Compelling Conversations for English Teachers, Tutors, and Advanced English Language Learners
December 31, 2012 by Eric
English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. The common “gap” between how a word is spelled and how it sounds is one challenge. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones, different words with the same sound. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number 2 from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.
A “good mistake” made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized this obvious point. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Somoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists. The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley” so the passenger and navigator asked Siri for directions. Siri, the amazing iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes, but emphasizes 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” meaning small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can be confusing and colorful. Both “miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” are 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”? We must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better understand 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. Yet we have to admit 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.
Bottom line: English teachers need to both sympathize with the struggles of English language learners and teach homonyms in our ESL and EFL classes.
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Create Compelling Conversations.
Category: EFL English as a Foreign Language, English, English as a crazy language, English class, English langugage learners, English Teachers, ESL, ESL English as a Second Language, homophones, linguistics, Speaking Skills, teaching tips, tutoring tips, wordsTags: adult ESL, advanced ESL, EFL English as a Foreign Language, ELL, English teachers, English as a crazy language, English as a Second Language, English class, English Language Learners, English teacher, ESL resources, ESL teachers, ESL teaching tips, homophones, teaching tips, tutoring tips
October 26, 2012 by Eric Roth
Do our 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. 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?
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 the simple truth. These errors 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.”
Our ESL students don’t have to be speak perfect; they have to be understood 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.
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Create Compelling Conversations.
Category: adult education, adult ESL, adult literacy, Conversation lessons, EFL English as a Foreign Language, ELL, English class, ESL, natural EnglishTags: adult education, adult ESL, conversation skills, EFL English as a Foreign Language, English teachers, English Language Learners, ESL, ESL teachers, Speaking Skills, teaching English
September 11, 2011 by Eric Roth
Small American colleges often love their ambitious graduates. Wabash College, my alma mater and outstanding private liberal arts college in Indiana, certainly celebrates her favorite sons and treats them like stars. This fall’s Wabash Magazine advises graduates to “Look East, Young Man” as it celebrates the opening of the College’s new Asian Studies Center.
Inside, the magazine editor describes a “Language of Opportunity” article as “Eric Roth ’84 recounts how his attempt to start a free-thinking university in Vietnam led to the realization that the spread of the English language—in part through his own conversational English primer—may be the more immediate path to freedom of thought and expression in the region.”
Fortunately, the article also provides a larger context of teaching English in a closed (but still opening) society. The writer, Steve Charles, also explores the difficulties of adapting Compelling Conversations , an advanced conversation for ESL (English as a Second Language) students into an acceptable EFL (English as a Foreign Language) textbook, and explains how I came to publish two very different English language conversation textbooks. Please note that the original ESL book has 45 chapters, including “Voting”, and the EFL version for Vietnamese English Language Learners has 15 chapters with more vocabulary definitions.
“In addition to teaching at the University of Southern California, the former congressional aide and journalist (Roth) is co-author of Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. The book is an alternative text for teaching conversational English as a second language (ESL). It is recommended by a leading trade journal of English teaching professionals.”
The three-page glossy magazine piece continues to provide perspective and illuminate the role of English in the 21st century. “And in case you haven’t noticed, English is well on its way to becoming the world’s dominant language,” writes Charles.
“This is the first time in world history we actually have a language spoken genuinely globally by every country of the world,” writes David Crystal in English as a Global Language. As of 2005, almost a quarter of the world’s population spoke English as a native or second language. It is the de facto language of commerce and diplomacy. More than 80 percent of information stored on the Internet is in English. And while there are more speakers of Chinese, Spanish, and Hindi, they speak English when they talk across cultures, and it is English they teach their children in order to give them a chance in the world economy. More than 20,000 ESL teaching jobs are posted monthly; no longer a fallback, teaching ESL is becoming a lucrative first or second career. Some experts predict that by 2030 more than half the world’s population will speak English.”
Reading those simple, powerful facts about the explosion of English renewed my appreciation for our role as English teachers today. English remains the language of opportunity for millions seeking to study, work, and move abroad. The article allows me to explain. “I had been teaching ESL to immigrants, and I knew English was essential to their lives in the U.S., but on this trip we saw English as a truly global language. It is the gateway to a modern world, and to 21st century lives. And in countries like Vietnam and other developing nations, English is sometimes the only accessible means to advance yourself.” This insight lead to the title “the language of opportunity”.
The article also describes the educational philosophy behind Compelling Conversations .
“Combining his teaching experience and his liberal arts background, Roth collaborated with his mother, Toni Aberson—an English teacher for 35 years—to self-publish the first edition of the book. Dedicated to his father, Dani Roth—who spoke six languages and “could talk with almost anyone”—the book provides an alternative to “presentation-practice-production” approach to language learning, instead using quotations, questions, and proverbs to prompt conversation.”
“Some [quotes and questions] will have students roaring with laughter, while others require careful introspection,” wrote a reviewer (Hall Houston) for the ESL journal English Teaching Professional. “They are highly effective for promoting student discussion.”
