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.

23 thoughts on “Shaming the Devil: ELT in S. Korea

  1. Hi Geoff,

    This is Stewart Gray. I’m the chair of the KOTESOL conference mentioned in your post – I co-wrote the text you quote at the beginning.

    I have to concede, the text in our conference advert is on the saccharine side. Admittedly, we left out mention of critical issues facing our local EFL industry, and so I think it worth making a clarification here. While I cannot claim to speak for all English teachers I Korea, this I say with confidence: many of us are acutely aware of the issues facing our students.

    Like a lot of English teachers in Korea, I have worked in hagwons, as well as other contexts. I have witnessed some of the uglier dimensions of Korean English education, and from my perspective the sources cited in your post are, broadly, accurate. I have often found myself caught between the demands of employers and parents and the emotional and psychological needs of students, all the time aware that I am participating in a system with many cruel and unfair aspects.

    My response to this situation has been akin to that of many of my compatriots – to mediate English education as critically and humanely as I am able to do; to make myself aware of the often overwhelming challenges facing the students with whom I work, and to do what am I able to to support them, and not to put them under undue pressure, the potential consequences of which I understand only too well.

    In light of all this, if the conference advertising text appears to gloss over the serious problems presently playing out in Korean English education, I apologise. This was not at all my intention. Rather, it is my hope that this conference, as is quite common for KOTESOL, will play host to talks about the very issues described in your writing, given by practitioners who grapple with them daily.

  2. Hi Stewart,

    Thanks for this response. Perhaps you could tell us

    1. What proportion of the talks / presentations / workshops that KOTESOL has organised in the last 10 years have dealt with the issues that you say you are so acutely aware of?
    2. What has KOTESOL done, as an organisation, to fight the Suneung exam washback effect on ELT in S. Korea?

  3. Hi again Geoff,

    I’m happy to attempt to answer your questions. But first, if I may, a little disclosure: (a) I have been involved with KOTESOL for 3 years, while the organization is 25 years old, (b) I am presently acting as a conference chair, but I am not among the leaders of the organization, and (c) KOTESOL is an all-volunteer, non-profit, professional development organization.

    All right.

    1. It’s tricky to say what the proportion has been, and in the greatest likelihood, critical talks have not outnumbered talks on ‘practical teaching tips’ and suchlike – that said, there have been a great many critically-themed workshops etc. at KOTESOL events, especially in recent times. For instance, not too long ago, the KOTESOL Social Justice special interest group was founded, and their members have been proactively operating workshops, book clubs, and presentation strands at conferences all over Korea with an emphasis on the variety of issues facing students and teachers. Among those issues, of course, is mental health, and it seems appropriate to mention here that a mental health professional was among those invited to give a talk at the national conference some years back. Granted, it is always possible to do more, but speaking from my own viewpoint, I have a great respect for the efforts of KOTESOL members that I have observed.

    2. This is a challenge indeed – what has the organization done to fight the Suneung? I’m afraid my answer will come across as fatalistic (and again, I cannot speak for KOTESOL), but at the policy level, I believe that English teachers are essentially powerless to fight it. KOTESOL is not an advocacy group, and the Korean government, for the most part, does not consult classroom English teachers (at least, none of them that I know) or their professional development organizations on the question of whether or how to administer the Suneung, or how to structure the curriculum, or what methods to mandate. Many English teachers dislike the Suneung and its effects, but we are not strongly positioned to do anything about it – our position, in this sense, mirrors that which I imagine most teachers around the world occupy. There may be someone within KOTESOL who could answer this question differently (better), but from my standpoint, this is the honest answer – we do what we can for students in our classrooms, but policy is not much moved by our opinions.

    I hope I’ve responded to your questions as you intended them.

  4. Hi Stewart,

    Thanks for your prompt reply. The least we can expect any TESOL organisation to do is to encourage, rather than stifle, open discussion of the way ELT is actually practiced. We need to bring this state of affairs to people’s attention.

    At a persoonal level, I think anybody who is teaching in a school which contributes to depriving children of their rights to a happy upbringing should do something about it: protest, suggest alternatives, strike.

    And if S. Koreans really are as obsessed as they appear to be in documentaries and studies with achievement and status; if education really has become another product, judged in the same way as the type of car you drive or the size of your apartment; if mothers really have become the educational agents of their children, micro-managing every hour that could be spent on studying, then I would advise my ELT colleagues and friends not to work there.

  5. “…if…really are as obsessed as they appear to be in documentaries and studies with achievement and status; if education really has become another product, judged in the same way as the type of car you drive or the size of your apartment; if mothers really have become the educational agents of their children, micro-managing every hour that could be spent on studying, then I would advise my ELT colleagues and friends not to work there.” You must realize how many societies this applies to. I don’t think this precludes honest work being done in such societies, although it may preclude honest work being rewarded as much as credential-building work.

