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

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

    January 3, 2015 by Eric
    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?

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  2. Ask Why Your Students Want to Learn English

    December 10, 2014 by Eric
    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.
    a)__________________________________________________________
    b)__________________________________________________________
    c)__________________________________________________________

    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?

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

    November 22, 2014 by Eric
    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?

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    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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  4. Conversation Tip #9: Ask questions

    November 15, 2014 by Eric
    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?

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    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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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  5. Conversation Tip #8: Engage in the surrounding world!

    November 8, 2014 by Eric
    Eric

    Immersion in literature, current events, arts stimulates conversation

    conversation tips

    Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

    “When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”

    -Walt Disney (1901-1966) American business magnate, animator

    Are your students sometimes unsure of what to talk about? Perhaps they could bring up this morning’s headlines, last week’s bestseller or Friday’s new film release. Students engaged with the surrounding world equip themselves with conversation topics automatically. After all, conversations are learning experiences–why not encourage students to enhance what they can teach others?

    Keeping aware improves the possibility of connecting with someone else. For instance, when everyone at the office wants to discuss President Obama’s latest press statement, those who haven’t seen it will have less to contribute. Reading new books, visiting new art displays and seeing new films further shapes opinions. If students don’t want to engage with the surrounding world, how can they possibly want to engage with others who do?

    What do your students like to do? How do they share their passions in their conversations?

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    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. In the fall of 2014, the Compelling Conversations blog published her top 10 tips to create compelling conversations outside of the English classroom.

    Photo By Juanedc from Zaragoza, España [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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  6. Conversation Tip #7: Appreciate silence

    November 1, 2014 by Eric
    Eric

    Accept–and enjoy–the inevitability of silence!

    “Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom.”

    -Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English philosopher

    Many Americans feel uncomfortable with silence, even on crowded elevators or standing in lines with strangers. Some Americans also feel uncomfortable with pauses or periods of silence in conversations.

    Pauses in conversation occur frequently, and often naturally. When first meeting new people, students may feel inclined to always fill up the conversation. Sometimes these causal chit-chats fill the space with a smile and good feelings. Though these attempts have good intentions, silence should also not be feared! Silence is sometimes natural. Silence can be a natural part of conversation, letting the speakers take a break and reflect. No one expects the conversation to flow endlessly–nor would this necessarily be desired!

    When the conversation stops at a natural part, students can take the time to reflect on whether to add on to what has been said, transition into a new topic or let the other person decide the flow of conversation. The length of a pause also matters. If there seems to be nothing left to say, a question functions as a smooth transition–as long as it is somewhat relevant and within the boundaries of the relationship! And sometimes silence indicates it’s time to close the conversation

    How do your students feel about silence in conversation? How do you feel about pauses and some silence in daily conversations?

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    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. In the fall of 2014, the Compelling Conversations blog published her top 10 tips to create compelling conversations outside of the English classroom.

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