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

  1. Paraphrasing is an Essential Conversation Skill!

    July 10, 2014 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Why English teachers should not overlook the importance of paraphrasing

    “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

    ―Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German physicist

    Paraphrasing matters in conversation too-especially when learning a new language!

    Experienced English teachers know that students must learn paraphrasing skills to complete academic writing assignments. Likewise paraphrasing remains a vital skill for English language learners to participate in college classrooms, everyday conversations, social situations and commercial transactions.

    The ability to re-phrase and re-state, usually called paraphrasing, allows English students to confirm information, accurately convey that information and avoid plagiarism problems when writing papers. As a result, paraphrasing is usually emphasized in English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) writing classes. Classes and teachers focusing on oral skills from academic presentations to simple conversations should also devote some attention to paraphrasing too.

    English language students, whether university or adult and young or old, must learn to confirm information by asking clarification questions. This critical skill, crucial to effective paraphrasing, will increase their ability to collect information, avoid costly mistakes and reduce their everyday stress level. It’s also impossible to accurately paraphrase a conversation if one is confused about the meaning. Some useful phrases for a listener to ask include:

    Are you saying…?
    Do you mean?
    What are you getting at?
    If I understand you correctly, you are saying …
    So you are saying… Right?
    Did I get that right?
    Speakers can also check to see if their group members and classmates understand their directions.
    Are you with me?
    Can you understand me?
    Was I going too fast?
    Should I rephrase that?
    Do you follow?
    Is that clear?
    Should I repeat the directions?
    Do you want me to repeat that?
    Would it be better for me to repeat that?
    Can I answer any questions?
    Is anybody lost?

    Asking advanced English students to repeat directions, in different words, can also be an effective group activity. The directions can be to a physical location (home, campus building, museum) or how to do something simple like finding a definition or sending an email. You can also extend the assignment by requesting detailed directions on a complicated procedure such as getting a driver’s license, applying for a visa or choosing a new laptop.

    Furthermore, you can ask students to share an autobiographical story. Student A tells a story, and Student B retells that story with different words to Student C. This paraphrasing exercise also helps build a larger, more practical vocabulary.

    Another teaching technique that I have found useful is asking students to paraphrase proverbs and quotations. This exercise, done in groups of two, often finishes with asking if students agree or disagree with the specific proverb or quotation. Of course, students have to give a reason and/or an example to support their answers. ESL tutors and English teachers lucky to have small classes can elaborate on this technique to match student interests.

    If English students can accurately paraphrase a reading, a radio segment, or a verbal statement, they can actively participate in common conversations and classroom discussions. Many English teachers underestimate the importance of this skill, and assume students understand it more than they might. Verbal paraphrasing activities allow both students and teachers to assess listening comprehension skills in a natural, authentic manner.

    Therefore, verbal paraphrasing deserves more attention in speaking activities – especially in high intermediate and advanced levels! Don’t you agree?

    What techniques or exercises do you use to improve paraphrasing skills?

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  2. Passion and Persistence: Self-Published ESL Authors Tell Their Stories

    January 25, 2010 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    What motivates ESL teachers to become authors? Why do many of these authors self-publish? What’s their likelihood of success?

    Naturally, I’m quite interested in these questions – and hope other English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers will share my interests. The acceptance of this panel discussion by CATESOL for the state conference both surprised and pleased me – especially since I’m the third panelist!

    Here is the original 300-word proposal written in third person to make it sound more academic. Elizabeth Weal, the panel organizer and ESL author, wrote the successful proposal. She also chose the catchy title.
    Passion and Persistence: Self-Published ESL Authors Tell Their Stories

    In this CATESOL panel discussion, three authors of ESL books will share the pleasures and perils of self-publishing as well as offer tips for those contemplating writing and publishing an ESL text.

    Like most sectors of the textbook market, the ESL textbook market is dominated by a few large publishers. But the situation is rapidly changing as increasing numbers of ESL professionals-turned-authors start their own publishing companies, maintaining control over virtually every aspect of the book production process.

    In this panel three authors of successful ESL books will recount their experiences publishing ESL texts. What motivated them to put pen to paper? Why did they self-publish as opposed to turning to a traditional publisher? How do these authors define success? What has been their greatest disappointment? What previously unfilled niche does their book fill?

    The authors also will touch on some of the key issues self-published authors most address: Concerns about self-publishing and academic respectability, risks and benefits of self-publishing, and steps to follow in the self-publishing process.

    Each panelist comes to the table with a different perspective. Diane Asitimbay, author of What’s Up America? wanted to answer the most common and embarrassing questions ESL students asked her; Eric H. Roth, author of Compelling Conversations teaches international graduate students the pleasures and perils of writing and speaking in English at the University of Southern California. Elizabeth Weal, author of Gramática del ingles: Past a paso and English Grammar Step by Step wanted to find a way to explain English grammar to Spanish speakers who knew very little about grammar in English or Spanish.

    Ample time will be left at the end of the discussion to take questions from the audience.

