18 Things about Korean Students

Inspired by the fantastic Sophia Khan’s insightful guest post on the breathy Breathy Vowel’s blog I decided to share some thoughts about Korean students that might be helpful for Sophia or other teachers with many Korean students. The obvious caveats about generalizations and stereotypes apply here. Respectful disagreements and additional opinions are very welcome in the comments. Links to refute and add to the points here are also welcome.

Here is the list:
(This was originally two blog posts but I wanted to put it all together)

1. School is a big deal

This (like some of the other points) might be obvious to some but education is valued by society as a whole and parents specifically. Education is seen as the driving force behind Korea’s rags to riches story and is seen as the ticket to succeeding in life.  The amount of time Korean students spend in school (both during and after regular school hours) is legendary.

2. Expectations are high for teachers

In accordance with Confucian tradition and Point 1  teachers are highly respected. This respect comes with responsibility. Some key expectations here are caring for students and doing your best to help students. Readers might be thinking that these expectations are the same for teachers everywhere. Fair enough, but my sense is that the thought of teachers doing their best to help students is even more important for Korean teachers.

Possible tips: Consider doing something you might not normally do as a teacher just to help students see  you are on their side and ready to work for them. Examples include spending more time correcting their written work even if you are not totally sold on the pedagogic value of it.  Creating materials specific for the class is another potential example of the teacher’s willingness to work for the students.

Bonus possible tip: Be as clear as possible about your view of your role as a teacher it relates to student expectations. One activity I like to do at the start of a course is create a bunch of strips with sentences about what “Mike will do” during the course. I then ask students to categorize them into piles for true and false. Aside from being quite interesting  to see what students expect, this also gives me a chance to address differences in expectations from the outset.

3. Hard work is valued (differently) 

My sense is that in Korea hard work itself is valued in a different (stronger?) way than most Westerners are accustomed to. A good friend and  former training course participant mentioned that she was confused when I kept talking about “working smart” rather than “working hard” because I didn’t seem to value working hard as a goal in and of itself.

Possible tip: Don’t be afraid to highlight how hard your students are working.
(I can’t be sure but my impression is that many teachers often try to “sell” activities based on how “fun” they are. I think this can be helpful but I also think that emphasizing the hard work or at least acknowledging  it  is also potentially helpful.)

4. Busywork is almost expected

Just an impression really but…
Related to point 3, it seems that Korean students have a much higher threshold for what I might consider busywork. Perhaps they are more experienced with it, perhaps they follow teachers instructions more willingly, perhaps they value the potential learning that can come from it more. Perhaps I have no idea.

Possible tip: Don’t be overly afraid of being “boring!”

5. Plagiarism is different

In my view, this is closely connected to Point 4. If schoolwork is busywork and not really connected to learning but just something that the teacher has to assign and the student has to submit why not copy from someone else or the interwebs? (#realquestion)

Possible tips: Do your best to “plagiarism-proof” your assignments. Make sure you are not assigning busyw0rk. Show students the value in what you are assigning. Give useful feedback on students’ written work.

6. Tests are a big deal

This is another one that might seem obvious to those familiar with the education system in Korea.  Tests are surely important (with the KSAT, the college entrance exam, helping to determine a large part of students’ life paths). The possible cultural difference I see here is that tests are seen as much more “valid” than my sense of how they would likely be viewed in the West. This is to say that I don’t see nearly as much skepticism about tests as I might expect. I also think I must mention that for many teachers I have spoken with the words test and assessment are considered synonymous.

Possible tips: Be clear on your grading systems. Help students see what is expected of them at each level. Consider using written tests that might have high “face validity.”

7. English is a big deal

Understatement of the year. What some people call “English mania” has spread all over Korea. In order to get a job at a big company students must have a high enough TOEIC, TOEFL, IELTS score (see also “Tests are a big deal, Point 6). From my view,  English ability is a (newish) measuring stick used to determine the suitability of people to enter schools and jobs.

8. “Native Speakerism” is alive and well in Korea

We have already thought about how important English is. I can’t even count how many beginner level students I have had that told me they want to sound like a native speaker by the end of the term! Native speaker English (specifically North American)  is highly prized no matter what ELF proponents have to say on the matter.

It should also be noted that in this case “Native Speakerism” also correlates strongly with issues related to race. Students might expect white teachers when they go to Australia. I get a little ranty about related issues here.

9. This is a big deal

The “this” I am talking about is the trip abroad to study. As above, English and English tests are extremely important for people’s lives. I think a large percentage of the students that Sophia and #auselt friends meet are college age or recent college graduates. At a guess some of them are trying to brush up on their English proficiency while others are trying to restart things with their English learning after spending years in class but not developing as much as they’d have liked to. Of course there are probably some folks on holiday but I think that this time studying abroad is probably very important for many students. It also might be worth considering the possibility that their families made big sacrifices to send them abroad to study.

Possible Tips: Nothing specific except to keep in mind how important this might be for them even if it might not seem that way if students come in reeking of booze for a morning class.

