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Immersion Education In Korean Elementary Education Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5515 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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As the world is globalised and English-speaking countries have dominant roles in politics, economy and culture, English is universally recognised as a global language.

With the importance of English as a global lingua franca and the necessity of having a command of English, South Korea (hereafter ‘Korea’) has perceived the importance of English language education and tried to improve students’ English proficiency by suggesting multilateral methods. Many language education specialists, scholars and policy-makers have suggested many methodologies applicable to the Korean public education system. In 2009, the Korea Herald (2009) reported, for example, that Korea ranks 89th out of 120 countries in terms of TOEFL (Test of English as foreign language, led by Educational Testing Service, U.S.A) results, achieving a score below the international average. Korea has still been ranked bottom in the English Proficiency Test, especially in the speaking section (Korea Times, 2011). Demand for a high level of English is increasing because English has become the most important part of Korean people’s lives. English proficiency tests, such as university entrance exams, TOEIC (Test of English for international communication, see reference C) are now essential elements for going to a good university or getting a good job or promotion. Especially, English proficiency is a major component in university admission. A recent survey led by KDI (Korea Development Institute) mentions that academic cliques are voted as the top-ranked factor of individual success. This leads to ‘English education fever’ in Korea and students’ parents have spent colossal amounts of time and money on English education for their children. When the current government was launched in 2008, its campaign in terms of English education was ‘Anyone who graduates from high-school can communicate with English without inconvenience’, and when President Lee was selected, his transition committee of education brought in the ‘Immersion education’ concept, known in Korea as ‘Mol-ib’. In particular, the committee focused on early English education, and targeted elementary school students for this immersion scheme. After severe controversy, the committee had to withdraw the policy, but some offices of education from cities and provinces still encourage their elementary/middle schools to adopt immersion education voluntarily. Especially, the government allowed four international middle schools to adopt English immersion education and accordingly many offices of education in cities and provinces considered establishing a specialised middle school. Accordingly, the new government’s cancelled policy resulted in unintended consequences that led to overheated early English education. There was a rush of students who would go to private language institutes to prepare for going to the new schools. Students living in rural areas moved to the cities where four International middle schools are located. Other students and their parents have also recognised that English education in public school is not enough and searched for private institutes which provide the ‘Immersion programme’ and classes taught by English native speakers. Contrary to the government’s expectations, many middle-class students have to rely on private language institutes and their parents have to spend more money for private English tutoring and sending their children abroad for Summer/Winter language programmes. Especially, as the new presidential election approaches, this policy is mentioned again by new candidates, education policy-makers and educators. Accordingly, the interests of teachers at public schools and private institutes are reaching the climax of new policy. This case study explores the suitability of the English immersion programme in South Korea from two immersion teachers’ experiences and attempts to answer the following research questions: 1) How do Korean immersion teachers teach in an immersion education environment for elementary students? 2) What difficulties do non-native speakers have when teaching in the target language? 3) Is immersion education suitable for English language education in Korea? The study first observes Korean immersion teachers’ classes. It then investigates their opinions in terms of immersion education. Finally, it looks into the suitability of immersion education in the Korean education system. Although this case study is small-scale, the findings will show some suggestions to the persons concerned with English education in the next government.

2. Background

2.1 Theories of bilingual education

From the twentieth century, the world’s globalisation has greatly influenced language education in every country. According to Baker (1996: 165), one of the illusions about bilingual education is that it is a twentieth century phenomenon. Some countries, such as Hungary, Finland in Europe, Canada, and Hong Kong have applied bilingual education officially or unofficially and optionally or compulsorily. This phenomenon explains why people cannot deny current globalised times and must recognise the importance of communication across the globe.

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Paulston (1992: 80) argues that ‘unless we try in some way to account for the socio-historical, cultural, and economic-political factors which lead to certain forms of bilingual education, we will never understand the consequences of that education’. In this sense, characteristics of bilingual education can be deeply related to one’s society’s history, culture, economy, and politics and can be changed according to these aspects. Two terms, immersion education and CLIL, are introduced briefly in this chapter, as they require a wide range of theoretic background. One of very well-known bilingual education programmes is immersion education. Baker (1996: 180) introduces the term ‘Immersion bilingual education’ as an intended outcome, and therefore represents a strong use of the term ‘bilingual education’. In this sense, from the view of teaching general subjects in English, English immersion education is a different approach from TEE (Teaching English in English) or teaching other subjects integrated partially in an English class. Johnson and Swain (1997: 6-8) discuss the core features of a prototypical immersion program. They present that there are eight common features which exist in spite of the variable features in each immersion education programme:

