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

  1. Resources: Dissecting an Advertisement

    March 22, 2016 by Eric

    Pen on the newspaper career opportunity ad.

    “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.”

    ~Dr. Laurence J. Peter (1919-1990), Canadian-American educator

    When looking for a job, it’s important to assess what employers really want from potential hires. This is a crucial step in drafting tailored resumes, or resumes targeted at a specific employment opportunity. Sometimes, however, the meaning can get lost in messages laden with business jargon – especially for ESL students.

    How can we make sense of these ads? Pinpointing key words and how frequently they appear in job advertisements allows English language learners to see straight to the subtext, while identifying unfamiliar business terminology and expanding their vocabulary. Here’s a quick worksheet to get your students started.





    1. Find a written advertisement for a job that you would be interested in. Specify and circle action-oriented words or phrases that describe the skills necessary to apply for this position.

    2. Place parentheses around words that express achievement or value.

    3. Place brackets around superlatives (e.g., outstanding, strong, etc.)

    4. Identify and write down specialized terms (jargon) used in the ad.


    Which words appear most often? Determine the frequency of use on your own, then run the ad through a word map program like WordItOut or Wordle to check your results.

    For more content on job searching and interviews, check out the Practicing Job Interviews chapter from Compelling American Conversations! More sample chapters are available at both and


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  2. Teaching Matters: How much can we rely on standardized tests to assess?

    March 1, 2016 by Eric

    “Education is helping the child realize his potentialities.”

    ~Erich Fromm (1900-1980), German social psychologist and pscychoanalyst


    By Andrea Schmidt, Guest-writer 


    Standardized tests: how helpful are they in assessing one’s true skill level? This question has been asked by students and teachers alike, time and again. There is no denying that these tests’ formulaic questions often cover the subject in question’s essential foundational skills. But we must ask ourselves whether they scratch more than just the surface in terms of measuring the student’s true capabilities.

    For instance, take my experience with the SAT. I was never talented in mathematics, but I wasn’t incapable either. A quick learner, I often solved a variety of equations correctly if allotted ample time. Then there was the math section on the SAT. While I admit that there were plenty of equations I wouldn’t have been able to solve without reference – or an SAT prep course – regardless, there were also plenty of questions that I would have been able to solve, had the test not been timed. I was never quite able to think on my feet with numbers, but this wasn’t an indicator of my abilities in understanding the material itself.

    That being said, when I took the free EF Standard English Test, I should have known to take it with a grain of salt. The test promises to assess your current levels of English understanding in only 15 minutes, which almost seems too good to be true. But nevertheless, I went in optimistic. Reading and listening comprehension were always things I excelled at – even on the SATs.

    This test – the express version of a lengthier endeavor – consisted of two segments that assessed those same qualities through multiple choice questions surrounding an audio clip and a short reading, respectively. I thought it was fairly straightforward and clever. Though unintimidating in length, it still covered a lot of ground; designed for the test-taker to pick up on subtleties for a complete analysis, each section focuses on clarity of communication more than vocab or grammar – something we here at Chimayo Press have always championed. So, since English was my first (and only) language, it should have been a breeze, right?

    Well, the results were mixed. The test ranks you on a scale of low to high proficiency, with each of these further broken down into the upper and lower range within that ranking – think of the difference between getting a B+ and a B-. The first time I took the test, I scored with high-medium proficiency levels; in other words, a solid B+. Which wouldn’t have bothered me, had I not assumed my score would be in the A range. (My first language, remember?) So I took the test again. This time, I scored in the highest proficiency levels after changing a few answers at best. All that stood between me and this score was a second read-through of the material, it seemed. This could very well be the same for other students/test takers. If given a little more time, and possibly a larger variety of questions, would it improve the accuracy of the assessment?

    That topic is likely covered ad nauseam on the internet, with focus groups assembled to get to the bottom of it. All I can offer is my own experience. And while I can attest to the fact that the EFSET is as quick and painless as it advertises, I hope that educators who utilize this tool keep that in mind. After all, the road to language proficiency was never quick and painless.



    Andrea Schmidt is a former intern and current designer and deputy editor for Chimayo Press.


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  3. Teaching Matters: How democratic is your ESL classroom?

    January 15, 2016 by Eric

    college professor leccturing group of students

    “Education is a kind of continuing dialogue and a dialogue assumes, in the nature of the case, different points of view.”  

    ~Robert Hutchins (1899-1977), former President of University of Chicago and educational philosopher


    Continuing on the theme of creating a better classroom this semester, it is essential to make sure there is an ongoing dialogue between teachers and students. With this in mind, ask yourself: Who gets to speak in class? Whose ideas count? Who chooses the assignments? How do students receive feedback? Do students have a chance to conference with their instructors? Do you want your students to become self-directed – or autotelic  – in their studies?

