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

  1. How do you teach the difference between “a” and “the” during conversation class?

    July 20, 2014 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Helping English language learners distinguish articles remains important in advanced ESL and English conversation classes

    “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”

    ―Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) Dutch painter

    Does it make sense to emphasize the difference between articles (a, an, the) in an English conversation class? Perhaps. Context matters.

    Conversation class should encourage English students to express their ideas, practice familiar words and syntax and develop greater confidence in effectively communicating in English. In this regard, content remains king. Given how little most of our ESL students speak English outside of classes, we as teachers need to provide many speaking opportunities for them to develop greater fluency.

    Sometimes there is tension between teaching grammar and encouraging students to speak. If we monitor and correct each and every grammar error, many ESL students may feel intimidated or discouraged. Some will choose to remain silent or reduce their participation. English teachers working in many Asian classrooms have often experienced students embracing this face-saving technique. Therefore, in a conversation class, I usually tilt much more toward fluency than grammatical accuracy.


    I generally prefer indirect correction of student errors during conversation class. I often circle around a class, listen in, join small discussion groups and make a few notes. If I hear some grammatical error, I usually demonstrate correct use of language – but without explicitly or publicly correcting the student. These “good mistakes” provide authentic examples that all students can benefit from reviewing.

    This indirect correction – which models the correct syntax – seems especially important when teaching adult students with limited academic backgrounds. I prefer encouraging these sometimes reluctant, shy or insecure students rather than insisting on perfect grammar.


    Yet article errors matter in English, and often convey significant information. Just as some languages divide nouns or adjectives into masculine and feminine, English highlights the difference between a definite (or known) member of a group and an indefinite (or unknown) member of a group. Article errors are also very common among English language learners– both international graduate students and wealthy immigrants who have lived in the United States for 20 years.

    So how do you teach the difference between “a” and “the” in a conversation class? After recording and writing down student errors I overhear during conversation lessons, I tend to pick one “good mistake” and give several examples when the class comes back for a general discussion. It is here, more for college students and future college students, that I remind students of the differences between articles “a”, “an” and “the”. Because I teach in the United States, I often pick examples from current events to make the general grammar point before focusing on the precise errors made in class.

    One example that I often use comes from the on-going political chaos (with frequent bombings) following the second American invasion of Iraq. Some Iraqi citizens believe Islam be a source – one of many sources – for Iraq’s laws and constitution. Other Iraqi citizens believe Islam should it be the one and only source for Iraq’s laws and constitution. Another group of Iraqi citizens, and apparently a small minority, believe Islam should play no official role in Iraq’s laws and constitution. Likewise, some Iraqi believe there should be a single country called Iraq where the national government rules while some favor greater autonomy for different provinces or breaking the nation up. This explanation helps students understand the importance of and distinctions between “a” and “the,” connect a grammar lesson to current events, and provides memorable examples.

    Finally, I’m also far more likely to spend precious class time on this advanced grammar point with current college students or academic ESL classes than with typical adult education or community college classes. Students planning to take standardized exams like the TOEFL or TOEIC have far more need for this type of focused attention on grammar. Tailor my approach to error correction, in both conversation and writing classes, to student needs seems natural and sensible. Minimum wage workers, street vendors, and elderly immigrants learning English in their spare time have less immediate need for extended grammar points in a conversation class. They need to focus more on simply getting their ideas across, and often need more encouragement. On the other hand, international graduate students planning to present at a professional conference face far higher professional expectations for their speaking skills in English.

    Context, as so often in teaching English, matters.

    Do you teach articles in your English class? How do you handle student errors during speaking exercises?

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  2. Easy English Times newspaper remains a great resource

    July 16, 2014 by Eric

    Screen Shot 2014-07-05 at 1.11.47 PM

    Source: Easy English Times

    ESL students can read news, stories and Compelling Conversations

    “Newspapers always excite curiosity. No one ever puts one down without the feeling of disappointment.”

    ―Charles Lamb (1775-1834) English writer

    There’s no denying the value of an engaging newspaper: it keeps us connected to important events and people’s stories, with additional room for various graphics and activities. The Easy English Times, edited by Lorraine Ruston and published by Betty Malmgren, has been circulating in adult literacy programs, college classes, libraries and families since 1996 when it first began printing.

    The Easy English Times features eight pages of news stories, reader contributions and, my personal favorite–a Compelling Conversations excerpt and activity. In the June 2014 issue, my lesson on American holidays is featured on page 6, followed by a passage from Toni Aberson’s It’s a Breeze. In this way, The Easy English Times lets students practice not only their reading, but also their grammar and speaking through completion of the Compelling Conversations activities. As a whole, it very much does what regular newspapers should do–educate and enlighten. More advanced students may begin reading papers like the New York Times, but for the beginning and intermediate learners, the Easy English Times is a great starting place.


    Though spotlighting only a select few topics of exceptional interest for immigrants and adult education students, the Easy English Times provides a bridge for students who aspire to “graduate” to community newspapers, as the website says. The purpose introduces students to the world of newspapers, and not to only teach current events. The Easy English Times also features first-person stories by readers that share often poignant stories of significant successes their daily lives. We could call it the “Reader’s Digest” for English language learners living in the United States.

