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

  1. How do you flip your English class? What homework activities do you use to spark lively small group discussions in class?

    September 4, 2015 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    How do you create lively small group discussions in your English class? What homework do you find most likely to spark student-led conversations? Are you interested in flipping your ESL class so English language learners collect information outside of class and share the information inside the class?

    ELT researchers consistently recommend that students talk at least 70% of class time, but many English teachers find it hard to actually achieve this goal. Students want to speak – in the abstract, but both boring materials, limited vocabulary, and sometimes shyness and fear of making mistakes can often inhibit student speaking.

    Group of Young Students Studying together at Library, High View

    Letting Students Make More Choices

    One effective teaching technique I’ve often used is called “Search and Share”. This communicative internet homework activity encourages – actually requires – English students to take an active role in their English classes. The ESL or EFL students find their own videos and newspaper articles that match their interests, summarize the material, and evaluate its quality. Search and Share also allows students to also share more of their personal interests with classmates in a safe, focused manner on chosen themes. By letting students choose some of the class materials, they often become much more interested in participating in both small group and class discussions.

    What is Search and Share?

    Over the last six years, I have used Search and Share activities as homework in intermediate and advanced high school and university English classes. The popular activity can be used for supplemental speaking exercise or extended into an entire class. Because students often want to present compelling material, they will spend far time reviewing possible videos and articles than I would ever require for homework too – and they become far more familiar with the concepts too.

    Students share the information they have collected (job interview advice, review of a favorite film, product information/review, a TED talk, restaurant review, local tourist destination, favorite charity/non-profit, etc). Students begin in small groups of 3-5 students. Everyone presents their “research”, and the other students proceed to ask at least one question each. Each round usually takes 15-20 minutes to finish a search and share in university classrooms.

    In my latest book, Compelling Conversations – Japan, you can find Search and Share exercises at the end of each chapters. Click here for a complete set of the “Search and Share” homework worksheets come from Compelling Conversations – Japan: Questions and Quotations for High-Intermediate English Language Learners.
    While specially designed for English language learners in Japan, you can easily adapt and deploy the worksheets for EFL classrooms across the globe.

    Why not download the free worksheets” Compelling Conversations – Japan includes a dozen search and share worksheets.” Compelling Conversations – Japan includes a dozen search and share worksheets, test the material in your English classroom, and flip your classroom?


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  2. Teaching the difference between ‘make’ and ‘do’ for English Language Learners

    June 25, 2015 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    What do you do? What do you make? How do you clarify the significant difference between “do” and “make” for your ESL students?

    These simple words cause lots of confusion for English language learners. Both intermediate and advanced English language learners struggle with the difference between “make” and “do”. We have so many different idioms and expressions that use these two hardworking, common verbs.

    Here is a quick, imprecise guide that helps clarify the issue.

    Look at some common expressions with “do”.

    • Do the dishes every day.
    • Do some chores during the week.
    • Do your work in an office.
    • Do homework for English class.
    • Do exercises to stay healthy.
    • Do your best on exams.
    • Do it over when required.
    • Do the report on time.

    Do is used to describe an activity that you have to do, often over and over again. For instance, we “do the dishes” and “do the laundry” many times. Do also contains an element of duty, obligation, and responsibility.

    Now, take a look at some expressions with “make”.

    • You make art for fun.
    • You make lunch at noon.
    • You make drawings in art class.
    • You make decisions everyday.
    • You make plans for the future.
    • Your make reservations for dinner.
    • You make mistakes on an exam.
    • You make progress when you study hard.
    • You make money at work.
    • You make friends at school.
    • You make time for your family and friends.

    Make is used to describe a creative activity or something you choose to do. You choose, for instance, to make plans, make friends, and make decisions. You have choices.

    As with so many English lessons, using some humor helps the medicine go down. Depending on the ESL class, I might choose more humorous examples than the ones offered above. Why do we say “make dinner” if we have to do it over and over? Perhaps because cooking is seen more as a creative activity than a necessary chore. I joke with students that “if you make dinner, it’s going to be delicious. But I will burn everything, and we will have to go out to dinner.” Cooking meals requires creativity and skill.

    On the other, many chores require less creativity and must be done over and over again. Even I can do it. Cleaning the table, and cleaning the dishes are just chores.  Therefore, we say “do the table” and “do the dishes.” That’s also why Americans say “make money” instead of “do money.” Making money is seen as both a creative activity and a choice. Learning this expression shows how the United States remains a strong consumer culture – even in the most common expressions.

