Shaming the Devil: ELT in S. Korea

I went to the IATEFL site yesterday, to see how preparations for the 2018 conference were going, and through a series of links found myself at the KOTESOL website, which both TESOL & IATEFL seem to have a hand in. The theme of this year’s KOTESOL national conference is “Crossing Borders: Korean ELT in the Modern World”.

In our field of ELT education, everyone has knowledge, skills, and insights that can help others to face their challenges, to cross into new professional territory, to make new discoveries, and to grow. All that is needed is the chance to share what we know. That is the purpose of this conference – to allow professionals, novice and veteran, and from any and all contexts, to share and to learn, for the benefit of everyone. 

Plenary Session: Barbara Hoskins-Sakamoto: “Designing EFL Materials that Work” 

Invited Speaker: Dr. Kyung-sook Yeum: “Global Leadership in TESOL and the Pathways”

Everything’s looking good in S. Korea, I thought

The article had a link to an article that Mike Griffin had written for KOTESOL in 2015 about professional development. I couldn’t resist! It started like this:

What do Thomas Farrell, Barbara Sakamoto, Claire Kramsch, Chuck Sandy, Willy Renandya, and Jeremy Harmer have in common? Aside from being huge names in our field they are all people who were scheduled to give talks in South Korea in calendar year 2015. South Korea (hereafter Korea) is home to some big ELT conferences. I believe the KOTESOL International Conference is the biggest and best-attended of these. From my view, big conferences are just one of the reasons Korea can be a great place for professional development for English teachers.

Mike had provided links to the blogs of Thomas Farrell et. al., and browsing through the posts I saw nothing there that raised any serious doubts about the way ELT was being carried on in S. Korea.  Back with Mike’s article, I read:

Korea’s “English Fever”  might not always be seen as a good thing but one benefit from my perspective is how the sheer number of people involved in English education in this country guarantees there is (sic) always a wide range of teachers with various experiences and perspectives.

I clicked on the link “English Fever” and found an abstract of Jin-Kyu Park’s (2009) article: ‘English fever’ in South Korea: its history and symptoms.

‘Education fever’ drives the demand for English in South Korea today. One professor of politics has recently deplored the current pursuit of ‘English education’ (yeongeokyoyuk) in South Korea as a ‘collective neurosis of English fever’ (Y-M. Kim, 2002). What has brought this current English boom to South Korea? It can be traced back to the traditional ‘education fever’ (kyoyukyeol) or ‘preoccupation with education’ (Seth, 2002). The English boom resulting from the Korean education fever has led to a strong antipathy toward Koreans – even in English-speaking countries.

I went to my uni library’s website and downloaded the article. A worrying picture of Korean education emerged, and the picture of the teaching of English was particularly disturbing. My interest aroused, I downloaded some more articles about ELT in S. Korea (see References at the end of this post) and then I watched a documentary about the South Korean university entrance exams.  The documentary follows three students as they prepare for the famous SKY exam, and goes on to tell the story of what happens to them after the exam. I urge you to watch the documentary; it’s harrowing, sad, upsetting. To me, it’s the painful portrait of a collectivist culture caught up in the competitive clutches of a neoliberal ideology, a bleak picture of a nation suffering collective alienation on a frightening scale.

In a publicity handout, the directors of the movie quote the United Nations On The Rights Of The Child Committee’s 2003 report on S. Korea:

….  the Committee reiterates its concern that the highly competitive nature of the education system risks hampering the development of the child to his or her fullest potential.

 and they go on to say this:

Statistically it is clear that the pressure Korean students have to deal with is more than problematic. South-Korea has the highest suicide rate among the OECD countries. Between 2007 and 2009 suicide was the leading cause of death among students aged 15 to 24. Every month 2 students take their own life. 75% of students committing suicide are in high school.

 The Ministry of Education is aware of the problems this overemphasis on credentials has created and has undertaken many attempts to reform its system but to little avail. The underlying cause of this is not to be found within a failing educational system, but in society as a whole. As long as a degree from a prestigious university is considered a status symbol by parents and a decisive requirement for employment little will change. A fundamental shift in mentality is needed, but it’s quite clear this will not happen overnight.

‘Reach for the SKY’ is a documentary about a society where education has become a multi-billion industry because of its obsessions with achievement and status; about a culture where education has become as important as the type of car you drive or the size of your apartment; where mothers have become the educational agents of their children, micro-managing every hour that could be spent on studying.

