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

  1. Teaching Matters: Explaining the concept of skill in relation to the workplace

    March 24, 2016 by Eric

    Stressful people waiting for job interview

    “In business for yourself, not by yourself.”

    ~Ray Kroc (1902-1984), McDonald’s founder

    How do people get jobs in the United States? Internship season is almost upon us, and finding work is not always an easy thing – particularly in an uncertain economy. Many ESL students may be from countries where people are employed through families, political parties or the government. However, most people in America have had to apply and interview to get their jobs.

    Therefore it’s important for English teachers to explain to their students the concept of skill. Define and explain the meaning of the word professional as meaning that you are paid to do something. It does not necessarily mean that you are good at it. For example, some professional entertainers and comedians may not be that entertaining to many people, but they are still considered professional because they are paid to perform.

    In the classroom, teachers can pair or otherwise group their students to make lists of skills they have and skills they would like to improve. For example, reading, writing and speaking their native language are skills the students already have. Reading, writing and speaking English are skills they want to improve. That, of course, is why they are in the class. Incorporating sayings and quotes like those like the ones below, or others that you may find,  introduce and explore the importance of maintaining, developing and expanding skills in a competitive modern economy:

    “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
    — American saying

    “God helps those who help themselves.”
    — American saying

    “People rise to their own level of incompetence”
    — the Peter Principle of Dr. Laurence J. Peter

    Want to learn more? Check out the Practicing Job Interviews chapter from Compelling American Conversations. This chapter is also available here with expanded material from the Teacher Edition on Teachers Pay Teachers!

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  2. Context Matters with Conversation Idioms

    March 20, 2016 by Eric

    Resources_and_Notes photo

    “Confidence contributes more to conversation than wit.”

    ~Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), French writer


    Conversation styles are wonderfully varied. Just as one size never truly fits all, one conversational approach may not be appropriate depending on the situation. Fortunately, in the English language there are myriad idioms we use to distinguish these different modes of conversation.

    Here’s a quick rundown of a few noteworthy idioms to share with your English classrooms. Use your judgment as a teacher as to which idioms and expressions are appropriate for your particular school, class and student population:

    Water Cooler Conversation – Workers in offices and other work sites congregate and gossip when getting glasses of water at the water cooler, or cups of coffee in commons or kitchen. “Water cooler conversation” usually consists of talking about what was on TV programs, movies, sports, general chat, “small talk,” (see below) and office gossip.

    Small talk – make conversation about the weather, sports, family and other prosaic, everyday topics, usually to start a conversation, socialize with and get to know strangers, or acknowledge respect for and awareness of co-workers, relatives, and other people.

    Chit Chat – Innocent small talk. It can become disruptive and distracting when it occurs during class.

    Back talk – A heated response, often to a parent or other authority figure, usually without listening or considering what the other person has to say.

    Talk past each other – Arguing couples, co-workers and others who state their opinions without listening to what the other person has to say.

    NOTE: You can explain that Americans tend to feel uncomfortable and awkward with moments of silence. This feeling differs from some other cultures and language groups, such as Japan, where silent stretches in conversation are prized as moments of harmony. This difference is good to keep in mind, as sometimes people from other countries can perceive Americans as talking continuously, whether or not they have anything to say.

    What are some other idioms we use?

    Check out free sample chapters from the Compelling Conversations series at both and!

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  3. Teaching Matters: How adult ESL students can learn like children again

    March 18, 2016 by Eric


    “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.”

    ~Marie Curie (1867-1934), Polish physicist and chemistry pioneer


    How do people learn their first languages? What are some barriers to learning a second? Finally, how can we, as ESL educators, bridge the gap between them?

    Educator Robert William McCaul, writing for the British Council’s Voices Magazine, discusses this in “Can we learn a second language like we did our first?”, a  breakdown of renowned (and controversial) linguist and USC professor Stephen Krashen’s theories on the “natural order” of language acquisition. In the late 70’s, Krashen defined language as an acquired skill, and one which children can only “acquire” once they understand meaning. The acquisition is cultivated through careful listening and interaction, and this context is crucial to fluency, and even to scoring high on grammar tests. Why? Because building language skills this way means building on a solid foundation with all the materials on-hand, as opposed to receiving new material little by little and building as we go.

    Yet, even in 2016, the latter is how much of academic language learning is structured. We teach language in segments, with a heavy focus on grammar – and the order of these segments can greatly affect our understanding of the larger whole. Too often students are expected to digest a certain amount of information at the same pace as everyone else. This approach clearly doesn’t account for individual learning styles and places significant pressure on students. Fortunately, McCaul says that it doesn’t have to be this way – and we agree! By making all assignments meaningful, and basing lessons around a variety of fluency-focused, communicative lessons,  ESL educators and tutors can reduce Krashen’s so-called “affective filter” by forming a rapport with students – and open a gateway to more compelling conversations!

    What do you think? Is this a method you would implement as an educator?

    For more on fluency-focused ESL education, check out free sample chapters from the Compelling Conversations series at both and!

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  4. How Do You Use Compelling American Conversations in Multilevel ESL Classes?

    March 10, 2016 by Eric

    “People have one thing in common: they are all different.”

