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How Does Competition Affect Language Learning?
Korean Middle School Teacher Jin Seok Park Sees Some Benefits

Jin Seok Park, who teaches English at Shinseo Middle School in South Korea, recently sent a note to the TESL-L listserv, expressing a tentative endorsement of competitive activities with English learners. The listserv cut the message short, however, so Jin Park contributed the full article to ESL MiniConference Online, and welcomes direct replies at

Hello, ESL MiniConference!

I am teaching 8th-grade students in Korea (South Korea) . I have been teaching middle-school students for almost seven years. I have tried many various methods to attract them into my class. In the process, I found one which I have thought a good way to make the students join the class. But a few days ago, I attended a seminar where I got the idea that my way might be wrong. I am so wondering if this is a really way to mislead them.

Here is my style. I use stickers to inspire students' motivation. Each of my classes consists of 44 students, so I divided each class into four parts. One of the parts is divided into three small groups, each of which is made up of four students.

Usually the class is run by the big four parts, or teams, which each have 11 students. When I ask some questions and some students answer them, the team which they belong to gets two points for each question. The points can change from time to time. I heighten them up to 5 to raise students' interest. They are very eager to get those points. They compete speedily to answer faster.

I give the first-place team 4-point stickers to each member; the second, 3-point stickers; the third, 2-point stickers. And this is the important part. The fourth place team is suppposed to get 1-point stickers and a homework assignment, in which they write a page about what they learned that day. Students really hate homework, you know.

Secondly, I check what they learn that day by asking questions of all the members of the team. When they don't tell the right answer, the team will lose some points. This is used to change the rank or order. If they are still the first after losing some points, they are going to be the winner of the day. When one student says a wrong answer, sometimes the other members get sad or angry. But mostly they laugh and get pleased with the mistake. And the other teams laugh and are pleased. The classroom grows warmer and the students get animated. Most students don't fall asleep. But they might get stiff or nervous, I suspect.

Thirdly, I use the small groups to make the students practice speaking and to extract students' participation. I make an instruction paper to explain how to do the activity, including supplemental tasks which each student can do. Each small group runs their own class according to my instruction and the instruction paper. After doing their group activity, the one who gets the most points gets a 4-point sticker and the next winner gets 3-point sticker and so on. They try to get the most points in the activity. They do the best , participating in the small class. The group activity is made for even the slow students to join and understand. It usually requires speed. It can be called the competition.

I consider this as fun. But the speaker at the seminar I listened to the other day insisted that giving stickers and encouraging competition is a bad way. Cooperation should lead the class. Teachers have to make students know how to cooperate and help each other in class. Then my method hit me. I doubt if I am doing wrong. I had confidence that I mixed the competition and cooperation through my style. But I am confused. Am I leading the students to too much competition? I thought I made the class animated and alive.

ESL MiniConference readers! How are you running your class? Are you competion-oriented or cooperation-oriented? Is competition bad or isn't it? Can appropriate competition be helpful? I want to listen to other opinions. Thank you in advance.

Comment by Jin Seok Park
Shinseo Middle School, South Korea

2002 ESL MiniConference Online