TESOL South Korea: Teaching English in Elementary Schools

Teaching English to Elementary Schoolers in South KoreaTeaching English to elementary-aged children shares a lot of commonalities with teaching Kindergarten: it’s fun, it’s exhausting, and, more often than not, you’ll need to improvise a little…or a lot. My experience as a teacher in South Korea focused heavily on teaching students of this age, and I’ve lived to tell the tale, if that comforts your nerves a bit. While many aspects, such as the necessity of a sense of humor and creativity, remain on par with teaching younger students, there is one particularly distinct difference (Or advantage in my view): children of this age have been exposed to English before. In South Korea, all students study English at school through the EPIK program, and many continue their studies at an English hagwon in the evening.

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How you approach lessons will differ slightly depending on whether you are working in the school system or at a private after-school hagwon. You have much more freedom in the lessons, for example, when you work in an evening language academy. Regular schools have a curriculum to follow, and you will typically have a Korean co-teacher present during your lessons. This can be both an advantage, for translation and disciplinary purposes, or a hindrance, if they are not on the same methodological plane as you. This relationship is situation-specific, and you’ll have to suss this one out on your own.

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An important thing to remember when teaching elementary school students is that, even though a large amount of pressure is put on them already by their other classes, they are still kids who like to laugh and have fun. I’ve found that most textbooks drill vocabulary and grammar, offering little to no supplemental activity suggestions. If you’re a current or former teacher who begs to differ, please share your experience, as it might help others working with similarly designed books. As with Kindergarten, supplemental activities that get kids learning in a physically active way is my route of choice. I was a hagwon teacher, receiving my students in class after they’d already spent eight to nine hours in other classrooms. Without innovation and active-activity, they are bound to doze off into robot mode. Schools and hagwons alike (or at least all of the ones that I’ve ever known) will have a requirement to teach a certain number of sections from the textbook each day. Do this and be as succinct as possible before moving on to making the class more engaging with a task or game. This is neither lazy nor non-educational, as long as you can make ties between the material and the activity.

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One thing that I recommend new teachers to adopt as a mantra is this: you cannot change the system, especially all on your own. Classroom sizes might be large, English levels might be all over the place, and students might be exhausted from the stress of other classes. Accept this and try to push forward, as you falling victim to the same feelings as them doesn’t help anyone. In order to really learn, as opposed to memorizing sentence frames for a test, kids need to have fun. “Trick” them, in a way, into forgetting that they are in a classroom. You are literally the only teacher that they see in a day who has the option and ability to do this. All kids love games, in some way, shape, or form. While it can be a challenge to create a game, task, or activity that appeals to all of the differing personalities of your students, it is your duty to try.

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Any grammar or vocabulary practice can be made into a full-body activity- seriously. Type sentences onto paper and cut them into segments, challenging pairs of students to be the fastest to put them back in logical, working order. Honestly, almost any kid in any country will respond to the use of a timer. Use a ball to ‘popcorn’ spell or work on grammar patterns. Challenge students to be able to complete humorous comics using the topics at hand. There are so many ways to go above-and beyond filling-in the blank and reciting material over and over again. When I say, “Get creative!”, I realize that this is surely a challenge, especially for new teachers and with particularly challenging classes. No one assumes (or at least they shouldn’t) that you alone have all the answers to every situation. Utilize online resources and work together with your coworkers to share things that work and don’t work. Working completely independently would be a waste of time, not to mention limiting for you students. There are so many resources out there to help people like you: use them and pay it forward!

Of course, not every method and activity will work for every scenario and for every group. This is something you must accept and be able to adapt to. Teaching abroad is often an awkward and ridiculous experience, and you will surely find yourself doing things that you never imagined yourself doing, just so that one quiet and unconfident student will have a laugh. Embrace it, accept and move on from the frustration of a textbook heavy educational system, and give your students a reason to enjoy coming to English class.

Related Articles:

Teaching Kindergarten in South Korea

6 Tips on How to Use Task-Based Learning with Young Learners

Task-Based Learning: 5 Activities for Teaching English to Young Learners