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

  1. Savvy Tips to Score Higher on the TOEFL iBT Speaking Section

    March 23, 2014 by Eric

    What do you do with a problem like the TOEFL iBT test?

    For worse or for better, the TOEFL test remains the standard assessment of English for international students planning to attend American colleges and universities. As a result, many international ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) students often adopt the TOEFL test scores to self-assess their own ability in English too.

    Of course, standardized exams – including the computer-based TOEFL-iBT – remain unfair to anxious students prone to extreme cases of test anxiety. It also assumes a false equivalency between responses to a computer and responses to actual, live conversations with individuals. (This difference in assessing speaking skills is why I strongly believe the IELTS remains a more authentic test of speaking skills, but the TOEFL remains far, far more popular among American universities as a measure of English language skills.)

    TOEFL Scores Matter
    Still, the imperfect TOEFL test remains part of current English learning experience for millions. An imperfect standardized test also provides more information to university admissions committees than no standardized test scores. When people have hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of applications to sift through, sometimes abstract numbers provide a reassuring sense of objective depiction of student potential. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “standardized testing is the worst possible form of applicant evaluation, except for all the rest.”

    Students, even the students that I currently teach in the United States, often seek to improve their TOEFL scores. My standard advice on the speaking section has been practice speaking on a computer, time yourself, paraphrase and don’t parrot question, listen carefully, and videotape your responses. Giving your opinion and providing a short reason in less than 30 seconds remains a practical everyday life skill, and practice can help improve TOEFL test scores too.

    Listening to a Friend – and TOEFL Expert
    Sometimes friends can help. I met Brent Warner two years ago, and we have had the opportunity to see each other at a number of CATESOL conferences. He’s become a bit of a TOEFL maven between his teaching and tutoring Japanese students for seven years for the TOEFL. He also currently works as the Academic Manager at Kaplan International in Irvine, California and deals with TOEFL headaches and desires on a regular basis. He’s one of my “go to” experts on TOEFL and edtech questions because he’s developed an expertise in an area I prefer to avoid.

    Brent is also the author of a useful primer on TOEFL called title=”How to Pass the TOEFL iBT Test: Know What to Expect to Improve Your Score”>( I asked a simple question: “What else should I recommend students do to improve their speaking scores?”

    Know the TOEFL Test: Structure Matters
    “Know the TOEFL test; structure matters”, is a quick summary of Brent’s advice. “And read my book.”

    His straightforward ebook steers away from countless practice drills. Instead, the book focuses directly on the structure of the TOEFL iBT test. As an English teacher who has never taken the test, I found it quite illuminating. Understanding that structure helps qualified students – and English teachers – save time and move through the test more efficiently and confidently.

    Brent argues that understanding the TOEFL test structure allows test takers more time to think about the content of the questions during the test rather than trying to decipher “the best way” to answer. Never forget that the TOEFL iBT remains partly a test of knowledge about the TOEFL iBT as well as English.

    Specific TIPS for TOEFL Speaking Section
    In consideration of speaking, Brent wisely emphasizes that the speaking sections of the TOEFL test remain limited at best in comparison with natural, authentic communication. Who watches the clock and talks to recorded voices on a computer and pretends this is a natural conversation? Unfortunately, the TOEFL test remains the answer.

    • “When the test gives an independent question prompt, you are expected to give an answer. While this is very common in standardized tests, the fact that there is no response may put many testers off-balance. In the real world, even if we are speaking into the screen of our phones, at the very least we can reasonably expect to get an indication that we are being listened to, and more commonly some sort of positive feedback that lets us know we are on the right track.”

    • “In integrated question prompts, testers are expected to synthesize information from a listening and a reading passage, then compare and contrast the two and summarize it all in their own words. Admittedly this is a useful skill, especially for college-bound students. In practicing for the test, however, students often feel as though it’s only practical to compare a lecture with textbook passages and they quickly lose motivation to continue. It’s important to take these skills outside of academics and show how they can be used in daily life by talking about the news, movie reviews in comparison to your own opinions, and any of the myriad ways we might need to synthesize information. Making these skills practical and applicable outside of the realm of the test is hugely important to teachers, and should be integrated into the core of the TOEFL test as well.”

