S. Korean students think English curriculum impractical

January 14, 2015
Senior students of a girls' high school in Seoul take a trial examination in preparation for November's College Scholastic Ability Test on June 12, 2014. (Yonhap)

Senior students of a girls’ high school in Seoul take a trial examination in preparation for November’s College Scholastic Ability Test on June 12, 2014. (Yonhap)

By Jung Min-ho

Seven out of 10 middle and high school students in Korea are dissatisfied with English education in classrooms, a survey showed Wednesday.

The survey, published in the latest edition of a journal from the Chung-Ang University Research Institute of Korean Education, revealed a serious mismatch between what students want to learn and what is taught at school.

According to the survey of 990 middle and high schools in Seoul, 67.5 percent of the respondents believe that their English lessons were too grammar-focused and test-oriented.

While 44.1 percent of the students said speaking was the most important part of English education, only 18.5 percent said grammar was, followed by vocabulary, listening, reading and writing.

In reality, however, 58.4 percent of them said grammar was treated as the most important at schools, while 9.5 percent said speaking was treated that way.

As to the reason, they said this was because students’ grammatical ability is widely accepted as a key component of the college entrance exam.

Such dissatisfaction is expected to continue as many regional education offices have decided to reduce the number of native speaking English teachers at public schools this year.

The Incheon Metropolitan City Office of Education has cut this year’s budget for employing native language teachers at its elementary, middle and high schools by 5.4 billion won ($4.9 million).

Also, the North Chungcheong Province Office of Education plans to cut its native teachers to 113 from 308 last year, while the Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education has decided to reduce the number of its native language teachers to 323 from 443.

The issue of Korean English education focusing too much on impractical skills has lingered for decades. However, given that the English section of the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) doesn’t evaluate students’ speaking and writing abilities, the ways of teaching English at schools have changed little.

“In fact, many public schools teachers are unprepared to teach English speaking and writing,” a high school English teacher, who refused to be named, said. “So they stick to the old ways.”

Recognizing the problem, the former Lee Myung-bak administration intended to replace the English section of the CSAT with NEAT, a test that evaluated not only reading and listening, but also speaking and writing.

But the government later decided to abolish the plan, citing concerns that the new test could cause a further increase in private tuition costs.

Critics say that the NEAT formula was doomed to fail from the start because few teachers were capable of teaching speaking and writing.

They also point out that the current education system, where public school teachers are barely re-trained and their performances are hardly evaluated, leaves the nation’s English education still impractical and noncompetitive.

Last month, a court ruled that a 55-year-old English teacher, who had worked at a high school in Seoul for almost 20 years, should leave the school.

The decision came after the school fired him for incompetence. The school said he took his first-ever TOEIC in 2011 and earned 415 points out of 990.

The case showed that teachers’ performances are not evaluated well under the current system.

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