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

  1. Teaching Tips: Approaching Immigration Issues in the Classroom

    January 29, 2016 by Eric


    “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

    ~George Washington (1732-1799), 1st President of the United States


    Millions of people, around the world, have chosen – or been forced – to leave the nation where they were born. And today, more people than ever before in human history consider themselves immigrants.

    Immigration remains a vital, if controversial, topic – especially with the media circus surrounding Trump’s semi-recent statements and reform proposals. Why do people immigrant? How have immigrants contributed to your country? How important is the distinction between legal and illegal? Do wealthy nations have an obligation to open their doors to refugees? What qualifies someone as a refugee? Should nations chose their immigrants? If so, what criteria should nations use? Questions like these have been asked time and again, but today are reaching more of a fever pitch, and discussions oft become heated and even ugly.

    On one hand, the United States celebrates the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol and accepts more legal immigrants than any other nation on the earth. On the other hand, the continuing economic crisis and high unemployment rates have led to widespread resentment about the large number of illegal immigrants. President Obama has called for a civil, open, and honest debate as the United States debates its immigration policies. Many other nations are holding similar debates.

    Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and many other English-speaking nations continue to attract immigrants and refugees from around the world. As English teachers, we know the faces and stories behind the statistics. We also know the crucial role that English skills play in creating successful immigration policies. But do we teach about immigration? And, if so, how?

    Context, as ever, remains crucial. Teaching the history of American immigration in an EL/Civics class is far easier than discussing current events in my advanced adult ESL classes in Santa Monica. Why? Everyone in the EL/Civics class was pursuing citizenship, and held legal status. On the other hand, the advanced ESL class – on the same campus – was clearly divided between refugees, visa lottery winners, other legal immigrants, and many undocumented/illegal immigrants. With limited language skills and great passion, the topic was too controversial to rationally discuss.

    In my experience, however, it was perhaps easiest to discuss immigration debates with graduate students at the University of Southern California, where everyone has the same legal status. It was also easier to discuss the controversial immigration issues in the Citizenship class at Santa Monica College for similar reasons, and the shared interest in both becoming American citizens. This – compared to the Advanced ESL class at Santa Monica Adult School where refugees, legal immigrants, and undocumented workers/illegal immigrants all learned English together – really makes one reflect on how important perspective is to these discourses.

    How do you teach about immigration issues? Teaching Tolerance, an exceptional educational non-profit that provides many free resources to American teachers, has excellent content on embracing classroom diversity and discussing subjects such as this with students. Join the discussion here.

    Interested in learning more about thought-provoking classroom conversation? Check out the Studying English chapter from Compelling American Conversations, featuring expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!


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  2. Conversation Tips: The Power of Paraphrasing

    January 22, 2016 by Eric

    Female student active on lecture

    “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

    ―Albert Einstein, (1879-1955) German physicist

    Paraphrasing matters in conversation too ― especially when learning a new language!

    Experienced English teachers know that students must learn paraphrasing skills to complete academic writing assignments. Likewise paraphrasing remains a vital skill for English language learners to participate in college classrooms, everyday conversations, social situations and commercial transactions.

    The ability to re-phrase and re-state, usually called paraphrasing, allows English students to confirm information, accurately convey that information and avoid plagiarism problems when writing papers. As a result, paraphrasing is usually emphasized in English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) writing classes. Classes and teachers focusing on oral skills from academic presentations to simple conversations should also devote some attention to paraphrasing too.

    English language students, whether young or old, university or adult, must learn to confirm information by asking clarification questions. This critical skill, crucial to effective paraphrasing, will increase their ability to collect information, avoid costly mistakes and reduce their everyday stress level. It’s also impossible to accurately paraphrase a conversation if one is confused about the meaning. Some useful phrases for a listener to ask include:

    Are you saying…?
    Do you mean?
    What are you getting at?
    If I understand you correctly, you are saying …
    So you are saying… Right?
    Did I get that right?
    Speakers can also check to see if their group members and classmates understand their directions.
    Are you with me?
    Can you understand me?
    Was I going too fast?
    Should I rephrase that?
    Do you follow?
    Is that clear?
    Should I repeat the directions?
    Do you want me to repeat that?
    Would it be better for me to repeat that?
    Can I answer any questions?
    Is anybody lost?

