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

  1. Conversation Tip #1: The right attitude is key

    September 20, 2014 by Eric

    Jessica Lu, a first-year student at the University of Chicago, interned for Chimayo Press and the Compelling Conversations blog through the summer of 2014. Over the months, she has perused ESL textbooks, analyzed newspaper articles and tested out mobile apps, seeking out ways to inspire discussion. Each week the Compelling Conversations blog will publish one of her top 10 tips to create compelling conversations outside of the English classroom.

    Positive attitudes generate positive experiences

    conversation tips

    Photo by Teresa Ling

    “In order to carry a positive action we must develop here a positive vision.”

    -Tenzin Gyatso (1935- ) the 14th Dalai Lama

    So often our desire to have meaningful conversations overshadows the reason why we want to have them in the first place: to learn from others. Every time we interact with family, friends, acquaintances and strangers, we develop new growth and understanding. Therefore, it remains important to keep this in mind when we strike up a conversation.

    How do we help students keep a favorable attitude? Most importantly, emphasize the importance of keeping an open mind. Doing so ensures things start off on the right foot. Remind your students that even if they find themselves disagreeing with the person, they can sustain a tolerant mindset. Their conversation partner has a whole world of experiences to share–and so do they!

    How do you encourage your students to view their conversations with a positive attitude? What can be learned from conversations?

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  2. Perfection and grammar: not essential for ESL students, or even native speakers

    September 17, 2014 by Eric

    Certain grammar rules unnecessary for comprehension, everyday conversation


    Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

    “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”

    -Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) Spanish surrealist painter

    Is it always essential to have perfect grammar? Must we always avoid split infinitives, dangling modifiers and grocery shopping lines labeled “Ten Items or Less,” since the sign should read “Ten Items or Fewer?”

    Leading linguist and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker doesn’t think so. In this Guardian article, he spotlights 10 grammar rules that are okay to break some of the time. His reasoning varies by example, but mostly regards contemporary acceptance, informal vs. formal settings and the historical use of the word. These rules have foiled great writers, national ad campaigns and grammar purists themselves–but whether or not they are actually broken falls under another story. While Pinker does praise writing with classical grammar, he emphasizes the fact that sometimes some grammar rules are taken too seriously, and unreasonably so.

    Pinker’s points reiterate the importance of clarity and communication above all else. Though English language learners should learn certain grammar rules, they must know that perfection is not the ultimate goal. Clearness is far more important. For instance, teachers waste time stressing that sentences can’t end with prepositions–one of the misconceptions Pinker debunks-instead of focusing on content and real-world situations. In the real world, people say sentences like “Who are you writing to?” instead of “To whom are you writing?” And (notice this sentence starts with a conjunction) English learners need to know when they’re not making real mistakes and that, instead, they’re violating an outdated, unused rule.

    What other grammar rules have become obsolete? Which rules do you stress in your classrooms?

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    Photo source: Sentencediagram


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  3. Chimayo Press presents Android Roy by Dennis Hackin

    September 15, 2014 by Eric

    Chimayo Press, publisher of Compelling Conversations books, branches out to sci-fi

    android roy dennis hackin

    “What is consciousness? What is all this? Why do I think? And then you look at computers and computers think–are we programming the computers or are they programming us?”

    -Dennis Hackin

    Hackin poses these philosophical questions in describing his inspiration behind his latest novel, Android Roy, a Chimayo Press book released earlier this summer. Hackin intertwines his love of writing and science to find some answers. He explores through the unconventional, thought-provoking sequence of events surrounding protagonist Android Roy.

    Android Roy, as the first Android homicide detective, seeks justice in his technology-run, dystopian world. He aims to track down the Paranoid Android, a villain who skins the superior humans to allow the inferior Androids to disguise themselves with the harvested scalps. Yet Android Roy reaches beyond a murder mystery–it also explores the complex relationship between Androids, humans and God, and the meaning of love and morality.

    The Compelling Conversations series perhaps remain Chimayo Press’ most well-known product, but this niche publishing company carries several genres outside the ESL realm as well. Consider ourselves excited over this most recent release.

    Though the unconventional formatting and advanced reading level may not fit in an ESL classroom setting, Android Roy does offer important topics for discussion. Is technology too prominent in our lives? What will the relationship be between androids and humans in the future? Where do we come from?

    Read the Q&A with Hackin here, hosted on Chimayo Press’s website.

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  4. EF reports decline of French EPI

    September 13, 2014 by Eric

    Declining EPI attributable to lack of exposure


    Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

    “French students report lower levels of exposure to English in everyday life than any other Europeans polled. Exposure to a foreign language has been found repeatedly to be one of the strongest contributors to increased fluency.”

    -EF Report

    Education First (EF), an international education company, compiled its third EF English Proficiency Index (EPI) report, using test data from 750,000 adults yearly from 2007 to 2012. Most countries in Europe increased or only slightly changed their scores on these tests. France, however, scored 2.63 points lower on the index, making it the lowest scorer in its region.

    In its country spotlight on France, the EF analyzes several components of France’s poor performance. It notes that even after eight years of English study, 70 percent of students remain at pre-beginner or beginner level.


    The EF isolates lack of exposure to English as the prime reason. Laws there restrict foreign languages in media. In addition, only 11 percent of students said their school had a language lab. Listening and speaking English is thus discouraged in France, for mostly cultural reasons.

    The EF’s analysis further highlights the importance of conversation-essentially, listening and speaking-when learning new languages. Perhaps these declining test results will motivate the French government to fund more English-exposing activities, whether it be through media legislation or education reform. Naturally, I expect scores to improve when there are more conversations in English taking place.

