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Teaching traditional values through folk literature in Korea.


Although Korea is a modernized nation, the underlying beliefs and daily practices of its people are grounded in traditional values. Many of the important values that Korean parents try to instill in their children have their foundation in Confucianism. Since the Choson Dynasty in 1392, Confucianism has been the dominant force shaping Korean cultural values and social structures (Park & Cho, 1995), and it continues to have a profound effect on Koreans' daily lives. These values are taught in large part using folk literature, a collection of tales passed down through generations by word of mouth and, more recently, through printed and digital materials. Korean parents and educators believe that folk literature is an effective way to teach traditional values because it reflects the thoughts and values that have guided the lives of ordinary people for hundreds of years. Folk literature contains unique lessons about being righteous and ideal humans, capable of making sound moral judgments. This is a goal that remains very important, even in modern-day Korea. The fundamental values that permeate Korean L folk literature are filial piety, honesty, good deeds, and wisdom (Louie, 2005; Yoon, 2005).

Through such folk literature, children learn that individual merit and worth are determined by a person's actions and ability to display them. Folktales usually conclude with rewards for virtuous characters who exhibited traditional values. These ideal human values are considered important to possess, more so than ever now that Korea has become a fast-developing, highly technical and capitalistic country, In fact, as the world becomes more of a global community, the positive values and sound moral judgments portrayed in Korean folk literature are pertinent to children all over the world. This article describes the trends of Korean folk literature, values taught through Korean folk literature, and critical thinking activities to use with folk literature.


Folktales are one of the world's oldest teaching tools and can be found in all societies (Spagnoli, 1995). Before Korea developed its own written language, folktales, told orally and created by the common people, were used to awaken children's minds and teach the importance of good deeds and moral judgment. They were passed down orally from generation to generation, and spread by migrating peoples, travelers, and even captives. Storytellers often altered tales, depending on their own recollections and the particular audience or locale. In the 15th century, Korea's unique alphabet, "Hangul," regarded as the world's most scientific and easy-to-learn writing system (Louie, 2005), was developed, enabling preservation of these folktales in written form.

Educators' interest in Korean children's books began in the 1920s as part of a national movement to protect children's rights. After Korea designated the fifth of May as Children's Day in 1922, educators became interested in writing literature specifically for children (Kwon, 2003). However, speaking and writing in Korean were condemned by Japan during the colonial period from 1910 to 1945. Once Korea gained its independence in 1945, authors began publishing the traditional folk literature in Korean. You (2003) found that the use of folk literature to convey moral messages became more common in the late 1960s. The three types of folktales that flourished from 1970s into the 1990s were fairy tales, fables, and pourquoi tales (tales that explained natural phenomena).

Today, folk literature is widely available throughout Korea and provides children access to the country's rich culture that reflects its 5,000-year history of cherishing family, honor, trust between friends, and hard work. It portrays values and beliefs that have guided ordinary people's lives for many centuries (Kim, 2004). These include beliefs about nature; the relationship between man and nature; this world and the hereafter; and human relationships within family, a clan, a close-knit community, and a rigidly hierarchical society as a whole (Grayson, 2006; Oh & Kim, 2007). The stories bind society together by codifying and reinforcing the way people have thought, felt, believed, and behaved for generations.

As a result, learning about folk literature is considered a very important part of the national reading curriculum for primary schools in Korea. A total of 81 traditional folktales are included in the primary Korean reading textbook: 7 tales for 1st grade, 17 for 2nd grade, 23 for 3rd grade, 18 for 4th grade, 10 for 5th grade, and 6 for 6th grade. First-grade textbooks contain fewer tales, due to the focus at that stage on developing oral language and listening skills. In 3rd grade, children are exposed to the highest number of tales because they have developed logical and critical thinking skills, are conscious of family and social relationships, are able to understand the consequences of actions, and can arrive at creative solutions to conflicts (Kwon, 2006).