    As an Easy English Times columnist of the “Instant Activity – Conversation” for over three years, I’m naturally biased. However, I’ve been using the paper since I first discovered it at a CATESOL conference, many moons ago. If you haven’t had a chance to see a copy, do yourself a favor and get a free sample from the homepage and check out my side page here. If you find that your students enjoy the mix of current events, personal stories from readers and the classroom activities, then perhaps you’ll consider ordering for the year. From my point of view as a former director of an adult education program and long-time community college instructor, it’s a wise investment if you teach adult learners whether in a church, community college, vocational center or literacy program.

    How do you encourage your beginning and intermediate ESL students to read newspapers?

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  3. James T. Keating’s “Writing Modern English” tackles the idiomatic, confusing and wrong

    by Eric

    Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 10.38.48 AM

    Source: Japanese Amazon

    Japanese English Learners and many English teachers can greatly benefit from this logical guide to clear, modern writing

    “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

    –Mark Twain (1835-1910) American author and humorist

    How do you know if you’re doing “well” or if you’re doing “good?” What is the difference between “persons” and “people” and when is it appropriate to say “hope for” instead of “hope to?” These sorts of questions often puzzle ESL students and teachers alike because there is often not a straight answer, and when there is, there is usually an exception to the rule. James T. Keating, an editor of 25 years and a friend of mine, clarifies and illuminates these minute yet crucial differences in his Japanese Amazon No. 1 bestseller, “Writing Modern English.” Published in 2008, this is the second version of Keating’s book, which originally came out in 2000, and fills a vital niche for international students and professionals seeking clarity and precision in their English language writings.

    The pages, filled with common words and phrases that cause headaches in many ESL classrooms, use sentences, labeled “Weak” and “Better” to instruct on what is idiomatically the most correct. This approach presents an effective, strong method of teaching that improves English skills without being overly negative. It also draws attention to the fact that many seemingly grammatical or logical expressions are in fact, unused or incorrect.

    Keating’s book demonstrates how to use clear and simple language. He highlights five key techniques:

    1. Identify subjects quickly
    2. Use strong, active verbs
    3. Use precise pronouns
    4. Eliminate vagueness
    5. Join words, sentences and paragraphs to create logical relations


    What’s also unique are the chapter divisions–Keating first begins with what he calls “Avoidables,” or easy to understand and translate words, like “communicate” that should be “avoided” in certain contexts. For example, Keating points out that saying “I will communicate with you” is unnecessary when “I will call you” will suffice.

    Other chapters include “Cloudy Words,” “Confusables,” “Copycats” and “Dispensables”–all following the same alphabetical format. Though the book excels in pinpointing cases that even manage to baffle many native English speakers, some of whom, for example, cannot always differentiate “personnel” and “personal,” it may suffer from this particular organization. Perhaps frequency or difficulty of concept would have ultimately been a more helpful way to arrange the entries.


    Keating’s intended audience were the English-learning Japanese, but many English students, both ESL and non-ESL, could benefit from the examples and explanations found within this book. As somebody who does not speak Japanese yet, my comprehension was limited to the English language sections. I assume the Japanese translations match the precision found throughout the book. Several English teachers, particularly ESL teachers and sometimes inexperienced EFL teachers, could benefit from both this primer on best modern writing. Therefore, I will share some of Keating’s examples in my own classroom for international graduate students this fall. I’ve also encouraged the author to consider writing an updated revised version for international business English students.


    Accuracy, brevity and clarity remain under-appreciated writing virtue in the academic, business and technical fields. This book provides practical guidance in demystifying writing in a first, second or third language. The clean, concise style also reflects a distinctly American aesthetic that has often become an international expectation. This fine writing style book certainly deserves a place for English teachers and writings working with Japanese English language learners–to find out more, visit his website here. I feel fortunate to have the primer on my bookshelf. Bravo, James.

    How do you encourage your students to write modern English? Can you share any favorite resources for better writing and sharper thinking?

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  4. McREL standards provide universal guide for teachers

    July 14, 2014 by Eric

    Foreign language classrooms could benefit from McREL standards

    “You are never too old to set a new goal or to dream a new dream.”

    ―C.S. Lewis (1889-1936) British author

    While conducting research for a review on Journeys In Film, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching social study through film, I came across the Mid-Continental Research for Education and Learning (McREL) standards.

    For teachers, whether affiliated with an institution or not, the McREL standards for foreign language can be a great guide to keep students on track. The five broad standards found on the main site can be required of learners of any language. I personally will use the pragmatic and universal standards in some form in my classrooms at USC next year for my advanced oral skills courses.

