ESL Journal
The Journal
Semantic and Lexical Issues in Writings by Korean Children
This paper discusses the results of a study which investigated the lexical difficulties faced by Korean children with regard to their writing in English. The study involved 10 children aged 12 – 13 who attended an English summer camp at a university in Seoul, in which they studied both English speaking and writing skills. In terms of writing output, the students produced a total of seven written assignments, both personal and academic in nature. Thus, 70 pieces of writing, ranging in length from a page to a page and a half, were analyzed as part of this study. In terms of the lexical problems faced by the students, I used a categorization system to help create a more systematic focus (--and word choices are categorized by clarity of meaning -Ed.).

Category one involves a word choice(s) which involves a rather unnatural style; using words which did not communicate as naturally as others might, though displaying semantic clarity nonetheless. This can be seen in using expressions such as ‘the living area’ when referring to animals’ place of residence, when ‘habitat’ would clearly be a more natural, hence better, choice.

Category two involves lexical choices which lack semantic clarity and whose ultimate meaning was therefore not discernible, even from the full context of the student’s essay.

Category three involves the use of a word(s) which, while creating clarity in meaning, nonetheless results in an inappropriate meaning. This can be seen in the use of the word ‘fondled’, as in I fondled my cat, when the appropriate word would be ‘stroked’ instead.

I relied on follow-up discussions with each of the ten students in order to clarify their writing and word choices within, as a means to confirm that the correct categorization had been applied to each of their lexical choices which had been flagged as otherwise problematic.

Overall analysis reveals that the main lexical issue with the students’ writing falls within category two – words whose ultimate meaning is not made clear by the word(s) chosen. This is partly due to reliance on bilingual dictionaries, which can suggest English words for the Korean counterpart which do not necessarily translate well. However, dictionary usage was not found to be prominent among the students in general and their questionnaire responses might therefore reveal more. Specifically, the point many students made, though obvious, is that as they are clearly not native speakers of English, they simply lack the native intuition to know which might be the best word to fit within a given context, especially when confronted with a variety of choices.

A suggestion put forward, and one I acknowledge might already be seen within English classes in Korea (and elsewhere), is that there needs to be a focus in the classroom that goes beyond word definitions and grammar, and one which incorporates style – essentially, helping students to understand the importance of the context as the ultimate means to then select the ‘right’ word. The student feedback indicates an appreciation of this approach taken in their summer camp instruction, in which a three-part approach, namely grammar + meaning + style, helped them to speak, in the words of one student, like ‘a native’.

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