    • “Speakers sometimes get so caught up with trying to give a perfect answer that they often forget there is a human being on the other end of the test. A light and breezy style focusing on being easy to understand rather than structurally perfect may provide a much welcome relief to the test grader. Remember that they may have been listening to similar answers for hours before they get to your response, so anything you can do to stand out from the crowd will only help you.”

    A Quick Primer
    I remain skeptical of the TOEFL test’s validity as a real measure of authentic English-speaking skills. However, Brent’s book demonstrates how English language learners can take back some control by deciphering the TOEFL test structure. His advice on understanding what ETS wants by their own definition of a “high quality” answer helps reduce the stress and confusion surrounding the controversial, highly influential test. Numbers do, after all, often provide precision and clarity. Warner’s ebook serves as a quick primer for TOEFL iBT test takers and English teachers working to help students improve their scores. And I would remember that practice seldom makes perfection, but it does make progress.

    Some problems, like the TOEFL iBT test, can best be handled by preparation and practice. Brent’s ebook helpful in both understanding the TOEFL and deconstructing its inner logic. I like his sensibility and trust his judgements, especially on the test’s strengths and limitations. International students facing the TOEFL iBT test might also find it a valuable resource as they seek a target TOEFL score. Reading this ebook is one way to manage the TOEFL iBT problem. You can read more on Brent’s thoughts and reviews on TOEFL resources at . I learned from it; you might too.

    Finally, let’s hope more dedicated international students and English language learners reach their target TOEFL score!

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  2. What Three Tips Would You Share with Novice ESL / EFL Teachers?

    August 15, 2013 by Eric
    What three tips would offer new a ESL/EFL teacher?

    Hall Houston, author of Provoking Thought: Memory and Thought in ELT, posed this question to several prominent English language trainers and teachers last year. Sean Banville, Russell Stannard, Chia Suan Chong, Nik Peachey, Scott Thornbury, and myself replied. (Naturally, I feel grateful to be included with these far more notable and accomplished ELT educators.) Houston placed these practical, sometimes surprising, and often illuminating responses together in the back of his latest educational book The ELT Daily Journal: Learning to Teach ESL/EFL.

    Here are my three tips for novice English teachers working with English language learners.

    1. Create Classroom Rituals – Beginnings and endings matter. Establishing clear classroom expectations and class rituals increase student comfort, establish a professional atmosphere, and improve student learning. One of my favorite classroom rituals is asking a personal question on the daily attendance sheet that re-enforces the day’s lesson, checks off a bureaucratic necessity, allows individual student expression, and builds group cohesion and student curiosity. Adding a relevant pithy quotation at the bottom adds another layer of engagement.

    2. Encourage “Good Mistakes” – Since mistakes are both inevitable and part of the learning process, encourage students to take chances, stretch their English muscles, and make “good mistakes” in a safe, tolerant space. Good mistakes are common mistakes that we can learn from so we can go on to make new, different, and better “good mistakes”. Sometimes students allow the demon of perfectionism to paralyze them, and framing errors as “good mistakes” can reduce the fear and stigma around making errors so students can learn more by doing more.

    3. Deploy YouTube (or other video channels) – The easy access to thousands of authentic materials on YouTube and other online channels makes teaching English easier and more satisfying than ever. Instead of just playing a single video clip in class, you can have high intermediate and advanced students find their own videos for homework and summarize them for classmates. “Search and share” homework assignments encourage student curiosity, develop critical thinking skills, and require students to speak as they describe and evaluate videos for classmates.

    (You can find several such worksheets that I’ve created here.)

    The ELT Daily Journal provides over a dozen similar sets of responses in the appendix. Designed for new teachers, the simple format poses a question or provides a suggestion to stimulate writing about classroom experiences. Although I’ve taught for over two decades and seldom kept a formal teaching journal, I found it a quick, satisfying read that evoked some positive and a few awkward classroom experiences. Consequently, this book serves as a quick primer on best ESL/EFL teaching practices and core ELT principles.

    This thin, practical book has been added to my ESL/EFL library and professional development workshops. I look forward to sharing the book, especially with novice English teachers. I certainly wish I had read and used this journal when I taught my first English class so many moons ago. You might find it useful too.

