Spotlight on TESOL/AL Student Yoonah Seong ☆

Yoonah is a third year TESOL/AL Ed.D student.  She received her bachelor’s degree in Korea in English Literature and her Master’s in Applied Linguistics from the University of Hawaii.  She is a testing coordinator at TC’s Community English Program and an English teacher at New York University.

How did you make the transition from studying English Literature to teaching the English language?

I grew up in the states but moved back to Korea for my Bachelor’s degree.  This represented a whole period where I had to relearn my mother tongue, so when I went to university, I wanted to work in a language that I was most comfortable with.  That’s how I started English Literature.  Honestly, though, I wasn’t that into it until I started teaching.  That’s when I thought, “Wow, this is what I want to do”.

I taught in Korea; mostly private tutoring and then at a Kindergarten.  I was dealing with foreign language teaching and very small children, and I felt lost.  I  realized that I needed to get into teaching in a professional way–I couldn’t just go day-by-day, not really knowing what to do.  That’s when I decided to apply to graduate school.  I decided to come back to the states, and studied Applied Linguistics at the University of Hawaii.

At first, I was interested in teaching English to children.  I was teaching children at an English camp, but I was also teaching international graduate and undergraduate students at the university.  That’s when my interests changed and I became interested in teaching adults.

After graduation I moved to New Jersey to be with my family.  I got a position teaching English at New York University and I’ve been there for awhile now.  I felt I wanted to go further with my studies and that I was really interested in working in language testing (I wrote my MA thesis on testing), so I decided to pursue my Doctorate.

Was the TESOL/AL program the right choice for you?

Yes.  I’m very happy with this program, and I think students here get so much work experience.  We are doing both things—teaching and studying—so we can really talk with each other.

It sounds like your peers have been a good source of support.

Yes, very.  I don’t have the feeling that we are competing, which is a good thing.  We are always trying to figure out something to do together–research or a project, or ways to make things at the CEP better.

Tell us about your role as Testing Coordinator at the Community English Program, please.

I do a little bit of everything!

The CEP is a community-based program and the students come from everywhere.  We have students who come to the U.S. for a few months to learn English, new immigrants, graduate students who want extra support and family members of students who are at Columbia University.  This semester we have 300 students, and our main task is to keep track of student records.

Continuing students go on to the next level, but new students need to be tested for their level of proficiency and that’s a very big process.  So each semester we have a very big placement test where we place a couple hundred students into one of twelve different learning levels.  This test is both paper-based and in interview format.  The paper-based test is in four sections (reading, writing, listening and grammar) and takes about three hours to complete.  The speaking portion of the test is in interview format.  CEP teachers sit at stations while students complete tasks–it is a very interactive test.

The Center is here to serve the community, but it is primarily a laboratory for teachers in training.  It was the biggest reason I decided to come to Columbia.  The whole CEP program is fascinating in itself—teachers in training can actually get real experience while they are learning.  Plus, there is a whole source of research right there.  It is such affordable tuition that it offers so many people the opportunity to learn English.  That democratic ideal appealed to me as well.

Have you worked on research projects with faculty?

Yes. I’ve helped Professor Carolin Fuchs with her work.  She’s interested in online communication in teaching and is studying online interaction amongst her students and how teachers learn online by taking web courses. I’ve been helping her with the coding of data and by computing agreement coefficients and other statistics.  I learned a lot from Dr. Fuchs:  I was mostly dealing with quantitative data—just numbers—and what Professor Fuchs did was different.  She looked at actual qualitative data, and was basically counting codes and giving a function to each utterance.  Two coders would count the different functions and I computed the agreement between these coders.  It was a completely new experience for me.

Can you please share your experience at the 2011 Language Research Testing Colloquium?

I presented at this colloquium and I used data from an Academic Speaking Skills class that I taught, where international students gave academic presentations.  I developed my own rubric and evaluated students with it, and I used that data to see if my rubric was working well.  I did research in the class, and I got great feedback from my advisor, Professor Purpura.  The work was basically my course paper, but it ended up being a proposal for the conference.

It was a great experience, but I was intimidated because I’ve never been to such a conference before.  Other conferences have multiple sessions going on at once, but LTRC is a little bit different in that it is just one session that everyone attends.  Fortunately this year’s LTRC was two concurrent sessions, so at least the audience was divided into two groups.  I think I received four questions but only remember two of them now because I was so nervous.  Every question is feedback, though, so it was very valuable.

What’s next for you, post-degree?

I want to spend a couple of years doing research.  I’m interested in looking at the Educational Testing Service, or ETS (that’s where TOEFL, the SATs and other big standardized texts are made).  I would like to do research with other very big testers in the field and have that experience.  Once I get that field experience, I want to come back to academia and teach.  I would love to do teacher training as well.