    Sometimes we forget how much cultural information can be contained in short sayings and everyday idioms. Sometimes Americans will use the verb “make” in a way that might seem strange to English students. Many English students note that they don’t choose to “make mistakes” on their exams! Still, our English students usually “make a decision” to “do their best” and “make progress” in learning our confusing language.

    Finally, I encourage students to work together in small groups and create their own list of idioms and phrases with make and do. When I’m lucky and have time in English class, I like to ask students to come to the white board and write their collection of idioms on the board. This communicative English activity remains surprisingly popular semester after semester. Homework, of course, is asking them to choose 5-10 idioms and write complete sentences.

    So how do you teach the difference between do and make to your English students? Which expressions do you choose? How do you make a dry grammar lesson entertaining?




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  3. ‘Verbal Energy’ column quirky, insightful, fun

    January 3, 2015 by Eric

    Christian Science Monitor’s Ruth Walker spotlights English as a fascinating language

    verbal energy

    Photo Source: Christian Science Monitor
    “There is no such thing as “the Queen’s English.’ The property has gone into the hands of a joint stock company, and we own the bulk of the stock.”
    Mark Twain (1835-1910), American writer and humorist

    Facing a language that chooses “went” as the past form of “go”, many English language learners condemn English as a crazy language. Given the bizarre spellings, peculiar grammar rules, colorful idioms, and ever-expanding slang terms, it’s easy to understand this perspective. Yet English also remains a fascinating, fun language with wonderful stories hidden in plain sight.

    As you might suspect, exploring phrases, word histories, and grammar quirks is a personal pleasure. Like many other English teachers and word lovers, I often find the language provides puzzles and paradoxes. Etymology can also be fun – and sometimes even produces clarifying lessons for English students. Framing English a fascinating language also seems like a better strategy to help English students than merely dismissing the mother tongue as “crazy.”

    Over the years, I’ve learned to count on a few trusty, savvy guides like the American humorist Bill Bryson, the British linguist David Crystal, the American critic H.L. Mencken, and Ruth Walker. Who is Ruth Walker and how did she get included in such a fine list of writers? While far less famous and less significant as a popular linguist than Bryson, Crystal, and Mencken, Walker’s outstanding column Verbal Energy has become a weekly treat. She examines idiosyncrasies, pinpoints misconceptions, and explores the history of phrases and words in a breezy, yet highly informative, manner.

    Verbal Energy, also available online, gently investigates the English language. Usually focused around a simple question, the short columns offer quick overviews to interesting questions. When did lawyers start to use the word “gender” instead of “sex” in discrimination suits? Walker’s memorable column discussed “how sex became gender” in official government documents in a compelling manner. Sometimes a small linguistic change can illuminate an shift in national political consciousness. It’s an illuminating example of why language politics sometimes matters.

    I’ve also learned quite a bit of history through the column. For instance, a favorite column described the origins of country names. Another favorite column detailed prior to the Civil War, U.S. government documents almost always wrote of “The United States” as a plural noun as in “The United States are.” After the Civil War, however, “The United States is” became the default.

    Yet not all the topics are so important. Sometimes Walker gathers inspiration from license plates; other times, she addresses popular sources of confusion. Perhaps her most eye-catching summer 2014 article comes from a July 26, 2014 piece entitled “Buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo,” that highlights the flexibility of English. The range of topics makes the linguistics column more interesting.

    On those rare occasions when Walker wanders into overly-familiar debates over usage or grammar that seem exhausted, her writing flows easily with a pleasant, logical, and moderate tone. English teachers, writers, and word mavens will probably appreciate her always inquisitive and sometimes ironic style. As with so many subjects, the more you know, the more interesting the topic becomes. You see patterns, note possibilities, and learn more than trivia. English emerges, again, as a fascinating, not crazy, language.

    What are some of your favorite language columns and blogs? Why?

    Ask More. Know More. Share More.
    Create Compelling Conversations.


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  4. Ask Why Your Students Want to Learn English

    December 10, 2014 by Eric

    “Well begun is half done.”
    Ancient Greek proverb

    Sometimes we forget the most basic questions.

    What brings the students in your English class into the room? Are they fulfilling school requirements, pursuing academic achievements, or creating new possibilities? How do you motivate your ESL and EFL students to do their best from day one? Asking students for their motives, needs, and hopes creates a stronger English class.

    Many students enjoy studying English, some find English class boring, and a few students resent studying English. Therefore, we sometimes need to explore their motivations, hear their concerns and desires, and even “sell” learning English – and our own English class in our opening classes.

