The Internet TESL Journal

An Account of a Pilot Key Pal Project for Korean Children

Jaehee Choi
keypal [at]
Hilary Nesi
CELTE, University of Warwick

Originally published in
"English Language Teacher Education and Development"
published by The Centre for English Language Studies, The University of Birmingham and The Centre for English Language Teacher Education, The University of Warwick.
Autumn 1998, Volume 4 Issue 1


The main reason for teaching English at primary level is to enable our children to use language in real situations. Children see little purpose in studying sentences that do not make sense in their world, yet they do understand the purpose of language to communicate, identify, persuade and find solutions (Holderness 1991).

Traditional language-based teaching tends to place emphasis on language structures rather than meaning, and therefore denies children a real purpose for learning English. Brewster(1991), however, describes current approaches to English language teaching which make use of projects to provide opportunities for children to use English in a meaningful way. Holderness (1984) points out that if children are given interesting project topics they will be motivated to search for meaning and explore in greater depth. Projects can therefore be far more stimulating and challenging than those language exercises which concentrate solely on form. Moreover, task-based learning can make teacher-centred classrooms more learner-centred, as students are invited to help each other and become actively involved in their own learning process (Nunan 1989).

The Internet has enormous potential as a resource for projects and as a medium for communication between learners. It enables teachers and students to collaborate and share ideas relevant to their interests and concerns, and primary educators have not been slow to take advantage of its capabilities. In particular, classes at the K12 level are beginning to implement e- mail "keypal" projects which require children to read and write in English to communicate, and which also provide them with opportunities to learn about different cultures. Today thousands of children around the world are involved in virtual classroom learning through the medium of the Internet. They communicate in English with virtual classmates, in classrooms without boundaries (Deemer 1994, Sela 1995, Warschauer, 1994).

Educationalists in Korea have done much to encourage information technology skills. All elementary schools are now linked via the EDUNET network, which offers teachers and students access to the World Wide Web and an e-mail service. Many schools have a computer laboratory where each pupil is allocated one on-line computer. Some schools also have a "computer corner" in their classrooms, and some schools have arranged computer classes for their students, as an extra subject taught by outside tutors. There is also strong support for young people outside the classroom. A number of organizations promote computer literacy and help students to learn how to use applications such as e-mail and the WWW, and in the Korean press there are frequent reports of individuals or organizations donating hardware, software and free e-mail addresses in order to promote Information Technology to the younger generation. For example the Daily Chosun (a newspaper company) and KITEL (a computer company) have agreed to provide free Internet access for teachers and pupils in all the elementary and secondary schools across the country, and Kyungsung University in Pusan also distributes free Internet access locally.

However, despite widespread access to the Internet in schools, keypalling was largely unknown in Korea prior to the project described in this paper. Teachers were aware that the Internet might help English language learning, and children were enthusiastic about the technology, but it was clear that outside guidance and support would be needed to get a first pilot project up and running.

Planning and Implementing the Key Pal Project

The first step in this pilot Key pal project for Korean children was taken by contacting subscribers to TESLCA-L and TESLK-12 (both branches of TESL-L). The following invitation was posted to the two mailing lists, addressed to all subscribers interested in Computer Assisted Language Learning and/or working in K-12 level schools:
Dear colleagues,

It is well known that keypalling can be very helpful in developing/improving the language proficiency, motivation and inter-cultural understanding of students, if it can be properly arranged with a careful plan.

At the moment, however, Korean elementary schools do not seem to enjoy these useful opportunities, even though they are equipped with all the IT facilities.

As a research project for my MA dissertation, I'd like to arrange keypalling for Korean children and try to find out how it can help them learn English.

At the same time, I'd like to give chances for partner classes/schools to understand Korean children's school lives and culture.

The Korean children who will be invited to this project are:

I would like to invite any classes/schools who feel interested in Korea and Korean culture, and who are beginners or who want to correspond with beginners.

The proposed timespan for the project is 1&1/2 or 2 months (from around May to June) Please feel free to contact me for more information.

Jaehee Choi

Three teachers with suitable classes expressed an interest in taking part in the project, but as we corresponded to discuss further details we soon realized that there were problems with timing. Term dates are different from country to country, and the school year in most other parts of the world ends much earlier than the Korean school year. Finally we reached agreement with the teacher of a 5th grade class in Slovakia, on the understanding that the project would be timed to fit the Slovakian term.

The Slovakian teacher had six years' experience of teaching English, and she had previously been involved in a keypalling project between some older children and a partner class in Germany. There were 26 pupils in her class, aged 11 to 12.

It also took some time to find a Korean project partner. Some prospective participants who were very suitable in terms of experience and language proficiency rejected the project because they were unfamiliar with the notion of keypalling. Support and free e-mail accounts were offered to those teachers who did not know how to access an e-mail service, but despite these incentives they ultimately decided against active involvement. Some of the other teachers who were contacted were reluctant to join the project because they felt that they did not know enough English. A low level of language proficiency compounded with poor IT skills prevented them from communicating via e-mail.

