An earlier version of this story appeared in THE KOREA TIMES on Thursday, April 16, 2015.
When students start university in Korea, even those who grasp English the least have spent years studying the language, such that they have a working knowledge of it. Despite their sometimes less-than-perfect pronunciation, or the occasional awkward grammatical construction that punctuates their speech, a native speaker of English can have a decent conversation – in English – with any of them.
In spite of the difficulties that Korean students struggle through in making sense of essays and stories written in English, they understand most of the reading. And though they have yet to master the craft of writing informative eloquent essays and term papers – and even at the top colleges and universities in America, how many students can do that? – they write readable English.
So when they come to our classrooms, they’re not blank slates. They still have a long way to go in their mastery of English, but they meet us more than halfway.
The expensive commercial textbooks that Oxford, Cambridge, Pearson, and other publishers sell all over the world, might work for immigrants to the United States who aren’t fully literate in their native languages (mostly Spanish). And maybe young children could learn some of the basics of English with these textbooks (though there are much better materials on the internet). But for university students – and even those in middle school in Korea – these textbooks are no good. The lessons in them don’t relate to the world with any sophistication and the exercises are little more than make-work drills that won’t help them learn English in valuable and lasting ways. Despite the expense, these books won’t hold the students’ interest beyond what they’re forced to endure just to make a grade.
The cliche, “Listening, Talking, Reading, Writing,” describes the most basic skills of fluency (but leaves out thinking in the language). Still, this worn-out and incomplete catchphrase dupes teachers and students into wasting valuable time mired in activities that don’t engage the students to read or inspire them to write. Yet if students work steadily at becoming good writers, it sharpens their reading, which enhances their listening, which helps them become good speakers. Besides, cultivating the craft of good writing strengthens clear thinking, and what could be more valuable than that?
The American writer Stephen King often expresses the point that reading is the key to becoming a good writer. “If you want to be a writer,” King says to audiences when asked what it takes to become a good writer, “then you must read,”
If you don’t have time to read,” he tells them, “then you can’t be a writer.”
We should inspire students to read habitually, and in Korea, newspapers such as the Korea Times play a big part in this, for not only can the students immerse themselves in English every day through reading the news stories and editorials in this and the other English dailies (which they can find on the web), they can learn about what is happening that is important to the nation, to the world, and to themselves. Even more, the pieces they read in the Korea Times are written in English by Koreans whose writing talents the students can emulate.
The Korea Times uses only 10,000 words in the articles it publishes, less than one percent of all English words. Yet these are the words that students must know if they are to make the best scores possible on the TOEIC and TOEFL exams. To make sure the newspaper is up-to-date, the editors constantly check the vocabulary found on the TOEIC and TOEFL so the reporters will know the current words on the exams and use them in their writing.
A student who can make a top TOEIC or TOEFL score may have difficulty reading an English daily, but students who habitually read the English dailies are continually preparing themselves for top scores on these exams. As well – since a strong command of English is a portal to the world – these students are mastering the English they will need so they can help make Korea in their lifetime the greatest country it can possibly be.