An important part of the SKY exam is the English test. A report 12 years ago by the Samsung Economic Research Institute stated that Koreans spent about $16 billion  per year on learning English (Jeon Hyo-chan & Choi Ho-sang, 2006), so we may realistically assume that today the figure is over $20 billion. There are 17,000 English cram schools (known as hagwons) scattered across the nation and an army of 30,000 native English teachers, along with thousands more who teach English illegally (The Diplomat, 2014).  Despite the government’s stated policy that “the main goal of English education in Korea is simply to advance the ability to communicate in English” (Ministry of Education, 2010), and despite the sporadic efforts made by a minority of teachers, most of this money is spent on exam preparation.

In 2002, Seth argued that due to the importance of education in Korean culture, Korea had become “the most exam-obsessed culture in the world” (2002: 5). The university  entrance exams, Seth said then, represent more than just education:

…the examination system illustrates the importance of education as a determiner of social status, the Korean concern with rank and status, and the universal desire for and belief in the possibility of upward mobility.

Test scores in these exams decide who goes to the best universities, and those who go the the best universities go on to get the best jobs. The exam system is thus a crucial factor in determining the future success and status of young Koreans. As a result, it seems that what is actually being implemented in schools in both the public and private sectors is a traditional “talking about the language” approach where teachers pay no more than lip-service to CLT and where the washback effect of the university entrance exams is overwhelming (Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, 2010; Shin, 2007; Jeon, 2009; Park, 2009).

Although the government introduced a listening part to the English exam, it’s still widely believed that the CLT method is inappropriate, since there is still no oral component to the exam (Littlewood, 2007). Teachers find themselves (willingly or not) giving in to pressure from parents and students to teach for the exam, and thus to put little emphasis on oral communication.

How can we evaluate the effects that the huge ELT industry in S. Korea is having? Is it contributing  to the culture of overachievement in education which takes such a heavy toll on students in terms of their health and happiness? Is it contributing to the commodification of education where high stakes exams determine classroom practice, and where the focus on credentials, tests and entrance exams deny students not only a humanistic education but also the skills (e.g. creativity, problem-solving, teamwork) to succeed in higher education or in an increasingly difficult local job market?  How typical, I wonder, is this account, from the New York Times in 2014, of what’s going on in hogwons?

Cram schools like the one I taught in — known as hagwons in Korean — are a mainstay of the South Korean education system and a symbol of parental yearning to see their children succeed at all costs. Hagwons are soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas. Students typically stay after regular school hours until 10 p.m. or later.

 Herded to various educational outlets and programs by parents, the average South Korean student works up to 13 hours a day, while the average high school student sleeps only 5.5 hours a night to ensure there is sufficient time for studying. Hagwons consume more than half of spending on private education.

 This “investment” in education is what has been used to explain South Koreans’ spectacular scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, increasingly the standard by which students from all over the world are compared to one another.  But a system driven by overzealous parents and a leviathan private industry is unsustainable over the long run, especially given the physical and psychological costs that students are forced to bear.

I presume that those who work for KOTESOL, and those who blog about ELT in S. Korea are aware of what’s going on, and I can only suppose that the picture painted by the documentary Reach for the SKY and by the other sources cited here is somehow distorted, an unfair reflection of  the real ELT world as depicted by KOTESOL and Mike Griffin, where teachers work together on their professional development, in order to face their challenges, to cross into new professional territory, to make new discoveries, and to grow.


Butler, Y.G. (2005) Comparative perspectives towards communicative activities among elementary school teachers in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Language Teaching Research, 9/4, 423-446.

Jeon, M. (2009) Globalization and native English speakers in English Programme in Korea (EPIK). Language, Culture, and Curriculum, 22/3, 231-243.

Jeon Hyo-chan & Choi Ho-sang (2006)  “The Economics of English” Samsung Economic Research Institute no. 578.

Jo, S. (2008) English education and teacher education in South Korea. Journal of Education for Teaching, 34/4, 371-381.

Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. (2010) Major Policies and Programs for 2010 [online]. Available from: view [Accessed 27 November 2010].

Littlewood, W. (2007) Communicative and task-based language teaching in East Asian classrooms. Language Teaching, 40, 243-249.

Park, J.K. (2009) ‘English fever’ in South Korea: its history and symptoms. English Today 97, 25/1, 50-57.

Seth, M.J. (2002) Education fever: society, politics, and the pursuit of schooling in South Korea. United States: University of Hawaii Press.

Shin, H. (2007) “English Language Teaching in Korea: Toward Globalization or glocalization.” In Spolsky, B. and Hult, F. (eds.) The handbook of educational linguistics. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 75-86.