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[Eye on English] Korea shifts English focus to communicative skill teaching

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Published : 2014-04-02 20:41
Updated : 2014-04-03 11:47

From grammar analyses and pattern drills to a communication-centric approach, English teaching methods have evolved over the past decades with researchers striving to find more effective ways to learn the language.

These methods have been formulated as the pedagogical focus has shifted from offering as much English input as possible to learners, to encouraging them to speak and write the language, and interact with one another.

Currently, English education in Korea focuses on fostering students’ communication skills. Applying the “communicative language teaching” method, teachers have tried to engage students in the pragmatic, authentic and spontaneous use of the language.

In a departure from the rote memorization of grammar rules and words, Korea altered its classroom curriculum to center on communicative aspects in the 1990s when the government was pushing for the country’s globalization.

“Rather than passively memorizing words and sentence structures, students are now encouraged to actively engage in language games in groups with teachers ‘teaching English in English’ and promoting interaction among all participants,” said Kim Tae-young, professor of English education at Chung-Ang University.

“But in actuality, there are, of course, limits in implementing a communication-centered approach as students are oriented toward preparing for the state college entrance exam, and because of physical classroom constraints.”

To overcome various constraints including teachers’ lack of proficiency in English, teachers have capitalized on the Internet, computer software and other audio-visual aids. Those high-tech tools have helped create an environment for a more authentic use of the target language, experts said.

With the development of various teaching methods and theories, teachers have also sought to offer “tailored” English lessons in consideration of various factors including students’ levels of proficiency, and their cognitive and affective features.

But the gap has been widening between their educational ideals and classroom realities.

“Yes, we all pursue ideal educational methods. But oftentimes, those ideals turn out to be far-fetched dreams as we apply the same evaluation methods to all students to grade and rank their performances,” said Won Kyu-wang, a teacher at Goyang Global High School in Gyeonggi Province.

Korea’s English education methods have been influenced by major shifts in the world’s language teaching trends.

In the 1970s and ’80s, linguist Stephen Krashen’s “input hypothesis” figured prominently in the field of second language acquisition.

Krashen emphasized the importance of the “comprehensible input” that learners are exposed to. With little attention to the effect of the output on learners’ competence, the scholar argued that understanding spoken and written language input is a critical part of the language acquisition.

In particular, Krashen argued that learners should be exposed to input that is “a bit beyond” their current proficiency level. That way, learners can be challenged to make progress, while not being overwhelmed by the difficulty of language learning.

His hypothesis waned after French immersion education in Canada, in which the input was a key learning factor, turned out to not be so successful.

Challenging Krashen’s hypothesis, linguist Merrill Swain came forward with her “output hypothesis,” which argues the comprehensible output is as significant as the input in the process of acquiring a foreign language.

She argued that when learners produce or speak a foreign language, they notice their errors, which would enable them to recognize their linguistic shortcomings and try to modify them. But Krashen countered Swain’s hypothesis, claiming that output was rare, and the comprehensible output was even rarer.

Another crucial hypothesis focuses on “interaction.” This hypothesis, led by Michael Long, argues that the acquisition of the language is considerably facilitated by face-to-face interaction and communication.

Under the hypothesis, learners can enhance their foreign language by exchanging feedback in the process of negotiating with their counterparts for meaning. The current mainstream communicative language teaching is based on this hypothesis.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)