Trial and Error: The use of Christian Materials in an English Language Course at a Christian-Secular Korean University

Grace Hwang    teaching english in missions

In her book, Teaching English in Missions: Effectiveness and Integrity (Dormer, 2011), Jan Dormer argues for the notion of TESOL as missions for Christian English language educators, i.e.  Christian TESOL practitioners serving as ambassadors and missionaries for Christ in any English teaching context, without necessarily being affiliated with a missions organization.

Dr. Dormer describes four types of TESOL ministry (host evangelism, host discipleship, ambassador evangelism and ambassador discipleship), depending on whether the context is Christian (host) or non-Christian (ambassador), and whether the goals of the TESOL ministry within each context involve non-Christians (evangelism) or Christians (discipleship).

When a TESOL ministry falls neatly into one of these four categories, there is less ambiguity regarding the use of Christian materials in the English language classroom. Christian materials, for example, would be welcome when the context is Christian, for example, a Christian school, but they are likely to be unwelcome, if not prohibited, in non-Christian TESOL settings.

Ambiguity regarding Christian materials is rife, however, when a TESOL setting does not fall neatly into one of Dormer’s four categories. In Korea, there are some TESOL settings where the broader context is officially stated to be Christian, but the context at the classroom level is more secular rather than Christian. That is, while an institution may officially embrace its Christian heritage, values and principles, the content and style of instruction at the classroom level are largely secular. These TESOL contexts may be called Christian-secular, neither clearly Christian nor clearly non-Christian.

In such settings, there is ambiguity about whether Christian materials should be used in language classrooms at all, or, even if there may be a clear allowance for the use of Christian materials, ambiguity about how much and the way in which the materials should be used.

This article will describe one trial of Christian materials that was conducted amidst such ambiguity at a Christian-secular Korean university in a freshman college English listening and speaking course. Then, the article will conclude with some insights that were gained from this trial regarding how Christian materials may be used in Christian-secular contexts.

Setting

This trial was undertaken at a Korean university which was initially founded as a Christian university, but which had evolved in its content and delivery of academic degree programs to embrace Christian values and principles at more of a foundational level than a practical, or that of training and equipping Christian graduates. As a result, it has decidedly mixed Christian and non-Christian elements in its culture. Students do not have to be Christian to be admitted to the university but are required to take a minimum number of credits in chapel classes and courses on Christianity in order to graduate.

The freshman College English courses are required courses for all freshmen except those who are waived as result of their English placement examinations. These courses are taught with no requirements made by the institution to address Christian topics in the syllabus or curriculum. Neither, however, are there any stated prohibitions against addressing Christian topics in the syllabus or the curriculum.

The classes that underwent the trial of Christian materials consisted of four sections of the intermediate college English listening and speaking course, with a total combined number of 64 participating students. The students were of mixed Christian and non-Christian backgrounds. Some students did not participate in the trial because of absenteeism or failure to complete assigned homework.

Christian Materials

The materials used for the trial were the audios and transcripts of two sermons by John F. MacArthur Jr. from the Grace to You website, http://www.gty.org:

  1. The Virgin Birth: http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/2181/the-virgin-birth
  2. Jesus’ Birth Fulfils Prophesy: http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/80-163/jesus-birth-fulfills-prophecy

Reasons for choosing the sermons for the trial are as follows:

  • They contain solid exegetical Bible teaching rather than experience-based preaching.
  • The factual, logical and detailed nature of the content had the potential to appeal to critically thinking minds.
  • They are about an event that is familiar to nearly all people, the birth of Jesus Christ.
  • John F. MacArthur Jr. is a gifted teacher, preacher and expositor, as well as an excellent speaker.
  • Transcripts are available along with the audio recordings free of charge.

Also used were one-paged introductions to both sermons written by a graduate from the university who is now attending seminary in the United States. Included at the end of each introduction was a list of useful vocabulary from the sermon.

The Assignment

The sermons were used for two consecutive weeks out of the regular hour-long, weekly and required, extensive listening assignments. After the two weeks, the students resumed their extensive listening assignments consisting just of TED videos.

The task was first introduced with an explanation of its rationale that a part of the responsibility of students in attending a Christian university is to gain a better understanding of Christianity and the Bible. The university sees to this by requiring students to attend chapel classes and taking a minimum number of credits in courses about Christianity. It was explained that the task would be a short-term trial only, and the decision to continue or discontinue it will depend on students’ responses to it.

The students were then asked to read the introduction to the first sermon and study the vocabulary list before listening to the sermon for homework. The students were also given an opportunity in class to discuss the introduction in small groups to give some thought to what they might expect from hearing the sermon in advance.

