Learning what works

Over the last several weeks, I have gradually started to compile a mental list of what works best when speaking English with Koreans (students and adults alike) – and what usually doesn’t.

What works: The word “difficult”

What doesn’t work: The word “hard”

Why? I have no idea. I think “difficult” is just a vocab word that sticks with them for some reason, perhaps because “hard” can also mean the opposite of soft. Funny, because “difficult” is a more difficult word to pronounce (heh).

What works: Clear enunciation with short pauses every two to four words.

What doesn’t work: Filler words, slang, blending words together.

Why? “Like,” “uh,” “what I want you to do,” etc. are just fillers that add no meaning and plenty of confusion for my students. I’ve also found that if I slur one word into the next (like “thi-smorning” or “wouldju” instead of “would you”), people frequently get confused and think I’ve said something else. While it’s good for them to hear natural pronunciation, it definitely doesn’t help when I’m trying to explain something.

What works: Repeating their words back to them, indirectly correcting grammar or pronunciation mistakes.

What doesn’t work: Trying to correct every tiny grammar error in their speech.

Why? The goal is fluency, and to achieve that goal it’s more important to get them talking than worry about whether they left a participle dangling somewhere. I mean, even native speakers don’t use correct grammar all the time! I also like repeating their Korean comments in English if I can – which both surprises/impresses them and helps them connect the meaning.

What works: A stamp system

What doesn’t work: Standing at the front of the room expectantly and saying, “Okay, who wants to share with the class?” *crickets*

Why? Stamps have magical power over the kids here. Basically if they collect enough stamps, they can redeem some small prize, like candy or skipping a homework assignment. Some of my co-teachers use stamps and some don’t, but for the ones that do, getting students to participate is as simple as saying “I’ll give you a stamp.” Hands shoot up in the air like nobody’s business.

What works: Hidden picture PowerPoint games.

What doesn’t work: Complicated games with long-winded explanations.

Why? The kids LOVE hidden picture games. I don’t know why. Not a “find this list of objects within the image” game, but one where the screen starts out black, and as I click the mouse, the picture behind it is slowly revealed piece by piece. They have to guess what the picture is using the target language of the day (e.g. a picture of popcorn and a roll of film + key expression “How was it?” = “How was the movie?”), and usually I make it a competition to motivate them more. It’s such a simple concept – not flashy with sound and animation like some of the other PPT games we’ve played – but for some reason they really really really love it. Just goes to show you that more complicated ≠ better.


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