    Curious to see how your students score on the EF’s English Test? Click here. How has exposure to conversations contributed to their score?

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    Photo Source: “Paris Eiffelturm” by User:MarkGGN. Uploaded by – Own work. Licensed under Wikimedia Commons.


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  5. Duolingo: learning through translation

    September 10, 2014 by Eric

    Effective language-learning program with a unique approach


    “We come together from across the world at varying language levels with the same goal in mind – to learn. Curiosity, questioning, and cultural understanding are something we celebrate.”

    -Duolingo Guidelines

    Why do so many people yearn to learn English and other languages? The reasons–whether for work, friendships, travel or challenge–originate from a desire to understand each other. Duolingo brings this concept to life through its translation-based language learning program. With millions of learners across a dozen or so languages, Duolingo has emerged as a popular website and app for learners.

    This free service focuses on translation of the internet. Students learn lessons in a “game” scenario; they have three ‘hearts’ throughout lessons, collect XP points and restart lessons once they run out of lives. Learning vocabulary, phrases and grammar centers around translation. A separate part of the website focuses on translating for other real websites, like Buzzfeed and CNN, which Duolingo recently partnered with.

    Duolingo encourages language-learners with its online platforms for discussion among users. Members can post on forums, ask and answer questions and support each other’s progress.


    In 2012, Roumen Vesselinov, PhD of the City University of New York and John Grego, PhD of the University of South Carolina conducted an eight-week independent study with English native speakers learning Spanish using Duolingo. The results found that 34 hours with Duolingo boost language test scores the same amount as one semester of university study. Clearly, these results reflect strong indications that Duolingo implements effective language-learning methods. The full study can be found here. Isn’t it amazing how technology can transform ancient activities like language learning?


    Duolingo emphasizes reading, writing and listening skills. However, conversation skills matter. Duolingo, like too many language classrooms, neglects actual speaking skills. Practicing conversations, refining pronunciation and role-playing real-life situations remain essential aspects of learning a language. After all, the Compelling Conversations book series centers around learning English through sparking conversations. After all, knowledge of new vocabulary and basic phrases only proves important and useful if it can be employed between living human beings!


    Duolingo represents a glimpse into the future of language learning. It has helped millions of people become autotelic (self-directed), learn new languages and offer real-world translation of authentic internet materials. And free of charge, what’s not to like?

    Read more about Duolingo on Wikipedia or check out Duolingo CEO Luis Von Ahn’s Tedtalk. If you plan to use this Tedtalk in your ESL class, you might want to take a look at the TED worksheet I use in my advanced oral skills classes.

    Do your students use Duolingo? What other sites and apps do they like?

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    Photo source: “Duolingo logo”. Via Wikipedia -


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  6. Newsmart: ESL Wall Street Journal

    September 3, 2014 by Eric

    Language learners absorb English, journalism and current events

    Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 8.36.56 PM

    Photo Source: Newsmart

    ““To look at the paper is to raise a seashell to one’s ear and to be overwhelmed by the roar of humanity.”

    -Alain de Botton (1969- ) Swiss-British writer

    The Wall Street Journal remains a popular source of news in the United States, teeming with a variety of breaking and analytical pieces. I first heard about Newsmart at the 2014 TESOL convention in Portland, and immediately appreciated its potential for both Business English students and international English language learners. Newsmart essentially manages to provide insightful, timely WSJ articles to Intermediate and Advanced ESL students within a safe, comfortable English language learning context.


    On its aesthetically-pleasing, simple website, Newsmart presents some top stories of the day. To serve a diverse set of readers, these articles fall into several categories: Featured, What’s News, Business, Technology, Markets and Life & Culture. Each short article displays a headline, summarizing sentence photo and exercise points.

    These exercise points are unique to Newsmart; they indicate the number of Vocabulary, Grammar and Comprehension lessons within each article. Students accumulate points by reading the articles and completing each exercise point along the way in reading and listening comprehension exercises. These points can come in the form of multiple choice questions or even video activities. Ultimately, students track their point progress in each category and win badges.

    Visitors can engage with the articles in some other ways. Any clicked-on word will display a definition with an audible voice clip, helping listening comprehension and vocabulary. Users can also leave comments and discuss with other readers in 92 countries, providing another opportunity to use English in an authentic global context.


    Several levels of English language learners could benefit from Newsmart. Upon sign-up and anytime afterward, students can take a Newsmart level test to demonstrate their reading comprehension skills. The article’s level of difficulty as a result, adjusts to reflect their scores. Although the site seeks to engage all levels of English learners, it’s clearly far more suited for high intermediate and advanced English language learners – and future MBA students and potential entrepreneurs.

    Keeping up with current events results in several desirable outcomes. Newsmart readers should become more aware of current events and business trends, expand their working vocabulary in English, and have more information to share in English. Naturally, I hope readers will choose to share some of that information in English conversations. With the added bonus of sharpening reading ability, what’s not to like about Newsmart?


    It seems as if Newsmart comes with no obvious drawbacks. The free membership, high-quality content and numerous advantages appeal to many audiences. Some articles, however, may be too difficult of a read for beginning and intermediate learners. They may want to wait later in their studies to begin using Newsmart. For these students, I recommend starting with the Easy English Times and Breaking News.


    Newspapers certainly shape our perception of the world. It behooves ESL teachers to encourage their English language learners to read them. Newsmart serves as a natural step for students wishing to one day read papers like the actual Wall Street Journal, New York Times or Christian Science Monitor in a more natural context without vocabulary assistance.

    Do you encourage your students to read the news? How do you students get “news smart?”

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