For homework, the students were asked to listen to the audio of the hour-long sermon with the help of the accompanying transcript, pausing the recording as necessary to enhance their comprehension. After listening, they were asked to write at least 100 words to discuss what they learned, thought or felt from the sermon, making some specific reference to what the pastor said and providing some evidence in their response to demonstrate that they had listened to the entire sermon and not just read the transcript.

Analysis of Responses

The responses from students were sorted into three categories: (1) positive effect or response, (2) neutral effect or response, (3) negative effect or response.

The criteria for (1) positive effect or response were:

  • the student specifically described or mentioned a positive experience or outcome as a result of the listening exercise;
  • the student expressed or demonstrated a positive change in his or her perception of God, Jesus, Bible or Christianity.

The criteria for (2) neutral effect or response were:

  • no mention was made as to the quality of experience or outcome gained as a result of the listening exercise;
  • no change in the student’s perception of God, Jesus, Bible or Christianity was discernible in the response.

The criteria for (3) negative effect or response were:

  • the student explicitly described or mentioned a negative experience or outcome relating to the content of the sermon rather than the difficulty of the listening task;
  • the student expressed or demonstrated a negative change in his or her perception of God, Jesus, Bible or Christianity.

Results

A total of 114 responses were analyzed. Of these, 68 (59.4%) were positive, 41 (36%) were neutral, and 5 (4.4%) were negative.

The following paraphrased comments represent the best of the (1) positive effect or response group:

  • some students stated that while they remained unbelievers, they came to accept the possibility that the Bible may be true or credible;
  • some unbelieving students came to develop an interest in learning more about Jesus;
  • believing students came to develop a heightened interest in studying the Bible and learning more actual facts about Jesus;
  • students mentioned that what the Bible has to say is more logical than they thought;
  • while one student had believed in evolution, he or she came to think that creation may also be possible;
  • one student was glad to have some of his or her prejudice about the Bible and Christianity corrected;
  • some unbelieving students expressed surprise in learning that there is actual evidence about Jesus Christ;
  • some believing students were edified in their faith in some way.

The following paraphrased comments represent those typical of the (2) neutral effect or response group:

  • a summary of what the student understood the pastor to have said;
  • that listening to the first sermon was difficult, but it got easier with the second sermon
  • that the sermon was difficult to understand because the student lacked background knowledge in Christianity

The following paraphrased comments were the strongest of the (3) negative effect of response group:

  • that the student felt his or her belief system was being imposed upon;
  • that the pastor sounded aggressive;
  • that the sermon was making the student feel averse towards Christianity.

Discussion

  1. While the ratio of positive responses to neutral seems encouraging, it has to be borne in mind that some students may have written what they felt the teacher would like to hear. Thus, the actual number of the positive group responses is probably somewhat lower than what was indicated by the students’ responses.
  1. In addition, some students may have shied away from being overtly negative and wrote neutral responses, instead. Therefore, the low number of negative responses may need to be viewed with caution.
  1. What was most surprising was the three strongly negative responses. Though the number is small, these responses show that a negative affective barrier may have been raised in these students, possibly rendering language learning more challenging, at least during the period of the trial. This was of special concern because the first mandate of the TESOL professional, Christian or non-Christian, is to be effective English language teacher.

Implications and Conclusion

Some insights that were taken away by the author from this trial of Christian materials in the English language classroom of a Christian-secular setting are as follows:

  1. Using Christian materials is, in general, a good idea, as there is some clear potential for attracting students to the biblical truths concerning Jesus Christ.
  1. However, it would be a good idea first to ascertain the religious ‘temperature’ of the the class before deciding on what materials to use and how. The use of a sermon, no matter how good it may be, may pose affective challenges for some students.
  1. In language classes of Christian-secular settings, students should be given the option to engage and interact with Christian materials by choice rather than by course requirement. Mandatory engagement may be appropriate for other types of classes, but in the language classroom consideration needs to be given to maintaining as low an affective barrier as possible to maximize language learning.

Dormer, Jan (2011). Teaching English in Missions: Effectiveness and Integrity. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.

Grace Hwang

Grace H. Wang (M.A. TEFL/TESL) is Assistant Professor at Yonsei University, with nearly 20 years experience teaching English as a foreign language at top universities in Korea and Thailand. She has served as a writing consultant and trainer of professional staff at the United Nations in Bangkok and developed United Nations English recruitment examinations. Professor Wang is the author of iEnglish® grammar books, a developer of task-based textbooks, and the founder of the online iEnglish® Language and Research Center (www.ienglishR.org). She is a reformed Christian who loves and believes in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible as the true Word of God.

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