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Compelling Conversations for English Teachers, Tutors, and Advanced English Language Learners

  1. Spring ESL: “One Stop Connection to ESL, EFL, ELD, ELT, and ESOL instructional materials”

    August 21, 2014 by Eric

    spring esl springesl luis coloma

    “Spring Book Center strives in three basic principles: Service, Responsibility and Lower Prices.”

    -Spring ESL

    Book center hosts a wealth of ELL materials

    We live in a Golden Age for teaching English. We can find resources from around the globe to fit the needs of the language learners in our classrooms. Yet this overwhelming plethora of choices can cause headaches. Where do you go to find carefully selected, learner-focused ESL EFL and other ELL textbooks and resources?

    Spring ESL remains a personal favorite. Luis Coloma, curator and owner of this valuable “one stop connection” has created a curated, selective catalog of valuable materials for English teachers. His eclectic catalog and website features titles by English educators with special sensitivity for the needs of native Spanish speakers, adult immigrants and independent learners. The catalog also carries the leading titles for ESL instructors, tutors and their students.

    The colorful yet simple site is easy to navigate through, providing an easy way to find appropriate materials for English language learners and English teachers. Spring ESL offers free shipping on orders over $100 and a 30 percent discount on items of the month. Another nice attribute? Whenever possible, the company uses recycled paper materials, and only distributes paper catalogs upon request.

    Naturally, I’m also pleased to note that Compelling Conversations and Compelling American Conversations has been sold through Spring ESL to many teachers in California and Texas for several years. I look forward to seeing Luis at CATESOL State Conference on Oct. 23-26 in Santa Clara, and browsing through his latest discoveries.

    Where do you find your curated, quality ESL resources?

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  2. ‘Teaching History With Film’ encourages use of film through examples, lesson plans

    August 19, 2014 by Eric

    Birth of a Nation - Academy

    Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
    How did this openly racist film, previewed at the White House, promote a false understanding of history and lead to increased racial bigotry? How teachers use film to explore American history?

    How and when to use film in classrooms, and why

    “The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn’t.”

    -Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1909-1993) American screenwriter

    Film remains a powerful, if imperfect, tool for providing revealing glimpses into historical events, foreign eras, and distant lands. Yet, as experienced English and Social Studies teachers know, using films in classrooms requires preparation and reflection.

    What is lost and what is gained in using film – historical fiction – to portray history? How do popular films recreate the emotional context of historical events, and how do they sometimes impose misleading narratives? What are some effective techniques for exposing and disclosing the tension between accuracy in real history and the need for drama in reel history? How have historical eras, such as reconstruction after the American civil war in Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind - been misrepresented in popular Hollywood blockbusters? Which definitions of accuracy matter most in using film to teach history?


    Teaching History with Film: Strategies for Secondary Social Studies by Alan S. Marcus, Scott Alan Metzger, Richard J. Paxton and Jeremy Dr. Stoddard illuminates some of these questions. The book emphasizes through five distinct reasons why social studies teachers should use film to teach. The book itself presents convincing reasons, backed by specific examples, lesson plans and chapter reflections.

    Each part focuses on a reason that film can teach history: for instance, Part I highlights its historical value while Part III focuses on development of analytical or interpretive skills. Though the overall theme in each part is applicable to a wide range of movies, the book provides a specific historical timeline or topic as well. For instance, to display film’s ability to teach the “empathy for caring,” the case descriptions, lesson plans and activities focus on Southeast Asian events, particularly the consequences of the Vietnam and Korean War, with films like “Gran Torino” and “The Killing Fields.” At the end of each section, a “Reflection on the Case” follows to analyze and portray the advantages and drawbacks of using film to teach a particular lesson.


    The book’s unique viewpoint flutters in and out of the chapters. The authors are careful to acknowledge the limitations to using film as a teaching tool, such as historical accuracy, film selection and passivity of watching film. In this manner, the book does not serve to prescribe that teachers follow its lesson plans exactly, or use film to teach every historical subject. Rather, its logical organization, balance of pictures and text and specificity of examples serve to supplement or guide teachers curious about using film in their classrooms.

    The strong book, however, would have been even more useful if it directly dealt with how to the actual consequences of such distorted films as The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War film The Patriot deserve more attention. When 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2013, it marked a profound turn toward realism in the popular culture’s treatment of American slavery. Adding a chapter detailing some controversies and consequences over blockbuster films would have strengthened the book. One could, I would suggest, create a fascinating course tracing the depiction of Americans held in slavery in American cinema over the last century. Everyone should be able to see the social progress in human rights from President Wilson hosting the Birth of a Nation to President Obama hosting a preview of 12 Years a Slave at the White House. Shall we compare and contrast?

