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

  1. 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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  2. Teaching Matters: What Are Reasonable Standards for Listening Comprehension and Speaking Skills for ESL Students?

    January 11, 2016 by Eric


    “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.”

    ~John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), 35th President of the U.S.


    Tough question! Context, as ever, matters.

    Are you going into a new semester of class looking for a clear, detailed chart to evaluate the speaking skills of your students? Check out the practical chart with ten categories for listening comprehension and speaking skills developed by the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement and revised by the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning. Where did I find it? As so often, I went to the Center for Applied Linguistics website. This wonderful resource has been around for years, but maintains its relevancy.

    Their chart seems quite sensible for most teaching situations with clear Student Performance Level (SPL) descriptors. The descriptors for listening comprehension and oral communication are intended to establish a consistent standard that government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profits can all use to share evaluations. Despite the bureaucratic title, the chart itself contains excellent descriptions that English teachers and testers can use for adult English language learners. After having been in several long faculty discussions over standards for oral skills, I appreciate the explicit standards combined with some flexibility.

    Developed specifically for adult refugees, it resembles other charts, yet includes more details and an explicit acknowledgment of economics. I like that awareness even if this factor can sometimes be misused to justify low standards in adult education programs. Our job as educators is to provide our students with the language skills to live fuller, more satisfying lives – in English – wherever they choose to live and work.

    Here it is in its entirety:

    Student Performance Level (SPL) Descriptors for Listening Comprehension and Oral Communication

    SPL General Language Ability Listening Comprehension Oral Communication

    0 = No ability whatsoever

    • No listening comprehension ability whatsoever
    • No speaking ability whatsoever

    1 = Functions minimally, if at all, in English. Can handle only very routine entry-level jobs that do not require oral communication, and in which all tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers can rarely communicate with a person at this level except through gestures.

    • Understands only a few isolated words, and extremely simple learned phrases.
    • Vocabulary limited to a few isolated words. No control of grammar.

    2 = Functions in a very limited way in situations related to immediate needs. Can handle only routine entry-level jobs that do not require oral communication, and in which all tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have great difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands a limited number of very simple learned phrases, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
    • Expresses a limited number of immediate survival needs using very simple learned phrases.

    3 = Functions with some difficulty in situations related to immediate needs. Can handle routine entry-level jobs that involve only the most basic oral communication, and in which all tasks can be demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have great difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands simple learned phrases, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
    • Expresses immediate survival needs using simple learned phrases.

    4 = Can satisfy basic survival needs and a few very routine social demands. Can handle entry-level jobs that involve some simple oral communication, but in which tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands simple learned phrases easily, and some simple new phrases containing familiar vocabulary, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
    • Expresses basic survival needs including asking and responding to related questions, using both learned and a limited number of new phrases. Participates in basic conversations in a few very routine social situations. Speaks with hesitation and frequent pauses. Some control of basic grammar.

    5 = Can satisfy basic survival needs and some limited social demands. Can handle jobs and job training that involve following simple oral instructions but in which most tasks can also be demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have some difficulty communicating with a person at this level.

    • Understands learned phrases easily and short new phrases containing familiar vocabulary spoken slowly with repetition. Has limited ability to understand on the telephone.
    • Functions independently in most face-to-face basic survival situations but needs some help. Asks and responds to direct questions on familiar and some unfamiliar subjects. Still relies on learned phrases but also uses new phrases (i.e., speaks with some creativity) but with hesitation and pauses. Communicates on the phone to express a limited number of survival needs, but with some difficulty. Participates in basic conversations in a limited number of social situations. Can occasionally clarify general meaning.

    6 = Can satisfy most survival needs and limited social demands. Can handle jobs and job training that involve following simple oral and written instructions and diagrams. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speak¬ers will be able to communicate with a person at this level on familiar topics, but with difficulty and some effort.

    • Understands conversations containing some unfamiliar vocabulary on many every¬day subjects, with a need for repetition, rewording or slower speech. Has some ability to understand without face-to-face contact (e.g. on the telephone, TV).
    • Functions independently in most survival situations, but needs some help. Relies less on learned phrases; speaks with creativity, but with hesitation. Communicates on the phone on familiar subjects but with some difficulty. Participates with some confidence in social situations when addressed directly. Can sometimes clarify general meaning by rewording. Control of basic grammar evident, but inconsistent; may attempt to use more difficult grammar but with almost no control.