Folk literature included in primary school textbooks accentuates filial piety, love and respect between parents and children, and parents' self-sacrifice and dedication to their children. Honesty and wisdom are also emphasized, as well as good deeds and justice, particularly with respect to the protection of the weak or powerless (Kim, 2004). The concept of ultimate rewards for good deeds, and evil being punished by an Ultimate Being is also stressed (Lee, Chung, & Lee, 1974). Several studies (Lamme, Krogh, & Yachmetz, 1992; Lee, 2001; Lee, Lee, Jung, & Moon, 1989; Lee, Bang, & Park, 1992; Moon, 2009) have explored the application of folktales in teaching and concluded that they are not only effective tools for enhancing the language arts, but also a means to convey traditional values that adults wish to pass down to children.

Jung's (2002) study on the rationale for using folktales in primary schools revealed that folk literature is suitable for children because of its imaginative appeal and simple lessons. Folk literature contains humor, irony, and wishes; portrays ancestral lifestyles and customs; and presents cultural characteristics and emotions. Parents and educators believe that folk literature is highly educational, and that its effect can be maximized when the key ideas and values in the stories are relevant to children's current lives in Korea.

In order to create stories children can relate to and wish to read, while preserving the original message, contemporary authors of folk literature add their own ideas and wit. For example, several authors (Eu, 1988b; Kang, 1994; Kim, 1990; Lee, 1987; Lee & Son, 1990) have created modern versions of The Sun and the Moon; each version reflects Korean people's lives, experiences, religions, rituals, and superstitions. Using folk literature with several alternative versions is an effective way to engage children in thinking about character, plot, and writing style, while they identify similarities and differences.

Although folk literature contains important and profound values, children can lose interest when adults treat the stories simply as instructional tools to convey various lessons. This can detract from the very values the literature is intended to instill. Some criticize Korean parents for their "overenthusiastic" interest in their children's education and for the pressure they place on children to read folk literature in order to pass tests--expressing concern that such pressure will erode the child's pleasure in reading (Moon, S. Y., 2009). Reading folk literature is most beneficial when children enjoy reading the stories and are allowed to think and reflect on what they have read (Choi & Kim, 1988). Thus, children need opportunities to enjoy reading folktales, or listening to digital versions, with caring adults who can help them engage in critical thinking and discussions.


This section introduces some widely used Korean folktales and discusses the traditional values embedded within them. The emphasis is on four specific values that appear frequently in Korean folk literature: filial piety for parents, honesty, good deeds, and wisdom. These are considered the ultimate ideals that Koreans parents and teachers strive to instill when raising and educating children.

filial piety

Filial Piety for Parents

Filial piety is one of the most basic Korean cultural beliefs, defined in Confucian thought as love and respect for one's parents and ancestors. It is an essential character trait that children are expected to acquire, both at home and in school. Raising dutifully devoted children is a primary cultural value for Koreans (Jo, 2007; Lee, 1996). As a common Korean proverb states, filial piety is the source of all virtues.

Well-known folk tales, such as Sire Chung (Choi, 2005; Lee, 2006), Woodcutter and Tiger Brother (Rhee, 1999), and Green Frog (Lee, 2007), encourage children to build devotion and respect for their parents. The title character in Sim Chung demonstrates an ideal filial piety for her parents. When she finds that the dragon living underwater has the power to restore people's eyesight, she offers to sacrifice her life in exchange for regaining the eyesight of her blind father. Her action shows that her love for her father is greater than that for her own life. In this tale, Sim Chung is rewarded by a marriage to the king for her selflessness (Schecter, 1993).

In another story, Woodcutter and Tiger Brother, a woodcutter tricks a fierce tiger into believing they are brothers. Even as a wild beast, the tiger believes it is his duty to be a faithful and loving son to the woodcutter's mother; he brings her gifts, and later follows her in death. The Tiger is willing to do anything for "their parents" without fear of death.