    As mentioned previously in a blog post reviewing Journeys in Film, a non-profit organization that also uses film to teach, movies and documentaries do not always fit perfectly into the ELL classroom. Teaching History with Film targets social studies curricula more than language classes. However, its approaches, activities and cultural movie selections can be of value in many types of English classrooms. Time may also be a factor–after all, the lesson plans set aside two to three days for film-viewing. Perhaps the best route involves finding a balance between using film and focusing on other English-learning activities.

    Do you use film to teach history or language? What are some of your favorite films to learn from?

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  3. Infinite English App supplements ESL speaking, listening skills

    August 17, 2014 by Eric

    infinite english mobile app

    Photo source: iTunes screenshot

    Using Infinite English to practice reading text, passages aloud

    “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

    -Aristotle (384 B.C.E.-322 C.E.) Greek philosopher

    Do your students use phone apps to learn English? For those looking to sharpen their speaking, pronunciation and listening skills, Infinite English from Vocefy Inc. could be a viable option. As demoed by this YouTube video, the app takes in any block of words–from a text, document or online article–and allows students to practice with it. They can record themselves reading it and get instant feedback; words they pronounce incorrectly will pop up in red and words that could be better pronounced come up in yellow. Afterward, they can listen to their recording and then have Vocey, the app’s “tutor,” read the passage. The app can also translate the text and define words within the text, making it accessible to 64 different types of native speakers.

    In its introductory video, Infinite English emphasizes that Vocey’s effective tutoring capabilities. Additionally, the video highlights the fact that users will not feel embarrassed to get feedback from this virtual entity. Though Vocey should not replace human resources like teachers, tutors or even classmates, she could help beginning English learners ease into speaking and listening. Vocey’s feedback may be accurate and instantaneous, but it lacks real human response that is crucial for students to learn from, in order to become better conversationalists.

    Infinite English sells for $9.99 in the iTunes Store, a bit pricey on the app side, but perhaps a sound investment if students improve their English speaking and listening abilities. It’s also worth nothing that students can use the app “infinitely,” because any chunk of text can be copied and pasted and processed by Vocey. For students that are new learners, shy or on-the-go, Infinite English could supplement their learning.

    What other apps do your students use to learn English?

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  4. Between life and death: Zombie nouns privilege pretentious vocabulary at the expense of simple clarity

    August 15, 2014 by Eric
    zombie nouns

    Photo source: TedEd Screenshot

    The nominalization of nouns creates abstract, dry and often misleading language

    “Simplicity is the glory of expression.”

    -Walt Whitman (1819-1892) American poet

    Sometimes, it’s fun to play with the English language and transform its adjectives, adverbs and nouns into more complex-sounding words. Playing with word forms can both emphasize a key concept and add an academic tone. Like many other English teachers, I continually emphasize the many advantages of deploying a strong academic vocabulary and maneuvering through different word forms.

    This act of nominalizing words, however, can be dangerous. Helen Sword, author of Stylish Academic Writing, coined the phrase “Zombie Nouns”, which also appeared in her New York Times article. Zombie Nouns tack on suffixes like “ity,” “ism” or “tion,” instantly creating larger words–think idealism, deviation or even antidisestablishmentarianism. There’s even a TedEd on the subject based on her article that English teachers should appreciate.

    Many academics and graduate students love incorporating zombie nouns into their writing because the tone becomes more intellectual, more sophisticated. Yet, sometimes, too much of a good thing can become a real problem. Zombie nouns often lose powerful verbs and ideas along the way, and sometimes what they say comes out as gibberish. Sometimes this hyper-abstract language can also encourage sloppy, vague, and distorted thinking. Sword provides several powerful examples of how nominalizations make it possible to cut out subjects, ignore context, and leave behind a rather indigestible statement like:

    “The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.”

    Each italicized word, or zombie noun, is not particularly difficult on its own to understand. Nevertheless, the overall impact of all these nominalizations renders the sentence useless. Yes, students should be encouraged to manipulate language, but we want to clarify and not obscure concepts. This far too-common mistake may be a higher-level good mistake, but the consequences can be quite severe. Sword, evoking the spirit of Orwell, explores several variations of awful academic writing in her lucid 2012 “Stylish Academic Writing” which provides practical pointers and elegant expressions.


    It still behooves English teachers, especially working in English for Academic Purposes programs, to demonstrate word forms to their students. How else will philosophical ideas like individuality or equality enter their vocabulary? When simpler words can be used, however, and communicating clearly supersedes sounding intellectual, zombie nouns should be avoided. Instead, juicy verbs and descriptive nouns should fill up a student’s sentence – especially if writing for non-specialists.

    Sword also directs readers to a fun, potentially useful tool: Writer’s Diet. Users can paste in a writing sample and the test generates a number based on how “fit” or “flabby” the writing is. A side note–this article, minus Sword’s nominalized sentence, scored lean or fit in all categories. This site seems particularly valuable for English language learners and young academics.