Eventually a 3rd grade class in Ansan City was identified as a suitable project partner. There were 42 children in this class, aged 9-10. However, although the teacher had five years' teaching experience her knowledge of English was fairly limited. She had only worked for one year as an English teacher, and her post-secondary education had not incliuded any English language training. The children were in their first year of language learning, and could barely write in English at all; their 3rd grade syllabus focused on reading and speaking rather than on writing. None of the Korean participants had ever used keypalling before.

The project was planned and implemented from Warwick University in England. As there was no opportunity for the moderator (Jaehee Choi) to meet either of the project partners face to face, it was necessary to send them plenty of detailed written information regarding keypalling in general and the organization of this project in particular. The moderator's role was that of an intermediary to whom the teachers communicated all comments and suggestions. It was necessary for the moderator to liaise with both parties repeatedly before they decided to commit themselves to the project.

Once she had decided to take part, it was also necessary to help the Korean teacher prepare her pupils for the project by providing examples of keypalling messages. Authentic examples were not hard to find, but most proved unsuitable because they had been written by children with a much higher level of English (native speakers or advanced learners). The moderator managed to make an appropriate selection, however, and the Korean teacher used these in class before the project began. The moderator's support for the Korean teacher continued throughout the project and was essential to its success.

In both Slovakia and Korea the children sent their messages through the teachers' personal e-mail accounts. The Korean teacher made no use of EDUNET in her school; she had not experienced technical difficulties with the EDUNET system, but, she said, "it took a long time to access and it was inconvenient". Instead she accessed her own account on a commercial network from home.

The Schedule and Procedures

The two teachers and the moderator agreed to the following schedule and list of topics:

It was planned that correspondence would be on a class-to-class basis, with a recommended message length of 10-15 sentences. After initial problems with incompatible wordprocessing programs the moderator arranged for all correspondence to be sent in plain text files (*.txt).

The project began on a weekly basis in the third week of May 1998. Initially 15 Slovakian students sent self-introduction messages to the Korean students. Once the Korean teacher had received these she prepared a response message containing her students' self-introduction.

All correspondence was copied and forwarded to the moderator, and it soon became clear that the Korean teacher had changed the mode of correspondence, so that her pupils were responding individually, rather than class-to-class. Each letter started with "Dear ...(name of individual pupil)..." rather than "Dear Slovakian friends", and it seemed that the teacher had selected 17 pupils from her class to reply to the letters from the partner class. Although the project had originally been planned as a class-to-class project and the Korean students had a lot of difficulty corresponding as individuals, the moderator did not ask the teacher to return to the original mode for two reasons: the Korean pupils seemed to prefer the individual exchange mode, and the Slovakian students had already received and read the messages sent to them. We did not want to disappoint the Slovakian students, who were very excited with this e-mail correspondence.

One of the consequences of this decision was that the Korean teacher needed to provide a great deal of language support for her students. Individual messages were harder to write than a class- to-class message, and in any case the Korean children were challenged by the fact that the Slovakian partners were older and more linguistically advanced.

The two classes continued to exchange e-mail messages on a weekly basis from 17 May to 26 June 1998.

An Evaluation of the Project

At the end of the project two sources of data were available for analysis. The first of these was the teachers' and pupils' responses to post-project questionnaires. The second of these was the messages themselves, all of which had been forwarded to the moderator.

The teacher's questionnaire was composed of five sections, and gave the teachers the opportunity to comment on general, pedagogical, personal, professional and technical aspects of the project, and to discuss the role of the moderator and the behaviour of their pupils. A simple questionnaire was also prepared for the Korean children, although unfortunately the Slovakian children could not be contacted as their school holidays had begun. The questionnaires and responses are reproduced in full in Appendix A.

Both teachers gave positive reports of the project, which not only met their requirements but also provided additional unexpected benefits. The Slovakian teacher had begun the project in the hope that her "pupils will improve their English and realize how important [it] is learning a foreign language". She reported that the children had learnt a lot of English, and that they had found the project very motivating. The Korean teacher seems to have begun the project with different expectations; her main aim was to provide special opportunities for her pupils: "As many of my children lack parental interest and need more care than others, I wanted to give them a special experience that they can boast of.." She reported great enthusiasm on the part of her class: "Every Monday, I was busy with my children asking for their messages from their friends. They followed me to the washroom. They seemed very happy during the project".

Both teachers reported that the children's reading skills had greatly improved during the project, and they also thought that the children had improved (to a lesser extent) in other language skills. The two teachers helped their pupils read messages in different ways. The Slovakian teacher provided dictionaries and grammar instruction, while the Korean teacher normally used a translation technique. She read the letters aloud to her students in English, and then in Korean, a process which also encouraged the development of listening skills. Each Korean student was also told to attach the messages from his or her keypal to a notebook, so that they could be read again and again. Because of this extra reading practice the Korean students in the later phases of the project were be able to recognize letters and remember words and phrases such as Dear, hear from you, and address without any help from the teacher. The Korean teacher commented: "Some didn't know the English alphabet and the form of English letters. But they could read the alphabet, although I didn't teach it. My pupils can read in English classes."

