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

  1. Teachers and Tutors Should Know About Compelling Conversations

    July 26, 2014 by User ImageEric Roth
    Eric Roth

    English teacher and tutor Joan V reviews Compelling Conversations

    “We all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.”

    ―Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) American astronaut

    Sometimes you just have to smile.

    Praise, especially from an experienced colleague, on a difficult project feels satisfying. In the last week, I’ve received three emails from Joan V., an ESL teacher and tutor, praising Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics – the book that I co-authored and self-published. Her experiences mirror my own experiences with the material, and validate the book’s premise: engaging students in sophisticated conversation helps build their vocabulary, leads to memorable conversations, and deepens relationships.

    Here, in Joan’s own words, are excerpts from her strong recommendation for the unorthodox ESL book.


    I am an English tutor working with Japanese adults in Jackson, Michigan. I was a public school and ESL teacher for many years, retired, and now my retirement job is tutoring. A few weeks ago I purchased the PDF of your book and then this week I bought the hard copy which just arrived from you this morning. I want to tell you what a marvelous book this is!

    I’ve always used questions as a conversation stimulus, and now I have this whole organized around topics book to use with my students! As you probably know, Many Japanese arrive in this country with a fair understanding of English grammar and quite a lot of vocabulary, but are initially unable to engage in conversation. This book is the perfect answer to this situation!

    Thank you so much for putting this together!

    Teachers and tutors should know about Compelling Conversations. I was a classroom ESL teacher for many years, went to conferences with book displays shopping for books, and was usually disappointed by the books I saw. There were a lot of boring books out there!

    The book needs to on display at ESL conferences if they are still being held. ESL teachers and tutors working with intermediate and advanced level students would choose this book over almost anything else if they knew about it. Also many community colleges have ESL programs using traditional materials focused on grammar and repetition rather than real meaningful conversation which your book provides.

    I happened on your book accidentally on the internet and looking at the sample lessons, I quickly knew that this book would work for my students.

    I wanted to add one more thought regarding Compelling Conversations. It is saving me a lot of time! I have been tutoring Japanese adults (businessmen and their wives) for nine years after retiring from almost 30 years of teaching in public
    schools. I’ve spent so much time gathering materials from various sources–textbooks, my own materials, bilingual dictionaries, etc.

    Now I’m finding that printing out a chapter of your book provides plenty of conversational focus for at least two hours or more of tutoring time. Even more important, our conversations are at a deeper level. For example, in
    chapter two there are some questions about childhood. A couple of weeks ago a student bordering on fluency was able to tell me about his childhood dreams and that now he is living that dream! I was thrilled!




    Thank you, Joan! You made my week!


    Check out sample Compelling Conversations lessons for yourself at:


    Hopefully, you will have the same satisfying experiences that Joan and other satisfied teachers and tutors have had with Compelling Conversations. Enjoy!


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

    July 20, 2014 by User ImageEric 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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  3. Paraphrasing is an Essential Conversation Skill!

    July 10, 2014 by User ImageChimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Why English teachers should not overlook the importance of paraphrasing

    “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

    ―Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German physicist

    Paraphrasing matters in conversation too-especially when learning a new language!

    Experienced English teachers know that students must learn paraphrasing skills to complete academic writing assignments. Likewise paraphrasing remains a vital skill for English language learners to participate in college classrooms, everyday conversations, social situations and commercial transactions.

    The ability to re-phrase and re-state, usually called paraphrasing, allows English students to confirm information, accurately convey that information and avoid plagiarism problems when writing papers. As a result, paraphrasing is usually emphasized in English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) writing classes. Classes and teachers focusing on oral skills from academic presentations to simple conversations should also devote some attention to paraphrasing too.

    English language students, whether university or adult and young or old, must learn to confirm information by asking clarification questions. This critical skill, crucial to effective paraphrasing, will increase their ability to collect information, avoid costly mistakes and reduce their everyday stress level. It’s also impossible to accurately paraphrase a conversation if one is confused about the meaning. Some useful phrases for a listener to ask include:

    Are you saying…?
    Do you mean?
    What are you getting at?
    If I understand you correctly, you are saying …
    So you are saying… Right?
    Did I get that right?
    Speakers can also check to see if their group members and classmates understand their directions.
    Are you with me?
    Can you understand me?
    Was I going too fast?
    Should I rephrase that?
    Do you follow?
    Is that clear?
    Should I repeat the directions?
    Do you want me to repeat that?
    Would it be better for me to repeat that?
    Can I answer any questions?
    Is anybody lost?

    Asking advanced English students to repeat directions, in different words, can also be an effective group activity. The directions can be to a physical location (home, campus building, museum) or how to do something simple like finding a definition or sending an email. You can also extend the assignment by requesting detailed directions on a complicated procedure such as getting a driver’s license, applying for a visa or choosing a new laptop.

    Furthermore, you can ask students to share an autobiographical story. Student A tells a story, and Student B retells that story with different words to Student C. This paraphrasing exercise also helps build a larger, more practical vocabulary.