    Here are some simple questions that I have often asked students to ask each other during the first or second lesson. Students are encouraged to write down their partner’s responses. Sometimes I collect the student responses; sometimes I let students simply reflect on the semester’s possibilities. This engaging exercise also establishes that we will have interesting conversations in class, and their opinions count in our English class. I have used different variations of these questions with international university students, high school English language learners, community college English classes, and even adult school English programs over the years. Getting students to buy-into the advantages of improving their English and committing to working hard has remained crucial in all these diverse situations and teaching contexts.

    1. Why do you want to speak better English? Give three reasons.

    2. How can speaking better English help you?

    3. What activities or methods have you found most helpful in improving your English? Why?

    4. What is best English class that you have had? Can you tell me more about that class?


    5. What are some reasons some people dislike English class?

    6. How else could speaking fluent English change your life outside of school?

    7. Can you list three topics that you would like to discuss with your classmates this semester?
    • _____________________________________________________
    • _____________________________________________________
    • _____________________________________________________

    8. What are your strengths as an English language learner?




    9. What are some challenges that you want to work on this semester?


    10. What three things can you do this semester to improve your English?
    a) __________________________________________________________________
    b) __________________________________________________________________
    c) __________________________________________________________________

    Asking these simple conversation questions helps set an open, relaxed, and even democratic classroom. I also find their answers helpful in tweaking and modifying the planned course to better match the students who actually sit in the class. It also helps create more motivated students and autotelic (self-driven) English language learners. So far, the results have been quite positive.

    How do you start your classes? Do sometimes feel the need to “sell” your English class? How do you find out the motivates and concerns of your English students in the first week? What teaching tips can you share from your ESL classroom?

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.
    Create Compelling Conversations.


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  5. Conversation Tip #10: Know when to wrap-up

    November 22, 2014 by Eric

    Ending conversations and looking forward to new ones!

    conversation tip

    Photo Source: Pixabay
    “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

    -Walt Disney (1901-1966) American business magnate, animator, producer
    Every conversation, no matter how enjoyable, must come to an end for practical reasons. Life moves on and certain discussion topics are exhausted. Yet sometimes, it’s difficult to know when and how to wrap-up a conversation.

    Students must understand the importance of contextual clues. When conversation partners constantly check the time, tap impatiently or display preoccupation, it’s a good time to ask what’s on their mind or if they need somewhere to be. Sometimes people will continue on conversations, out of politeness, when they’re already late to their next appointment!

    It’s also worth noting that sometimes, there is simply nothing left to say. When the same sentences are repeated or people aren’t comfortable going into more detail, it is time to move onto a new subject. For instance, the question “What did you do this weekend?” can only generate so many stories and comments. After a while, it may be best to move onto something more interesting.

    Ending conversations should be viewed positively! It opens up the opportunity for future engagements and keeps the subjects fresh.

    Do your students know when to wrap-up conversations?

    Ask More. Know More. Share More.
    Create Compelling Conversations.

    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.


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  6. Conversation Tip #9: Ask questions

    November 15, 2014 by Eric

    Questions keep the conversation flowing

    conversation tip

    Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
    “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”

    -Voltaire (1694-1778) French Enlightenment Writer
    Asking questions always generates more conversation; after all, an answer always follows. As mentioned before, asking questions provides a quick way to find common interests with people. Questions like “What is your favorite restaurant?” or “Do you like action movies?” could lead to hours of discussion.

    English teachers will often find helpful to explicitly teach students to ask questions. Encouraging students to “think like a journalist” and consider the five W questions is a useful start: Who? What? Where? When? Why? Two other useful question words: How? And? These simple words can generate interesting, engaging conversations – and allow English language learners to “fake” a higher level of English comprehension than they may possess.

    Additionally, most people enjoy answering questions about themselves, so long as the questions seem appropriate. For instance, in certain countries like the United States, asking a casual acquaintance about their job is suitable. On the other hand, asking about weight and height are considered inappropriate. Knowing the boundaries of what questions to ask is an essential conversation skill–and it can take some practice for language learners.

    For instance, to play it safe, you might consider these five taboo subjects with casual acquaintances:
    1. Personal health or medical details
    2. Financial specifics, including salary
    3. Racial or ethnic identity
    4. Age or weight
    5. Religious or political affiliation

    In general, we want to encourage our students to ask questions. Sometimes we have to encourage students to ask clarifying questions in our classrooms too. If a student forgets a certain detail or wants advice, they should feel comfortable asking for the answer!

    Likewise, students should be mindful not to ask too many questions when first meeting a classmate or stranger. The conversation should not be an interview, much less an interrogation. Friendly, open questions guide the conversation, but they are just one out of many types of statements that can be made.

    What questions do you advise your ESL students ask? What conversation tips do you share with your English students?

    Ask More. Know More. Share More.
    Create Compelling Conversations.

    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.

    Photo By Ananian (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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