Highlights from KOTESOL 2016 international conference for teachers of English – Seoul, S. Korea

Have you ever wanted something so badly and had to admit that it was thoroughly nerdy, profession-oriented and simultaneously fantastic? Yep… that was me, counting the days until the KOTESOL conference would begin. I desperately  needed new ideas to inject creativity into my lessons. I wanted to be reminded of the impact that teachers make on their students’ motivation and progress, and finally, I was craving something to touch my soul and motivate me to be a better teacher.


Sookmyung Women’s University hosted the event which attracted possibly two thousand attendees affiliated with the teaching industry, both from within Korea and all over Asia. Presenters visited from Canada and the USA. There were two plenary speakers which most visitors attended, and numerous smaller lectures which visitors attended based on interest. The grounds were teaming with teachers note-taking, chatting together during workshops, and sharing personal stories and classroom techniques. The vibe was energizing.

Sookmyung Women’s University has an art department, and roaming through the hallways, my friend Sariska and I found some amazing oil paintings in the corridor! This was my favorite…. Any guesses why?!!

I will share several lectures and workshops that had the greatest impact on me. In keeping with ideas prized both by Dr.Li-Shih Huang (University of Victoria, Canada), and Andrew and Brian Park (Twin.kle English, Seoul), I focused on attending lectures which looked at the benefits of Extensive Reading. I also recently began a Creative Writing course and was eager to find engaging ways to introduce writing-related projects into my classes. Finally, I am writing this blog as a way to synthesize lecture information as well as make the information available to other teachers, particularly my colleagues who were unable to attend the conference on this occasion. First, I will introduce questions and observations which impacted me, and then follow these with key points from my top nine lectures, in no particular order.

Questions and observations:

  • “It’s my job to value the teacher’s role: I am the decisive factor in the class.” Don’t undervalue the impact you bring to your students. Tokuhama-Espinosa (second plenary), “You Can’t Ge Apples from a Pear Tree: What Teachers Need to Know and Be Able to Do in the 21st Century.”
  • “It’s my job to up the game: Students reach the level of expectations that teachers place on them.In a mixed ability class, I should aim high.” Tokuhama-Espinosa (second plenary), “You Can’t Ge Apples from a Pear Tree: What Teachers Need to Know and Be Able to Do in the 21st Century.”
  • Students prefer teachers who read a lot. Teachers who read extensively are more interesting to learn from. Renanda, “Is Dadok the Missing Link in L2 Learning?”
  • The “5 Finger Rule.” If your student can’t understand 5 words on a page of your newly introduced book, this is the wrong book for your student level. Ditch it. Renanda, “Is Dadok the Missing Link in L2 Learning?”
  • “It’s my job to motivate autonomy: A teacher is not paid to answer any more questions. A teacher’s job is to get students to find and answer their own questions.” Teachers teach students how to learn. Tokuhama-Espinosa (second plenary), “You Can’t Ge Apples from a Pear Tree: What Teachers Need to Know and Be Able to Do in the 21st Century.”

My top nine lectures:

One. Try a creative, fun break from grammar that scaffolds a later writing project by creating poems from old vocab lists, old textbooks or newspaper clippings. Add words using pen to fill in gaps.

Teachers were placed in groups and created poetry together. One of my favorite memories of the conference!

Create poetry with the student. Being involved yourself gives the project more impact. Using prepared words is less intimidating than looking at a blank paper and being told to write. Let the students know that poems can have similar sentence rules that writing usually has but these grammar rules are lax.

My poem… I loved this activity!

Witherite and Fox, “Scaffolded Writing and Flash Fiction: Investment and Engagement through Creative Writing.” Download printable word lists directly from Adelay’s website: http://www.adelayelizabeth.com

Two. Who I am is how I teach. Reflective questions to ask yourself to discover your personal teaching philosophies include,

  • To me, the word teacher means….
  • I became a teacher because….
  • What is your legacy as a teacher?


Look for patterns in your classroom. Transcribe an audio recording of your class and discover what your teaching pattern is. Do you feel uncomfortable with silence and answer your own questions when students delay answering? Is what you think you do, and what you actually do, the same? Tip: Give our a survey at the end of class to find out what your students learned. Ask, What was the class about? What did you learn, and was there anything difficult. If our instructions are vague, we need to be aware of them. Farrell (first plenary speaker), “Reflective Practice for 21st Century Language Teachers.”

Three. Teachers have access to Regional English Language (REL) Officers to assist them while teaching abroad. The US government provides access to the following free resources.

