Helping Your Students Feel Comfortable Speaking English
One of the biggest barriers we face as native English teachers in Korea is that it can be really hard to feel like you connect with the students in the same way that the other teachers do. Not only is there the obvious language barrier but also just the very real barrier of them not knowing what to talk to us about or if we’re interested in the same things they are.
The unfortunate reality is that unless you actively show them that you are a person just like they are, it can be easy for your students to see you as some kind of cool or scary alien from another planet. And that’s not entirely their fault. For many of my kids I am the ONLY non-Korean person in their lives and likely will be for the foreseeable future.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how it was that I came to be in a place where I feel like at least some of my students are comfortable talking to me. I work in the grade three teachers office which means that my desk is in the room with all their homeroom teachers. So the grade three students are in and out constantly asking them questions, coming to them with problems, or getting trouble.
But compared to what I remember of teachers offices in America, our little office here is more of a place of community than administration. Students relationships’ with their teachers here, especially their homeroom teachers, are completely different from the student-teacher relationships in America. In America there are a lot of walls up between students and teachers, for the safety of them both.
But here a lot of those walls don’t exist. Which is why we get students following us around like little puppies clinging to our arms for attention, popping up next to our desks to tease us and try to steal a piece of candy, and constantly commenting on what ever variable of my physical appearance was slightly different that day.
“Teacher you changed your earrings today.” How on earth she noticed that, though, is beyond my comprehension.
I say all that to say this. Building relationships with students here is different on just about every single level you can imagine. Not only is the student-teacher relationship in Korea just generally different from what we’re used to, we also don’t exactly fit the role of regular teacher in their minds so that adds and entirely other layer as well.
I have worked really hard to try to make sure my kids are comfortable and never afraid to talk to me. And I think I’m really getting to reap the rewards of that with my third graders now. They have been my students for two years and now, with 2 months left of school, I have someone sitting down on the sofa next to my desk to say hi, complain about something, beg for candy, or tell me some wild story from class, at least a few times a day. A huge percentage of that is just how lovely my big kids are, but I really do believe part of it is that I am incredibly careful with how I speak to them.
And as I’ve been loving them more and more, and thinking about how we got to this good place, I thought I’d write about what I think are some really good practical ways to make that happen. Of course, these are just what I have done and just what works for me. I also teach middle school so the kind of conversations I have with my kids are going to be vastly different than if I was an elementary school teacher. But I think the methods probably still hold.
So here are just a few tips that I’ve found help your students to feel comfortable speaking English.
#1. Know Their Levels
This is obvious of course but incredibly important in grading your speech so that you don’t overwhelm your lower level students. Their level changes everything. And it’s important to remember that the communication you are able to achieve with different students might be of greatly different caliber but if appropriate it will be equally significant to both students.
In the case of the low-level students speaking clearly and relying on easy topics is key. With one of my favorite low-level third grade boys we’ve recently graduated from “Hello” to “How are you today?” and he absolutely noticed it and loves it. He has said hello to me at least 3 times a day for the lat two years. Every time he see’s me in the office, in the hallway, and when I walk into his classroom he is without fail the first person to very loudly say, “HELLO TEACHER!”
And after two years we are incredibly comfortable with each other. I know that he won’t feel embarrassed or uncomfortable if he doesn’t understand me and that no matter what he will know that I still love him and think he’s hilarious. I know how silly that sounds but the fear of messing up in front of a teacher, especially in a foreign language, here is something you have to constantly work to mitigate.
So recently I decided to work “how are you today” into our daily banter. (Also worth remembering that “How are you today?” and “How’reyou tuhday?” to us are the same thing but to them the latter can be incomprehensible.)
And the first time I added it to our little routine in the office he laughed. “Good Teacher, I’m good.”
And as simple as that is, it’s progress, it’s conversation, it’s expressing a feeling. So now sometimes I get, “I’m good” sometimes it’s “So bad, teacher. My life, My life.” and sometimes its, “Oh today very hungry. Candy??”
For the low-level students remember that the point is not actually the content of the conversation. The point is that they leave feeling like they understood you and were able to communicate something successfully.
Compare that to one of my mid level students. With them the biggest thing I’ve found is always giving them time and space to work out what they want to say.
Another one of my favorites is a third grade boy who I frequently find hovering around my desk wanting to talk but not knowing how to start. With him it’s a matter of getting through a few of my go-to questions that I usually start off with and then giving him a little pause or space to say whatever it was he actually wanted to say in the first place.
“How were your classes this morning?” “Did you practice for the school festival?” “How is dance practice going?” Are all good places to start. But with him and a lot of my mid level students the key is remembering that you should not be doing all the talking. In fact sometimes the less you say the more they are willing to offer.
Almost always I know the sentence he is trying to say about 30 seconds before he finishes saying it and while it seems like it might be helpful to jump in and finish it for them DON’T! Because that’s not what real conversation is like. And it also subconsciously tells them that they’re not speaking fast enough, well enough, or that you’re correcting something they made a mistake on.
