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

  1. Conversation Tip #5: Search for common interests

    October 18, 2014 by Eric

    Jessica Lu, a first-year student at the University of Chicago, interned for Chimayo Press and the Compelling Conversations blog through the summer of 2014. Over the months, she has perused ESL textbooks, analyzed newspaper articles and tested out mobile apps, seeking out ways to inspire discussion. Each week the Compelling Conversations blog will publish one of her top 10 tips to create compelling conversations outside of the English classroom.

    Finding commonalities sparks conversations

    conversation tip

    Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

    “Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

    -Albert Camus (1913-1960), French novelist and Nobel Prize winner

    We can learn a great deal from our conversations, even about our own interests and hobbies! Finding a commonality generates fantastic interaction because both sides possess enthusiasm over the subject. Potential topics could stem from several categories, such as literature, sports, movies or pastimes.

    What’s a good way to find out what you have in common with someone else? Ask questions! Encourage your students to inquire about favorites, dislikes and other types of opinions with each other. You might be pleasantly surprised to find out what they share with others!

    What have your students shared about themselves? What do they share in common with each other?

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    Photo Source: “Elliott Bay Books – author reading 01A” by Joe Mabel – Photo by Joe Mabel. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


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

    July 1, 2014 by Eric 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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  3. Reading Pleasures and Conversation Starters

    September 11, 2009 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    A new semester begins, new students enter our classes, and returning colleagues greet us. What can talk about that will go beyond the work-related activities?


    Teachers, especially English teachers, love to talk about their summer reading. Reading remains a cheap pleasure and an excellent conversation starter.

    * Can you recommend a good book?
    * What did you this summer?
    * What are reading these days – besides student papers?

    Books and ideas still matter in our 21st century global culture of blogs, especially for starting conversations. Discussing books, sharing ideas, and exchanging tips helps elevate casual office chit-chat into more satisfying verbal exchanges.

    In the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed several satisfying conversations with my teaching colleagues – and a few more memorable conversations with strangers about books. How?

    I looked around, noted the reading choices of folks, and asked a friendly question.

    • Is that a good book?
    • How did you choose that book?
    • Can you recommend a good book?

    Likewise, talking about books and reading pleasures gives us new information about our world – and insights into our friends and students. For longer, better conversations, you can ask the following questions:

    • What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
    • Who is your favorite author, anyway?
    * How have your reading habits changed?
    • Are you still reading Alain de Botton?
    * What are you reading these days?

    If you have time to listen, the answers might surprise you.

    Our English students also enjoy talking about their favorite books and reading experiences. Here’s a link to a conversation lesson that I’ve had success with in high intermediate and advanced ESL/EFL classes.

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  4. What do you look for in an apartment?

    June 11, 2009 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    What do you look for in an apartment? How do you turn a physical space into a home?

    Everybody lives somewhere. Yet, as we know, not all homes are created equal – especially in the developing world with vast inequalities. Since I don’t speak the local language in Ho Chi Minh City, I have become far more reliant on fellow English teachers, co-workers, new friends, and real estate experts than usual in finding housing.

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    So following my philosophy of seeking information through conversation, I’ve been asking many Vietnamese for advice as I hunt for a new apartment. Here are some useful questions.

    – What districts/neighborhoods do you suggest? Why?

    - What seems like a reasonable price for a two-bedroom?

    – Can I walk around at night?

    – Is the area safe?

    – Should I pay in dollars or Vietnamese Dong? Why?

    – What do you look for in an apartment? Why?

    – Do you have a checklist of essential services? What’s on that checklist?

    These last questions, by far, have lead to the most interesting conversations. One young office assistant instantly blurted out “money!” emphasizing the importance of price in her decision. Another young assistant focused on “privacy” and warned against renting a room with a family. “What if you come back late at night? Will they give you a key? Will they say you make too much noise?” She proceeded to share some personal stories emphasizing the advantages of a private apartment. Note: she lives with her cousin now and can’t imagine living with her nuclear family or non-relatives. Interesting.

    A rental agent offered some other advice. “You can change a home, but you can’t change a neighborhood so you choose the neighborhood first.” This agent, a friendly upworldly, mobile woman felt safety, quiet, and the comfort of living with international workers and “high class people”  were most important.  I agreed about safety, but observed that not all wealthy people were good people. “Yes, but they safe.”  I later noted the luxury hi-rise seemed quite quiet. “Are you afraid of quiet?” she asked in surprise.  In noisy Saigon, the idea seemed absurd. The sales agent asserted that this building complex is Vietnam’s future.

