Red light means stop?

Anyone who has spent some time in Korea will understand this question. Red lights here are more of a suggestion that a rule. In other things too, Korean culture confuses.

Last year I attended the wedding of a fellow co-teacher. It was a beautiful ball room, decked out with all the wedding trappings. Family, friends and home room students all in attendance. However, unlike weddings I am used to only half the people sit down, and about that many actually pay attention. Throughout the ceremony I stood in the back surrounded by kids playing and adults chatting away. To my amazement no one particularly cared about any of this. The bride and groom weren’t bothered at all that half the attendees didn’t much care about watching their most special of days. (People did stop and listen for the mandatory karyoke that takes place at Korean events. This particular love song was sung by the groom [as part of the ceremony] with one of the brides homeroom students backing him up with Korean style rapping…certainly an event I won’t soon forget)

Stopping and paying attention turned out to be more of a suggestion than a requirement.

It is this way at school as well. Every Tuesday we have a staff meeting. It is the one meeting I am expected to attend. So, Tuesday mornings I traipse on down to the meeting room. The heads of the departments go through there weekly updates with half the teachers muttering to themselves about one thing our another.

These situations, as can be no surprise, translate into the classroom as well. I walk the halls of my school to find most classes have kids talking to each other while the teachers talking. If it gets particularly loud the teacher will slap one of them, or make them stand in the back. Many of the girls will have their mirrors out adjusting their bangs every 3 minutes. Some students will have their heads down on the desk. Its a free for all!

Indeed, this has been one of the biggest adjustments and challenges I have dealt with since beginning work as a teacher of a foreign language in Korea.

What could be more important to learning a new language than attentive listening?

There is no universal cure for this. Mostly because half the students could truly care less, and the other half are exhausted from going to school, and then to one academy or another all night.

Things I have found that work.

1) Expect active listening.

Show you expect it by having the students look at you when you’re speaking. (something many students actively avoid 1. because they’re students and 2. culturally they are not supposed to look elders in the face.

I often say “look at me, look at me! Show me you are listening”

2) Conduct your own listening test.

The students have test upon test but, as a foreign teacher, one is usually left in the cold as to the students ability. For successful class management  it is critical to understand who can understand you easily and quickly, and who can’t. In doing so you can tailor classwork and questions to students ability. This is especially important if one is dealing with large numbers of students only seen rarely (like once a week in the case of yours truly).

An earlier post on this blog talks about listening and the importance of decoding language. I took that to heart and have conducted my own tests with my kids. It doesn’t take long. They like the challenge of a test without the worry of an actual grade, and most are super pumped when they find out they can do (and did do) well.

In conducting this test I was able to engage a few students I was not able to beforehand. I realized that some of my trouble makers were just the quickest kids in class (and hence were bored because of the slowness the other students required), and others literally could understand next to nothing. The truly low level were in my class because they could write fairly well (and I use that term EXTREMELY loosely) and fill in the right bubbles on a scantron sheet.

3) Break down the language.

It is so very easy to say, and so very hard to do. Primary school is spent learning words. In middle school however, kids are expected to learn to put those words together. Most of them do fairly well in a written context, but because they’re rarely exposed to natural language, when it is heard they have no idea what to make of it. I try my hardest to speak normally, but with short, direct, and precise language that I know is within their level to grasp. (This again goes back to knowing your students and where they are in their journey of learning)

Working in chunks of language helps them identify frequently occurring phrases. This helps ease their burden while listening. It also helps speed up their speaking ability. Students stop thinking word for word and start thinking in phrases. In doing so the often left out prepositions and articles begin to make an impression and show themselves in what the students produce.


Any advice from other teachers would be greatly appreciated!





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