    We all have classroom experiences as students or teachers. What advice would you offer to new ESL/EFL teachers? Why?
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  3. Informational Interviews Help ESOL Students Succeed and Connect to Jobs

    March 1, 2013 by Eric

    “If you don’t know where you’re going, you will probably end up somewhere else.” – Dr. Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990), Canadian-American educator

    How do you find good jobs in a bad economy? What job search technique is widely taught and practiced at elite private universities, but seldom used at community colleges, adult schools, and high schools? Why do I consider informational interviews an essential skill and outstanding capstone assignment for many English classes?

    This Saturday I will again be demonstrating how ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers can add informational interviews to their curriculum and classrooms at the 2013 LA Regional CATESOL Conference.  The large conference, hosted by the USC TESOL Society, will be held on the beautiful USC campus where I also teach international students. As regular blog readers know, informational interviews allow adult, high school, and university students to develop their oral skills, expand their vocational vocabulary, and explore a potential career in a real world context. At USC, I require students to sign up for the Trojan Network, an amazing professional network of USC alumni who have offered to speak with USC students about their career paths. Of course, this network gives students far more social capital than most ESOL students. Further, I can videotape the 8-10 minute student presentations that summarize their informational interviews with classmates, and post the videos on a class website. These social and technological aspects make the informational interview assignments popular and practical. Yet even within these outstanding conditions, the informational interview assignment requires English teachers to carefully scaffold the long, multifaceted assignment into smaller parts for maximum effectiveness.

    Can ESL teachers – working with fewer social and technological resources – still make informational interviews work for the English language learners in their classes? How? I will share my observations and suggestions, based on teaching inner city high school students, directing an adult education center, and working with community college students in my presentation. I will also ask participants to identify the barriers and brainstorm together on approaches to expand the social network of immigrants and international students in Los Angeles.

    If you teach English now or hope to teach English in the future and live in the Los Angeles area, please consider joining us for this large conference on March 2. I will be giving two presentations -Informational Interviews Help ESOL Students Succeed and Connect to Jobs-  at 10:00 – and another at 1:00 titled “Flip Your Classroom with Search and Share Fluency Activities.” Both will last 45-minutes and include many reproducible handouts for English teachers.  I hope to meet some of you in person.  So far, over 350 English teachers and future English teachers have registered and the conference could easily exceed 500 English language professionals if onsite registrations matches expectations.

    The all-day professional development teacher’s conference will go from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM and offers a wide range of activities, workshops, panel discussions, and large publishers’ exhibit hall in Tudor Campus Center.  The four  different time slots of concurrent sessions and workshops allow CATESOL members to select from a rich menu of engaging alternatives. The publishers’ exhibit hall in the modern Ronald Tudor Campus Center should also attract a large audience of educators and TESOL students. Finally, the conference includes 12 poster and technology sessions, and 11 interest group/level “rap sessions” for candid discussions of professional issues facing English teachers. Members and non-members are both welcome to attend, and students enjoy a significant discount on the conference cost of $65.  For more information, including a 52-page conference program with detailed descriptions of events, go to

    For readers unable to attend, I will be posting some materials online later. Meanwhile, you can explore this list of resources on informational interviews that can be used to introduce and deploy informational interviews.  KQED, the public radio and television station in San Francisco, has produced an outstanding collection of nine workplace videoclips for adult ESL and community college students called Work Voices. The short clips profile immigrant workers in a wide variety of work environments such as hospitals, restaurants, health clinics, salons, and colleges. This accessible series illuminates how informational interviews can be used beyond elite private universities – and how students already know people they can interview.

    Both the UCLA Career Center and University of Berkeley promote informational interviews for their students. I’m particularly fond of the concise, snappy summary on Explore Careers page from the UCLA Career Center – even if UCLA and USC remain friendly cross town rivals.  You can also use the video Conducting an Informational Interview to establish the fundamentals of conducting an informational interview for adult ESL and community college ESL students. Finally, the aptly titled Five Tips for Non-Awkward Informational Interview addresses some of the hesitations of older students in a casual, friendly style. English teachers have to, in many cases, encourage and cajole slightly timid students beyond their limited experiences to go on informational interviews.

    Naturally, many students hope to find job leads from their informational interviews even if the rules of the game prohibit asking for a job. While there’s an argument for assigning the informational interview before job interviews, I recommend using mock job interviews first because students are both more familiar with the task and it requires less independence.  (Here’s the chapter of potential job interview questions from Compelling Conversations that I created for community college, adult education, and university students.) Yet pushing students to call strangers, set up an informational interview, and summarize their conversation makes this off-campus assignment both practical and vital. From my perspective, the informational interview remains the almost perfect capstone assignment because it verifies that students are ready to be act independently and develop their workplace skills- in English – and move toward their professional ambitions.

