of one grade. In my case, I was the grade 5 English teacher for three semesters in 2014 and 2015. I had lessons with all six classes three times a week; each day, I moved between two, three, or four grade 5 classrooms to give one of their three weekly English lessons. A major advantage of this system is that it limits lesson planning time for the English teacher, and provides multiple opportunities (in my case, up to five) to modify and hopefully improve each lesson after the initial attempt. Likewise, during the academic year when I was a homeroom teacher (2016), being free of English lessons for three periods a week offers valuable desk time for lesson planning, grading, and other required administrative duties.
During the spring of 2015, I benefited from a five-month English training program made available to Gangwon teachers at GILI (Gangwon International Language Institute—English website unavailable). This program included 16 weeks of full-time language instruction (25-30 hours per week) given to Korean teachers provided by NETs, followed by an eight-week overseas study/training program. The NETs at GILI are recruited from the pool of EPIK teachers already working in Korea. The overseas activities of this program and the English instruction we received on site at GILI were highly beneficial. Although the quantity of available spaces is limited by budgetary realities—with a fluctuating annual budget, the GILI program selects 20-30 elementary homeroom/English teachers each semester, as well as various middle and high school English teachers—the quality of the training experiences for participating teachers is invaluable.
School 3: English Instruction from a Lead/Full-Time EPIK NET and a Full-Time Korean Teacher (as Co-Teacher)
The third school I taught at, from 2017-2018, was a medium-size school in a small town in Gangwon-do. This school had an EPIK teacher who taught grades 3-6, three classes per grade, 1-2 periods per week. EPIK teachers must have a Korean teacher—the ‘co-teacher’—present in the classroom at all times during lessons. The Korean co-teacher may have a different role based on the individual teacher, school, and administration’s preferences. In theory, the co-teacher’s main duties for the entirety of the semester are to assist the EPIK teacher during English lessons. Therefore, like the School 2 example, homeroom teachers are not present (or not instructing) during English lessons given by an EPIK teacher and Korean co-teacher.
As previously mentioned, in addition to improving English instruction and providing a space for cross-cultural interactions, EPIK and TaLK were originally intended to function as temporary, transitional ELT stop-gap programs. The Korean Ministry of Education originally intended to increase the number of trained Korean English teachers annually, while decreasing the nation’s dependency on NETs. The long-term application and success of this instructor training/replacement policy plan over the past 20-25 years are still a work in progress.
Elementary students in Korea likely experience one of three methods of ELT: 1) lessons with one, full-time Korean English teacher; 2) a full-time Korean homeroom teacher (and possibly a part-time TaLK NET); or 3) a full-time EPIK NET and a full-time Korean co-teacher working together. While all three methods have pros and cons, here is a brief summary of some advantages students may encounter:
- The possibility of exposure to a native English speaker/instructor for a few lesson periods per week, and the inevitable cross-cultural interactions therein.
- The availability of a Korean co-teacher who may function as a translator and cross-cultural facilitator.
- The possibility of receiving English instruction from a Korean educator trained in ELT.
- The opportunity to receive some form of English education over the course of four years (grade 3-6) before entering secondary school.
Students’ English educational experiences are significantly shaped by the qualifications, abilities, passions, and effort of the professional(s) in the classroom giving English instruction, as well as the preferences/plans of the administration at each school site. Despite numerous areas for improvement across provincial and national levels, based on my own experiences as a student and teacher, I am hopeful in the future of ELT in Korea. Certainly, students who came after me—and began studying English in elementary school as of 1997—have had more opportunities to study English and then apply acquired English skills in their futures.
As educators, I am also confident my colleagues share the same goals as me pertaining to ELT in Korean primary schools: that we prepare our students to continue their studies in English, and other subjects, throughout secondary school; and then, after completing formal education, apply their knowledge in the best ways possible as adults. Although ELT in Korea has developed significantly over the past few decades, it is still transitioning from a developmental status to a thriving operational reality. Korean educators are continuously working to improve the English Education we offer in our classrooms, one lesson at a time.
EPIK (2019, October 3). Home > About EPIK > Timeline. Retrieved from https://www.epik.go.kr:8080/contents.do?contentsNo=84&menuNo=334
TaLK (2019, October 3). Home > Program Mission > Backgrounds. Retrieved from http://www.talk.go.kr/talk/talk_new/content/content.jsp?menuId=010102
Please check the Methodology and Language for Primary course at Pilgrims website.
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