    ~Robert Zend (1929-1985), American writer


    Compelling American Conversations provides an invaluable resource for teachers in the common situation of teaching multilevel adult ESL classes with ongoing enrollment. ESL teachers with multi-level classes must plans lessons that address the needs of the new students constantly entering the class without repeating material studied weeks or months ago by longtime students already in the class. Compelling American Conversations (CAC) provides an ideal remedy for this situation, as topics, vocabulary and skills can be revisited without repeating the exact same material.

    For example, an adult ESL teacher who is teaching job interview skills to her students might cover CAC pages 80-81 in February. By the following May, this same teacher has 12 new students in her English class, as well as 15 of the students from February. The teacher needs to cover job interview skills again to meet the objectives in her course outline, but she doesn’t want to repeat the exact same material that 15 of her students already covered in February. What can the teacher do?

    CAC has the solution. If the teacher covered CAC pages 80-81 in February, now, in May, she can review the vocabulary on page 81, and continue on to material that will be new for all students on pages 82-86. English teachers of multi-level classes can keep these options in mind when using CAC, maintaining material in reserve for lessons in the weeks and months ahead.

    Lessons can also be adapted to the needs of your individual students and instructional schedule. Of particular value to multi-level groups is the capacity to initiate a topic in one chapter, and then return to the same topic weeks or months later for review, or to introduce the topic to a new group of English students, or to a group which includes former students.

    Interested in learning more? Check out free sample chapters from Compelling American Conversations at both and!


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  5. Teaching Matters: How much can we rely on standardized tests to assess?

    March 1, 2016 by Eric

    “Education is helping the child realize his potentialities.”

    ~Erich Fromm (1900-1980), German social psychologist and pscychoanalyst


    By Andrea Schmidt, Guest-writer 


    Standardized tests: how helpful are they in assessing one’s true skill level? This question has been asked by students and teachers alike, time and again. There is no denying that these tests’ formulaic questions often cover the subject in question’s essential foundational skills. But we must ask ourselves whether they scratch more than just the surface in terms of measuring the student’s true capabilities.

    For instance, take my experience with the SAT. I was never talented in mathematics, but I wasn’t incapable either. A quick learner, I often solved a variety of equations correctly if allotted ample time. Then there was the math section on the SAT. While I admit that there were plenty of equations I wouldn’t have been able to solve without reference – or an SAT prep course – regardless, there were also plenty of questions that I would have been able to solve, had the test not been timed. I was never quite able to think on my feet with numbers, but this wasn’t an indicator of my abilities in understanding the material itself.

    That being said, when I took the free EF Standard English Test, I should have known to take it with a grain of salt. The test promises to assess your current levels of English understanding in only 15 minutes, which almost seems too good to be true. But nevertheless, I went in optimistic. Reading and listening comprehension were always things I excelled at – even on the SATs.

    This test – the express version of a lengthier endeavor – consisted of two segments that assessed those same qualities through multiple choice questions surrounding an audio clip and a short reading, respectively. I thought it was fairly straightforward and clever. Though unintimidating in length, it still covered a lot of ground; designed for the test-taker to pick up on subtleties for a complete analysis, each section focuses on clarity of communication more than vocab or grammar – something we here at Chimayo Press have always championed. So, since English was my first (and only) language, it should have been a breeze, right?

    Well, the results were mixed. The test ranks you on a scale of low to high proficiency, with each of these further broken down into the upper and lower range within that ranking – think of the difference between getting a B+ and a B-. The first time I took the test, I scored with high-medium proficiency levels; in other words, a solid B+. Which wouldn’t have bothered me, had I not assumed my score would be in the A range. (My first language, remember?) So I took the test again. This time, I scored in the highest proficiency levels after changing a few answers at best. All that stood between me and this score was a second read-through of the material, it seemed. This could very well be the same for other students/test takers. If given a little more time, and possibly a larger variety of questions, would it improve the accuracy of the assessment?

    That topic is likely covered ad nauseam on the internet, with focus groups assembled to get to the bottom of it. All I can offer is my own experience. And while I can attest to the fact that the EFSET is as quick and painless as it advertises, I hope that educators who utilize this tool keep that in mind. After all, the road to language proficiency was never quick and painless.



    Andrea Schmidt is a former intern and current designer and deputy editor for Chimayo Press.


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    Check out free sample chapters from the Compelling Conversations series at both and!


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  6. Teaching Matters: Do Our Students Need to Swim in English or Pass Grammar Tests?

    February 19, 2016 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth


    “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

    ~C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), British novelist, theologian, and literary critic


    Last week we discussed English as a lingua franca (ELF), and how emphasis on a mutual understanding between conversation partners remains the goal. Earlier last month, we questioned what standards were reasonable for listening comprehension and speaking skills in the classroom. This post extends both those subjects.

    Do our ESL 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.

    Some Crucial Questions and Authentic Tasks

    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?

    Students Speak English to Communicate

    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 this simple truth. These errors are 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.”

    English Students Have to Swim in English

    Our ESL students don’t have to be speak perfect English; they have to be understood in English 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.

    For more content on this subject, check out the Learning in School chapter from Compelling Conversations Japan!


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