  • Online student courses which teachers can look at for classroom ideas
  • Downloadable board games (and word bricks) which teachers can adapt or create to suit different English levels to promote classroom debate discussions or help students prepare for visa or job interviews. This can be especially useful if a teacher has limited access to resources
  • American English Apps which include access to the website and thousands of English books
  • American English on Facebook where teachers living around the world share tips on how to adapt materials in their classroom
  • Access to “Activate” teachers’ magazine; all the back issues are free, teachers can use a search tool to find papers on particular topics, and teachers can submit their own articles for publication
  • Access to live webinars, listed by topic and accessible on YouTube once the webinar is finished
  • MOOCs (courses for local/ Korean teachers of English) which offer professional development programs for all teachers, including how to teach college writingimg_20161014_183231

See americanenglish.state.gov Mirts, “Using Games in the Classroom.”

Four. Extensive reading speeds up fluency, vocab and grammar accuracy as well as word recognition. Extensive reading internalizes thousands of fixed language expressions which students later use effortlessly. Reading needs to be regular, comprehensible and available in large quantities. It also needs to appeal to the emotions. Books which affect student emotions, producing sad feelings and so on, engage students at a deeper level of comprehension and the words are more likely to be retained in memory. Students should read for fifteen minutes per day, be able to choose their own material based on interest, have a variety of material to choose from, and get through one book per week. Avoid heavy assignments that take time. Create a basic worksheet, asking the students to write down why they liked in their book. Teachers can even show-case their hand picked favorite books on posters displayed around the school. This sends the message, “I read so you should read too.” Try the following site for free reading materials: http://beeoasis.com/ . Note that the Forth World Congress on Extensive Reading  is taking place in Tokyo during August, 2017: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-fourth-world-congress-on-extensive-reading-tickets-28255613300. Renanda, “Is Dadok the Missing Link in L2 Learning?”

Five. Graded readers are short, achievable and comprehensible for the student level and therefore can be read without a teacher’s guidance. Have a classroom library and propose a book club. Create space and time for a reading and borrowing system. Make time for students to share their favorite readings and have discussion-based comprehension checks.


Fun activities include asking the students to re-write the story or re-write it as a play and later produce their play. Bring the content alive. Look at the cover picture and predict what will happen in the story. Select comic stories, scan and white-out the speech bubbles. Have students “write in” the story. Presenter, Bosiak, actually did this exercise with the audience and had us write in our stories working in pairs. He later asked for volunteers to read out their stories. Bosiak then projected the original story for us to compare with our own versions, and to our surprise, our stories were almost identical to the original. The exercise elicited analysis and lots of vocabulary from us, and it was a fun, interactive exercise. Finally, with older students, teachers can use book material to discuss underlying messages in the story content. Talk about stereotypes, gender roles and how the story could be re-written to suit a modern audience. Try separating fictitious events from non-fiction, for example, real history or geography from the fictitious plot. Bosiak, “Engaging Students and Promoting Literacy with Graded Readers.” See the e-future website for graded readers: http://www.efuture-elt.com

Six. Espinoza asked some interesting questions about teaching. She presented a case where several Korean students took Harvard University to court. The aggrieved students claimed that students with lower test scores had been admitted while they, high scoring applicants, had unfairly been overlooked. Harvard retorted that that they wanted “well rounded” students who had “life experience,” had volunteered, and were empathetic. This example shows that today, teachers have the responsibility not just to prepare students for tests, but also to think broadly, figure out problems and know how to care about others.

Do we make excuses to justify being mediocre teachers?
There’s more to teaching than showing students how to prepare for tests

Teachers and students are expected to develop attitudinal skills. A teacher’s core attitude toward learning is what students will remember about that teacher twenty years later, and not necessarily the content of our actual lessons!

Be careful of undervaluing the impact we make on our students

When we have high expectations of our students, they achieve because our perceptions of our students build their confidence (“pygmalion effect”). If our attitudes and expectations are so critical to our students’ learning outcomes, what does that suggest when we treat students differently, based on what we feel they are capable of? Tokuhama-Espinosa (second plenary), “You Can’t Ge Apples from a Pear Tree: What Teachers Need to Know and Be Able to Do in the 21st Century.”

Seven. Grading. Do we only measure ability because standardized tests are cheap and easy to grade? What about considering other factors, such as a student’s response to revisions or edits and willingness to revise their content? Consider a student’s attention or focus in class, their participation, inside and outside of class. These may include out of class discussions, such as posting responses on websites (listening assignments), completing homework, and forms of self-study such as writing a tweet about a newspaper article. In response to this particular session, I personally reconfigured my weekly quizzes with my grade 4 students, and rather than testing them using my usual method of having them write their new vocabulary words on a test paper which measures spelling, parts of speech, definitions and use of a word within a sentence, I paired up the students and listened to them use their new words in spoken sentences with each other, and based my grades on twenty-five percent attitude and willingness to participate, and the remaining seventy-five percent on word accuracy and use within their sentences. The students really enjoyed this modification to my testing method, and best of all, the students were excited, positive and eager to talk to each other using their new words. Corks, “Quality, Effort and Improvement based on Grading for General Skills Language Classes.”