    Self-publishing is both a pleasure and a headache, but I’m going to accent the positive. After all, as Churchill noted, “success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm.”

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  3. What Does Success Mean? What Definition Works for You?

    August 10, 2009 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Sometimes the simplest questions create the best conversations.

    What does success mean? What definition are you using? How is that definition working for you?

    After a hectic summer teaching English and directing a private high school English program in Vietnam, I’ve been asking myself these questions quite a bit. I learned many lessons, deepened a close friendship with two old friends, met many fine English teachers, and enjoyed working and living in a rapidly developing nation. I discovered new places, ate new dishes, and saw new sights. That sounds like success.

    From a professional English teaching perspective, I also made some significant curriculum changes, adding more student-centered activities and oral presentations. Further, I oversaw the creation of a new, tailored version of Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations for Vietnamese English Language Learners. From the resume perspective, the summer certainly was successful. The bank account shows progress. Success right?

    Yet there were several disappointments and setbacks both inside and outside the private school and EFL classrooms too. “Stunning” became an adjective of choice, and often as an expression of exasperation. The everyday restriction of information and huge income disparities continually discomforted me. I experienced culture shock for weeks, and often felt dislocated and ill at ease. I didn’t exactly feel successful. Or at least, this success didn’t feel so comfortable. As George Bernard Shaw noted, “Success covers a multitude of blunders.”

    Therefore, I’ve been reflecting on the meaning of career success, and having some wonderful conversations with friends and fellow English and ESL teachers. Do you know the website I often go there for ideas – and sometimes classroom materials for advanced ESL students.

    Today, this lecture on developing a kinder, gentler definition of success from a TED conference by Alain de Botton commanded my attention. With wit and humor, the philosophical author critiqued the contemporary obsession with career success.

    Personally, I found Botton’s words and reflections refreshing and helpful. You might too. Listen for yourself, and found out!

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    A kinder, gentler definition of success


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  4. Authentic Conversations vs Crazed Crowds in Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler

    February 22, 2009 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Have you seen Slumdog Millionaire yet? What about the Wrestler? Both of these outstanding films offer many poignant scenes, powerful performances, and excellent dialogue. Both movies should collect at least a few Oscars tonight.
    Yet one often overlooked feature of both films remains their depiction of the allure and danger of crowds. A mob scene, fueled by religious hatred, leads to a brutal massacre in Slumdog Millionaire that haunts the main character. Unfortunately, as the recent televised terrorist attacks in Mumbai show, religious intolerance remains a huge problem both within India and between India and Pakistan.
    Likewise, The Wrestler shows the pleasures for a star pe- whether as a wrestler or stripper – of a crowd’s attention and brief affection. Yet the film also discloses both the fragility of the crowd’s affection – and ugly underside that can emerge. Wresting crowds scream for righteous violence, pushing performers to both abuse their rivals and themselves to appease the calls for literal blood. How far have we really come since ancient Roman gladiators?
    Further, both award-winning films show how individuals need to connect and overcome isolation. Authentic, private conversations offer a chance for characters to find solace, friendship, and love.
    The Wrestler gives glimpses into the possibilities for a broken father-daughter relationship with seaside walks and talks. Yet it also painfully portrays the gap between vague intentions and actual commitment when a father fails to ask questions, listen to, and pay attention to his daughter.
    In the film, the wrestler knows almost nothing about his daughter – and can only relate on a superficial role to role manner. Without giving away too much of the plot, the main character’s inability to really talk to and care about females leads to dangerous dependence on worshiping crowds. He could relate to groups of people – and his profession encouraged relating based on stereotypes. This failure to engage with individuals instead of abstract types causes many painful mistakes – and helps push the Wrestler over the edge.
    I recognize that creating space for authentic classroom conversations, especially in a second, third, or fourth language is difficult. Private English tutors often form a closer, more natural bond while teaching English than many adult education English teachers working with large classes. That’s probably inevitable since numbers do matter. After all, tutors can tailor their private English lessons to their clients and allow natural conversations to evolve.
    Yet caring, thoughtful English teachers can also carve out some space for students to express their thoughts and share their experience in both classroom discussions and private conversations. Conversation practice, however, makes English class far more student-centered and gives students a chance to learn by doing. In fact, I consider teaching conversation skills to be an essential skill for everyone – parents, children, immigrants, workers, wrestlers, policeman, and family members. Conversation allows us to learn about others, explore our own lives, and overcome loneliness. Just asking questions, listening to responses, and exchanging a few reflective words can deepen and improve relationships – inside a classroom and outside in the world.
    Authentic conversations as the healthy counter to mindless violence of crazed crowds can be clearly seen in both Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler. Perhaps that message will reach some of the estimated 1 billion people watching the Oscar show later tonight on television and at parties. I hope so.
    As Thomas Mann wrote, “Silence isolates… Conversation is civilization itself.”

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  5. English Teaching Professional Strongly Recommends Compelling Conversations!

    January 29, 2009 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Consider my global soul satisfied this morning!

