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

  1. Using 5W/H Filter & Creating Longer, Better Conversations

    November 25, 2015 by Eric



    What is the 5W/H filter? Who can use this technique? Where can English students use the 5W/H filter in daily conversations? When can they use this method? Why do many journalists and managers use the 5W/H filter in their work? How can the 5W/H filter keep conversations going?

    Some English students will already be familiar with the idea of 5W/H as the general question words: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. This checklist approach encourages speakers to bring these questions directly back into the conversation. Can you guess how it works?

    When you are asked a question, practice running the answer through the “5W/H Filter.” Make sure you answer at least two of the question words to provide details. Let’s look at an example of a typical casual conversation.

    Nick: What did you do this weekend?

    Nobu: I went shopping.

    Nick: That’s good.


    Nick: See you later.

    This short conversation might be pleasant, but it wasn’t too informative. Now let’s run the conversation through the 5W/H filter.

    Question: “What did you do this weekend?”


    What: Went shopping

    Who: With my sister

    When: Saturday

    Where: At the outlet

    Why: We were looking for a present for our brother’s birthday.

    How: We rode our bicycles.

    With the filter in place, Nobu has several places to take the conversation. When Nobu chooses to share at least three of the filtered answers, it’s much more interesting and compelling. Nick may then continue the conversation in several directions. Let’s take a look at how the conversation might go:

    Nick: What did you do this weekend?

    Nobu: I went shopping at the outlet on Saturday with my sister. We were looking
    for a present for our brother’s birthday.

    Nick: Oh, really? How old will your brother be?


    Nick: How is the outlet? I haven’t been there yet.


    Nick: I didn’t know you had a sister! How many people are in your family?

    By providing details, Nobu and Nick learn more and share more about their lives and activities. They can also maintain longer, better conversations. If they want, Nobu and Nick can cycle through the 5W/H filter again, and the two can talk for as long as they want! The good friends will learn more about each other and their friendship can
    become even stronger.


    Interested in learning more? Check out our sample chapter, Exploring Daily Habits from Compelling Conversations – Japan. Want your own copy? Click here for more information!

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  2. How Do You Teach the Difference Between “Make” and “Do” in Your English Classrooms?

    July 14, 2014 by User ImageEric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Distinguishing the difference between make and do in English classrooms

    “Do all you can to make your dreams come true.”

    ―Joel Osteen (1960- ) American preacher

    How do you teach the difference between “make” and “do” in your English classrooms?

    What do you do? What do you make? What’s the difference, anyway, between “make” and “do”?
    These simple words cause lots of confusion for English language learners. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time teaching a very wide range of ESL classes this particular distinction. Many ESL students struggle with “make” and “do” – from advanced adult education and community college students to intermediate English students in summer courses and regular university courses. In some languages, “make” and “do” are sometimes assigned the same verb–for example, “hacer” in Spanish takes on both meanings. The large number of idioms involving these two words further complicates the problem.
    Here is a quick guide that helps clarify the issue.

    Look at some common expressions with “do”:
    Do the dishes.
    Do some chores.
    Do your work.
    Do exercises.
    Do your best.
    Do it over.
    Do the report.

    Do is used to describe an activity that you have to perform, or complete, often over and over again. For instance, we “do the dishes” and “do the laundry” many times. Do also contains an element of duty and responsibility.

    Now, take a look at some expressions with “make”:
    Please make time.
    You make dinner.
    You make drawings.
    You make decisions.
    You make plans.
    Your make reservations.
    You make money.
    You make friends.

    Make is used to describe a creative activity or something you choose to do. Something is usually produced or formed in the process. You choose, for instance, to make plans, make friends, and make decisions. You have choices.

    Why do we say “make dinner” if we have to do it over and over? Perhaps because cooking is seen more as a creative activity than a chore. But cleaning the table, and cleaning the dishes are just chores so we say “do the table” and “do the dishes.” In these examples, nothing is generated in the process. That’s also why Americans say “make money” instead of “do money.” Making money means generating revenue, and therefore, something has been created.

    Idioms, of course, are often cultural and therefore sometimes less than completely logical. Sometimes Americans will use the verb make in a way that might seem strange, but I urge immigrants and international students to “make a decision,” “do your best” and practice using practical workplace idioms using make and do.

    Finally, I encourage students to work together in small groups and create their own list of idioms with make and do. When I’m lucky and have time, I like to ask students to come to the white board and write their collection of idioms on the board. Homework, of course, is asking them to choose 5-10 idioms and write complete sentences.

    So how do you teach the difference between do and make to your English students?

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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. Tutoring English Students on Speaking Skills? Set Clear Expectations!

