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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. 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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  3. 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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  4. In the News: Will the U.K. Debate over Teaching English to Reduce Islamic Extremism Travel Here?

    February 6, 2016 by Eric

    “Education is an ornament in prosperity, and a refuge in adversity.”
    ~Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Ancient Greek philosopher and scientist

    Can teaching English to new immigrants and refugees make the United Kingdom safer? Is learning English essential to successfully integrating into England? Will forcing fundamentalist Muslim immigrant women to attend English classes lead to their adopting a more modern, cosmopolitian outlook? And finally, should immigrants who refuse to learn English be expelled from the United Kingdom after a few years?

    British Prime Minister David Cameron sparked a huge debate inside the United Kingdom by allocating 20 million pounds to expand English classes specially for the estimated 100,000 Muslim women immigrants isolated in their homes. This mid-January 2016 SkyTV article summarizes the awkward debate.

    Let’s see whether this vigorous debate in the UK over requiring immigrants and refugees to learn English travels across the ocean here. Although I’m clearly biased as both a current English teacher and former director of an adult education center for refugees from the former Soviet Union, I would argue that requiring immigrants and refugees to learn more than a first grade level of English would help unify the country and reduce social tensions. Many of the problems that critics point to as immigration problems often reflect assimilation problems.

    Expanding funding for English classes for immigrants and refugees remains a wise investment – for both the U.K. and the United States. Helping immigrants learn English should also be a bipartisan issue with support across the board. And while critics have pointed out that many of the UK’s radical Islamists speak wonderful English, a wiser immigration policy would also explicitly teach more democratic values, and celebrate western culture. Here in the U.S., we also have a legitimate national interest in also explicitly rejecting the multi-culturalist dogma that all cultures are equally wonderful. Nazi, Soviet, and Islamist cultures are far inferior and far less humane – and we can and should draw comparisons and distinctions.

    The Bill of Rights may not be universally accepted, but they have provided a blueprint for one of the world’s more successful, tolerant, and innovative societies. And the Anglo-American focus on individual, not collective, rights and possibilities seems exceptionally wise in light of misguided political experiments of some 20th century secular movements. The United States, and the United Kingdom, can and should be proud of our distinctive, tolerant societies. Consider me curious whether expanding English classes and mandating real command of the English language becomes a campaign issue in the American 2016 Presidential election. Language politics can become popular… for better or for worse.

    What do you think of Prime Minister Cameron’s new policy? Do you think it will help Muslim women integrate into British society? Do you think it is wise to force immigrants and refugees to learn English? Should the United Kingdom – and perhaps the United States – impose English standards as a condition for residency? Or would that action spark a terrible backlash against learning English?

    Consider me curious. In my own work, I’m very pleased to help spread some American cultural values – like self-expression, open discussion, and free speech – in my ESL classes and books. Culture and language may not be identical, but they clearly remain related.  Asking immigrants – of all religious and ethnic backgrounds – to join the broader society in speaking English outside the home seems like a sensible first step toward building a better, closer, and stronger nation. The emergence of English as a global language might also help increase the chances for tolerance, peace, and understanding.

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    This post is part of a series on English and the integration of immigrants into English-speaking societies. Take a look at our previous writing on the subject here.



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  5. Teaching Tips: Approaching Immigration Issues in the Classroom

    January 29, 2016 by Eric


    “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

    ~George Washington (1732-1799), 1st President of the United States


    Millions of people, around the world, have chosen – or been forced – to leave the nation where they were born. And today, more people than ever before in human history consider themselves immigrants.

    Immigration remains a vital, if controversial, topic – especially with the media circus surrounding Trump’s semi-recent statements and reform proposals. 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? Questions like these have been asked time and again, but today are reaching more of a fever pitch, and discussions oft become heated and even ugly.

    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.

    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?

    Context, as ever, remains crucial. 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.

    In my experience, however, it was perhaps easiest to discuss immigration debates with graduate students at the University of Southern California, where everyone has the same legal status. It was also easier to discuss the controversial immigration issues in the Citizenship class at Santa Monica College for similar reasons, and the shared interest in both becoming American citizens. This – compared to the Advanced ESL class at Santa Monica Adult School where refugees, legal immigrants, and undocumented workers/illegal immigrants all learned English together – really makes one reflect on how important perspective is to these discourses.

    How do you teach about immigration issues? Teaching Tolerance, an exceptional educational non-profit that provides many free resources to American teachers, has excellent content on embracing classroom diversity and discussing subjects such as this with students. Join the discussion here.

    Interested in learning more about thought-provoking classroom conversation? Check out the Studying English chapter from Compelling American Conversations, featuring expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!


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  6. Conversation Tips: The Power of Paraphrasing

    January 22, 2016 by Eric

    Female student active on lecture

    “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 young or old, university or adult, 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? For more on classroom English and conversation tips, check out our sample chapter on Studying English from Compelling American Conversations ―including expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!


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