    Another teaching technique that I have found useful is asking students to paraphrase proverbs and quotations. This exercise, done in groups of two, often finishes with asking if students agree or disagree with the specific proverb or quotation. Of course, students have to give a reason and/or an example to support their answers. ESL tutors and English teachers lucky to have small classes can elaborate on this technique to match student interests.

    If English students can accurately paraphrase a reading, a radio segment, or a verbal statement, they can actively participate in common conversations and classroom discussions. Many English teachers underestimate the importance of this skill, and assume students understand it more than they might. Verbal paraphrasing activities allow both students and teachers to assess listening comprehension skills in a natural, authentic manner.

    Therefore, verbal paraphrasing deserves more attention in speaking activities – especially in high intermediate and advanced levels! Don’t you agree?

    What techniques or exercises do you use to improve paraphrasing skills?

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  4. Creating Simple ESL Lesson Plans Around Top Ten Lists for Advanced English Classes

    July 1, 2014 by User ImageEric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Advanced ESL/EFL classes benefit from making top ten lists

    “Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.”

    ―Tenzin Gyatso (1950-) 14th Dalai Lama

    Americans love to create, read, and discuss top ten lists. Newspapers and magazines use the simple format to summarize large chunks of information in a friendly, easily digestible manner. Year-end issues often expand the technique to create “100 best,” “top ten” or “ten most” lists. Naturally, many English teachers also use this format in their classrooms to express ideas and create discussions.

    Sometimes, however, students will simply create a list without providing clear reasons as to how the material is linked together. In order to emphasize the need to clearly share information and exchange insights, I often ask the students to compile a “top ten tips” on how to do something. This twist also invites a wider range of discussion topics from the practical to more philosophical, and shows respect for both the students’ knowledge and interests.

    You can ask students for their top ten tips for:
    choosing a school?
    saving money?
    staying healthy and happy?
    making and keeping friends?
    avoiding boredom and finding satisfaction?
    getting good grades?
    learning English?
    traveling to a new city/country?

    Break students into groups of 3-4. Give them 20 minutes to come up their top ten tips on a given topic. Ask them to provide at least one reason and/or example for each answer, and have them agree on a final order. During the discussions, students will use common phrases like “this is better,” “I disagree because…” or “what do you think?”

    What does the teacher do during this time? Circle around, listen in and pass out different colors of chalk for each group. I ask more questions than I answer at this stage. Toward the end of the 20 minutes, I have each group select a student to write the group’s “top ten tips” on the board.
    The instructor goes through the list, asking questions – both soft and hard, and engages student groups. Finally, after the instructor leads discussion, the entire class votes on which tips, of those on the top ten lists, are most helpful. This additional democratic element takes only a few minutes, and encourages students to participate and clearly display their opinions.

    This flexible, communicative activity can be constantly used to create engaging, lively classroom conversations. Students enjoy sharing information, telling stories while providing examples and helping each other make sense of an often strange land where people speak a strange language. By giving students a chance to offer advice, you also get to learn as you teach!

    What top ten lists will your students create?

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  5. Learning by Doing and Making “Good Mistakes” in English classes

    June 28, 2014 by User ImageEric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Why English learners must practice and make “good mistakes” in order to grow

    “A man’s mistakes are his portals of discovery.”

    ―James Joyce (1882-1941), Irish novelist and poet

    How can English language teachers create a rigorous, tolerant and focused classroom atmosphere?

    One effective technique is encouraging English students, especially ESL students, to “learn by doing” and to “make good mistakes” as they expand their vocabulary, experiment with new sentence structures and use English more in their daily lives. A “good mistake,” as I explain on the first day of class, is follows logical thinking, but just happens to produce an incorrect outcome. For example, a young boy might think 2+2= 22. You can see the student’s logic, but the answer is wrong. The student needs to know that 2+2=4. But you can also acknowledge that “22″ is a “good mistake.”

    Far too many ESL students, especially in countries that heavily rely on and sometimes worship standardized exams, have created psychological barriers to experimenting in English. These students often want to avoid making any mistakes, and prefer to remain silent in conversation class to expanding their verbal skills. The ESL teacher, therefore, has to directly confront this mentality. After all, you can’t learn to speak a new language without making mistakes.

    So I encourage English students, in both conversation and writing classes, to make “good mistakes.” Take chances. Try something new. Stretch your learning muscles. And make “good mistakes.” By making “good mistakes” once or twice, and then correcting them immediately, students can learn not to repeat them. A “good mistake” is not a good mistake if you’ve made it ten times before in a class or on previous papers. Students with this mentality can usually understand the value of making mistakes and so they can relax a bit, and proceed to experiment a bit more in our crazy, confusing, and misspelled English language.

    Our goal, I sometimes joke on that first day, is to make many “good mistakes,” learn from these “good mistakes,” and move forward to make new, different, and even better “good mistakes.“ We usually, whether purposefully or accidentally, realize this goal in our English classes!

    How will you guide your students through their “good mistakes?”

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  6. 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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