    Here’s a snapshot of the standards that can be used to evaluate a student’s proficiency in a foreign language:

    1. Uses the target language to engage in conversations, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions and information

    2. Understands and interprets written and spoken language on diverse topics from diverse media

    3. Presents information, concepts, and ideas to an audience of listeners or readers on a variety of topics

    4. Understands traditional ideas and perspectives, institutions, professions, literary and artistic expressions, and other components of the target culture

    5. Understands that different languages use different patterns to communicate and applies this knowledge to the target and native languages

    By the way, McREL International describes itself as “a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan education research and development corporation”. Founded in 1996, they created these international organization standards to nudge global education upwards. Curious, dedicated global educators can check out the standards and topics here and for more specific outlines, and follow the links.

    Will the McREL standards be in your classroom next year?

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  5. How Do You Teach the Difference Between “Make” and “Do” in Your English Classrooms?

    by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Distinguishing the difference between make and do in English classrooms

    “Do all you can to make your dreams come true.”

    ―Joel Osteen (1960- ) American preacher

    How do you teach the difference between “make” and “do” in your English classrooms?

    What do you do? What do you make? What’s the difference, anyway, between “make” and “do”?
    These simple words cause lots of confusion for English language learners. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time teaching a very wide range of ESL classes this particular distinction. Many ESL students struggle with “make” and “do” – from advanced adult education and community college students to intermediate English students in summer courses and regular university courses. In some languages, “make” and “do” are sometimes assigned the same verb–for example, “hacer” in Spanish takes on both meanings. The large number of idioms involving these two words further complicates the problem.
    Here is a quick guide that helps clarify the issue.

    Look at some common expressions with “do”:
    Do the dishes.
    Do some chores.
    Do your work.
    Do exercises.
    Do your best.
    Do it over.
    Do the report.

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

    Now, take a look at some expressions with “make”:
    Please make time.
    You make dinner.
    You make drawings.
    You make decisions.
    You make plans.
    Your make reservations.
    You make money.
    You make friends.

    Make is used to describe a creative activity or something you choose to do. Something is usually produced or formed in the process. You choose, for instance, to make plans, make friends, and make decisions. You have choices.

    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 chore. But cleaning the table, and cleaning the dishes are just chores so we say “do the table” and “do the dishes.” In these examples, nothing is generated in the process. That’s also why Americans say “make money” instead of “do money.” Making money means generating revenue, and therefore, something has been created.

    Idioms, of course, are often cultural and therefore sometimes less than completely logical. Sometimes Americans will use the verb make in a way that might seem strange, but I urge immigrants and international students to “make a decision,” “do your best” and practice using practical workplace idioms using make and do.

    Finally, I encourage students to work together in small groups and create their own list of idioms with make and do. When I’m lucky and have time, I like to ask students to come to the white board and write their collection of idioms on the board. 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?

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  6. English as a lingua franca unifies people

    July 13, 2014 by Eric

    Emergence of ELF unites people, brings praise, and generates discussion on English student needs

    “I’m a great believer that any tool that enhances communication has profound effects in terms of how people can learn from each other, and how they can achieve the kind of freedoms that they’re interested in.”

    ―Bill Gates (1955- ) American business magnate, philanthropist

    As more people learn English, using English as a lingua franca (ELF) has become increasingly popular. According to some estimates, the number of English language learners now outnumbers the number of native English speakers by 2-1. I recently heard a prediction at a Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) convention that China will have more fluent English speakers by 2030 than the United States.

    This bold prediction about the spread of English – and the number of “fluent English speakers” illustrates the appeal of the ELF argument. What level of English do these English language learners possess? How strong are their speaking and writing skills? Can they convey their ideas, emotions, and beliefs to other English speakers and listeners?

    ELF interactions “concentrate on function rather than form,” according to Wikipedia, and therefore do not emphasize correctness. For instance, saying “she write books” rather than “she writes books” works because the meaning is clear for many casual spoken interactions. Yet, clearly, the grammar remains imperfect and non-traditional. Many linguists note the prevalence of these conversations and withhold judgment about the “correctness” of this language. Consequently, ELF can be described as “airport English” or “international entry level.” Cosmopolitan cities – across the globe – have thousands of these daily discussions.

    Within limited contexts and situations, this “airport English” or “taxi-driver talk” clearly works.

    From my perspective, meaning matters most, and simple communication trumps perfect grammar in many contexts. ELF makes it possible for a Dutch student to ask for directions in Portugal, or for a Californian to bargain at a marketplace in Indonesia. This trend of speaking imperfect English has become a wonderful, global, and daily occurrence.

    Is ELF good enough? Critics naturally fear the “degradation” of language. English – like any other living language – does change, but must we confuse “description” with

    I previously reviewed Robert McCrum’s Globish: , a popular primer on the growing importance of English as the global tongue of choice. It’s clear that the language once intimately linked to the British empire has become the shared property of professionals around the world.

    For instance, the scientists at European Council for Nuclear Research primarily collaborate with colleagues in English–despite originating from dozens of countries where English is not the native language. It demonstrates that while ELF creates a universal feel to conversations, it is important that students continue learning further and strengthening their grasp on the English language to communicate on a more meaningful, complex level.

    Do you think of English as a lingua franca? How do you see this trend in your teaching? How do you challenge your students to move beyond ELF and embrace higher, more academic standards for their English?

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