    Bottomline: Informational interviews really do help ESL students succeed and connect to jobs.

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  4. Homophones Can Haunt: A Minor Mistake in Miner Valley

    December 31, 2012 by Eric

    English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. The common “gap” between how a word is spelled and how it sounds is one challenge. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones, different words with the same sound. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number 2 from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.

    A “good mistake” made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized this obvious point. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Somoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists.  The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley” so the passenger and navigator asked Siri for directions. Siri, the amazing iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes,  but emphasizes the importance of context in understanding everyday conversations. Few native English speakers will misunderstand the noun “miner” , the hard working people who hunt for gold, silver, or coal for a living,  with the important adjective “minor” meaning small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can be confusing and colorful. Both “miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” are the names of two fine wineries in the area. (Do they whine about each other’s wine? I don’t know, but that pun came to mind.)

    Of course, English language learners  make these sort of good mistakes all the time.  While we might seldom confuse “by” the bank for “buy” the bank,  it’s easy to confuse “realize” for “real lies”.  Sometimes our students complain, or whine, about our how confusing English is for them to master. And if they “eat” their final syllables like “s” or “r”, even attentive listeners can find themselves confused too. Did the ESL student mean “mine”, “mines”, “mind”, or “miner”?  We must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better understand what our students want to say. If the context is unclear or vague, we might not know if the speaker is referring to a miner or minor problem? Many comedians, of course, delight in these situations, but homophones can haunt English students. English teachers and English tutors can turn these common good mistakes into teachable moments and practical lessons in speaking skills. Yet we have to admit English is a crazy language.

    If you’re interested in learning more about homophones, you might enjoy reading Wikipedia’s informative article on homophones or reviewing an impressive list of  many confusing homophones/homonyms.  I enjoyed reading both.

    Bottom line: English teachers need to both sympathize with the struggles of English language learners and teach homonyms in our ESL and EFL classes.


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  5. Do Our Students Need to Swim in English or Pass Grammar Tests?

    October 26, 2012 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Do our students need to swim in English? Or do they need to focus on avoiding  minor grammar mistakes? Should we encourage our students to speak as much English as possible? Or should we paralyze our students with exaggerated fears?

    Okay, these are rhetorical questions. Yet our ESL students – even advanced ESL students – don’t have to be perfect; they have to be understood. Alas, many – far too many – English classrooms still focus far more on grammar than authentic communication skills. Our students need to speak clear, comprehensible English.  Practical knowledge, not abstract theory, should be the focus of our English classes.  English remains a tool and just a vital tool for our students to reach their life goals in the United States, Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom. Here is a short list of important questions for our English language learners.

    • Can they order food in a nice restaurant?
    • Can students fill in government forms?
    • Can they understand classified ads – online or in a paper?
    • Can they negotiate prices at a yard sale?
    • Do they understand a frontpage newspaper article?
    • Are ELLs able to confirm information?
    • Can adult students make clear recommendations?
    • Can ESL students share personal experiences?
    • Do students feel comfortable participating in classroom discussions?
    • Can they give a competent classroom presentation to fellow students – or at work?
    • Can they effectively interview for an appropriate job?
    • Do they feel comfortable at social events with native English speakers?
    • Can they, in short, swim in English?

    If people want to communicate, meaning matters most. In other words, our students don’t need to speak perfect English with zero grammar errors anywhere outside of some English classrooms. Sometime English teachers, perhaps in a bid to help students ace their TOEFL scores, exaggerate grammar points that have little or no practical importance in daily life.  Let’s look at some common language errors that our students make, and move the discussion outside of our ESL classrooms.

    • Will the absence of articles (a, an, the) prevent a student from buying something?
    • Will a confusion of “much” and “many” prevent someone from receiving assistance?
    • How crucial is subject-verb agreement in daily conversations?

    Grammar fundamentalists hate hearing the simple truth. These errors of limited significance for most adult English language learners outside the English classroom and white collar professions. Our students need to swim in English more than they need to pass grammar tests.