  6. Hi Mark,

    I don’t know how many societies this would apply to. How many would you say?

    I’m sure that there are thousands of EL teachers doing honest work in S. Korea and I hope I didn’t give the impression that I thought otherwise.

  7. At least Japan, China and Korea. Speaking only of my time in Japan, it is hard to teach English in any way that won’t be interpreted for its utility in tests or even in the best cases become a form of human capital. It makes a bit of a mockery of even “honest” (putting scare quotes around my own phrasing) language teaching work.

  8. Hey Geoff,

    I’m not sure if you’ve spent much time you’ve spent in South Korea, but if you have, it doesn’t show through that much in this post. There are quite a few assumptions here about how professional development (PD) in ELT is structured and I wanted to clear a few of them up here.

    Firstly, the KOTESOL International Conference is a small (but important) part of the TESOL PD calendar. A lot of the good PD goes on in SIGs and regional groups. The International Conference is where people mostly go for networking and boosting their CVs. There is a lot of PD going on elsewhere both within and without KOTESOL. The character of that PD is often very different to the International Conference.

    Secondly, I found the tone of this quite patronising. The issues you raise about the Korean education system are often legitimate; they’re also issues almost every teacher in South Korea is aware of. I don’t think anyone who has worked in South Korea for any length of time would learn that much from this post. What most of them would want is ways of making a positive change which you don’t provide.

    Thirdly, I’m not an expert but there are a raft of reasons for Korea’s particular culture surrounding education that are historical or Confucian. Describing this culture as ‘Neoliberal’ strikes me as lazy and Orientalist.

    Finally, I’d also be wary of ascribing a single attitude to ELT PD is South Korea to KOTESOL. It’s a big organisation with many people who have many different beliefs. You’d have to ask him, but I’m not sure Mike would describe himself and KOTESOL as having a singular point of view on what PD in South Korea looks like. In the quote that you use in this article, I think Mike is pretty clear that ‘English fever’ is bad in a lot of ways, but one of the ways in which it has been positive is that it has provided PD opportunities. I imagine a sensible perspective that lots of teachers in South Korea would take is that while there are lots of problems with the educational culture, it’s a very good place to work and to learn to be a better teacher. It’s very difficult to change a culture, but teachers can and are making classroom-level change in educational cultures.

  9. Hello Geoff,

    Thank you for the interesting and thought-provoking post. I should also say it was a bit of a conversation starter in some of my circles.

    I’d like to address your point at the end. You wrote, “I presume that those who work for KOTESOL, and those who blog about ELT in S. Korea are aware of what’s going on” to which I’d say sure. Yes. I’d imagine nearly everyone who volunteers for KOTESOL is aware of these issues as is anyone who blogs seriously about ELT in Korea.

    I don’t think believing there are some good chances for professional development in South Korea (the basic thrust of the post of mine you mentioned) or believing “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” means there are no challenges or problems with the education picture within a specific country. I don’t think believing teachers in South Korea can help each other means people feel there are no issues with the education system.

    I am happy to say for the record that the college entrance system in South Korea is completely fucked up. It’s a shame on many levels.

    I also think the system for folks to get into universities like Harvard and Oxford is fucked up. It doesn’t mean teachers in the US and UK should stop trying to develop professionally (if they want to).

    I will not accuse anyone you cited of of giving an “unflair [sic] reflection of the real ELT world.” I think it was part of the picture. I will just say there are lots of different people doing lots of different jobs in the whole industry.

    I will also say that (at least in my view) most of the people involved in KOTESOL are not really in positions to change much of anything on a societal level. This is just my perception.

    I am not active in KOTESOL (or even a member at the moment) but I also feel compelled to write about the mission of KOTESOL. On their website they say, “The role of KOTESOL is to promote scholarship, disseminate information, and facilitate cross-cultural understanding among persons concerned with teaching and learning of English in Korea.” It’s not an advocacy group or a think-tank. It’s not a policy making or influencing organization. I have a strong suspicion there are rules from the Korean government that would prevent KOTESOL from taking a very active role in policy making and the importance of university entrance tests.

    You might suggest that KOTESOL should have a different vision and be more active to promote change in the society and I cannot really disagree. You wrote to Stewart above, “The least we can expect any TESOL organisation to do is to encourage, rather than stifle, open discussion of the way ELT is actually practiced. We need to bring this state of affairs to people’s attention” and my sense is that these discussions are not at all being stifled. Again, just my perception. I thank you again for bringing this up.


  10. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for this.

    My main point is that, if the sources I cited are right, KOTESOL and ELT bloggers in S. Korea should speak out loudly and clearly against the way children are being harmed and the way education is being de-railed.

  11. Hi Stewart. David Donaldson here. I was looking at a tweet from Geof Jordan and saw your reply. Small world. He used to live in Barcelona and I worked in the same school (ESADE) as him one summer many years ago. Nice to see you are still enjoying your TESOL life! Have u continued to work for UCC?