“In the classroom and in the book we try to create a space that’s tolerant and rigorous at the same time,” Roth says. “The focus is on learning by doing, and we want to give people room to make good mistakes—errors that help us learn. When people expect themselves to be perfect, they go silent.”
Most of the book’s prompts ask for recollections or personal opinions.“Whatever perspective you bring to the book, I want you to find validation in some great thinker, that it’s okay to see things that way. That gives us all the freedom to be ourselves and less of who we think we should be, or who we’ve been programmed or conditioned to be.”
You can read the entire article here.
Like many other English teachers – of all kinds – I feel rich in life experiences, but we seldom get recognized for our hard work. We also also clearly make significant contributions to our grateful students and larger, positive global trends. And recognition feels good. Therefore, I’m grateful that Wabash College, a small Midwestern college in a small town, taught me to “disagree without being disagreeable” and see the big picture.
Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak More.
Create Compelling Conversations.
Category: censorship, Compelling Conversations, EFL English as a Foreign Language, ELL, English langugage learners, ESL, ESL/EFL teachers' resources, Teaching English in Vietnam, Teaching matters, TEFLTags: Compelling Conversations, Conversation lessons, EFL English as a Foreign Language, English teachers, English Language Learners, English teacher, English Teaching Professional, Eric Roth, ESL, ESL teachers, Hall Houston, Our World, Steve Charles, Steve Riggs, Teaching English in Vietnam, teaching tips, Vietnam, Wabash College, Wabash Magazine
June 21, 2011 by Chimayo Press
Informational interviews have become a common practice among American professionals, but many English language learners remain unfamiliar with this type of networking and job search activity. ESL teachers can create both compelling classroom assignments and provide opportunities for ESL students to explore their career options by including informational interviews in their courses.
As readers of this blog know, I have given several presentations at CATESOL conferences on “Informational Interviews: A Practical, Multi-skill Activity for High Intermediate and Advanced ESL Students.” Based on my six years of assigning both undergraduate native speakers and international graduate students at the University of Southern California to conduct informational interviews, this presentation demonstrated how this one presentation assignment can lead to an entire month of engaging, demanding, and career-focused lessons for advanced ESL students. Students expand their vocabulary, write questions, conduct an off-campus interview with a working professional in a field of interest, and share the career advice they collected in a short oral presentation. It’s a challenging, satisfying, and popular assignment in my oral skills classes.
A small vocational college in Los Angeles, CES College, asked me to share the exercise with their faculty last week. Would middle-aged immigrants in blue collar jobs find this exercise worthwhile? I’m quite confident that immigrants would learn from all steps of the exercise, and expanding their social network beyond relatives and friends remains essential. Mechanics can interview mechanics and car repair show owners, and construction workers can interview construction workers – or managers. The proof, as the cliche goes, will be in the pudding and let’s see what happens with their students in the next six months.
Would this exercise work in an EFL context? I’m not sure. Many American universities can count on alumni to help their students in their job search, and granting an informational interview is a relatively easy way to contribute. Many American professional organizations also encourage their members to both assist and recruit students into the field. It may be difficult in many cultures for a younger person with less status to directly contact an older professional to seek career advice.
I do know, however, that many American colleges and graduate programs train their students to go on informational interviews to gain more detailed knowledge of their prospective careers. As in so many other areas of American life, white collar professionals have far greater access to both more information and stronger personal networks. This assignment brings a best practice outside of the elite circles.
Informational interviews can also be used with high school students as they begin to focus on their career ambitions. Here is a short list of additional links that I found last night as I prepared my presentation. The links are loosely organized from the most general sites that explain the concept to general audiences in simple English to professional documents for more specialized, often graduate-school audiences. Adult and community college ESL programs would probably find the earlier links more helpful than the later ones. As ever, use or lose.
Quintessential Careers emphasizes the importance of informational interviews in short, clear, and informative articles. High intermediate and advanced ESL students should be able to handle the vocabulary.
University of Notre Dame Informational Interviewing – This six-page guide provides excellent step by step instructions for students needing assistance with locating individuals, asking interview questions, writing thank you notes, and professionally networking.
Case University, also recommends their undergraduate students go on informational interviews during their junior and senior years.
Cornell University Law School recommends informational interviews too.
Finally, here’s a 13-slide PowerPoint presentation titled “Networking and Informational Interviewing: Nuts and Bolts” by Scott Turner from USC Marshall School of Business, one of the world’s top MBA schools. Although I’m biased as a USC instructor, I think this presentation captures the practical possibilities of information interviewing. Many Marshall instructors advise MBA students that they should always be networking and conducting informational interviews during their graduate studies.
Given the difficult economic climate in many countries, I would suggest that it behooves more ESL and EFL teachers and tutors to consider adding informational interviews to their oral skills courses for their high-intermediate and advanced students.
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Create Compelling Conversations.
