“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”
-Voltaire (1694-1778) French Enlightenment Writer
Asking questions always generates more conversation; after all, an answer always follows. As mentioned before, asking questions provides a quick way to find common interests with people. Questions like “What is your favorite restaurant?” or “Do you like action movies?” could lead to hours of discussion.
English teachers will often find helpful to explicitly teach students to ask questions. Encouraging students to “think like a journalist” and consider the five W questions is a useful start: Who? What? Where? When? Why? Two other useful question words: How? And? These simple words can generate interesting, engaging conversations – and allow English language learners to “fake” a higher level of English comprehension than they may possess.
Additionally, most people enjoy answering questions about themselves, so long as the questions seem appropriate. For instance, in certain countries like the United States, asking a casual acquaintance about their job is suitable. On the other hand, asking about weight and height are considered inappropriate. Knowing the boundaries of what questions to ask is an essential conversation skill–and it can take some practice for language learners.
For instance, to play it safe, you might consider these five taboo subjects with casual acquaintances:
1. Personal health or medical details
2. Financial specifics, including salary
3. Racial or ethnic identity
4. Age or weight
5. Religious or political affiliation
In general, we want to encourage our students to ask questions. Sometimes we have to encourage students to ask clarifying questions in our classrooms too. If a student forgets a certain detail or wants advice, they should feel comfortable asking for the answer!
Likewise, students should be mindful not to ask too many questions when first meeting a classmate or stranger. The conversation should not be an interview, much less an interrogation. Friendly, open questions guide the conversation, but they are just one out of many types of statements that can be made.
What questions do you advise your ESL students ask? What conversation tips do you share with your English students?
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.
Photo By Ananian (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Immersion in literature, current events, arts stimulates conversation
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
“When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”
-Walt Disney (1901-1966) American business magnate, animator
Are your students sometimes unsure of what to talk about? Perhaps they could bring up this morning’s headlines, last week’s bestseller or Friday’s new film release. Students engaged with the surrounding world equip themselves with conversation topics automatically. After all, conversations are learning experiences–why not encourage students to enhance what they can teach others?
Keeping aware improves the possibility of connecting with someone else. For instance, when everyone at the office wants to discuss President Obama’s latest press statement, those who haven’t seen it will have less to contribute. Reading new books, visiting new art displays and seeing new films further shapes opinions. If students don’t want to engage with the surrounding world, how can they possibly want to engage with others who do?
What do your students like to do? How do they share their passions in their conversations?
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. In the fall of 2014, the Compelling Conversations blog published her top 10 tips to create compelling conversations outside of the English classroom.
Photo By Juanedc from Zaragoza, España [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via 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?
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. During the fall, the Compelling Conversations blog published her top 10 tips to create compelling conversations outside of the English classroom.
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 – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elliott_Bay_Books_-_author_reading_01A.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Elliott_Bay_Books_-_author_reading_01A.jpg
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?
staying healthy and happy?
making and keeping friends?
avoiding boredom and finding satisfaction?
getting good grades?
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!
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.
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.
Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak more.
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.