1. The L2 is a medium of instruction.

2. The immersion curriculum parallels the local L1 curriculum.

3. Overt support exists for the L1.

4. The programme aims for additive bilingualism.

5. Exposure to the L2 is largely confined to the classroom.

6. Students enter with similar (and limited) levels of L2 proficiency.

7. The teachers are bilingual.

8. The classroom culture is that of the local L1 community.

On the other hand, there is another immersion education programme, which is called ‘CLIL’; Content and Language Integrated Learning. According to Dalton-Puffer (2007: 1), CLIL refers to an educational setting where a language other than the students’ mother tongue is used as a medium of instruction. García (2010: 210) takes the stance that ‘CLIL-type programmes aim at achieving a functional competence in both receptive and productive skills, particularly when the target language takes a low portion of curriculum time, as in vocational or professional training. García refers to Hammerly and Swain in noting the difference between them, as follows: (2009:209-2010) ‘Full immersion offers intensive contact with the target language and aims for native or near-native competence at least in receptive skills of comprehension and reading. However, many early total Canadian immersion pupils, even by the end of the program, continue to reveal striking grammatical inaccuracies in their speaking and writing (Hammerly 1991; Swain, 1985).’

2.2 Current theoretic trend of English immersion education in Korea

Since the latter part of the 20th century, the introduction of the immersion programme as one of bilingual education and the research of its necessity in the Korean education system has been shown. J. Park (2000) suggests the importance of bilingual education, and especially the application of immersion education to English classes in Korea. His paper provides three key objectives; showing successful cases of other countries in terms of immersion education, exploring the applicability of the immersion scheme in Korean education and arguing that partial subjects need to be taught in the immersion education system. There is updated research based on teachers’ cognition to apply immersion education in the Korean curriculum. S. Park (2004) broadly surveys the subject of teachers’ ideas in relation to English immersion education in Korean elementary schools in the Seoul metropolitan area. He suggests several ideas based on his research findings and some representative suggestions from participants are summarised as follows (2004: 277-278): ‘English immersion education should be fundamentally implemented after cultivating professional immersion teachers and should not give pressure on general subjects’ teachers.’ Teachers emphasise the need for government policies to give thoughtful consideration to immersion teachers in order to make them into immersion teachers. Additionally, preliminary arrangements in terms of curricula and materials would be needed to minimise the possibility of disorder and inconvenience caused by insufficient preparation. In relation to induction timing, they recommend slow and partial induction of immersion education and the government should suggest this policy to schools in the form of a voluntary, not compulsory, aspect in the beginning stage. The idea of working with English native speakers is recommended and desirable for team-teaching, but Korean teachers should lead the initiative. They recommend that in the later phase, Korean teachers who are fluent in English should lead the class alone. Especially, social equality between the students from diverse family backgrounds is insisted upon and policy-makers are required to suggest proper methods of selecting beneficiaries. Furthermore, teachers argue that the induction of immersion education should not foster the growth of the private education market.’ Additionally, J. Park and S. Park (2007) suggest a time of induction of English immersion education, appropriate subjects of immersion, its curriculum, a selection scheme for students of this programme, immersion education teachers, types of immersion class, a plan for improving teachers’ English proficiency, and developing materials in a practical manner.

3. Methodology

This chapter describes the methodological framework. It first describes participants and their recruitment. The description is followed by a detailed description of the procedures and techniques of data collection. The chapter ends with an account of data analysis methods as well as ethical issues related to the study.

3.1. Participants

Two immersion teachers participated in the survey. I recruited them at a public elementary school and a private educational institute through my personal network. Both are male and their average age was 32. I made this decision in order to listen to different voices from public and private institutes. A public school teacher (hereafter ‘Teacher A’) received a BA in Math Education from one local university and gained a teaching license from the Korean education council. He has taught English in elementary school for 7 years, but his immersion teaching experience is only 1 year. Another teacher (hereafter ‘Teacher B’) from a private institute gained a BA in science education and spent a total 6 years in U.S.A. His immersion teaching experience is 2 years in Korea.

3.2. Data collection

This study tries to employ qualitative data collection and analysis methods. These characteristics of qualitative research match this study’s research purposes. The focus of the study is to observe immersion classes in Korea and particularly to get Korean teachers’ opinions about English immersion education. Therefore, qualitative research methods were prioritised in this study. Among various qualitative data collecting tools, interview was used as a primary data collection tool, and observation served the purpose of getting referencing data.