Category: adult education, ELL, English class, ESL, Speaking Skills, VESL, workplace communication skills, workplace EnglishTags: adult education, adult ESL, Advanced ESL speaking assignments, business English, CATESOL, ELL, ESL teachers, ESP, informational interviews, VESL, vocational English, vocational ESL, workplace skills
June 8, 2011 by Eric
How can you encourage your advanced ESL students to develop their speaking skills and tap their interest in our rapidly changing world? Create compelling classroom assignments that respect their intelligence, engage their curiosity, and model great speaking skills. Let your students be hunters, gathers, and presenters of new information to their classmates!
Adding a homework assignment that requires ESL students to go the “ideas worth sharing” website at www.TED.com accomplishes all these goals. For the last four years, I have asked both college and international graduate students to select a short TED.com video, watch it, and prepare to share their impressions in class. Since many students have evolving English language skills and the course is an advanced oral skills class, they just take notes. What’s the title? Where was the lecture given? Who gave the lecture? Date? How did they open the presentation? Was their a significant quote? What sources were orally cited? How would they rate the video on a scale of 1-5? Why did they choose this TED video? Why do they recommend we watch it too?
Students will often watch several TED videos before choosing a favorite one. This advanced ESL homework assignment seems to capture their imagination as they explore the TED website. The next day, students discuss the TED video that they selected in small groups of four. Afterwards, I ask for “brave volunteers” to share their impressions – i.e., review – with the class. Usually everyone wants to present so we extend the lesson to a second class where I videotape all the presentations. The class sessions are always illuminating, engaging, and surprising as I learn more about students, their interests, our evolving world, and their English language speaking skills. This democratic speaking skills activity creates an atmosphere where “everybody is a student, and everybody is a teacher.” Result: the entire class creates compelling classroom conversations!
As the old American cereal commercial used to say, “try it – you’ll like it” – at least with more advanced English students!
For ESL teachers who want a more formal assignment, you can also use this more detailed worksheet.
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Create Compelling Conversations.
Category: academic matters, Compelling Conversations, democratic classroom, EFL English as a Foreign Language, English class, English langugage learners, ESL, ESL worksheets, ESL/EFL teachers' resources, Speaking Skills, teaching tips, TED.comTags: academic presentations, advanced EFL, advanced ESL, class presentations, ESL teachers, oral skills, Speaking Skills, TED.com
July 23, 2010 by Eric Roth
Newspapers tell us the news, and inform us about how today is different from yesterday. They provide us with some clues and some information to help us better understand our rapidly changing world. They arrive at our homes, on our laptops, and in our libraries.
But what about our English classrooms? How often do you use newspapers in your ESL classes?
Newspapers allow students to expand their vocabulary, follow current events, and deepen their understanding of our rapidly changing world. As a former journalist, teaching English with newspapers and magazines seems absolutely natural. My standard homework requires students to select, read, summarize, and evaluate an article of their choice and bring to class for a discussion.
Students provide the basic background information:
length # of sources:
List five new or important vocabulary words:
The ESL students also make some judgments:
What’s a key quote?
What’s the main idea? Why?
Finally, students answer three other questions:
What did you learn in this article?
Why did you choose the article?
How would rate the article on a scale of 1-10? Why?
Students pursue their own interests – with some guidance – and develop a stronger English vocabulary that they want and need for their personal and academic development. Naturally, they bring in topics and articles, in English and from the internet, from around the world. This regular homework activity creates an engaging, informative classroom atmosphere while allowing students to “create” some course content.
Many ESL and EFL teachers, however, often feel reluctant to use newspapers. Sometimes teachers feel that newspapers distract from their textbooks; sometimes it adds elements of uncertainty. I suspect, however, that many English teachers also don’t quite know how to effectively deploy newspapers in their classrooms. The newspapers in classroom movement remains more of an ideal than common practice in the United States.
American newspapers would like to change that fact. The New York Times wants ESL teachers to add their quality international paper to the curriculum. Here’s an excellent 4-page primer outlining 10 Ways to Support English Language Learners with the New York Times . And despite the descriptive headline, the informative article actually outlines over 25 activities and provides links to dozens of exceptional educational resources for both students and teachers. Students can find archival photographs to write postcards from the past, research their birthdays in history, find tourist information on their hometowns for oral presentations, and compare and contrast how different countries approach global problems. Worksheets have been developed for an online vocabulary log, understanding prepositions, and a problem-solution organizer.
Bottomline: This exceptional, flexible teacher’s resource makes using newspapers much easier for novice English teachers and time-starved experience ESL instructors.
Can all English classrooms use newspapers? No. Yet many low level and intermediate classes can use Easy English Times, USA Today, or the local English paper and focus on simpler, shorter headlines and articles. High intermediate and advanced students, however, can – and I would suggest should – try to read serious newspaper such as The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.
So let’s help our students and bring newspapers into our classrooms.
Our students, after all, want to understand their world – in English!
Do you teach lower level English students? See these tips from the American literacy newspaper Easy English Times for beginner students)
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Create Compelling Conversations.
Category: adult ESL, ESL/EFL teachers' resourcesTags: adult education, adult ESL, Easy English Times, EFL instructors, English teachers, English Language Learners, ESL teachers, New York Times, newspapers, newspapers in classrooms, teacher resources, teaching English, teaching tips