    How do you teach both teach academic writing and avoid excessive reliance on zombie nouns?

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  5. Biscuit: mobile app to recall, learn, explore vocabulary words

    August 13, 2014 by Eric

    biscuit app

    Innovative technology allows students to absorb new vocabulary

    “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

    -Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) Austrian-British philosopher

    Have you ever found a word you don’t know, jumped to your dictionary, tried to remember the spelling, typed it in, gotten the definition and promptly forgotten it? For avid language lovers and learners alike, this frustrating process is all too familiar. That’s why Brent Warner from EdTechTV poses these questions in his professional YouTube review of Biscuit, a mobile app for English language learners and word mavens.

    As Brent describes, the app works simultaneously with other apps–simply highlight the word of interest and Biscuit pops up a banner on the top of the screen with its definition. Tap the notification to view the word, modify the definition and sort it by viewing the sidebar. Under the settings tab, students can choose a variety of languages to translate from, making the tool accessible to English language learners from several backgrounds.

    Other tech-savvy components should appeal to English language learners. For instance, you can set up “Word Reminders” that send push notifications of certain words to jog their memories. You can also indicate how familiar they are with particular words through highlighting, dimming and sorting. Moreover, Biscuit contains an “Image to Text” feature–though like Brent, I have yet to find it in the actual app itself. “Image to Text” allows users to snap pictures of books and other publications and the app will extract the words captured in the photo and present them in list format.


    For students adept with technology, Biscuit serves as a powerful, flexible modern tool for learning self-chosen vocabulary words. After all, the site asserts that Biscuit is “faster than a dictionary [and] easier to use than traditional flashcards of word lists.” I also see students pulling out their phones while reading newspapers, magazines and menus to store new words in order to learn them later. By creating an efficient, approachable mobile app, Biscuit has the power to generate persistent and effective vocabulary learning.

    Another great thing? Biscuit can be found for free in the Apple iTunes store or Android app store. I’m adding it to the recommended resources list for my international graduate students.

    What tools do you use to learn new vocabulary? What other mobile apps help you and your students learn?

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  6. Teachers and Tutors Should Know About Compelling Conversations

    July 26, 2014 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    English teacher and tutor Joan V reviews Compelling Conversations

    “We all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.”

    ―Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) American astronaut

    Sometimes you just have to smile.

    Praise, especially from an experienced colleague, on a difficult project feels satisfying. In the last week, I’ve received three emails from Joan V., an ESL teacher and tutor, praising Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics – the book that I co-authored and self-published. Her experiences mirror my own experiences with the material, and validate the book’s premise: engaging students in sophisticated conversation helps build their vocabulary, leads to memorable conversations, and deepens relationships.

    Here, in Joan’s own words, are excerpts from her strong recommendation for the unorthodox ESL book.


    I am an English tutor working with Japanese adults in Jackson, Michigan. I was a public school and ESL teacher for many years, retired, and now my retirement job is tutoring. A few weeks ago I purchased the PDF of your book and then this week I bought the hard copy which just arrived from you this morning. I want to tell you what a marvelous book this is!

    I’ve always used questions as a conversation stimulus, and now I have this whole organized around topics book to use with my students! As you probably know, Many Japanese arrive in this country with a fair understanding of English grammar and quite a lot of vocabulary, but are initially unable to engage in conversation. This book is the perfect answer to this situation!

    Thank you so much for putting this together!

    Teachers and tutors should know about Compelling Conversations. I was a classroom ESL teacher for many years, went to conferences with book displays shopping for books, and was usually disappointed by the books I saw. There were a lot of boring books out there!

    The book needs to on display at ESL conferences if they are still being held. ESL teachers and tutors working with intermediate and advanced level students would choose this book over almost anything else if they knew about it. Also many community colleges have ESL programs using traditional materials focused on grammar and repetition rather than real meaningful conversation which your book provides.

    I happened on your book accidentally on the internet and looking at the sample lessons, I quickly knew that this book would work for my students.

    I wanted to add one more thought regarding Compelling Conversations. It is saving me a lot of time! I have been tutoring Japanese adults (businessmen and their wives) for nine years after retiring from almost 30 years of teaching in public
    schools. I’ve spent so much time gathering materials from various sources–textbooks, my own materials, bilingual dictionaries, etc.

    Now I’m finding that printing out a chapter of your book provides plenty of conversational focus for at least two hours or more of tutoring time. Even more important, our conversations are at a deeper level. For example, in
    chapter two there are some questions about childhood. A couple of weeks ago a student bordering on fluency was able to tell me about his childhood dreams and that now he is living that dream! I was thrilled!




    Thank you, Joan! You made my week!


    Check out sample Compelling Conversations lessons for yourself at:


    Hopefully, you will have the same satisfying experiences that Joan and other satisfied teachers and tutors have had with Compelling Conversations. Enjoy!


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