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

  1. Paraphrasing is an Essential Conversation Skill!

    July 10, 2014 by Chimayo 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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  2. Conversation Tip 5: What has pleasantly surprised you today?

    November 8, 2009 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    What pleasantly surprised you today?

    This question often causes people to pause, reflect, and change their dialogue. It gives us a chance to remember some moments of satisfaction, and reminds us that almost every day provides some unexpected moments. “What surprised you today” works too.

    But I prefer adding the “pleasantly” to counter dialogues that can run to the negative. This positive question opens up room in a conversation for people to express gratitude for what has gone right – even in a difficult day. We bump into friends while shopping, see a new plant or flower in the yard, read something odd on the internet, or receive an unexpected call. As the ancient Latin proverb goes, “expect the unexpected.” Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

    What has pleasantly surprised you today? English teachers can use this question as a writing cue, during student-teacher conferences, or with co-workers. Students, especially at more competitive schools, can often feel great stress. Asking students about what is going right in their lives can help them focusing only on the negative. In fact, almost every one can use a gentle nudge toward away from stress and toward gratitude.

    So what pleasantly surprised me today? I noticed a new review for Compelling Conversations on Amazon written from Europe. A satisfied customer in Milan, Italy – Siano Luigi “EMY” called Compelling Conversations “a great help!”. This English teacher and private tutor wrote, “I find this book to be a great help for conversation lessons. It’s full of questions/tips/quotes that help students to discuss together, in group or individually on all kinds of different topics.” Given my limited distribution globally, this warm review from far away counts as a pleasant surprise!

    Gratitude, as ever, seems appropriate. Finding ways to increase our gratitude for our 21st lives makes emotional sense. Asking this simple question is my fifth conversation tip. Help build gratitude, and create better conversations.

    What has pleasantly surprised you today?

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  3. Conversation tip #15: Seek to Understand

    August 23, 2008 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Seek to Understand

    Have you ever seen two emotional people talk past each other? Both talk and neither listen. Both want to tell the other, and don’t want to hear – or understand – what the other person is saying. This happens too often in stressful workplaces.

    Stephen Covey, author of the international bestseller called “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, advises people “to seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Following this traditional wisdom can improve workplace relationships and communication.

    What are some techniques that can help understand other people? Here are some tips:

    • Listen first and avoid interrupting.
    • Pause before speaking.
    • Look people in the eye.
    • Be curious.
    • Ask “what” and “how” questions to get more information.
    • Keep the voice down. Stay calm. Talk slow.
    • Repeat or rephrase what people say to avoid misunderstandings.

    What are some other tips to avoid misunderstandings or conflicts at work?





    What are some advantages of staying calm at work?





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  4. Conversation tip #14: Ask a question

    August 10, 2008 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    “Do you want to know how to start a conversation? Ask a question, and listen.”

    Robert Bly (1926- ),  American poet and activist

    That’s not a bad starting point, is it?


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  5. ESL Conversation worksheet: Imperatives vs Polite Requests in the Workplace

    August 4, 2008 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Workplace Communication Tip 3: Politely Make Suggestions

    Style matters – especially when we talk with our co-workers, consumers, patients, and supervisors. English language learners, immigrants, and far too many English speaking workers sometimes forget this basic principle of workplace communication.

    Consider the difference in how these requests sound.

    Shut off the TV!

    Please turn off the TV?

    Could you turn off the TV?

    Would you please turn off the TV?

    Close the door!

    Shut the damn door!

    Close the door; I need some privacy.

    Would you please close the door; we can’t hear ourselves talk.

    Could you get the door?

    Can you close the door?

    Sometimes, especially in an emergency, it is appropriate to warn other people with a short command.

    Call the police!


    Shut the door!

    Volume, tone, and context help us recognize an emergency. Imperatives, or short command sentences, are powerful communication tools in these situations. The speaker gives an order; we listen.

    I. When would it be appropriate to give a warning on your job? Please give 3 examples.




    But, usually, we also make our requests that are not emergencies. We can – and should- give suggestions in a kinder, gentler way. Unfortunately, too many people pretend that everything that annoys them is an emergency and speak in a rude, impolite way to co-workers. This sort of harsh speech can even be abusive.

    We can, however, use many words to make quick requests and polite suggestions:

    May Can Could Would Should Might

    II. Please write a request that you might give or hear at work with these words.

    1. Can ______________________________________________?
    2. May ______________________________________________?
    3. Could _____________________________________________?
    4. Would_____________________________________________?
    5. Should_____________________________________________?
    6. Might _____________________________________________?

    Adding the word “please” makes your requests and suggestions sound nicer too!

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  6. Conversation tip #12: Nice truck!

    July 27, 2008 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Sometimes a simple comment leads to a delightful conversation.

    Today I noticed a very, very old truck parked on the street while walking my dog.

    “She’s as old as I am,” replied the owner from his frontyard. He soon came to the sidewalk. “Made in 1931.”

    Although I’m hardly a car guy, we proceeded to have a rather detailed and informative conversation about Ford, Model AA, and vocational education. That ancient truck, donated to a local veterans group, still runs. The local adult education high school will help train mechanics on it – and restore it. Cool.

    I have an old 1981 Volvo with 249,000 – and the antique truck owner, Deano, has several Toyotas with over 300,000. We both find something wonderful with quality cars built to last – unlike so many models today.

    Deano, by the way, is a former high school teacher who volunteers at the local Veterans Administration (VA) hospital. You can’t help but respect a man who helps soldiers and veterans recover from war wounds – visible and invisible.

    Friendly and folksy, I instantly felt comfortable with him and traded a few teachers’ tales. We shared a few frustrations with standardized tests too. We will, I suspect, have other fine conversations in the future.

    A casual comment, “nice truck”, lead to a satisfying exchange. with a neighbor. That’s my conversation tip #12: make a sincere comment about a situation and be curious about your neighbors. You never know what you will learn!

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