EPIK, TEE, and TaLK – and Lee Myung-bak


Written by Dr. David Shaffer


In the area of English education in Korea, how epic-making has EPIK been? How talked about has TaLK been? And is TEE not your cup of tea? We will take a look at these recent English policy initiatives and others that have had a considerable effect upon the English community in Korea.

Quite a bit of English education policy activity surrounded the presidency of Myung-bak Lee and his presidential campaign. He was the mayor of Seoul who gained popularity for his Cheonggye-cheon stream restoration project, and then went on to campaign on a proposed Seoul–Busan canal project to boost commerce. As with his water projects, Lee’s English education policies during his 2008-13 presidency have had very mixed results. Lee’s administration supported more English and more native English-speaking teachers (NESTs) in the public school system than was seen previously.

Before Lee was sworn into office, his transition team had already announced that they would be implementing an English immersion program nationwide, under the Korean understanding of “immersion.” This meant that by 2010 (two years hence), all classes in all subjects would be taught in English in secondary schools. The immersion program plan was immediately engulfed in controversy. With strong opposition coming from parents, teachers, and education experts alike, the plan had to be quickly dropped. In its stead, however, the Lee administration attempted implementation of a scaled-down English-only policy: a plan for English classes to be taught using only English. As part of this plan, NESTs would be employed.

The English Program in Korea (EPIK), began much before Lee was in office with less than 60 (NESTs) across the country; however, it was much expanded during the Lee presidency. This program brought native English speakers into the English classroom at middle schools, high schools, and later to elementary schools across the nation. A cornerstone of the program was that NESTs were to assist Korean English teachers (KETs) in team-teaching, thereby increasing the use of English in class. At its peak in 2011, there were nearly 9,000 NESTs working in the EPIK program.

Colin Walker, now at Myongji University, was in the Gyeonggi EPIK program in 2008 and gives the program points for introducing KETs to Western pedagogy and for giving KETs and Korean students an opportunity to interact with native English speakers – for the first time for many. However, in numerous cases, team-teaching was dispensed with and co-teachers would teach classes separately rather than collaborate. Low eligibility requirements (a bachelor’s degree and citizenship in an English-speaking country) attracted applicants with limited teaching skills, leaving the program to be questioned by experts and laypeople alike. The cost of the program for the quality produced was also questioned.

Some regions felt restricted by the nationwide EPIK guidelines and formed their own EPIK-like programs. While Gwangju continues within the EPIK program, Jeollanam-do formed JLP (Jeollanam-do Language Program). Tyson Vieira, now at Kyungnam University, was in JLP in Haenam and had an “amazing” experience. He said, “I had friendly, very knowledgeable, and professional co-teachers. Others have had differing experiences, based on their co-teacher, principal, and apartment conditions.”

In response to the above criticisms of the EPIK program, a certificate in teaching English is now required for incoming NESTs, and degrees in fields related to English teaching (bachelor’s or master’s) are preferred. However, since 2011, the number of EPIK teachers has been steadily decreasing for a number of reasons. Many regions are relying more on KETs and giving them additional training to replace the NESTs. Regardless, it seems that there are no plans for further decreases in Gwangju EPIK for the time being: “Gwangju City will continue to grow in its reach in order for more and more students to experience having a native English teacher in their classroom,” says Gwangju EPIK Coordinator Pratishka Ruthun.

As somewhat of a supplement to EPIK, the Lee government began the TaLK (Teach and Learn in Korea) Program – a program recruiting native English-speaking undergraduates to teach in rural areas of Korea for six months to a year. The classes taught are after-school English classes, and the NEST is paired to teach with a Korean undergraduate student. One of the many Korean university students in the TaLK program was Lee Seol-ha (now a middle school teacher in Gwangju), who participated for three semesters. She relates that having a NEST in the classroom was a motivating first-time experience for her rural students, and that her co-teacher “was very effective in helping students learn English.” Since its inception, over 3,000 NESTs have gone through the TaLK Program, with about 250 now actively participating nationwide.

NESTs in EPIK and TaLK can only go a short way toward an eventual goal of English-only in English classrooms across Korea. Accordingly, the Lee administration began the Teaching English in English (TEE) program in the Seoul area in 2009. This is an intensive training program for KETs up to six months in duration. “The purpose of TEE certification,” Lee Hyo-shin of Konkuk University told the Korea Herald, “is…to modify how they teach English so students can enjoy learning and improve students’ conversation skills.” Programs vary from region to region, but a common complaint, especially among high school KETs, is that they cannot apply the learned techniques and still do the mandatory “teaching to the test.” However, the program certainly does upgrade KET language skills and add to their repertoire of teaching techniques.

So, the Myung-bak Lee administration has definitely left its mark on English education in Korea. EPIK may not quite be epic-making, but with the refinements made to it over the years, it is making significant contributions to English teaching. TaLK is the “talk of the town” where its teachers are placed, being a boon to rural schools and the less-advantaged students in their after-school programs. This is one program that most likely could benefit from expansion. And TEE training might not be every KET’s “cup of tea,” but as kinks get worked out and the program becomes more standardized, it has the potential to arm every KET with the skills they need to produce students proficient in all of the four skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.


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The Author
David E. Shaffer is Vice-President of the Gwangju-Jeonnam Chapter of Korea TESOL (KOTESOL). On behalf of the Chapter, he invites you to participate in the teacher development workshops at their monthly meetings (always on a Saturday). For many years, Dr. Shaffer has been a professor of English Language at Chosun University, where he has taught graduate and undergraduate courses. He is a long-time member of KOTESOL, a holder of various positions, and currently National President. Dr. Shaffer credits KOTESOL for much of his professional development in English language teaching and scholarship. He is also the present editor-in-chief of the Gwangju News.

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