The reality is that you are creating the atmosphere that they are speaking into and so if you feel that a bit of silence while they think is uncomfortable they will to. But if you just let it happen, don’t feel awkward when things take a while to get out, they will feel 1 million times more comfortable to take a few seconds and arrange their thoughts. And that leads to more confident students which leads to better English and more fun conversations for you. It’s a positive feedback loop.
So with the mid level kids, give them time. They will get there eventually as long as you give them a safe place in which to do it.
And then the high level kids.
Ironically I have found that it is almost always the highest level kids who need the most encouragement. The lower level students can get that encouragement and feeling of accomplishment just from having successfully survived the interaction. But the high level kids are often at a place where they start to do the dangerous thing of comparing. They compare themselves to each other, compare their pronunciation to mine, and their grammar to the textbook and in every sense often feel like they don’t measure up.
There are also typically two kinds of very high level students. There are the kids who are high level because they are smart and they study really hard. They have amazing vocabularies and grammar but are usually not very comfortable speaking. And there are the kids who have incredibly high fluency and could chatter away with you until the sun goes down, but whose grammar and vocabularies are a little more limited.
Both kinds end up thinking the other kind is “better” than they are.
And with both kids my goal is always to connect. That’s my goal with everyone of course, but with the high level kids it’s super important to me that they see their English as a tool for communication rather than just a subject to be studied. Yes the passages in their academy textbook are insanely hard, but that is not “speaking English.” Speaking English is “Teacher did you see the new music video?? Yoongi changed his hair and he looks so handsome!” It’s “Minji, how’s your back doing? Was the funny doctor at physical therapy this weekend?”
And if you have that basis of connection it will mean something when, inevitably, they tell you that their English isn’t good. And when you get to say, “Chaewon, we talk every single day. You understand me and I understand you. And we have fun together! Your English is perfectly fine.” they will listen and not just hear it.
#2. Always Understand Them. Even When You Don’t.
It’s of course impossible to always do this, even as I write this blog I just had two of my favorite boys come over and try to ask me if we were keeping our class period changed like last week. But as they tried to say that, I took it as the schedule had changed without me knowing and confusion on both ends ensued.
Those are the kind of conversations I take pains to avoid. Because it left them feeling like they’d miscommunication something to me. Thankfully with these boys I know they’ll be back in a few hours. I’ve been getting a play-by-play of how much they’ve learned of their dance for the festival and every afternoon.
But with students who aren’t as confident that kind of misunderstanding can be really discouraging.
My point is this, even when you don’t understand them, try not to let it show. Or make it seem as if you don’t understand the information rather than you don’t understand their English. Sometimes by asking the right questions you’ll be able to just get there on your own.
As time goes on you’ll get better and better at guessing what they’re trying to say with little or nothing to work off of. And to them that is priceless. So many of the students feel like, “because my English isn’t good I don’t get to have a relationship with the native speaker teacher.” But I try to make sure that I am available and ready to listen to everyone regardless of what they are able to say.
When you are just as excited to hear the few words a low-level kid has to say as your are to the story from a higher level one that means the world to them. It means you respect them. It means that you see them as a person worthy of your time rather than just a student that either does well or doesn’t in your class.
A lot of the fear of speaking here comes from the fact that they are afraid the native speaker won’t understand them, so try as hard as you can not to reinforce that idea.
#3. Be Excited to Listen
This is kind of feeds off the last one. But one of the best things I think we can do as native speaker teachers here is to always, always, always, be excited to hear what they have to say.
And not just to hear the “I love you”‘s shouted down the hall but also to hear the words or sentences offered that they aren’t sure came out correctly.
A very large part of this comes from the speaking English, but another equally valid worry I think they have is that even if they try we might not be interested or care about what they have to say. Not because you’re the foreign teacher, just because you’re an adult.
We have the chance to show them that they are worth something no matter what. No matter what their level, age, grades, appearance or anything else they are still a person worth listening to.
#4. Remember Everything You Can
This is incredibly hard. And it will be impossible to remember everything. I have 700 students, just remembering their names is hard let alone what someone told in the hallway a year and a half ago.
But every time you can remember a name or a fact or anything to show them that you know who they are you win a little battle.
Even just noticing something like a hair cut means a lot to them.
Last year one of my youngest girls got bangs in the middle of the semester and I said to her “Eunji your bangs are so cute!” And for the rest of the year she would say to me, “Teacher, cutie cutie?” and mess with her hair.
Of course it’s impossible but just try to remember that the things we are told by our students are things we have earned. So try to remember as much of it as your can. A birthday or a favorite color or the boy in grade three they’re in love with.
Most of those things are very self-explanatory and obvious but that doesn’t mean they’re always easy to do. And in the beginning it can sometimes feel like it’s not making a difference.
I always get nostalgic as the end of the school year approaches but my third graders right now are really something special. The combination of how hard I’ve worked to make them comfortable speaking to me, and how lovely they are just as people has made this year, despite so many other not so great things, a pleasure.
Getting to see them and talk to them and hear their stories is something I consider a privilege and I hope that they know that. But even if not, I am certain that they know how much I love them.
Let me know if you find yourself doing these things too or anything else you’d add to the list! Thanks as always for reading! Have a lovely Tuesday!