    Here’s a quick checklist that ESL teachers that I created for a CATESOL workshop a while back called “Techniques for a More Democratic Classroom”. My core assumption remains that giving students more opportunities to literally speak, write, and share their insights leads to a more engaging, dynamic, and valuable classroom experience. Here are some more questions to consider:

    1. What are some of the students’ personal interests?
    2. Who do you currently teach? How would you describe the students?
    3. How can student interests be better incorporated into the curriculum?
    4. Which assignments do students currently choose? Which seems most successful? Why?
    5. What are some benefits of greater student participation?
    6. What are some risks of greater student participation?
    7. Do you want to increase the number of choices students make?
    8. What critical language skills can be taught by tapping into their interests?
    9. How can you tweak current material to better individualize instruction?
    10. What internet resources can you use to augment the current curriculum?
    11. Which exercises or activities do you find most successful in your classroom?
    12. What decisions do you keep as your prerogative as the instructor?
    13. How can you encourage your students to become self-directed learners?
    14. What skills do your English students need to realize that goal?
    15. What habits do students need to practice in a democratic classroom?
    16. What are some obstacles to a more democratic classroom?
    17. How does technology encourage a more democratic classroom?
    18. How can you create a more democratic classroom?

    From my perspective, a more democratic classroom provides immigrants and international students with a chance to demonstrate both linguistic skills and personal freedom. Many immigrants, especially from more closed societies, continue to believe that the only good student is the quiet student who listens, takes notes, memorizes, and repeats back the teacher’s words. Therefore, it behooves ESL teachers working in democratic societies to demonstrate a different definition of a good student where all students share their experiences, contribute their knowledge, and use their expanding English vocabulary to contribute. Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

    For more content related to making and breaking habits – and discussing them in the classroom – check out Chapter 3: Making and Breaking Habits from Compelling American Conversations, with expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!

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  4. Using 5W/H Filter & Creating Longer, Better Conversations

    November 25, 2015 by Eric



    What is the 5W/H filter? Who can use this technique? Where can English students use the 5W/H filter in daily conversations? When can they use this method? Why do many journalists and managers use the 5W/H filter in their work? How can the 5W/H filter keep conversations going?

    Some English students will already be familiar with the idea of 5W/H as the general question words: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. This checklist approach encourages speakers to bring these questions directly back into the conversation. Can you guess how it works?

    When you are asked a question, practice running the answer through the “5W/H Filter.” Make sure you answer at least two of the question words to provide details. Let’s look at an example of a typical casual conversation.

    Nick: What did you do this weekend?

    Nobu: I went shopping.

    Nick: That’s good.


    Nick: See you later.

    This short conversation might be pleasant, but it wasn’t too informative. Now let’s run the conversation through the 5W/H filter.

    Question: “What did you do this weekend?”


    What: Went shopping

    Who: With my sister

    When: Saturday

    Where: At the outlet

    Why: We were looking for a present for our brother’s birthday.

    How: We rode our bicycles.

    With the filter in place, Nobu has several places to take the conversation. When Nobu chooses to share at least three of the filtered answers, it’s much more interesting and compelling. Nick may then continue the conversation in several directions. Let’s take a look at how the conversation might go:

    Nick: What did you do this weekend?

    Nobu: I went shopping at the outlet on Saturday with my sister. We were looking
    for a present for our brother’s birthday.

    Nick: Oh, really? How old will your brother be?


    Nick: How is the outlet? I haven’t been there yet.


    Nick: I didn’t know you had a sister! How many people are in your family?

    By providing details, Nobu and Nick learn more and share more about their lives and activities. They can also maintain longer, better conversations. If they want, Nobu and Nick can cycle through the 5W/H filter again, and the two can talk for as long as they want! The good friends will learn more about each other and their friendship can
    become even stronger.


    Interested in learning more? Check out our sample chapter, Exploring Daily Habits from Compelling Conversations – Japan. Want your own copy? Click here for more information!

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  5. Search and Share exercises enhance learning resources

    October 10, 2014 by Eric

    Explore with Search and Share worksheets

    search and share

    Photo Source: Photo taken by Nicola Sapiens De Mitri

    “In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it.”

    -John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008) American theoretical physicist

    We live in a world full of wonderful resources from books to television to the internet. These resources remain invaluable to encourage our students to immerse themselves in the English language. Think of the conversations that can arise as a result!

    Search and Share exercises, otherwise known as Webquests, present themselves as popular tools for many teachers. Compelling Conversations has developed some of their own, which can be found here. These worksheets allow students to record what resources they used and what aspects to look out for. The questions accompanying each activity allow the student to reflect on the “search” aspect, and also serve as perfect conversation starters when students “share” with one another.

    Note the variety in the approach of these wonderful exercises. For instance, students may be looking out for body language, comparing with a video in their native language, hidden meaning or parallels to their own lives. They no longer have to dread filling out tedious, repetitive worksheets.

    I like to use these worksheets for Tedtalks, New York Times articles and of course, to accompany the chapters of Compelling Conversations. How do you encourage your students to “search and share” information in your English class?

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  6. Homophones Can Confuse: A Minor Mistake in Miner Valley

    June 20, 2014 by Eric

    Why it is so important for English learners to tackle homophones in the classroom

    “For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity.”

    ―Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), German writer

    English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. For instance, the gap between a word’s spelling and its pronunciation often presents a challenge for English learners. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones―different words with the same pronunciation. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number two from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.

    A “good mistake” I made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized the confusing nature of homonyms. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Sonoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists. The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley,” so the passenger asked Siri for directions. Siri, the impressive iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes, but did emphasize 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,” which means small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can still be confusing and colorful. Both “Miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” happened to be 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?” To understand each other, we must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better comprehend 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. We must first admit that 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.

    How will you make homophones easier to handle?


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