    Further,  the focus on accurate grammar and the expectation of “correct” English can cause excessive self-consciousness. In fact, I’ve worked with many English language learners who use severe, often extreme negative language to describe quite competent and sometimes strong presentations in adult education, community college, and university courses. This severe self-criticism places huge barriers on many English language learners. Worse, this perfectionism ironically limits their willingness to engage with the broader English speaking society. That’s why I often tell high intermediate and advanced students, who are often quite ambitious and hard on themselves, to “kill the perfectionist demon”. During the first few weeks of class, I usually emphasize this point with a simple “swim in English” pitch.

    “You don’t have to conquer English; you just have to swim in it everyday. Attentively listen to authentic English. Listen to podcasts and the radio. Create small conversations. Just ask a question. Read something in English everyday. Follow your interests in English. Allow yourself to be yourself in English. Jump into the language, and do your best. Start swimming in English. Our class is a safe place to expand your English skills, and learn by doing. I want to see significant, meaningful, and verifiable progress. I’m not interested in perfection. We want significant progress. Let’s get going and make some good mistakes together. Let’s swim in English, and see how far you can swim this semester.”

    Our ESL students don’t have to be speak perfect; they have to be understood by listeners. They have to be functional in English. They have to perform particular language tasks. They have to speak English inside and outside the class, and successfully convey their ideas.  Most English language learners need practice speaking, and positive social experiences in English. They need more conversation opportunities, and fewer grammar lessons. In short, our English students have to swim in English; they don’t have to swim across the English Channel.

    So why don’t we give our students what they need to survive – and often thrive – in more English classes? Let’s help them swim – and speak – in English.

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  6. Don’t Let Perfectionism Silence You!

    August 27, 2012 by Eric

    Some English students make learning English even more difficult by expecting themselves to speak “perfect”, with “no accent” just like ” a real native English speaker.” May I suggest that this noble goal is both very difficult to achieve – especially for adults – and often even unwise.

    First, what is perfect American pronunciation? People across the country – Boston, New York, Minnosota, Atlanta, and California – all have slightly different pronunciation patterns. So which standards are we using? (For a more global perspective, check out the outstanding website Sound Comparisons for English accents around the world.)

    Let me emphasize this point for ESL students who remain pronunciation perfectionists. How many Americans living in California today actually fit that stereotype? When I walk down the Santa Monica Promenade or visit Venice Beach, I can hear an astonishing range of accents (and languages). So what’s wrong with having an accent, anyway? Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks with an accent – and he’s been extraordinarily successful as a film star and a popular political leader. (Schwarzenegger served two terms as California’s Governor.)

    A better goal is to speak English in a clear, natural way, so that listeners will understand your words and ideas. Remember: speakers of English have many different accents, especially in the United States. Therefore, focus more on clear, natural speech, rather than on achieving some perfect pronunciation. Being understood by your listeners is what matters most. Whether at school or work, people want to hear you and will make a reasonable effort to understand your words and thoughts. You also want your listeners to understand you when you speak English.

    So here are a few practical suggestions to improve your English pronunciation:

    • Open the mouth a little wider to make vowel sounds.
    • Speak more slowly.
    • Practice saying the last sounds in words, such as lunch, gives, and locked.

    You want to be clear and comprehensible, not perfect in your pronunciation.

    Of course, you also want to understand other English speakers too. What can you do if you don’t understand someone’s speech?  You can also always ask someone to repeat any word or phrase that you do not understand. Sometimes outside noises make it difficult to hear; sometimes people speak faster than we would like, and sometimes we just get a bit confused. Whatever the reason, it’s important to let a speaker know when you have lost track of their words.

    Many native English speakers ask conversation partners to clarify and repeat words or sentence. Don’t be shy. You can ask someone to repeat a phrase whenever they do not understand something. Try using these helpful phrases:

    • Would you say that again, please?                                    • Could you repeat that?
    • Please speak more slowly.                                                     • Pardon me?
    • Sorry, I didn’t hear you.                                                         • I didn’t catch your meaning.
    • Could you repeat that?                                                             • I’m lost. What do you mean?
    • I’m confused. What did you say?                                          • Could you clarify that?

    Almost everyone will politely respond, speak slower, and try to use simpler words so you can more easily follow the conversation. So give yourself permission to speak more English and don’t let perfectionism silence you.


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