    7 = Can satisfy survival needs and routine work and social demands. Can handle work that involves following oral and simple written instructions in familiar and some unfamiliar situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can generally communicate with a person at this level on familiar topics.

    • Understands conversations on most everyday subjects at normal speed when addressed directly; may need repetition, rewording, or slower speech. Understands routine work-related conversations. Increasing ability to understand without face-to-face contact (telephone, TV, radio). Has difficulty following conversation between native speakers.
    • Functions independently in survival and many social and work situations, but may need help occasion¬ally. Communicates on the phone on familiar subjects. Expands on basic ideas in conversation, but still speaks with hesitation while searching for appropriate vocabulary and grammar. Clarifies general meaning easily, and can sometimes convey exact meaning. Controls basic grammar, but not more difficult grammar.

    8 = Can participate effectively in social and familiar work situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can communicate with a person at this level on almost all topics.

    • Understands general conversation and conversation on technical subjects in own field. Understands without face-to-face contact (telephone, TV, radio); may have difficulty following rapid or colloquial speech. Understands most conversations between native speakers; may miss details if speech is very rapid or colloquial or if subject is unfamiliar.
    • Participates effectively in practical and social conversation and in technical discussions in own field. Speaks fluently in both familiar and unfamiliar situations; can handle problem situations. Conveys and explains exact meaning of complex ideas. Good control of grammar.

    9 = Can participate fluently and accurately in practical, social, and work situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can communicate easily with a person at this level.

    • Understands almost all speech in any context. Occasionally confused by highly colloquial or regional speech.
    • Approximates a native speaker’s fluency and ability to convey own ideas precisely, even in unfamiliar situations. Speaks without effort. Excellent control of grammar with no apparent patterns of weakness.

    10 = Ability equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.

    • Listening comprehension equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.
    • Speaking skill equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.


    These standards, of course, remain more relevant for adult educators, social workers, and workplace programs than more academic programs. English teachers should, however, create classroom activities where students can engage in extended conversations in English on a wide variety of topics. The higher levels of this chart (SPL 9-10) articulate an excellent standard for all English language learners, including academic English and Business English students. What standards will you adopt for your English classes?


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  3. Resources: Links for ESL Teachers About Informational Interviews

    January 8, 2016 by Eric

    “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.”

    ~Vidal Sassoon (1928-2012), British hairstylist and businessman


    Late last year, we published a blog post on mock job interviews and self-evaluation. In connection to that, here are some helpful links we’ve found in the past for teachers and students alike to encourage networking and a better sense of self.



    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 years of experience of teaching both undergraduate native speakers and international graduate students at the University of Southern California, I’ve found that practicing informational interviews as an oral 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 presentation. It’s a challenging, satisfying, and popular assignment in my oral skills classes.

    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.

    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’ve curated on the subject. 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.


    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. Do you have any further resources? Let us know!

    For more related content, check out Chapter 12: Practicing Job Interviews from Compelling American conversations, featuring expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!

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  4. How Do You Teach the Difference Between “Make” and “Do” in Your English Classrooms?

    July 14, 2014 by User ImageEric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Distinguishing the difference between make and do in English classrooms

    “Do all you can to make your dreams come true.”

    ―Joel Osteen (1960- ) American preacher

    How do you teach the difference between “make” and “do” in your English classrooms?

    What do you do? What do you make? What’s the difference, anyway, between “make” and “do”?
    These simple words cause lots of confusion for English language learners. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time teaching a very wide range of ESL classes this particular distinction. Many ESL students struggle with “make” and “do” – from advanced adult education and community college students to intermediate English students in summer courses and regular university courses. In some languages, “make” and “do” are sometimes assigned the same verb–for example, “hacer” in Spanish takes on both meanings. The large number of idioms involving these two words further complicates the problem.
    Here is a quick guide that helps clarify the issue.

    Look at some common expressions with “do”:
    Do the dishes.
    Do some chores.
    Do your work.
    Do exercises.
    Do your best.
    Do it over.
    Do the report.