The importance of filial piety is also exemplified through the tale of a disobedient frog in Green Frog. This tale is about a disobedient child who does the opposite of what his mother says. One day the mother asks, "When I die, please bury me beside the stream," knowing her son will do the opposite of what she says and so her grave will not be placed beside the stream, which would be an insecure location (Lee, 2007). However, after the mother's death, the frog decides to honor her request and buries his mother beside the stream. From that day on, the frog cries over and over whenever it rains, worrying that the mother's grave will be washed away by the pouring rain. Green Frog teaches children to obey parents when they are alive before it is too late (Han, 1991).

The above three stories are widely read in Korea and emphasize the importance of obeying parents. From those stories, children develop a desire to respect their parents and to please them in order to return their kindness. They listen to directions from their parents and seek to make them proud (Lee, 2003). Korean children's respect for their parents is a major motivation for self-discipline and a focus on academics (Lee, 2004). Once children learn to value obedience to their parents, they are able to extend their learned behaviors outside their home. Korean children are expected to apply their learned obedience, compliance, and respectful attitude when they interact with friends, teachers, and elders in the larger society.



Folk literature also illustrates the value of honesty. The Golden Ax and the Silver Ax (Kim, 2003; Lee, 1997) contains clear lessons about honesty, presenting honest and dishonest behavior in contrast with one another. The story illustrates that acts of honesty and good faith will lead to a rich and fulfilling life, while greed, dishonesty, and bad faith will destroy one's life. In this story, a poor woodcutter loses his ax in a pond. As he cries, an old man appears with a gold ax and a silver ax and asks if either one belongs to the woodcutter. He responds honestly that his ax is made of humble iron and not of gold or silver. The old man highly praises his honesty and gives him all three axes. Next, a greedy man who hears the poor woodcutter's story wants to benefit as well and intentionally throws his ax into the pond. When the old man asks the same question about the gold and silver axes, the greedy, dishonest man says that both the gold ax and the silver ax are his. Angry about the greedy man's dishonesty, the old man does not give him any axes. This story clearly depicts the rewards of virtue.

In another popular tale, Hungbu and Nolbu (Eu, 1999; Lee, 1990a; Lee, 1990), heaven also rewards the honest character. Nolbu, the older brother, is dishonest and very greedy while Hungbu, the younger, is very kind. Upon the death of their father, Nolbu inherits the family property and banishes Hungbu, his wife, and their three children. Even this harsh treatment does nothing to change Hungbu's kind nature. When he rescues an injured swallow, he is rewarded with great riches. Dishonest Nolbu pursues the same good fortune, but finds only ruin. Older Brother, Younger Brother (Jaffe, 1995) is another version of this story in which honest action is rewarded and cruelty punished.

good deeds

Good Deeds

The following three folktales focus on the importance of being righteous, showing good manners, and maintaining positive behaviors. These folktales reward the good deeds of righteous and kind human beings with happiness, helping children to think critically about the benefits of being kind to others and avoiding evil thoughts and actions (Song, 2005).

One popular folktale revolving around good deeds is The Sun and the Moon (Eu, 1988b; Kang, 1994; Kim, 1990; Lee, 1987; Lee & Son, 1990). In this story, a little boy and girl stay at home while their mother goes out to sell rice cakes. A tiger eats all of the mother's rice cakes, and then gobbles her up. The tiger puts on the mother's clothes, pretending to be her in order to attack the boy and girl. The children wish for a rope from heaven to escape from the tiger; when it materializes, the boy becomes the moon and the sister becomes the sun. They both look down on mankind, brightening the day and night. The tiger chases after the children on the rope, but dies when the rope is broken. As children read and discuss the meaning of the story, they make distinctions between good and evil deeds.

This theme of rewarding good deeds also comes forth in the two similar folktales of Kongi Patgi (Early Childhood Education Research Institute, 2009; Song, 2009) and Korean Cinderella (Adams, 1982). The Korean Cinderella character, whose name is Kongi, faithfully completes her duties to please her stepmother. As in western Cinderella tales, Kongi endures abuse and hardships and works very hard. Her good deeds are ultimately rewarded when she marries the man of her dreams.