Eight. Get your students to teach segments of your class. People remember much more when they are active teachers, rather than passive recipients. Having your students teach others enables them to take charge of and feel responsible for their own learning. It motivates them because teaching presents them with a new challenge and their colleagues suddenly feel more responsible to participate when asked questions in order to support their colleague. I have begun using this method with my grade 4 students, and what could have otherwise been a somewhat dry comprehension lesson, now showcases great teamwork between the students. In addition, I save my voice, and have the opportunity to walk around and observe student preparedness and note any reticence. Remember to model exactly what you need the student-teacher to do prior to letting them take over teaching an activity. Have the student-teacher check other students’ answers, and assign peer-review work such as check for subject plus verb and essentially anything I would be checking for.  The following is a list of some ideas for student led classroom activities:

  • Hot-seat. Every student asks the teacher or the student-teacher a question. This works for any level student, and if your students are older, include follow-up questions
  • Short comic or video. After reading or watching the comic or video, provide discussion questions. Have the student-teacher check on their other colleagues.
  • Hypothetical questions. Have a student prepare a discussion question for each week. Questions may include, “If I could watch only five movies for the rest of my life, what would they be?”
  • Teach a section from a book
  • Have the student-teacher instruct or lead a game brought in by other students
  • Teach a grammar lesson
  • Hot topic. Have other students create questions relevant to their age and interests, for example, “What makes a good boyfriend?”

Give the student-teachers a specific rubric to follow with guild-lines that you can use to grade their teaching project. Explain, your lesson must include these steps… Remember to model what you expect first, show your student what you want to see, that you are there to help them and ready to step in if needed, and finally, give them assignment targets and monitor the time to keep them on task. McKibben, “Connecting Students to Education by Having Them Teach.”

We were presented with personal stories to share with other teachers. Some of the questions were difficult to tell others about, but nevertheless liberating to share. Sandy, Hampton, “Teaching Life Through Stories”. After sharing my “worst day as a teacher” story, I discovered that the most embarrassing moments my colleagues experienced were 1., spitting on students accidentally while speaking, and 2., asking middle school students to get their “jotters” (notepads) out, which, in Korean, apparently sounds like “pubic hair”. My colleague was mortified when he discovered why the students were cracking up laughing as he repeated his instructions. Our Korean cabbie was also bemused later that day when I recounted the story for my friends Dan and Sariska en route to Hongdae for dinner.

Nine. When we think of memory, we tend to think of rote memorization, but interestingly, most language-learning happens implicitly. It is incidental and subconscious, that is, it happens without conscious awareness but is remembered. Information can be superficially or meaningfully processed. When the information is meaningful, it is processed deeply.


Rehearsals, namely repeating the information spread over separate sessions (“spaced practice“) rather than trying to do mass practice in one bout has has been proven to be exceptionally effective.


Interestingly, grammar goes into incidental memorization and guessing games are processed at a deeper level. Littlewood, “Back to Basics for the 21st Century: Language Learning as Memorization.

Now, here’s to trying out some of these new ideas while they’re fresh in memory!


6 thoughts on “Highlights from KOTESOL 2016 international conference for teachers of English – Seoul, S. Korea”

    1. Thank you very much for your encouraging review. I appreciate your taking the time to leave feedback and feel motivated to continue to write about teaching strategies and the need to constantly review our methods.


  1. I’m inspired by the ideas you’ve shared in this post!
    There were so many sessions, and I had to be practical and choose ones that fit my position now, so I’m grateful I’m getting the chance to hear about the other sessions that I wanted to but couldn’t attend.
    It sounds like you’re doing awesome things in your classroom, too. 🙂
    Thank you for writing this!


    1. Thank you for your feedback, Heather! I’m pleased that i could share some for the ideas learned in the lectures attended! I’m using this blog as a return checkpoint to see what ideas I can next implement in my classroom.


  2. My goodness, that’s a lot of information! I remember how inspired I felt after I went to a TESOL conference in Portland, Oregon a few years ago.

    I’ve done a lot of thinking about the role of a teacher this year, and it is very true that students remember the emotional part of their experience in our classroom, more than just the content. Students benefit from having passionate, dedicated teachers who set the bar high. I will have to try some of these ideas out when I get back to Canada!

    I thought it was interesting what you said about reading and its importance in learning. I learn a lot of vocab and expressions through reading, and I urge my students to read in English whenever they can.


    1. It is a lot of information, but I’m hoping that by capturing it, teachers can return to the blog to remember ideas to use in their classrooms. Yes, I’m a big fan of promoting extensive reading, and I’m glad you confirm that this was useful for you! Thanks for your feedback, Beth!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s