    Do is used to describe an activity that you have to perform, or complete, often over and over again. For instance, we “do the dishes” and “do the laundry” many times. Do also contains an element of duty and responsibility.

    Now, take a look at some expressions with “make”:
    Please make time.
    You make dinner.
    You make drawings.
    You make decisions.
    You make plans.
    Your make reservations.
    You make money.
    You make friends.

    Make is used to describe a creative activity or something you choose to do. Something is usually produced or formed in the process. You choose, for instance, to make plans, make friends, and make decisions. You have choices.

    Why do we say “make dinner” if we have to do it over and over? Perhaps because cooking is seen more as a creative activity than a chore. But cleaning the table, and cleaning the dishes are just chores so we say “do the table” and “do the dishes.” In these examples, nothing is generated in the process. That’s also why Americans say “make money” instead of “do money.” Making money means generating revenue, and therefore, something has been created.

    Idioms, of course, are often cultural and therefore sometimes less than completely logical. Sometimes Americans will use the verb make in a way that might seem strange, but I urge immigrants and international students to “make a decision,” “do your best” and practice using practical workplace idioms using make and do.

    Finally, I encourage students to work together in small groups and create their own list of idioms with make and do. When I’m lucky and have time, I like to ask students to come to the white board and write their collection of idioms on the board. Homework, of course, is asking them to choose 5-10 idioms and write complete sentences.

    So how do you teach the difference between do and make to your English students?

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  5. 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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  6. What Three Tips Would You Share with Novice ESL / EFL Teachers?

    August 15, 2013 by Eric
    What three tips would offer new a ESL/EFL teacher?

    Hall Houston, author of Provoking Thought: Memory and Thought in ELT, posed this question to several prominent English language trainers and teachers last year. Sean Banville, Russell Stannard, Chia Suan Chong, Nik Peachey, Scott Thornbury, and myself replied. (Naturally, I feel grateful to be included with these far more notable and accomplished ELT educators.) Houston placed these practical, sometimes surprising, and often illuminating responses together in the back of his latest educational book The ELT Daily Journal: Learning to Teach ESL/EFL.

    Here are my three tips for novice English teachers working with English language learners.

    1. Create Classroom Rituals – Beginnings and endings matter. Establishing clear classroom expectations and class rituals increase student comfort, establish a professional atmosphere, and improve student learning. One of my favorite classroom rituals is asking a personal question on the daily attendance sheet that re-enforces the day’s lesson, checks off a bureaucratic necessity, allows individual student expression, and builds group cohesion and student curiosity. Adding a relevant pithy quotation at the bottom adds another layer of engagement.

    2. Encourage “Good Mistakes” – Since mistakes are both inevitable and part of the learning process, encourage students to take chances, stretch their English muscles, and make “good mistakes” in a safe, tolerant space. Good mistakes are common mistakes that we can learn from so we can go on to make new, different, and better “good mistakes”. Sometimes students allow the demon of perfectionism to paralyze them, and framing errors as “good mistakes” can reduce the fear and stigma around making errors so students can learn more by doing more.

    3. Deploy YouTube (or other video channels) – The easy access to thousands of authentic materials on YouTube and other online channels makes teaching English easier and more satisfying than ever. Instead of just playing a single video clip in class, you can have high intermediate and advanced students find their own videos for homework and summarize them for classmates. “Search and share” homework assignments encourage student curiosity, develop critical thinking skills, and require students to speak as they describe and evaluate videos for classmates.

    (You can find several such worksheets that I’ve created here.)

    The ELT Daily Journal provides over a dozen similar sets of responses in the appendix. Designed for new teachers, the simple format poses a question or provides a suggestion to stimulate writing about classroom experiences. Although I’ve taught for over two decades and seldom kept a formal teaching journal, I found it a quick, satisfying read that evoked some positive and a few awkward classroom experiences. Consequently, this book serves as a quick primer on best ESL/EFL teaching practices and core ELT principles.

    This thin, practical book has been added to my ESL/EFL library and professional development workshops. I look forward to sharing the book, especially with novice English teachers. I certainly wish I had read and used this journal when I taught my first English class so many moons ago. You might find it useful too.

    We all have classroom experiences as students or teachers. What advice would you offer to new ESL/EFL teachers? Why?
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