Telephone English: The Good, the Bad, and the Consequences for traditional education (Part 1)

Author’s note: In this post and those following I refer to English language education almost exclusively as “ESL.” I know that isn’t he preferred nomenclature anymore, but I hate writing “EFL” because it looks like “ELF” to me and I start giggling thinking about some neckbeard teaching people about Elven culture.

So I’m finally getting around to writing a post that I meant to do two weeks ago. This post is going to be decently lengthy, so read at your own risk. I’m going to be talking about what my job has taught me about education (ESL/EFL education to be exact) and about how the methods of my job can be applied to a more “traditional” English classroom. My job has opened my eyes ESL in ways that never even crossed my mind when I was a wee little student teacher. When I was in college the only ESL narratives available for sale were the full-time specialist or the (usually slightly unwilling) regular classroom teacher who was forced to deal with ESL students without any real support from the school. One consistent part of both these narratives was the language involved: while it was never explicitly stated it was almost universally implied that the ESL students would be predominantly Spanish speaking. While I have nothing against the Spanish language or any Hispanic culture, I’ve always found it a little boring and uninteresting. Plus that fucking rolling “r” was an asshole that I could never quite do. Other languages or other venues of teaching ESL were never discussed, so for most of my college career I never paid much attention to any of the lessons regarding ESL even though they were supposedly super serious business that we needed to know if we ever wanted to work ever. Whoops. Anyway, onto my job.

I teach English over the telephone to people living in South Korea. To be more precise, they are on the phone, I’m sitting in my pajamas using a VoIP program on my computer. This works better for me than traditional ESL for multiple reasons. First, I’m a lazy piece of shit and don’t like wearing pants or leaving my house if I can help it. Second: I really like the Korean language and Korean culture so I’m already intrinsically interested in the students I am teaching. Telephone English is different from regular classes in many regards, the first of which is pretty obvious: it is down over the telephone. Instead of herding many students into a room for an hour long, I call students one on one for a twenty minute session, usually 3 times a week though daily or twice a week classes are also available, as are 10 minute classes.

The class is organized around a textbook, usually consisting of two pages that follow very specific structures. There are many different types of classes, from beginner classes that focus on patterns to advanced classes centered around debate and everything in between but I will describe the most common textbook style that appears at beginner, intermediate, and advance levels. The page starts by introducing a pattern (I’d better, I’d like, I’m sure, things like that). Student then practice their pronunciation and translating skills by reading a dialogue with the teacher using the pattern. There are two dialogues, each about 3-4 phrases in length with one phrase being written in Korean that the student has to translate. The second half of the page has a “role play” section where a situation is described, and the student has to respond in some way using the pattern of the page. This is repeated on the second page with a different pattern. As stated above, there are other styles of textbook but this is by far the most and I will describe the others if the need arises.

After first looking over the textbooks and learning the class schedule I was naturally curious to see just how useful the class would be. As someone who has been in a traditional style school for almost my entire life the idea of something as simple as this struck me as odd, and I was unsure if ~1 hour per week could really improve someone’s English skills at all. In my next series of posts I will describe my experiences on the job: the good, the bad, and the weird. I found some of my qualms to be true, while others got flipped around or got assuaged entirely.


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