The two teachers also used different methods to help their pupils to write their own messages. The Korean teacher tended to rely on translation because her pupils did not know enough English to write by themselves. Her method involved letting the children choose words from a prepared word chart. The Slovakian teacher used a variety of techniques to help her pupils to write messages; these included multiple choice, gapped sentences and incomplete sentences, as well as translation.

The teachers reported that the project enabled their pupils to consolidate their earlier learning by using words, phrases and sentences they had been taught during the regular English classes. The Korean teacher also found that during their regular English classes her pupils recognized language items that had been used in the messages they received.

Both sets of students drew on their knowledge of other subjects such as geography and history to interpret the cultural information they received, and they also developed their Information Technology skills by using e-mail. This was incidental learning; the teachers had not planned to focus on subject areas other than English. As well as supporting work in specific subject areas, it has been claimed that keypalling helps to develop general study skills and critical thinking (Roberts, Rice and Thorsheim 1994). Fisher (1990) emphasizes the importance of such skills, arguing that the teaching of thinking skills is potentially one of the most valuable areas of educational development today. The project seems to have encouraged the Slovakian students to develop a spirit of enquiry. According to their teacher "they asked interesting questions and expected answers about life in [a] country they didn't know before". The project also encouraged all the participants to work collaboratively, and to set and accomplish their own goals. The teachers' questionnaire responses suggest that this had a positive effect the pupils' school work generally.

Unexpectedly, the project also proved to be a positive influence on those students who did not participate. The teachers noted that these students were interested in the project too, and like the participants became more motivated to learn English.

Both teachers reported personal and professional benefit from the project. They exchanged messages on a friendly basis, improving their own IT confidence and skills. In the process the more experienced Slovakian teacher was able to suggest new teaching methods to the less experienced Korean teacher. Both became more aware of professional practice beyond their own institutions. As the Korean teacher explained: "I opened my eyes toward the global English education".

The teachers expressed the wish to move on the other keypalling projects, and agreed that they would recommend the project to other teachers because of its personal, professional and pedagogical benefits.

The questionnaire responses from the Korean children display enormous enthusiasm for the project. They all claimed to have enjoyed it "very much", and their comments reflect this enjoyment and their desire to communicate meaningfully with other children (for example: "This program is very fun", "We can make friends through this program, "We can help our friends with learning English"). The children wrote about topics familiar to them in their daily lives, such as food, the weather, and festivals. Despite the many grammatical errors the messages make good reading because the students were very sincere and eager to talk about themselves and their countries and cultures. Samples of the messages are reproduced in full in Appendix B.

The project created opportunities for the children to learn new words and remember ones that had previously been taught. Both teachers reported that writing about the topics was a more effective way of learning vocabulary than memorizing individual words in a list. For example this Slovakian message about school life contains a number of words relating to sports. Some of these had been pre-taught, but others had not:

To : Kyoung-eun Joe,

How are you? I am fine. My hobbies are Karate, gardening and dog. I know where is Korea situated but I want to know more. I write you how our pupils can spent free time at school. We can choose these sports: football, tennis, table-tennis, volleyball, shooting and chess. I want to be good at sport, especialy at Karate. What do you know about Slovakia?

Best wishes,

Miro Djobek


A successful project requires careful and detailed planning. The teachers and the project moderator need to reach agreements about timing, topics and message management that are feasible and suit them all. It is essential that harmonious relationships exist, not only between the participating teachers, but also between the teachers and the moderator, who is the linchpin of the whole project. The importance of the moderator in keypalling projects cannot be over- emphasized. He or she can oversee the progress of the project whilst participating teachers often only have a one-sided view of events. The moderator may also be called upon to create or locate materials to support the project, and may be able to iron out technical problems by liaising between teachers who are unfamiliar with e-mail systems.

Robb (1996) gives some excellent advice to prospective project organizers:

"Key pals can be an extremely rewarding experience for your students, but don't expect everything to go well the first time. Just like any other aspect of your teaching, it will take some experience to discover the best implementation for your own curriculum. Even with first-time glitches, however, you can be sure that it will be an experience that your students will not forget. Don't be surprised to find some students exchanging snail-mail addresses with their Key pals, turning a virtual friendship into an actual one. It happens!"

The pilot project described here was on a very small scale. Although we encountered some initial problems, as Robb anticipated, the teachers agreed it had been a positive experience and the children evidently enjoyed it a lot. We feel that any enthusiastic group of teachers with access to e-mail should be able to achieve similar results. At the end of this project the teachers were planning to set up keypalling activities of their own, and the Korean and Slovakian children were planning to continue writing to each other. We look forward to finding out more about the development of keypalling in Korea.



The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 3, March 1999