10. Hierarchy matters

Without going into a whole spiel about Confucianism (that’s what Wikipedia is for, right?)  let’s just say that hierarchies  teachers might not expect could exist between students. One might think that because two students are from Korea they’d always be happy to be paired off together. This is, of course, sometimes true. Other times, there might be a hidden aspect of the relationship. For example, maybe one of them is a bit older which could change the dynamics. Gender, regional and economic issues could also play a role here. I don’t have any super secret special tips here except to mention the confusing difficulty you have noticed between two Korean students could potentially be connected to hierarchy. If it is, obviously how you choose to deal with it is up to you but I think this is something to be aware of.

11. “Face” matters

Of course, face matters everywhere.  Students all over the world don’t respond well to feeling humiliated. However, I can’t help but think that the concept of keeping face is especially important in Korea.  To me, in a classroom setting , this means things like  not pushing students to disclose information they don’t want to and not putting students under the bright glare of the spotlight when they are not ready or willing.  Along the same lines, I also think it means not putting students in a position to fail memorably and visibly in front of their peers.

Possible tips:  Glorious thinking time. Wonderful “Think-Pair-Share.” Giving students ample preparation time before they are expected to speak in front of others. What else? Built-in challenges (ready-made excuses?) that might be the reason that students had a hard time completing the task. Somehow encouraging students to give it a go just for practice and creating a safe environment in which to do so.  Continually preaching the importance (through a variety of means which might include quotes and anecdotes) of using mistakes as learning opportunities

12. Pronunciation can be a sensitive issue

I mentioned previously that English is a big deal. I mentioned that people are judged and feel judged by their English ability. I mentioned the common desire to sound just like a “native speaker.” There is a lot of pressure to be “perfect.” Keeping in mind what I just mentioned about face, I suspect some readers can already see where I am going with this. My sense is that many Korean students feel judged or worried or self-conscious about  their pronunciation (including suprasegmentals) but sort of have the expectation that simply being in contact with “native speakers” will sort out these issues. I also think there is a bit of learned helplessness at play here with pronunciation so some students might fret that they are always going to be stuck with their “bad” (read: Korean) pronunciation forever.

Possible tips: This might be another “tip-free awareness-focused” point. I do think that helping students see their improvements is (as usual) very important here. I think a bit of time spent on word and sentence stress can go a long way because from my experience even very strong students are not always familiar with these. I am not convinced how helpful/useful/desirable it is to focus on specific sounds in English one by one, however (this is one of those points that might not be specifically related to Korean students…I just mention it because I have heard about and received complaints about too much focus on individual sounds).

13. Koreans are supposed be good at grammar

Before I’d even set foot in Korea I’d a great deal about how Korean students excel at grammar but just have a hard time putting sentences together orally (more on this shortly). I heard that they knew the grammar books inside out and could talk about grammar until the cows would have come home. I will easily agree to the statement that the average Korean high school student has been exposed to copious amounts of grammar. I can also say that this fictional typical student has probably taken a lot of tests focused on grammar. However, I can also safely say the grammar “rules” that they have been studying are not always aligned with what I would consider to be modern appropriate usage. The question of what exactly we mean by “grammar” is conveniently left to float in the wind. The veracity of “Koreans are good at grammar” is tied up in generalizations,  the definition of grammar, and just what it means (especially in this context) to be good at grammar.

Possible tips: I think this is related to the point about high expectations for teachers but I personally like to occasionally “flex  my grammar muscles” and show students that I do, in fact, know what I am taking about when it comes to grammar. There are a lot of stereotypes (sometimes true!) about “native” teachers that don’t know a thing about grammar but just know about how to speak English. I like to show that I am not that teacher by busting out some heavy grammar lessons in the early stages. From my perspective, this frees me up later to not focus so overtly on grammar because I am obviously making a choice and not shying away from grammar because I don’t know it.

Bonus tips: Gently help students see (through corpora and authentic material?) that perhaps many of the “rules” they “learned” are in fact rules of thumb or might not be applicable in all situations. Teachers might want to tread lightly on this, rather than implicating every teacher the students have previously had in the crime of  teaching the wrong grammar.

14. Koreans are supposed to be good at writing and reading 

There might be some more mythconceptions here as well…or at least different ideas what is meant by reading and writing. My sense is that the majority of tests (yes, we are back to tests for a moment) that are said to be focused on reading are actually more focused on grammar and vocabulary rather than actual skills related to reading. As for writing? Well, perhaps we need to distinguish between writing for reinforcement (of grammar points) and writing for an audience or a communicative purpose.  I think maybe this rumor about  Korean people excelling at English writing but struggling with speaking comes from a different time (and thus perhaps a different generation of learners).

(Possibly obvious) Possible tip: Use needs assessments to find out where the students are and where they want/need to be going. Use your professional judgment, which means keeping in mind students might be swayed by the expectations and have inaccurate ideas about their strengths and weaknesses. This is to say that asking students for their thoughts on these issues is valuable but there is probably room for teachers to make their own assessments.

