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

  1. 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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  2. Homophones Can Haunt: A Minor Mistake in Miner Valley

    December 31, 2012 by Eric

    English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. The common “gap” between how a word is spelled and how it sounds is one challenge. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones, different words with the same sound. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number 2 from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.

    A “good mistake” made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized this obvious point. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Somoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists.  The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley” so the passenger and navigator asked Siri for directions. Siri, the amazing iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes,  but emphasizes 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” meaning small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can be confusing and colorful. Both “miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” are 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”?  We must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better understand 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. Yet we have to admit 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.

    Bottom line: English teachers need to both sympathize with the struggles of English language learners and teach homonyms in our ESL and EFL classes.


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  3. 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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  4. 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.

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  5. Do Informational Interviews Have a Place in Business English Programs?

    December 15, 2011 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Speaking skills – especially in stressful situations – matter.

    Most quality Business English and VESL (Vocational English as a Second Language) programs provide extensive training and practice  in both short and long job interviews. Job interviews are stressful – especially for English language learners.  In fact, many adult, community college, and university ESL programs also include mock job interviews in the curriculum so ESL students can learn how to better answer simple and difficult questions. After all, many career experts recommend native speakers practice and practice again for these high-stakes interviews. It behooves English language learners to practice, practice, and practice some more for job interviews.

    During these difficult economic times, however,  Business English trainers, advanced ESL (English as a Second Language), teachers and VESL (Vocational English as a Second Language) job coordinators should focus on an even wider range of interviewing skills. Many people have to interview co-workers, customers, strangers, and even more senior professionals at work. Speaking skills – in particular interview skills – matter.

    Informational interviews – where future professionals ask questions to working professionals that hold a desirable position – achieves this goal – and a few more.   Informational interviews deserve far more attention in English language programs, but especially in Business English programs and VESL classes since informational interviews provide practical opportunities to develop business contacts and remain a savvy  job hunting tactic.

    A common practice in the United States in many white-collar professions, informational interviews allow students (or individuals seeking a career change) to meet more successful and senior professionals in a field. From scheduling an appointment and preparing questions to  collecting information on common business practices, this professional exercise tests the fluency and language skills.  Informational interviews also expand their personal network of valuable business contacts. Sometimes these 20-30 minute interviews, often at offices, offer surprising insights into the typical work experiences and best workplace practices. Topics can range from the biographic to industry trends.  Best of all, informational interviews can also lead to job leads, internships, and even new jobs.

    This real world assignment can work with high-intermediate and advanced Business English clients. In fact, asking clients or students to find, research, and conduct an informational interview requires a certain level of fluency and confidence – outside the classroom. This challenging, authentic class assignment requires English language learners to perform a vital workplace skill, respond in real time to a potential supervisor, and ask appropriate questions.

    What are appropriate questions? Here are a few classic informational interview questions:

    • How did you first enter the field? Why?
    • How has the industry changed since you began your career?
    • Can you describe a typical day at work?
    • What are some trends that you are watching?
    • What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
    • What question should I have asked that I didn’t ask today?

    These simple questions often provide illuminating glimpses into the professional lives of successful professionals.

    I recommend requiring a “trip report” or  a presentation to show the results of the informational interview with fellow Business English students,. This reflective exercise requires students to concisely summarize their interview.  Learning how to conduct an informational interview is a crucial skill that they can use over and over again during their business careers. Many graduate programs strongly recommend (and sometime mandate) their students conduct regular informational interviews.

    From my perspective,  adding  information interviews to Business English classes and VESL programs seems extraordinarily sensible.  It also qualifies as an effective use of precious instructional time. Practical and popular, this multidimensional assignment consistently engages students and provides surprising insights in a university setting. I’ve been requiring informational interviews for several years in my university courses for both native and non-native English speakers. Students consistently rate the informational interview highest among the course assignments – and often praise it on course evaluations.

    Therefore, I’m quite confident that quality Business English and VESL programs can clearly benefit from adding this real-world, authentic task to their curriculum too.

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  6. 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.

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