    Asking advanced English students to repeat directions, in different words, can also be an effective group activity. The directions can be to a physical location (home, campus building, museum) or how to do something simple like finding a definition or sending an email. You can also extend the assignment by requesting detailed directions on a complicated procedure such as getting a driver’s license, applying for a visa or choosing a new laptop.

    Furthermore, you can ask students to share an autobiographical story. Student A tells a story, and Student B retells that story with different words to Student C. This paraphrasing exercise also helps build a larger, more practical vocabulary.

    Another teaching technique that I have found useful is asking students to paraphrase proverbs and quotations. This exercise, done in groups of two, often finishes with asking if students agree or disagree with the specific proverb or quotation. Of course, students have to give a reason and/or an example to support their answers. ESL tutors and English teachers lucky to have small classes can elaborate on this technique to match student interests.

    If English students can accurately paraphrase a reading, a radio segment, or a verbal statement, they can actively participate in common conversations and classroom discussions. Many English teachers underestimate the importance of this skill, and assume students understand it more than they might. Verbal paraphrasing activities allow both students and teachers to assess listening comprehension skills in a natural, authentic manner.

    Therefore, verbal paraphrasing deserves more attention in speaking activities, especially in high intermediate and advanced levels! Don’t you agree?

    What techniques or exercises do you use to improve paraphrasing skills? For more on classroom English and conversation tips, check out our sample chapter on Studying English from Compelling American Conversations ―including expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!


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  3. Teaching Matters: How democratic is your ESL classroom?

    January 15, 2016 by Eric

    college professor leccturing group of students

    “Education is a kind of continuing dialogue and a dialogue assumes, in the nature of the case, different points of view.”  

    ~Robert Hutchins (1899-1977), former President of University of Chicago and educational philosopher


    Continuing on the theme of creating a better classroom this semester, it is essential to make sure there is an ongoing dialogue between teachers and students. With this in mind, ask yourself: Who gets to speak in class? Whose ideas count? Who chooses the assignments? How do students receive feedback? Do students have a chance to conference with their instructors? Do you want your students to become self-directed – or autotelic  – in their studies?

    Here’s a quick checklist that ESL teachers that I created for a CATESOL workshop a while back called “Techniques for a More Democratic Classroom”. My core assumption remains that giving students more opportunities to literally speak, write, and share their insights leads to a more engaging, dynamic, and valuable classroom experience. Here are some more questions to consider:

    1. What are some of the students’ personal interests?
    2. Who do you currently teach? How would you describe the students?
    3. How can student interests be better incorporated into the curriculum?
    4. Which assignments do students currently choose? Which seems most successful? Why?
    5. What are some benefits of greater student participation?
    6. What are some risks of greater student participation?
    7. Do you want to increase the number of choices students make?
    8. What critical language skills can be taught by tapping into their interests?
    9. How can you tweak current material to better individualize instruction?
    10. What internet resources can you use to augment the current curriculum?
    11. Which exercises or activities do you find most successful in your classroom?
    12. What decisions do you keep as your prerogative as the instructor?
    13. How can you encourage your students to become self-directed learners?
    14. What skills do your English students need to realize that goal?
    15. What habits do students need to practice in a democratic classroom?
    16. What are some obstacles to a more democratic classroom?
    17. How does technology encourage a more democratic classroom?
    18. How can you create a more democratic classroom?