3.2.1. Observation

Due to geographical distance, I had to observe their classes via videos which were uploaded on their institutions’ websites. Teacher A’s video was produced and uploaded onto the web because the school was designated as an exemplary immersion school. On the other hand, teacher B’s video was produced for the purpose of marketing for recruiting students. One reason for classroom observation was mainly to build up a background knowledge of immersion education in Korea. The second reason is to develop my questionnaire and see the consistency between what interviewees think about immersion education and what they actually do in their classroom teaching.

3.2.2. Interview

The interview was followed by two interviews separately via Skype and was conducted with a pre-provided questionnaire (Appendix A) which was sent to them by E-mail. In order to allow for flexibility, some questionnaires were additionally made to get their opinions. All the interviews were conducted in Korean and audio-recorded with ‘Evaer Skype Recorder’.

3.3. Ethical issues

When I found the appropriate participants, I contacted them via Facebook and explained the purposes of the case study. They informed me that they would accept my offer under the condition of anonymity. I had to promise to protect the confidentiality of the participants and that I would secure their anonymity by using pseudonyms as well as the institute’s names. I assured them that the interview results would not be released to anyone with whom they work, or to any institutes at which they work.

4. Research findings

4.1 Immersion programme in two institutions

The below contents are collected from interviews with two participants and information from school/institute homepages and are summed up. The general approach to immersion is similar but they have slight differences of purpose and characteristics.

4.1.1 Programme purpose and characteristics of Teacher A’s school

This programme is sponsored by the Office of education, Busan city. This school is designated as an exemplary school which provides immersion education. Three subjects, which are maths, science, and sociology, are taught in English, not in regular classes but in extracurricular classes for voluntary students. Students’ English levels are diverse. The mission of the programme is to assist EFL elementary students in developing English language proficiency while fostering an interest in their studies. This programme enables the students to learn English additionally at school and review subjects which were taught in Korean at regular classes. In class, the Korean teacher leads the class and an English native speaker supports the Korean teacher. The textbooks are provided by the government and have similar contents to Korean textbooks.

4.1.2 Programme purpose and characteristics of Teacher B’s institute

The programme enables highly intelligent elementary students who have a good command of English to complete a series of elementary-level subjects in immersion education. This programme is designed to meet the interests of elementary students who plan to go to ‘International Middle school’ (Appendix B) or secondary school in English-speaking countries. In order to be considered for this programme, candidates must possess over 700 points in their TOEIC score and their ranking in their class should be within the top 5% of total subjects. The mission of the programme is to provide the upper level contents to elite students and to enable them to prepare for studying in an English environment. The main subjects, such as maths, science, and sociology, which are core courses required to prepare for junior high school, are taught in English. All teachers are English native speakers or Koreans who speak English fluently and have a relevant degree from English-speaking countries. The materials are diverse; from American elementary books to self-translated books into English.

4.2 Classroom observation

In order to observe two different classrooms, I borrowed Fortune (2000)’s immersion teaching strategies observation checklist (appendix D). I observed how teachers would operate the class and how students responded to find similarities and make comparisons between their two programmes. There are several areas of classroom observation, but I focused on teachers’ methods of 1) Making input comprehensible, 2) Integrating language with contents, and 3) Interacting with students.

4.2.1 Teacher A’s class

Teacher A teaches maths for the 5th grade (age 11) in English immersion. In his class, there are about 25 students. This class is not in the regular course curriculum but is additionally conducted for the purpose of immersion education. This is an alternative measure to avoid making students’ parents worried in terms of children’s scholastic attainments. When the class begins, teacher ‘A’ and a native speaker share greetings in English to catch the students’ attention and to inform them that only English is to be used in the class. He leads the class with relative ease and simplicity in order not to give pressure or stress to students. His intention seems to focus on the understanding of the English language, especially vocabulary. He tries to provide activities by asking questions. He also asks the native speaker to talk to students individually. The native speaker tries to tailor her English to a level that the students, with their limited English proficiency, can understand.

4.2.2 Teacher B’s class

Teacher B teaches science to the 6th grade (age 12) in English immersion. In his class, there are 12 students. He explains some contents and their structures and vocabularies simultaneously. He focuses not only on speaking, but also on reading and writing skills. In order to develop students’ English skills, he encourages students to write their thinking after the teacher’s explanation and to have a discussion with a partner. He uses American material from California state for grade 7 (12-13 years of age). He tries to correct the students’ English and seems more focused on students’ understanding of content. In order to familiarise them with Western classrooms and culture, he uses an ‘American Home school DVD’ as a visual aid to supplement information to get positive feedback from his students.