    July 6, 2014 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Why setting clear expectations as an English tutor is important

    “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”

    ―Tony Robbins (1960- ), American motivational speaker

    Are you tutoring English students on speaking skills? How do you effectively teach speaking skills to a English language learner as a private tutor? What will you actually do for 60-120 minutes together? How will you make the conversation lessons meaningful enough that your client feels satisfied and wants to retain you for future lessons?

    Speaking English means being able to actually hold clear, comfortable conversations. Yet holding a conversation in English remains a challenging task for many ESL and EFL students. Personally, I blame an old-fashioned, grammar-obsessed curriculum for creating the common situation in which students can recite obscure grammar rules, but can’t discuss their weekend plans or talk about the movies. Yet here we are. Students want to develop their speaking skills, but crowded English classes provide little opportunity for authentic conversations. Therefore, many English students hire English tutors to help them develop their conversation and speaking skills.

    Yet effectively tutoring English students in conversation can be more difficult than it sounds. What does the student want to learn? What will you really teach? How will progress be measured? While sometimes younger students just want to talk and be heard, I have also worked with older, more serious students. Time is money, and money matters.

    I strongly suggest establishing clear expectations regarding both content and business matters. Some tutors even present a written contract outlining their rates, the location and times of meetings, and payment policies. One of my university colleagues makes students sign a form allowing her to videotape the entire tutoring session for her research. Another demands prepayment for packages of 10 sessions at a time. I have never needed to be that formal, but I have also never been burned the way some English tutors have been. In fact, I’ve had only very positive experiences with conversation clients and private English students.

    Why? Perhaps luck, or perhaps because I carefully screen potential clients. I only work with professionals, graduate students, and/or friends and spouses of friends with a solid foundation in English. It is important to explicit about what you want and don’t want to teach a client. Be prepared to provide options for potential clients that you reject.

    I also set very clear expectations. This process eliminates potential confusion and establishes clear benchmarks. We will review X number of articles and discuss Y number of topics during the next month or semester. We will cover a significant amount of ground in a comfortable, relaxed manner.

    For students who want to improve their conversation, I strongly suggest that, as the English tutor, you select the topic and materials in advance. You can use newspapers and/or magazines to find appropriate articles to begin the conversation. I used to assign the articles a week ahead and give English students my conversation worksheets.

    Partly as a result of these tutoring lessons over a few years, I wrote Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. The conversation book includes 45 chapters with over 1400 questions, 500 quotations, and 450 targeted vocabulary words. The combination of poignant questions, vocabulary lists, proverbs, and witty quotations makes your job much easier. Each chapter is self-contained.

    If you have a weaker student looking to improve their speaking skills, then I would advise using a picture dictionary. There are several fine choices. You might use the Oxford Picture Dictionary to open conversations, and I would recommend asking the client to bring in photographs and ads each week. Confession: I almost always referred weaker students to other English tutors who enjoyed working with lower level ESL students more.

    Naturally, you will need patience tutoring ESL clients on speaking skills. Be prepared to repeat words, listen very carefully, and remind students to pronounce word endings. Many students will want to work on their pronunciation. This is why recording, with audio or video, your tutoring lessons can be quite helpful for students. It also documents student progress.

    You can also assign them listening activities on the web. I like Voice of America’s Special English programs for intermediate and advanced students. You will have to direct lower-level learners to websites to practice their listening and speaking skills with drills. They will love the work; on the other hand, you might go mad repeating vowel sounds and noting stress words.

    Finally, the key to tutoring ESL students – or anyone else – remains respecting the students, meeting their needs, and providing a solid structure for your lessons. I have found that using a set text, developing a known routine, and combining conversation, vocabulary and some writing skills makes for a successful and satisfying experience.

    As William Shakespeare noted four centuries ago, “All’s well that ends well.” Therefore, you should also have the grace to know when to end your lessons. Some clients will want to keep working with you. Therefore, set a clear goal for your package of lessons, and conclude when the students have reached that goal. As the Hollywood cliché goes, “leave them wanting more.”

    What are your plans and goals for tutoring English students this year?

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  5. Homophones Can Confuse: A Minor Mistake in Miner Valley

    June 20, 2014 by Eric

    Why it is so important for English learners to tackle homophones in the classroom

    “For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity.”

    ―Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), German writer

    English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. For instance, the gap between a word’s spelling and its pronunciation often presents a challenge for English learners. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones―different words with the same pronunciation. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number two from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.

    A “good mistake” I made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized the confusing nature of homonyms. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Sonoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists. The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley,” so the passenger asked Siri for directions. Siri, the impressive iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes, but did emphasize 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,” which means small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can still be confusing and colorful. Both “Miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” happened to be 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?” To understand each other, we must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better comprehend 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. We must first admit that 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.

    How will you make homophones easier to handle?


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  6. 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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