    From my perspective, a more democratic classroom provides immigrants and international students with a chance to demonstrate both linguistic skills and personal freedom. Many immigrants, especially from more closed societies, continue to believe that the only good student is the quiet student who listens, takes notes, memorizes, and repeats back the teacher’s words. Therefore, it behooves ESL teachers working in democratic societies to demonstrate a different definition of a good student where all students share their experiences, contribute their knowledge, and use their expanding English vocabulary to contribute. Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

    For more content related to making and breaking habits – and discussing them in the classroom – check out Chapter 3: Making and Breaking Habits from Compelling American Conversations, with expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!

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  4. Teaching Matters: What Are Reasonable Standards for Listening Comprehension and Speaking Skills for ESL Students?

    January 11, 2016 by Eric


    “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.”

    ~John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), 35th President of the U.S.


    Tough question! Context, as ever, matters.

    Are you going into a new semester of class looking for a clear, detailed chart to evaluate the speaking skills of your students? Check out the practical chart with ten categories for listening comprehension and speaking skills developed by the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement and revised by the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning. Where did I find it? As so often, I went to the Center for Applied Linguistics website. This wonderful resource has been around for years, but maintains its relevancy.

    Their chart seems quite sensible for most teaching situations with clear Student Performance Level (SPL) descriptors. The descriptors for listening comprehension and oral communication are intended to establish a consistent standard that government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profits can all use to share evaluations. Despite the bureaucratic title, the chart itself contains excellent descriptions that English teachers and testers can use for adult English language learners. After having been in several long faculty discussions over standards for oral skills, I appreciate the explicit standards combined with some flexibility.

    Developed specifically for adult refugees, it resembles other charts, yet includes more details and an explicit acknowledgment of economics. I like that awareness even if this factor can sometimes be misused to justify low standards in adult education programs. Our job as educators is to provide our students with the language skills to live fuller, more satisfying lives – in English – wherever they choose to live and work.

    Here it is in its entirety:

    Student Performance Level (SPL) Descriptors for Listening Comprehension and Oral Communication

    SPL General Language Ability Listening Comprehension Oral Communication

    0 = No ability whatsoever

    • No listening comprehension ability whatsoever
    • No speaking ability whatsoever

    1 = Functions minimally, if at all, in English. Can handle only very routine entry-level jobs that do not require oral communication, and in which all tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers can rarely communicate with a person at this level except through gestures.

    • Understands only a few isolated words, and extremely simple learned phrases.
    • Vocabulary limited to a few isolated words. No control of grammar.

    2 = Functions in a very limited way in situations related to immediate needs. Can handle only routine entry-level jobs that do not require oral communication, and in which all tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have great difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands a limited number of very simple learned phrases, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
    • Expresses a limited number of immediate survival needs using very simple learned phrases.

    3 = Functions with some difficulty in situations related to immediate needs. Can handle routine entry-level jobs that involve only the most basic oral communication, and in which all tasks can be demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have great difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands simple learned phrases, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
    • Expresses immediate survival needs using simple learned phrases.

    4 = Can satisfy basic survival needs and a few very routine social demands. Can handle entry-level jobs that involve some simple oral communication, but in which tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands simple learned phrases easily, and some simple new phrases containing familiar vocabulary, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
    • Expresses basic survival needs including asking and responding to related questions, using both learned and a limited number of new phrases. Participates in basic conversations in a few very routine social situations. Speaks with hesitation and frequent pauses. Some control of basic grammar.

    5 = Can satisfy basic survival needs and some limited social demands. Can handle jobs and job training that involve following simple oral instructions but in which most tasks can also be demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have some difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands learned phrases easily and short new phrases containing familiar vocabulary spoken slowly with repetition. Has limited ability to understand on the telephone.
    • Functions independently in most face-to-face basic survival situations but needs some help. Asks and responds to direct questions on familiar and some unfamiliar subjects. Still relies on learned phrases but also uses new phrases (i.e., speaks with some creativity) but with hesitation and pauses. Communicates on the phone to express a limited number of survival needs, but with some difficulty. Participates in basic conversations in a limited number of social situations. Can occasionally clarify general meaning.