4.2.3 Similarities and differences between them

The main intentions of both of the programmes are to promote academic instruction so that all students become proficient in English through the implementation of immersion education. Their classes aim to provide students with a Western-like environment and to provide some opportunities for positive interactions. Both programmes seem to employ a lesson plan that facilitates English language development. Lessons are designed to promote English language skills, rather than to deliver content. As students have a limited understanding of English, teachers try to speak English slowly and explain things simply. They allocate some minutes for providing opportunities for students to produce language on their own to practice English. After their response, teachers provide positive feedback, although the students make some mistakes, so that students get involved and interested in another language and class. Although there was not a significant difference between the two classrooms, one particular finding is that ‘Teacher A’ delivers some content in Korean to help students understand information. His class focuses on helping children become comfortable with the English language. His intention is to make his students become familiarised with the English language and to grow slowly in their English skills. Students’ feedback is rather limited and this class is generally teacher-centred. This case is not the original class of immersion education because this class is for reviewing what students have already learned. Repeating the lesson in the target language is the main purpose; thus, it does not fit in the basic principle of immersion education. In contrast, teacher B’s class is slightly different. Because of the student body, which is composed of elite students, his class provides an environment that promotes positive attitudes towards the English language. It allows them to simultaneously learn content on a topic as well as acquiring vocabulary and the ability to speak in English. This programme seems to focus on individual academic strengths. The teacher’s main interest includes students developing high levels of proficiency in the English language and performing at or above grade level in academic areas in both languages.

4.3. Interview results and discussions

This section shows the findings from the interviews based on questionnaires. A copy of the questionnaire can be found in appendix A and copies of the completed questionnaires can be found in appendix B. The public school teacher is referred to as ‘Teacher A’ and the private institute one is referred to as ‘Teacher B’. I summarise the findings with 4 themes, as shown below.

4.3.1 Target language proficiency and self-confidence

Teachers are not sure whether immersion education should be introduced in public school. They point out that their English proficiency is the main problem and they lose confidence when teaching. They also worry about the teaching quality due to delivering lessons.

“When I was selected as an immersion teacher, I was excited, but on the other hand, I was worried about my English proficiency. I had some English communication classes in college, but that was for general English classes. Although I have quite a high score in TOEIC (Test of English for international communication by ETS), I have had no exposure to an English environment. I am planning to go abroad for intensive English.” (Teacher A)

“Although I studied and gained a B.A. degree in U.S, it’s very challenging to teach in English. Policy-makers need to understand that an American degree cannot make foreign students get the language level of native speakers. There is no option but to improve English proficiency at this moment.” (Teacher B)

These two participants recognise the teachers’ English proficiency as a starting point for immersion education. They understand that the language issue is critical for adopting immersion education. However, they appreciate that the future trend of English education in Korea will be similar to the immersion education system. Thus, in order to strengthen their teaching competitiveness, they are going to language schools after work or are planning to go overseas.

4.3.2 Relationship with their parents and the market of private institutes

One of the key issues in introducing immersion education is dealing with students and their parents. Especially, they have common ideas that immersion education should require parents’ permission and agreement. These are quotations in terms of this theme:

“In the beginning, it was very difficult to persuade parents. That’s why immersion class is executed in extra-curricular class, not regular class. One particular thing is they regard my class as another opportunity to expose themselves to English language.” (Teacher A)

“Parents intentionally send their children to my institute, as it is one of a few institutes which provide immersion education in this town. Most of them expect their children to go to ‘middle school of science’; thus, their expectation is very high. They pay a significant amount of money. I think immersion teaching would be limited in public school and the market of private institutes will be bigger.” (Teacher B)

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As shown above, it is found that getting permission from students’ parents is not easy and general explanation needs to be provided to parents in the beginning stage. One interesting finding is that this immersion programme increases the role of private education, which is contrary to the government’s intention. Furthermore, this points to the fact that the immersion programme creates a gulf between the rich and poor.

4.3.3 Interaction with students

Interaction between teachers and students is a very important factor in the classroom. As a teacher, he/she needs to monitor whether students understand the content and can follow what he/she teaches and be aware of any difficulties the students have. Especially, this is very important in the immersion classroom because a foreign language is the main delivery method.