    Given the humidity and tropical heat, air-conditioning remains a must too. Cable television, providing access to international channels and English language programs from around the world and adequate internet cable access have become defacto requirements too. These modern luxuries were added to my actual housing checklist as I visited more potential homes away from home.

    I also like space and often miss the view from my father’s New York fantastic apartment.  So I’ve retained a soft spot for terraces overlooking urban areas. The hi-rise resembles Century City skyscraper in a crowded neighborhood of “traditional” buildings with narrow streets. The second apartment that I saw in the hi-rise offers magnificent views and a warm breeze. The attractive price remains only 10% of my monthly salary. I took the apartment. The place evokes, in an odd sense, a familiar feeling. This could become my home away from home.

    What do you look for in an apartment?

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    “They know enough who know how to learn.”

    - Henry Adams (1838-1918), American historian and educator


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  5. Are you prepared? Are you ready? Aren’t you nervous?

    May 23, 2009 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    During the last hectic week of international travel and professional development presentations, I’ve been heard a few simple questions over and over.

    • Are you ready?
    • Are you prepared?
    • Aren’t you nervous?
    • Do you have enough time to do that?
    • When are you going to sleep?

    Friends – and close relatives – ask these questions out of concern and curiosity.  I appreciate their questions and enjoy our discussions.  My confidence can lead me to underestimate the difficulty of  projects, tasks, and chores. I should manage time better, probably reduce my commitments, and prioritize more. Yet that’s easier said than done when pursuing multiple projects and working with people on different continents. I also like my work, and appreciate new challenges.  And I can draw on a considerable amount of experience as a  world traveler and English teacher. Despite approaching deadlines, I tend to feel strangely comfortable.

    For instance, this week I left Los Angeles to begin a new position creating a Practical and Academic English program in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Packing for a ten-week summer trip takes considerable time. So does writing up detailed course descriptions, planning professional development workshops, and writing a high school graduation speech. Tracking Compelling Conversations book orders, planning website and blog changes, and interviewing ESL/EFL teachers also takes time. So sleep becomes a lower priority and friends keep asking those few simple, reasonable questions.

    They are good questions and fine conversation starters too. In our often-hectic world, many people make the same “good mistakes” as me. As a result, these simple questions seem about time management seem timeless. English teachers can – and I’d suggest should – introduce these practical questions to their students. Business English teachers and workplace instructors, of course, frequently include entire lessons to personal time management skills. Letting students ask these questions and interview each other will also lead to interesting classroom conversations.

    By the way,  despite my last minute style, I was actually quite prepared. I quickly packed, arrived safely in Vietnam and lead an engaging workshop on creating autotelic materials for EFL students.  Experience and expertise help – even on limited sleep!

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  6. Teaching Interview Skills Vital for Adult ESL, University Students

    February 16, 2009 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    How can English teachers encourage adult and university students to expand their language skills and improve their employment opportunities in a difficult economic climate?

    Personally, I’ve slightly modified my oral skills course this semester to provide greater emphasis on interviewing skills. Students interviewed each other for 10-15 minute videotaped mock job interviews for their first assignment.

    The use of videotaping students in class has gained far more acceptance in the last few years, partly due to the technological advances. OTAN, the adult education website established by the California Department of Education, even created an entire section devoted to using videotapes and videocameras in the adult ESL classes.

    Another factor has been the increasing popularity of YouTube videoclips by students seeking practical information. I’ve combined those two trends by requiring students to find and review YouTube clips on vital employment skills and speaking skills. Students found and reviewed videoclips, and emailed them in as homework. Afterwards, I combined all the student evaluations into a single email that I sent to the entire class with a few editorial comments and minor editing.

    Here is the homework sheet for that assignment. As with the reviews, “use or lose.”

    Getting Job Interview Advice from YouTube!

    Student Name:

    Please find an YouTube videoclip that helps people successfully interview for jobs – in English – that you would like to share with your classmates. Watch the video, take notes, and review it for your classmates.

    Video title:
    Web address:

    Please describe the video.

    What interview tips did the video provide?

    Where do you think the video was produced? Why?

    How practical did you find the advice? Why?

    What was the strongest part? Why?

    What was the weakest part? Why?

    Who do think is the target audience for this video?

    Why did you choose this video?

    How would you rate this video 1-5 stars? Why?

    This simple worksheet combines research, critical thinking, and language skills. As English teachers, we can use simple technology to help English language learners develop their language skills, especially when they are motivated to learn and search out new sources. Instead of dismissing YouTube searching as a waste of time, let’s turn their interests into productive learning opportunities and share insights. After all, employment interviews often serve as a real-world language tests for our ESL students.

    Let’s make sure we give them the tools to pass those crucial tests.

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