Happy Hagwon

Photos by Steve Lemlek
Photos by Steve Lemlek

Happy Hagwon

by: Steve Lemlek | .
Groove Korea | .
published: November 17, 2016

Three Rules to ESL Success.

I think we’re failing our students.

I really do.

But we can do better.

How many of your students can speak English? I’m not talking about the monosyllabic pupils who can kinda-sorta respond to your questions. I mean, full on, pretty-damn-decent conversation.

If you’re like me, then not too many.

That’s a shame. It really is. In some way, we are failing our students. I say this as a 4-year veteran of the ESL game in Korea. I know that’s not too terribly long. But my 10-year+ colleagues still lament about the same thing. Our kids just can’t speak English well. Besides the bright 10 percent in any given class, students at schools, hagwons, and even university are failing to communicate in the most fundamental way possible: conversation.

my studnets

There’s more than enough blame to go around for these shortcomings. We can blame the stubborn adherence to traditional Korean education practices. Or, we can spare a handful of criticism for the parents who drive an industry of grammar-obsessed hagwons. They don’t so much teach English as babysit kids while punishing them with grammar books.

But the buck really has to stop with us. Let’s look at ourselves, the native English speaking instructors. In spirit, we are hired to give Korean students an opportunity to speak with a true-blue English speaker. We are the conversation experts. Again, in spirit, we are here to create generations of English talkers, gabbers, and chatters. Even though we may be over encumbered with school-enforced curriculum and testing goals, we are here first and foremost to give English speaking experience to our students. By not fulfilling that requirement, we have become the problem. But we’re also the solution.

Now, how do we go about fixing this?

Well, luckily for me, I’ve met a handful of truly exceptional ESL instructors who have thrived in Korea. They regularly produce some of the brightest batches of students in the Gyeonggi-do area. So let me tell you a bit about their rules.

There are three of them. They seem simple, obvious, and all too easy. They’re not.

My buddy (and the other half of my company Hal & Steve English) Hal Wiley told me about his three classroom rules about a year ago. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he would change my entire career as an English instructor.

No Korean. No touching. No shouting.

english scavenger hunt

Pretty simple rules, right? And they’re probably the rules that you try to instil in your classroom, but Hal’s execution is flawless. It all begins with the first impression. He’ll walk in, fearlessly, no hesitation. He marches to the white board, picks up a black marker, and points it at the nearest student.

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Bobby” and Hal scribbles their name on whiteboard.

If they’re bereft of an English name, then he’ll quickly supply them one.

He follows this same routine, every day, for the rest of the school year. By queuing up the kids with the easiest of English questions, “What is your name”, their fear of looking foolish in English is assuaged.

He’ll then ask the class “What are my rules?” His students, which have ranged from rambunctious countryside elementary children to monstrous Bundang brats, recite his three laws without hesitation. Discipline begins with expectations. The expectation for all of Hal’s students is that they must obey his rules in order to be successful. And so they abide.

He’ll then write the number “5” on the board. You know the three-strikes rule, right? Well, this is the same thing, except bumped up by a couple. For every violation of Hal’s rules, the class is deducted a point. If they somehow manage to endure an entire class without losing all of their points, then they’re awarded a star. If they receive 8 stars, then they’re rewarded with a pizza or ramen party.

A bit luxurious, I know. A few of my short-pocketed friends have criticized this method for being way too expensive just to teach English. Well, if you’re too cheap, then why don’t you ask your school to cover the bill? Or, alternatively, you can have a “snack party” and ask each student to bring a shareable amount of goodies for the class.

And, at the end of the day, this simple rule nets you one of the most sought after environments for any instructor. English conversation. Your students, whether they’re just trading insults or making dirty jokes, will be speaking English. And that’s what we’re trying to achieve.

You might say “Steve, of course I tell my kids to speak English in class… but they don’t”.   I’ve been in the same situation as you. I thought I was instilling my fiery expectations of English-only in the classroom. My students didn’t care. Whenever they sensed a weak spot in my lesson or became bored with whatever game I prepared for them, Korean entered the class.


These rules are fundamental. They’re meant for you to adopt. Passionately. Zealously.

You should punish your students for failing them and richly reward them when they observe them. Even if you’ve spent months creating your curriculum, your best laid plans will go flying out the window if you don’t have fundamental classroom rules.

Use these rules. Reward your students generously. Punish them fairly. After a year in your classroom, I guarantee that they’ll have spoken more English than in any other teacher’s. That is, after all, what we want them to achieve.

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