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

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

    August 15, 2013 by Eric
    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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  2. Homophones Can Haunt: A Minor Mistake in Miner Valley

    December 31, 2012 by Eric
    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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  3. Do Our Students Need to Swim in English or Pass Grammar Tests?

    October 26, 2012 by Eric Roth
    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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  4. The Language of Opportunity – Wabash profiles an English Teacher

    September 11, 2011 by Eric Roth
    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.

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  5. More Links for ESL Teachers About Informational Interviews

    June 21, 2011 by Chimayo Press
    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.
    http://www.quintcareers.com/informational_interviewing.html
    http://www.quintcareers.com/information_results.html
    http://www.quintcareers.com/informational_interview_questions.html

    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.
    http://careercenter.nd.edu/assets/488/informational_interviewing_guide_8.16.pdf

    Case University, also recommends their undergraduate students go on informational interviews during their junior and senior years.
    http://studentaffairs.case.edu/careers/alumni/network/sample.html

    Cornell University Law School recommends informational interviews too.
    http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/careers/students/explore_options/informational_interview.cfm

    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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  6. Ask Your English Students to Review TED.Com videos – and Create Compelling Conversations

    June 8, 2011 by Eric
    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.

    http://www.compellingconversations.com/worksheets/ted-video-summary-and-commentary.pdf

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