Faerie and Woodcutter (Eu, 1988a; Lee, 1990b) is another favorite story of Korean children. A woodcutter lives with his mother because he is poor and cannot get married. One day while in the mountain, he hides a deer that is running away from a hunter. In order to repay his good deed, the deer grants the woodcutter's wish and helps him to meet and marry a faerie. The story teaches children to help those who are weak and need assistance, and reinforces the notion that hard work and good deeds are rewarded.



Finally, Korean folk literature is used to illustrate the importance of thinking wisely when faced with adversity. The Hare's Liver (Lee, Y. J., 1994) and The Story of Rabbit (Gun, 1995) are two versions of the tale commonly known as "the story of Rabbit and Turtle" in Korea. In this story, a turtle tricks a rabbit into the ocean so that he can steal the rabbit's liver. The liver is needed as a cure for the turtle's sick Queen. The rabbit realizes he has been tricked and wonders how to return safely home. He tells the turtle he must return to land to get his liver, which he forgot to pack. The rabbit, unable to swim, gets a ride with the turtle. When they reach land, the rabbit runs away as fast as he can. Thus, the rabbit's wisdom saves his life, and is shown as a desirable trait for children to emulate. Similarly, in the tale of Rabbit Caught the Tiger (.lung, 2009), a rabbit thinks deeply and uses his wisdom to rescue himself from a tiger that wants to eat him. Using his guile, the rabbit tricks the Tiger into swallowing a hot rock; the Tiger catches fire, which allows the rabbit to escape. A similar story, Rabbit's Judgment (Han, 1994), also describes how a rabbit makes a wise decision. When a tiger falls into a deep pit and tries to get out, he finds the walls are too steep for him. When he calls for help, a man refuses to help him because he is afraid of being eaten. The tiger begs desperately and promises that he will be forever grateful to the man. The tiger sounds so pitiful that the man rescues him. When the tiger climbs out of the pit, he changes his mind and attacks the man. The man pleads with the tiger to ask the rabbit to judge if it is right for the tiger to eat the man. The rabbit listens to their stories carefully and suggests they all go to the pit and demonstrate how the story began. Without giving it a second thought, the tiger jumps down into the pit; thus, he is trapped once again, allowing the man to escape. These fables teach children to be calm in the face of difficulty, and to think carefully and make wise decisions.


This section reviews the benefits of critical thinking activities, followed by four practical ideas to engage children in critical thinking when reading folk literature: discussion with justification, reasoning with sequencing, creating sequels, and cause-and-effect analysis activity.

Benefits of Critical Thinking Activities

Folk literature has a natural appeal for children because of its magical elements, logical sequences of events, suspense, and juxtaposition of good and evil (Barnet, 1978; Cullinan & Galda, 1994; Hickey, 1995). Parents and teachers should guide children to think critically when reading folk literature, helping them to benefit from in-depth discussions about the values and main ideas in the stories. Children need opportunities to consider various perspectives and justify their own ideas. For example, a teacher can ask children why good virtues are rewarded and others are not. Traditional values can be learned more effectively when children interpret stories through a critical reading lens and reflect on the consequences of actions, rather than passively accepting parents' or a teacher's conclusions.

Critical thinking activities are beneficial, since children engage in nonlinear, open-ended, high-level thinking, which allows for multiple responses, various perspectives and interpretations, and recognition of relevance in their lives. These types of thinking activities help children build independent inquiry skills, therefore eliminating the need for prompting from parents and teachers. This independence will foster an enhanced positive attitude toward reading and a greater understanding, eventually increasing children's ability to make inferences and apply learned cultural values in their own lives. High-level reasoning is one of the most valuable literacy skills, one that will help prepare children for success in school and life. Using critical thinking activities requires children to consider the values being promoted, an important tool for social development and academic success (Bosma, 1981; Hickey, 1990; Krohn, 1971; Nelli, 1985; Virtue & Vogler, 2008). The pivotal principle is that merely asking students to recite plots and believe a standard interpretation discourages independent thinking and the discovery of inferred meanings. Critical thinking activities encourage respect for the thinking of others and enhance children's ability to reflect upon their own ideas. By employing critical thinking strategies, children are better able to develop creative ideas and to foster a love and appreciation for learning culture while developing valuable judgment skills.

