Compelling Conversations logo

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

  1. 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.

    Ask More. Know More. Share More.

    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (3)

  2. Why We Wrote Compelling American Conversations for Intermediate American English Language Learners

    July 18, 2012 by Eric

    “America needs new immigrants to love and cherish it.”

    - Eric Hoffer (1902-1983), American writer and longshoreman

    Compelling American Conversations: Questions and Quotations for intermediate American English language learners explicitly emphasizes American English, speaking skills, and democratic values.

    The primary audience remains newcomers to the United States, recent and not-so-recent immigrants, who may be studying at an American high school, adult school, community college, or university. Focused on the aspirations – and needs – of intermediate English language learners, our new book shows a variety of ways to create and sustain authentic conversations with a developing English vocabulary.  Compelling American Conversations challenges intermediate English language learners to reflect and speak about their lives and experiences on 15 topics in class and in English.  Knowing English should include the ability to speak English.

    See sample chapters from Compelling American Conversations here.

    Therefore, we deliberately chose to emphasize speaking skills and fluency in Compelling American Conversations. Each chapter includes:

    • Two sets of partner interview questions on each topic
    • Discussion activities to explore, explain, and clarify
    • Search and share online activities where students select materials on specific topics, summarize and evaluate the video/article, and introduce to small groups of classmates.

    We also include academic vocabulary and more philosophical questions because American immigrants deserve the same level of sophisticated materials which international English as Foreign Language (EFL) students enjoy in the stronger international high schools.

    • Focused vocabulary for both practical and academic purposes
    • Paraphrasing American proverbs – and others from around the world
    • “Agree/Disagree and explain” reaction exercises to classic and modern quotations often used to prepare for TOEFL and IELTS exam

    From our perspective, there is something profoundly disturbing in dumbing down of curriculum materials for English language learners in the United States. Compelling American Conversations seeks to introduce higher expectations for verbal skills and more authentic materials and relevant topics to the intermediate ELL and ESL classrooms. Students should be able to not only listen and understand, but speak and be understood.

    Finally, the authors hope American English language learners begin asking more questions in classes, speak more in their workplaces, and create their own compelling American conversations – outside ESL classrooms.

    See sample chapters from Compelling American Conversations here.

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.



    Comments (2)

  3. More Links for ESL Teachers About Informational Interviews

    June 21, 2011 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    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 six years of assigning both undergraduate native speakers and international graduate students at the University of Southern California to conduct informational interviews, this presentation demonstrated how this one presentation 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 oral presentation. It’s a challenging, satisfying, and popular assignment in my oral skills classes.

    A small vocational college in Los Angeles, CES College, asked me to share the exercise with their faculty last week.  Would middle-aged immigrants in blue collar jobs find this exercise worthwhile? I’m quite confident that immigrants would learn from all steps of the exercise, and expanding their social network beyond relatives and friends remains essential. Mechanics can interview mechanics and car repair show owners, and construction workers can interview construction workers – or managers. The proof, as the cliche goes, will be in the pudding and let’s see what happens with their students in the next six months.

    Would this exercise work in an EFL context? I’m not sure. 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.

    I do know, however, that many American colleges and graduate programs train their students to go on informational interviews to gain more detailed knowledge of their prospective careers. As in so many other areas of American life, white collar professionals have far greater access to both more information and stronger personal networks. This assignment brings a best practice outside of the elite circles.

    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 found last night as I prepared my presentation. 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.

    Case University, also recommends their undergraduate students go on informational interviews during their junior and senior years.

    Cornell University Law School recommends informational interviews too.

    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.

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


    Comments (7)

  4. An ESL Author Looks at an ESL website with New Eyes

    January 8, 2011 by Eric

    Sometimes we don’t see what is in front of our eyes.

    Today I learned a bit more about my own website from a fellow English teacher and friendly fan.

    A gentleman from Tennessee called my home, thanked me for the sample conversation materials, and asked some insightful questions about the updated Compelling Conversations website. I appreciate his call – and his giving a practical suggestion on how to improve the site for adult educators by adding clearer language. The influx of new immigrants, mostly Spanish speaking with limited formal education, can be seen across the United States. As you might expect, many churches are providing many education and literacy programs for new immigrants in the South – often on a shoe string budget.  I’m glad that the free reproducible worksheets can be of some assistance.

    Second, the gentleman’s call encouraged me to take a longer look at my own website through new eyes. Designed more for English teachers than English language learners, the revised site does include an entire section for students. The materials, however, are probably too hard for most English students to understand since they are written for high intermediate and advanced ESL students.

    Fortunately, there are also  rough Google translations for the Compelling Conversations website now for speakers of  46 languages. The long list goes beyond the usual suspects (Chinese, French, German, Korean, Spanish) to cover tongues ranging  from Albanian and Arabic to Vietnamese and Yiddish! That’s sort of amazing – even if the computer translations remain imperfect and contain many errors. Consider me jealous of my computer’s language skills! Wouldn’t it be great to just know 10 words in 46 languages?

    Perhaps in the future. For now, I’m grateful for Google translations – and dedicated English teachers who share their experiences about my small, evolving website and niche conversation textbook.  Maybe it is silly, but I still get a kick when – like today – an adult education teacher tells me about how their students enjoy the book – even when it is a bit difficult.