    David Donaldson

  12. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for this. A few quick replies:

    1. I’m sorry you found the tone of my post patronising.
    2. I’ve never been to S. Korea and I think I make it clear that I know little about the country.
    3. PD programmes obviously need to refer to local contexts; if they do, they’re obviously a “good thing”.
    4. As I said in reply to Mike, the main point of the post is to question the lack of clear and open criticism by KOTESOL and ELT bloggers in S. Korea of the way exam pressure is harming children and de-railing education. Tell the truth and shame the devil.

  13. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the reply. Those 3 certainly strike me as the prime suspects. It’s obviously a question of degree, no pun intended.

  14. Hey Geoff,

    Thanks for the response. In response to your post a friend of mine wrote something like, “The picture he paints is the one we always hear about when we hear and talk about ELT in Korea…It seems like the bleak picture of Korean ELT is he assumed backdrop against which your more optimistic posts are set” and is point made a lot of sense to me. I believe the audience I was writing for in that KOTESOL post I wrote already knew how bad and depressing things can be in education (not just English education) and my post was an attempt to show there are lots of opportunities for teacher development as well. I wouldn’t say that things are rosy and great and perfect and I’d be happy to complain over some drinks for hours about the situation. I don’t think there is any hiding or dishonesty in focusing on teacher development (in specific blog posts or conference themes) in the face of the major problems with education in Korea. Thanks again for the post and exchange.


  15. What is the point is this article?

    Is it to demonstrate that zero understanding of a country’s social, economic, political or cultural context should in way be a barrier to offering criticism?

    Is it to suggest that governments should pay closer attention to a professional conference because a few name people make a presentation?

    Is it an exercise in virtue signalling?

    Shaming the devil … what a lark … what a fraud.

    rob whyte

  16. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for this. My post was a shocked reaction to the documentary Reaching for the SKY and took the form of “Why don’t we hear more about this?” I quite understand that EL teachers in S. Korea are (a) sick of hearing about it; (b) having a tough time trying to deal with it; and (c) glad to read your attempts to cheer them up and sound positive. While I think that KOTESOL, ELT bloggers and other media should talk about these problems more openly more often, I quite agree that they should also be talking up the good things that happen there.

  17. Hi Rob,

    Thanks for this.

    I presume that your questions are rhetorical: making a point, not looking for an answer.

  18. Yes, but as I think everyone who replied has pointed out these kinds of discussions are taking place. Teachers aren’t well placed to make sociopolitical changes, but lots of PD does focus on how to have a positive effect in one’s own classroom in spite of pressures to be more exam focused. Teachers are well aware that Korean education is test orientated and don’t need to be told at a conference.

    You say the post is about ELT bloggers in South Korea, however, none of Thomas Farrell, Barbara Sakamoto, Claire Kramsch, Chuck Sandy, Willy Renandya, and Jeremy Harmer are bloggers based out of SK. As I say above people are talking about these issues on blogs and at conferences.

    I’m a big fan of a lot of your posts, but this one really rubbed me the wrong way (and it seems like I’m not the only person). I think that as someone who regularly criticises people for talking about things they know nothing about, it would behove you to not to write ill-informed blog posts about a country you don’t know much about.

  19. Hi Tim,

    First, I didn’t make it clear that I was referring to the bloggers Mike listed in his article:

    I should also mention Korea is something of a hotbed for ELT blogs with those by Anne Hendler, David Harbinson, Josette LeBlanc, Tim Hampson, and Alex Grevett as just a few examples.

    Those are the ones I visited.

    I criticise people who write baloney: pretending to be well-informed about things which their texts show they know little about. I don’t pretend to know much about S. Korea, but that shouldn’t disqualify me from giving an opinion on an issue that I took some trouble to inform myself about. You say the post is ill-informed. I cited the sources for my information, so either you’re criticising my choice of sources or the way I used them. In any case, I’m sorry the post rubbed you up the wrong way.

  20. Tip: If you really want to write critically about these issues, you can’t do it from references that are primarily over a decade old, and literally no direct contact with any live humans.

    However, if you really are interested, let me set up a video conference for you. How does that sound?

    Best Wishes,
    Eric Reynolds, Ph.D.

  21. Hi Eric,

    I take your point about the 10 year old references; I tried to find more recent ones, but should have tried harder.

    As for the video conference, I’d be delighted. I’m going to London tomorrow till end of the month, so could we do it in April?

  22. Hmmm. I’ve spent some time in Korea and a lot of classrooms there.

    I have to say I agree with everybody. Everything is well said, truthful and meaningful. There can be a whole lot of different truths to an issue.

  23. Hi David! Fancy seeing you on here. I had no idea you a Geoff had worked together.

    In answer to your question, I did do a one-day event for the Center in November, but nothing since. Focused on my main job at present. Hope everything’s all right over in Barcelona.

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