“This is the most important issue that I object to in the adoption of immersion education. Most students start learning English from the age of ten in public school. To be honest, their English proficiency is not enough to understand a class in English. Accordingly, they lose interest in the class. Although the class deals with elementary-level content, students feel difficulty in understanding new English words and contexts.” (Teacher A)

“As a matter of fact, class in a foreign language is difficult not only for teachers but also for students. My students’ English is definitely better than other students in the same grade. However, understanding, presenting and asking questions is not that easy. Fortunately, they are aiming to go to international middle school and they try their best. In my position, I try to utilise many visual aids to catch their attention.” (Teacher B)

In terms of this issue, the language issue is mentioned again. One of the key principles of immersion education is linguistic knowledge. In Korea, one of EFL countries, where English is rarely used in real life, it is once again confirmed that by teaching in a foreign language, it is not easy to make academic content comprehensible to learners.

4.3.4 Qualified native speaker and tailored materials

The basic requirement for any class is material. The two participants agreed that they were not sure about which materials they should use. They also had some difficulties in finding qualified native-speakers to work with. These remarks are exemplary in relation to this theme:

“To be honest, selecting materials is beyond my capacity. There is no official textbook for immersion education. I use an American textbook but the curriculum is very different. Thus, I translate Korean textbooks into English before class and hand them out in class.” (Teacher B)

“Working with a native speaker is very beneficial to me and to students. However, I have to spend more time to prepare for class because the native speaker and I have to prepare together in advance. In particular, getting a qualified one is very difficult. Most of them come to Korea to teach English, not maths or science. Even finding a qualified one who meets the school recruitment standard is very rare.” (Teacher A)

As shown above, producing material tailored to the Korean education curriculum is recognised as one of the most challenging aspects. Currently, the average monthly wage for a native-speaker is about 1300-1500 pounds, which is quite a lot lower than other East Asian countries. The Korean government needs to organise a task-force for implementing the necessary conditions.

4.3.5 Testing and assessment

Language assessment is a very important factor in helping to understand students’ academic outcomes or proper development and even help them to learn the target language effectively.

“Unfortunately, at this moment, it is difficult to assess students’ learning process. City office education has not mentioned about testing. Fundamentally, my class is not on regular curriculum and I feel little necessity of testing. If I have to, then I need some support from school or city office of education.” (Teacher A)

As the interview result shows, Bax (2010: 52) also describes in terms of immersion education in Korea that ‘there is an absence of firm test data by which to evaluate the academic success of English language learning in Korea in comparison with other countries’. Assessment should have been considered when the immersion scheme was introduced in Korea.

5. Conclusion

5.1. The findings and implications

This case study shows some limitations of employing the immersion programme. In order to gain a successful immersion programme, sustainable support and interest is needed from educational policy-makers, administrators, teachers and students. In this sense, the results of this case study have some implications for other schools and private educational institutes, and particularly for policy makers of English language education. As discussed in the interview chapter, the teachers have difficulty in teaching their subjects in an immersion education environment in several respects. First of all, English language proficiency is considered to be a very important tool in educational contexts. Secondly, although the immersion educational policy has attempted to strengthen English language proficiency for students, the current educational system cannot cover their willingness. Thirdly, the sudden change in language education policy has been generating many constraints, such as teachers’ low English proficiency, the lack of materials and English native speakers. In this sense, all of the relevant people share many weaknesses and shortfalls of immersion education in Korea and thus may benefit from the results and findings of this study. The results of the study may also have implications for people who plan to teach their subjects within immersion programmes. They need to study how they can deliver their education to students within immersion environments effectively. Native English speakers who plan to teach English in South Korea or EFL settings may also benefit from this study about English language teaching, as they are informed of the realities of teaching EFL in the current trend of South Korean situations. For these reasons, this case study can be a useful source of information. Korea has a tendency to quickly benchmark things which are deemed good policies, or systems from developed countries, without thorough preparation. This also seems to apply in this case. Students and teachers recognise this scheme is clumsily prepared without all circumstances being set up.

5.2. Limitations and suggestions for future research directions

This study employs two means of data collection; interview and observation. However, in terms of combining quantitative and qualitative research instruments, the study has not fully provided a better understanding of the ‘suitability of English immersion education in South Korean education.’ Instead, this study rather focuses on teachers’ beliefs about the English immersion education, their perceptions of it, and their attempts to implement newly suggested immersion education into their classroom teaching. In this sense, the study is rather small-scale.

There are three big limitations of this study. One is the difficulty of persuading participants to have interviews. For finding interviewees, I managed to recruit some of the candidates through my personal network. However, it was very difficult to get their permission for interviews. As I described in the interview results section, they hesitated to accept my interview proposal, because they also understood that most of their ideas would possess negative views of immersion education. Therefore, at their request, we agreed to have interviews on condition of the anonymity of all of their names, schools and mentioned people. The second limitation concerns a lack of real ‘class observation.’ Due to the long distance between us, although they provided me with video cl


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