15. Koreans are not supposed to be good at speaking and listening

Or: Koreans are supposed to not be good at speaking and listening.  Or maybe: Koreans are not expected to be as good speaking and listening as they are at reading and writing. This is clearly connected to the above points. I am not sure how common this line of thinking is these days. I do know that lots of Korean people that I met tend to beat themselves up over their speaking skills even though they sound more than fine to me.

Possible tip: Help your students see how much they can say and how much they can understand in spoken language. Consider extending those fluency activities a bit longer in order to make up for the perceived (or even real) deficit.

16. Koreans are not supposed to be creative or critical thinkers

I think it is one thing to say that creativity is not focused on in standard public schools and quite another thing to say that a whole nation of people are not creative!

Possible tips: Disregard this stereotype! Give students time to think and plan. Be clear about your expectations. Consider exactly why you are expecting creativity or critical thinking and what you mean by it. Give help as needed.

17. They came to ____. 

This is pretty much the only “fact” on my whole list! The fact is that these Korean students came to study English in Australia (or wherever).  To me, this means that somewhere, somehow, a decision was made that it would be more valuable and helpful for the student to study abroad. To me this means that teachers need not follow the students previous experiences and current expectations completely. Of course, these expectations and experiences are important but if students wanted Korean ways to be followed exactly they could probably just save themselves the hassle and stay in Korea.

Possible tip: Without forcing students to always strictly follow the rules/expectations/mores/folkways/customs/teaching styles/whatevers of their host country  a reminder that this is an experiment and an experience for the students might be helpful.  Many things are done differently and the fact that things are done differently in Australia is not a judgment of how they are done in Korea.

I am wondering if there is an actual tip in here. Dunno, but maybe it is helping students be aware that difference is not a bad thing and reminding them that they did in fact choose to come where they are. I suppose it is about creating a balance between the blase “Well they’re here now” that Sophia mentions and bending over backwards trying to recreate a little Pusan in Melbourne.

18. The number 18

At some point I realized that most of my list doesn’t specifically respond to Sophia’s post, which was the catalyst for me writing this, all that much. So here is at least one direct response. She advised:
“Don’t ever do a foreign language lesson that involves drilling the word ‘cheval’ (French for ‘horse’). I kept saying it, wondering why everyone was giggling and looking shocked instead of repeating. I suspect it is male-appendage-related in Korean. Please enlighten me :)

I know she has already been informed over on Alex’s blog but I think her guess was pretty close. The French word probably sounded a little bit (and a little bit is all it takes) like 씨발 (shi-bal) which might be considered something like “emmeffing.” This is not to be confused (though it might easily be) with the number 18, 십팔 (shib-pal). Thus the 18 things.

Updates and links:

@annehendler  Responds to this list!

@crimsonnorth Shares “Everything you should know about Korean students but were too lazy to google” 


  1. Tim

    Cheval’sounds like ‘shibal’ which is ‘fuck’ in Korean. ‘Ship pal’ is ‘eighteen’ in Korean which has got me in trouble in class once or twice.

    • ketaninkorea

      I’ve had a few students try that one on me. Unfortunately for them I know what they were trying to do. I didn’t let them know that I could speak Korean, and when they asked me to say it, I shut them down. It’s always fun to see the surprised look on students’ faces when they find out their teacher knows Korean. 🙂

  2. mikecorea

    Everything? Really? Every single thing is wrong? There is not one correct thing on this whole post?
    You didn’t really give me much to respond to here if you were really interested in having much of a discussion, though.

  3. jenny.lee

    Many thing is correct.
    I’m a korean high school student 18 years old.
    Most korean think grammar is really important but i dont think so.
    My grammar is really sucks but i can speak english well better than another korean.
    But, most people support who know well about grammar.
    And we always listen teacher say when take the class.
    Don’t have a conversation.
    Just conversatiob is
    T : can you understand?
    S : yes…
    This is old…
    And we start learn english when 3 or 4 years old or more faster
    And if some student get bad student then that student mom’s hit that student.

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  5. somyung2014

    Wow! many things are correct and specific!! I studied in Korea until university, and as you write, Korean think English is really important. For me that gave me an advantage to work in a foreign company, because this position need to speak and write English well. However I don’t think the Korea public education is effective for learning the practical English that they mostly emphasis the grammar.

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  8. CK_wonder

    I don’t know what kind of generation this type of systematic ranking style education system will form. I feel that the strieve for unachievable perfection will only cause pressure for people to cut corners and look for short cuts. A rote mind is wonderful solving known issues…but can anybody accurately predict what tomorrow’s problems will be? Without creativity and innovative, how can a society adapt to changing times and needs?

  9. Matthew

    This was a helpful read for me just now, and I’m following the links to other stuff. As you know I’m working with 15 Korean English teachers (to YLs grade 4-6 mostly) and I’m doing my best to understand their experiences, expectations, and thinking as best I can! 🙂

  10. Matthew

    In particular, if you have links to material more directly insightful about non-ELT Korean educational values/system/teacher’s outlooks, etc. that’d be totally super dupe awesome. 😉 You know where to find me…! And I’ll be in touch soon anyway.


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