Date of Award

2015

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Education

Faculty

Faculty of Education and Arts

First Advisor

Dr Yvonne Haig

Second Advisor

Dr Jan Gray

Abstract

English is considered the most important language after Korean in South Korea; thus, it is a compulsory subject in schools. English lessons begin in year three of the primary school and continue until the end of schooling, including at the university level. This was not always the case, as English was not considered to be significant until the Korean government needed people who could speak it in order to communicate with the US military during the Korean War. After a period where English was backgrounded by more pressing issues, it re-emerged as necessary to promote globalisation which was seen as a challenge for the Korean people. More recently, additional pressure to improve Korean students’ English language competence has come from an increasing economic dependence on international trade.

The Department of Education has responded differently to these three main points of pressure to improve English language competency. Initially, they adopted a grammar-translation method to respond to the demand provided by the Korean War, and following the failure of this method to produce competent speakers of English, the audio lingual method was introduced to address the communication issues associated with globalisation. However, this method was also seen to fail, primarily as teachers at that time had learnt through a grammar translation method which did not develop the spoken English skills they needed for this way of teaching. More recently, the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach has been implemented in an attempt to improve Korean students’ use of English for spoken communication.

The CLT approach promotes a focus on meaning more than form, content and function more than grammar and fluency more than accuracy. The approach also emphasises student-centred learning, communicative competence, authentic speech, and the teaching of cultural knowledge. To address the issue of teacher competence, many universities employ native speakers of English to teach the conversation units in English related courses. Despite this and other support, students continue to struggle to achieve communicative competence in English. This perpetuates a cycle of failure in English learning when some of these students graduate as a new generation of English teachers unable to speak English with fluency or confidence. Only a small number of studies have investigated this issue and they identified the linguistic differences between English and Korean, cultural differences, Korean learners’ characteristics and students’ low levels of motivation as the four main challenges. In order to extend this work, this study investigated what was happening in English conversation classrooms so as to identify those aspects of pedagogy that supported student learning and the challenges which may have impeded it. Further, the previous studies were conducted in middle schools so this one selected the university level of schooling as a context not yet investigated.

The study employed a qualitative research design in the form of a case study. The case included three sub cases, each focusing on a native English-speaking conversation teacher in a national university. The data were collected through classroom observations followed by informal discussions, interviews, reflective journals, document analysis, and research field notes. First, the study investigated the teaching practices the three informants used in their university level English conversation classrooms and compared these to those expected in a CLT-based classroom. Second, the challenges the teachers experienced in the implementation of a communicative approach were explored. Lastly, the study investigated how the challenges identified might be addressed in a South Korean university context.

The study found that the three teachers, although all claiming to use very similar communicative teaching methods, did not do so. One used a highly structured approach that relied heavily on a high level of teacher control, with careful direction of learning and controlled repetition of specific language forms. Another took a student-centred approach with careful structuring of authentic activities to encourage students to interact using English fluently. The third teacher used a communicative approach but with very limited support provided to his students. The teachers’ practices were influenced by their educational backgrounds, teaching experiences and beliefs. This study identified three different types of challenges faced by the teachers of English conversation in a South Korean university. The first was the marginalised position of English conversation classes in the university; the second was the teachers’ limited knowledge of the CLT approach and their students’ cultural and educational backgrounds; and, the third was the students’ limited access to English outside of their English conversation classes. These findings have a number of implications for Korean universities, including those related to the recruitment of English speaking teachers and the support offered to them after their appointments, the integration of English conversation units into the major areas of study and the provision of conditions suited to the demands of learning English as a foreign language.

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