    6 = Can satisfy most survival needs and limited social demands. Can handle jobs and job training that involve following simple oral and written instructions and diagrams. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speak¬ers will be able to communicate with a person at this level on familiar topics, but with difficulty and some effort.

    • Understands conversations containing some unfamiliar vocabulary on many every¬day subjects, with a need for repetition, rewording or slower speech. Has some ability to understand without face-to-face contact (e.g. on the telephone, TV).
    • Functions independently in most survival situations, but needs some help. Relies less on learned phrases; speaks with creativity, but with hesitation. Communicates on the phone on familiar subjects but with some difficulty. Participates with some confidence in social situations when addressed directly. Can sometimes clarify general meaning by rewording. Control of basic grammar evident, but inconsistent; may attempt to use more difficult grammar but with almost no control.

    7 = Can satisfy survival needs and routine work and social demands. Can handle work that involves following oral and simple written instructions in familiar and some unfamiliar situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can generally communicate with a person at this level on familiar topics.

    • Understands conversations on most everyday subjects at normal speed when addressed directly; may need repetition, rewording, or slower speech. Understands routine work-related conversations. Increasing ability to understand without face-to-face contact (telephone, TV, radio). Has difficulty following conversation between native speakers.
    • Functions independently in survival and many social and work situations, but may need help occasion¬ally. Communicates on the phone on familiar subjects. Expands on basic ideas in conversation, but still speaks with hesitation while searching for appropriate vocabulary and grammar. Clarifies general meaning easily, and can sometimes convey exact meaning. Controls basic grammar, but not more difficult grammar.

    8 = Can participate effectively in social and familiar work situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can communicate with a person at this level on almost all topics.

    • Understands general conversation and conversation on technical subjects in own field. Understands without face-to-face contact (telephone, TV, radio); may have difficulty following rapid or colloquial speech. Understands most conversations between native speakers; may miss details if speech is very rapid or colloquial or if subject is unfamiliar.
    • Participates effectively in practical and social conversation and in technical discussions in own field. Speaks fluently in both familiar and unfamiliar situations; can handle problem situations. Conveys and explains exact meaning of complex ideas. Good control of grammar.

    9 = Can participate fluently and accurately in practical, social, and work situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can communicate easily with a person at this level.

    • Understands almost all speech in any context. Occasionally confused by highly colloquial or regional speech.
    • Approximates a native speaker’s fluency and ability to convey own ideas precisely, even in unfamiliar situations. Speaks without effort. Excellent control of grammar with no apparent patterns of weakness.

    10 = Ability equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.

    • Listening comprehension equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.
    • Speaking skill equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.


    These standards, of course, remain more relevant for adult educators, social workers, and workplace programs than more academic programs. English teachers should, however, create classroom activities where students can engage in extended conversations in English on a wide variety of topics. The higher levels of this chart (SPL 9-10) articulate an excellent standard for all English language learners, including academic English and Business English students. What standards will you adopt for your English classes?


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  5. Resources: Links for ESL Teachers About Informational Interviews

    January 8, 2016 by Eric

    “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

    ~Vidal Sassoon (1928-2012), British hairstylist and businessman


    Late last year, we published a blog post on mock job interviews and self-evaluation. In connection to that, here are some helpful links we’ve found in the past for teachers and students alike to encourage networking and a better sense of self.



    Informational interviews have become a common practice among American professionals, but many English language learners remain unfamiliar with this type of networking and job search activity. ESL teachers can create both compelling classroom assignments and provide opportunities for ESL students to explore their career options by including informational interviews in their courses.