Discussion With Justification

Prior to reading a folktale, children can discuss meanings of key words. They will benefit from an activity in which they pick out key words, phrases, and citations from each page and predict how they might be used in the story. An important aspect of this activity is to have children justify and discuss their predictions. For example, children can attempt to define and explain what "gourd" means when they read the phrase "cut the gourd in haiti." from the folktale Heungbu and Nolbu.

After reading a book, children can discuss how the story is connected with their own experiences and feelings, while noting the things that intrigued or surprised them and the things they did not understand. Children also can debate whether the ending of a tale is fair, ponder solutions to problems, and find acceptable alternatives. To stimulate children's discussion, parents and teachers can propose questions and ask children to justify their answers. For example, when reading Faerie and Woodcutter, a teacher can ask, "Why was the woodcutter not supposed to show the stolen clothes to his wife? Which character's behavior is more morally acceptable--the woodcutter's or the faerie's?" These questions help children to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate various situations before making value judgments.

Reasoning With Sequencing

With a clear grasp of story elements and sequences, children are better able to understand the folktale in its entirety. Gaining such fundamental knowledge is the initial step in analyzing situations critically and thinking creatively. During sequencing with reasoning activities, children are not only expected to remember the order of events in the story, but also to analyze and synthesize information to support their sequencing. This will lead students to offer justifications for the main ideas, not merely identify them. Through such activities, students often can identify with the characters in folktales, and will have the opportunity to explore their own emotions deeply and express their thoughts openly (Nelli, 1985).

Creating Sequels

Imagining what comes next is a creative and important critical thinking activity. To create a sequel, children brainstorm ideas for alternate endings or new events that would follow the end of a story and then write about them. Children also can create new versions of the story using different perspectives. Children are required to think about rationales for the new events. The key idea is to have children consider the reasoning behind their suggested sequels and alternate endings. For example, children can be asked to think how the powerless rabbit is able to catch the fearful tiger in Rabbit Caught the Tiger, and then to write a rationale for their predictions about how the story might continue.

Cause-and-Effect Analysis

The ability to determine why events in a story happen is also very useful in developing critical thinking skills. In cause-and-effect analysis activities, children connect the actions of characters with their consequences. For example, children can analyze the results of the dishonest and greedy actions of Nolbu in Heungbu and Nolbu. After the analysis, they can explore ways that the characters might have acted differently to make the situations better. Also, children can synthesize the causes of Heungbu's poverty and evaluate its effect on his life and actions. In addition, children can create charts illustrating characters' changes of emotion as they appear in the tale and identify the causes.


For centuries, Korean folk literature has been a pervasive tool in sustaining cultural heritage and furthering the nation's traditional values, which are essential to the development of healthy social relationships. The Korean folk literature cited in this article is currently used in the United States as children celebrate diverse ideas and beliefs and ultimately gain insight into their own lives. Using folk literature, regardless of its origin, can facilitate positive attitudes toward reading, foster pro-social behavior, and maximize understanding of one's own culture, as well as those of others, thus deepening an appreciation for one's own heritage while creating global connections.

While Korea places a special emphasis on folk literature, the author believes that children worldwide can benefit from reading folk literature from their own countries and from other nations. The author hopes that parents and teachers all over the world can support children in their quest to inherit deeply rooted values from reading, listening to, inquiring about, and engaging in critical thinking activities using folk literature.


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Guang-Lea Lee is Associate Professor, Department of Teaching and Learning, Darden College of Education, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia.
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Date:Aug 15, 2011
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