University Conversation Courses: A Last Chance Effort?

There was a lot of talk and thought about general English courses in South Korea buzzing around me last week. A big part of the reason for this this was  a piece written by Tim Thompson (linked below)  and published in the Joongang Daily. This week, we here at ELTrantsreviewsreflections are honored and thrilled to have a follow-up piece from Mr. Thompson. We are happy that he decided to share his insights and potentially controversial thoughts. Tim is a Visiting Professor at KAIST and founder of Education Anyware (  He can be reached at or @timknowsefl.

A recent photo of Tim Thompson

A recent photo of Tim Thompson

My article “Is English speaking class a waste of time?”, published in the JoongAng Daily on November 30, 2012, discussed the lack of a speaking section on the KSAT and its impact on the secondary school English curriculum in Korea.   Korean public school English courses do not currently make fluency a priority.  Secondary school English classes, in particular, are grammar focused.  This is due to the format of the English portion of the Korean university entrance exam and the difference in the amount of resources required to assess grammar-based tests versus speaking-based tests.  Incorporating a speaking section into the new National English Ability Test (NEAT) or using an established test, such as IELTS, would have the potential to increase the emphasis on oral output in secondary school English courses but we would not know the true impact until such a policy goes into effect and classes and curriculums have had time to adjust. The KSAT’s current multiple-choice format and emphasis on grammar has pushed spoken and written fluency to the proverbial back burner in public school English classes.  University English instructors wonder what a student who hasn’t been able to master basic English grammar and learn enough vocabulary to chat about common topics in ten years of formal study can be expected to accomplish in one or two more semesters in university.  Are we really expected to make a meaningful impact on that student’s long-term English proficiency?

Given this, why do so many universities offer, and often require, English conversation courses?  Is this not a waste of time, resources, money, and credit hours?  The answer, which might surprise you, is: perhaps not.

First-year English conversation courses in universities can be viewed as a fresh start for many students, especially if those students with high proficiency are given a chance to test out of these courses.  This would allow only low and medium-level students to enroll and helps reduce the potential for vastly multilevel classes.  In public schools, students who fall behind in English class are not held back.  They keep falling further and further behind and become less interested in English every passing year.  It is incredibly demotivating to be several levels behind one’s peers when studying any subject.  In this sense, English conversation classes in universities can be viewed as a second chance.

English conversation courses in many Korean universities are taught by native English speakers, and thus are not taught in the traditional teacher-centered style.  These classes tend to be conducted wholly in English and are more student-centered than Korean learners are accustomed to.  Smaller class sizes and an emphasis on oral production in an immersed second language environment can be an eye-opening experience for many students and help prepare them for more content-based courses in English such as academic writing.  Therefore, if a student is not prepared to study advanced content in English in a university course, an English conversation course their freshman year can help prepare them.  Some people question why content courses would be offered in English at universities in Korea, but highly ranked schools such as KAIST and Seoul National University are doing just that in order to become more accessible for international students and to prepare Korean students to be globally competitive.

My freshman English communication class at KAIST consists of four modules: small group discussion, presentation skills, podcasts, and a video project.  Small group discussions involve students bringing in articles they read and summarizing the main points which leads to a short discussion. Students learn the importance of good topic selection, how to organize information, and provides an introduction to presentation skills as they deliver the content to their group members.  Presentation skills also help students learn how to organize information.  The importance of eye contact and eye rotation that they practiced in small groups translates to speaking to an entire class.  Time management is also something that students focus on when making solo and group presentations.  After midterm exams, students design and produce two episodes of a podcast in small groups.  They plan the podcasts like short radio programs with a theme and a target audience in mind.  I upload the podcasts to my website and the students use social media to advertise their shows and see who gets the most hits.  The video project focuses on a practical need, such as a department inside the university that needs to promote an event.  Students cannot read their scripts like they might have in their podcasts.  Videos are uploaded to Youtube and tracked for interest.  The importance of keywords and perceived demand for their topics are factored in when discussing how successful the projects were.  The semester ends with individual interviews where I ask the students to reflect on what they learned over the course of the semester.  This gives students an opportunity to justify the grade they believe they have earned.

University students need to develop in several important areas in order to increase their chances for success after graduation.  Freshman English courses in universities can be an outlet for teaching life skills and success strategies to these young people.  Critical thinking is a concept that many incoming freshmen have very little knowledge of.  Very few students have good time management skills.  There is almost no training in academic writing and public speaking in high schools in English or Korean so universities become the default place to introduce skill training in these areas.  However, time and credit hours are at a premium as students race to cover their major courses. Shouldn’t students be developing skills through English to help them become more successful in the future instead of simply taking one last crack at learning basic English?



  1. Dirk Birgler

    I like the idea of multimedia and social networking, but giving credence to “hits” is a very dangerous and slippery slope at best. Sure, it encourages them to get the word out. However, there are often students, the ones with REAL things to say, the quiet ones, that are viewed as ‘unpopular’ for their unyielding abilities to swim upstream. How many hits do you expect them to get in a semester? About as many as they have friends and friends’ friends…

  2. Ariel Sorensen

    This raises a lot of issues to be sure! Here in Japan, a student that gets behind goes to “juku” to catch up (hagwon for Koreans). In fact, studies I’ve done show that the vast majority of the language teaching is done in these supplementary language lessons. If there is to be a real change made in Japanese education, I think it will need to be done collaboratively with the juku system. These lessons are advertised as a way for students to keep up / catch up / get ahead. Since English is merely one possible subject that might be on the test, public school teachers tend to use that time for anything else that comes up such as sports events or school festivals. Maths and sciences are given top priority, even club activities interfere with English time. Teachers can do this because they know well that if a student really wants to learn English, they can go to juku or a conversation school, and if they don’t want to learn, they can bypass it and get into school on the recommended test system (suisen).

  3. Robert Dickey

    It’s very very difficult to generalize about the so-called “Freshmen English Conversation Courses” as they vary wildly from campus to campus, and even between colleges of larger universities. Seoul National University’s recent proposal to remove an English requirement was not campus wide, as some misread, but specific to one college.

    Certainly it’s nice where students can “test out” – but not all schools allow that. It’s nice when there are graded courses, and even some schools offer bilingual courses to the weakest students (not sure if that’s a great idea). No agreement what a “conversation” course is supposed to be about – focus on speaking? speaking and listening? creating texts (including blog or chatboard postings)?

    So many university graduates will never “need” English beyond a TOEIC score for job hiring/retention/promotion.

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