    So please feel free to share your experiences, positive or negative, because we are learn from each other. As the cliche goes, “everyone is a student; everyone is a teacher.”  Today I learned quite a bit about my own website, its strengths and flaws. Have you visited the revised website yet? What worked? What could be improved? Do you have some suggestions for the next version?

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.



    Comments (2)

  5. Dwell in Possibility: Discussing Books Enlivens ESL Classes

    December 15, 2010 by Eric

    “A word is dead when it is said, some say.
    I say it just begins to live that day.”

    Emily Dickinson

    Cheap pleasures can sometime be the most satisfying.

    Reading, an activity that often costs nothing, falls into that category. Reading provides many pleasures and many insights. So does talking about reading.

    Following a December ritual, I’ve been reviewing the year and find many reasons for satisfaction. Co-writing a monthly column called “Instant Conversation Activity”  in the newspaper Easy English Times makes the list for the third straight year. Each monthly newspaper column in the Easy English Times, modifies and expands a thematic chapter from Compelling Conversations, an advanced ESL textbook, for lower level English language learners. The August issue, for example, talked about watching television and favorite programs; the November 2010 issue celebrated the American tradition of choosing leaders in elections. (Immigrants, refugees, new citizens, and potential citizens often appreciate voting while too many American citizens fall into apathy.) It’s an honor to have the lessons used in ESL, EL/Civics, and literacy classes.

    In reviewing the 2010 clips, however, my favorite column this year remains “Reading Pleasures and Tastes.
    Reading can be a great – and overlooked – pleasure. Reading allows us to imagine life in distant lands and times – and better understand our own lives and climates. It broadens our imagination, highlights absurd situations, shows new possibilities, and can deepen our sympathy. Since urban Californian classrooms often resemble a mini-United Nations, reading provides a passport to better understand our classmates and our ever-changing world. .

    Yet too few American adults – including adult education students – allow themselves the pleasure of reading books and newspapers in English. We can see and hear on adult school campuses how the inability to read causes real problems. We know the many studies that document the links between illiteracy, poverty, and criminal activity. One reason might be that reading builds empathy and instills information. Reading can also provide solace, inspiration, and perspective. Celebrating the pleasure and power of reading to the Easy English Times column audience, including adult immigrants, GED students and some prisoners, seems appropriate. Perhaps it could have been called “Three Cheers for Reading – Even if Life is Hard.”

    Yet I also like the Reading Pleasures column because discussing books has created some of my most poignant classroom moments. During a decade of teaching advanced adult ESL, we often read short stories, memorized proverbs, and wrote about living in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Many ESL students also demonstrated their passion for literature. A Polish student sought help translating romantic poems, a Mexican immigrant constantly recited lines from Cervantes, and an Iranian woman journalist discussed her fear of reading banned books – even while in the United States.. Reading matters and transcends borders.

    Let me give another example from a global classroom with a dozen or so different best languages. Each evening we would have a “brave volunteer” give a short oral presentation at 8:30 as a closing activity.  I wanted everyone to be a volunteer, but I left the choice of presenting to students. Some students introduced their hometowns, a few  gave product reviews, and many recommended movies. Topics and styles varied.

    One night an older Korean woman gave an eloquent, moving book review of To Kill A Mockingbird that combined personal biography and literary criticism. Chloe, not her real name, began smiling because she had just finished rereading her favorite book in its original language – English. She joked about how long it took, but she had patience. Chloe went on to confess that she often had racist feelings like some ugly characters in the novel. “But I learned from the noble character too”. Chloe stated that living in Santa Monica and studying English she had learned to overcome racism. Her daughter was going to marry a non-Korean – something once unthinkable. Then, returning to the novel, she concluded by quoting her favorite character. “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks. ” Her daughter visited our class that night, and cried. She was not alone. Powerful. Poignant. Unforgettable.

    Reading remains a great pleasure and a helpful guide. Literature can also enliven our ESL classrooms, and discussing our favorite books opens up new possibilities. The humanities should be for everyone – including English language learners. Let us, as Emily Dickinson advised, “dwell in possibility” and bring more literature into our English classrooms.

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


    Comments (2)

  6. How do you teach about immigration issues?

    July 28, 2010 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Millions of people, around the world, have chosen – or been forced – to leave the nation where they were born. Immigration has become more popular – partly due to modern technologies like planes, trains, and cars – than ever before in human history.

    Immigration remains a vital, if controversial, topic. 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? How have immigration laws changed over time in your country? What, by the way, do you consider “your” country? Do you think someone can be a loyal citizen to more than one country? How?

    As today’s federal court decision in Arizona shows, the debate over illegal immigration remains alive, often hot, and frequently ugly in the United States. 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.

    Teaching Tolerance, an exceptional educational non-profit that provides many free resources to American teachers, is asking a simple question this week. How do you teach about immigration issues? Join the discussion here.

    Context, as ever, remains crucial. Teaching about immigration issues is far easier in some contexts – such as an intensive English language program – than in other contexts. 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.

    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?

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


    Comments (5)