    English Teaching Professional, a glossy magazine for ESL teachers and language school directors, gave a glowing review and strong recommendation to Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. “In sum, Compelling Conversations is a recommended resource for teachers who want to make their conversation classes more learner-centered,” wrote reviewer Hall Houston. “It should be especially appealing to those who who to escape the confines of the Presentation-Practice-Production approach and do without a formal grammatical or functional syllabus. It reflects the authors’ considerable professional experience, and would be a notable addition to any English teacher’s bookshelf.” The review also features a large copy of the book cover. Wow!

    Houston also writes, “In my own teaching, I have found questions and quotations to be highly effective in promoting student discussion.” The review continues. “Questions are useful in that they require a response from the listener. Asking them also helps students master the tricky rules of the interrogative.”

    “Quotations are brilliant flashes of wit expressed in the shortest space possible, often just a sentence or two,” observes Houston. “The authors have compiled a formidable collection of quotations by famous people from Napoleon and Aristotle to Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone. Some will have the students roaring with laughter ‘My movies were the kind they show in prisons and airplanes because nobody can leave.’ – Burt Reynolds), while others require careful introspection (‘Love is not just looking at each other; it’s looking in the same direction.’ – Antoine de Saint Exupery).”

    The reviewer goes on. “The authors also add some wise proverbs here and there. My two favourites were ‘Recite “patience” three times and it will spare you a murder’ and ‘When money talks, truth keeps silent’, which are from Korea and Russia.” Houston, by the way, is the author of the outstanding ESL textbook The Creative Classroom: Teaching Languages Outside the Book. Coming from Houston, these words are especially pleasing.

    My co-author Toni Aberson also appreciates that Houston, an English teacher working in Luzhu, Taiwan wrote the review in a British magazine with British spellings about an English textbook published in the United States. This international element adds a special delight to a long, three column review. “I just love it!”, exclaimed Aberson. We certainly live in a wonderful time to be English teachers.

    While I my copy of English Teaching Professional two days ago, the January 2009 issue has been out for at least a week. The review appears on p.44 in Issue 60. Subscribers can access the full review at

    This positive book review might help explain the recent surge of class set orders. It also helps explain the sudden collection of emails and calls from Vietnam, Russia, Italy, and Canada in the last week about Compelling Conversations and possible collaborations. The appreciation of fellow ESL professionals gives me additional confidence, joy, and popularity. Sweet!

    Let’s enjoy our 21st century lives!

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  6. How Many American Adults Can Not Read This Blog? Can Not Read?

    January 10, 2009 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Illiteracy, the inability to turn abstract symbols called letters into meaningful words, should be a vanishing problem. Unfortunately, in the United States, adult illiteracy remains quite widespread.

    How many American adults can’t even read this blog? How many American adults can’t read a simple newspaper article, understand warning labels, or write an effective complaint letter? Can’t read? Take a guess. Five million adults? Ten million adults? Twelve million adults?

    According to a new federal study just released, an estimated 32 million American adults remain functionally illiterate in 2009.

    Greg Toppo told part of the depressing story yesterday in an excellent, concise USA TODAY frontpage article. Title? Literacy Study: 1 in 7 U.S. adults are unable to read this story. “A long-awaited federal study finds that an estimated 32 million adults in the USA — about one in seven — are saddled with such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book.”

    Is the situation improving? NO! “From 1992 to 2003, it shows, the USA added about 23 million adults to its population; in that period, an estimated 3.6 million more joined the ranks of adults with low literacy skills.” A U.S. Education Department expert explains. “”They really cannot read … paragraphs (or) sentences that are connected,”

    USA TODAY deserves credit for bringing more attention than usual to this avoidable tragedy. President John F. Kennedy famously noted that “a child miseducated is a child lost.” Those lost children have become adults!

    So how can we explain these shocking (yet very familiar to experts) findings? How is this possible? Why is this awful situation tolerated? Please don’t tell me that there is a lack of money because the federal government just gave away – without conditions or even pretense of accountability – $350 BILLION dollars to wealthy banks and mega international corporations.

    The American public education system is failing on multiple levels. Adult education remains the stepchild of public education. Underfunded, often overlooked, and seldom appreciated, adult education plays a vital role in teaching essential life skills – including reading and writing – to thousands. Thousands of adult educators work long hours in stressful jobs, often part-time without fulltime benefits, to help high school dropouts prepare for a GED and new immigrants learn English. Yet the gap between the objective educational needs and funding to provide a real first world education to these struggling adults remains huge.

    “Only the educated are free,” noted Epictetus, a former slave and Greek stoic philosopher, over 2,000 years ago. How free are those 32 illiterate American adults?

    Will President Obama address this widespread, documented crisis in public education? Perhaps.
    The United States is wasting our capital resources! It’s long past time to invest in our own people, rebuild our inner cities, and recover the American dream. So will Obama reorganize our education system and direct billions needed to provide real universal public education?

    Consider me, as so often, a sceptic.

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