    As readers of this blog know, I have given several presentations at CATESOL conferences on “Informational Interviews: A Practical, Multi-skill Activity for High Intermediate and Advanced ESL Students.” Based on my years of experience of teaching both undergraduate native speakers and international graduate students at the University of Southern California, I’ve found that practicing informational interviews as an oral assignment can lead to an entire month of engaging, demanding, and career-focused lessons for advanced ESL students. Students expand their vocabulary, write questions, conduct an off-campus interview with a working professional in a field of interest, and share the career advice they collected in a short presentation. It’s a challenging, satisfying, and popular assignment in my oral skills classes.

    Many American universities can count on alumni to help their students in their job search, and granting an informational interview is a relatively easy way to contribute. Many American professional organizations also encourage their members to both assist and recruit students into the field. It may be difficult in many cultures for a younger person with less status to directly contact an older professional to seek career advice.

    Informational interviews can also be used with high school students as they begin to focus on their career ambitions. Here is a short list of additional links that I’ve curated on the subject. The links are loosely organized from the most general sites that explain the concept to general audiences in simple English to professional documents for more specialized, often graduate-school audiences. Adult and community college ESL programs would probably find the earlier links more helpful than the later ones. As ever, use or lose.

    Quintessential Careers emphasizes the importance of informational interviews in short, clear, and informative articles. High intermediate and advanced ESL students should be able to handle the vocabulary.


    University of Notre Dame Informational Interviewing – This six-page guide provides excellent step by step instructions for students needing assistance with locating individuals, asking interview questions, writing thank you notes, and professionally networking.


    Finally, here’s a 13-slide PowerPoint presentation titled “Networking and Informational Interviewing: Nuts and Bolts” by Scott Turner from USC Marshall School of Business, one of the world’s top MBA schools. Although I’m biased as a USC instructor, I think this presentation captures the practical possibilities of information interviewing. Many Marshall instructors advise MBA students that they should always be networking and conducting informational interviews during their graduate studies.

    Given the difficult economic climate in many countries, I would suggest that it behooves more ESL and EFL teachers and tutors to consider adding informational interviews to their oral skills courses for their high-intermediate and advanced students. Do you have any further resources? Let us know!

    For more related content, check out Chapter 12: Practicing Job Interviews from Compelling American conversations, featuring expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!

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  6. Discussing the New Year And Making Resolutions to Change in English Class

    January 4, 2016 by Eric

    New, year, debt.

    “To modernize is to adopt and to adapt, but it is also to recreate.”

    Octavio Paz, (1914-1998), Mexican writer and diplomat.


    Holidays and anniversaries often prompt personal reflections. As a new year beckons, millions of English language learners and thousands of English teachers  reflect on their lives and make new year resolutions.


    • What did you find satisfying in 2015?
    • What were some magic days and memorable moments?
    • What English words will you choose to remember?
    • What English lessons would you prefer to forget?


    Sometimes we look back with satisfaction on our classroom achievements, and sometimes we look back in regret. Almost everyone hopes for a happy, healthy, and more prosperous and productive new year. The challenge remains how we can move forward, and talking about change and hopes for change seems like a natural place.

    Often, we openly declare our hopes and goals for the New Year with bold resolutions that require serious change in our habits. We also know that change can be hard, surprising, and sometimes liberating in our classrooms and in our personal lives.


    • What do you hope for in 2016?
    • What changes would you like to make? Why?
    • How do you plan to realize your goals in the next year?
    • How will you measure personal success in 2016?
    • How will you measure your academic success in 2016?
    • Are you ready to keep your New Year resolutions?


    Given the rate of exceptional technological and social change in the 21st century, I find that discussing the topic of Change a perennial winner in my advanced English classes. Although public opinion surveys show that only a small percentage of Americans keep their New Year resolutions to change after a month, I suspect we can increase those odds of our English students by candidly discussing our hopes and plans to change. What are your New Year’s resolutions?

    Feel free to use this sample Compelling Conversations chapter on Change in your English class, as well as this combo chapter on Celebrating American Holidays from the Compelling American Conversations Student/Teacher editions.

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