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

  1. McREL standards provide universal guide for teachers

    July 14, 2014 by Eric
    Eric

    Foreign language classrooms could benefit from McREL standards

    “You are never too old to set a new goal or to dream a new dream.”

    ―C.S. Lewis (1889-1936) British author

    While conducting research for a review on Journeys In Film, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching social study through film, I came across the Mid-Continental Research for Education and Learning (McREL) standards.

    For teachers, whether affiliated with an institution or not, the McREL standards for foreign language can be a great guide to keep students on track. The five broad standards found on the main site can be required of learners of any language. I personally will use the pragmatic and universal standards in some form in my classrooms at USC next year for my advanced oral skills courses.

    Here’s a snapshot of the standards that can be used to evaluate a student’s proficiency in a foreign language:

    1. Uses the target language to engage in conversations, express feelings and emotions, and exchange opinions and information

    2. Understands and interprets written and spoken language on diverse topics from diverse media

    3. Presents information, concepts, and ideas to an audience of listeners or readers on a variety of topics

    4. Understands traditional ideas and perspectives, institutions, professions, literary and artistic expressions, and other components of the target culture

    5. Understands that different languages use different patterns to communicate and applies this knowledge to the target and native languages

    By the way, McREL International describes itself as “a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan education research and development corporation”. Founded in 1996, they created these international organization standards to nudge global education upwards. Curious, dedicated global educators can check out the standards and topics here and for more specific outlines, and follow the links.

    Will the McREL standards be in your classroom next year?

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

    by Eric 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. Why We Wrote Compelling American Conversations for Intermediate American English Language Learners

    July 18, 2012 by Eric
    Eric

    “America needs new immigrants to love and cherish it.”

    - Eric Hoffer (1902-1983), American writer and longshoreman

    Compelling American Conversations: Questions and Quotations for intermediate American English language learners explicitly emphasizes American English, speaking skills, and democratic values.

    The primary audience remains newcomers to the United States, recent and not-so-recent immigrants, who may be studying at an American high school, adult school, community college, or university. Focused on the aspirations – and needs – of intermediate English language learners, our new book shows a variety of ways to create and sustain authentic conversations with a developing English vocabulary.  Compelling American Conversations challenges intermediate English language learners to reflect and speak about their lives and experiences on 15 topics in class and in English.  Knowing English should include the ability to speak English.

    See sample chapters from Compelling American Conversations here.

    Therefore, we deliberately chose to emphasize speaking skills and fluency in Compelling American Conversations. Each chapter includes:

    • Two sets of partner interview questions on each topic
    • Discussion activities to explore, explain, and clarify
    • Search and share online activities where students select materials on specific topics, summarize and evaluate the video/article, and introduce to small groups of classmates.

    We also include academic vocabulary and more philosophical questions because American immigrants deserve the same level of sophisticated materials which international English as Foreign Language (EFL) students enjoy in the stronger international high schools.

    • Focused vocabulary for both practical and academic purposes
    • Paraphrasing American proverbs – and others from around the world
    • “Agree/Disagree and explain” reaction exercises to classic and modern quotations often used to prepare for TOEFL and IELTS exam

    From our perspective, there is something profoundly disturbing in dumbing down of curriculum materials for English language learners in the United States. Compelling American Conversations seeks to introduce higher expectations for verbal skills and more authentic materials and relevant topics to the intermediate ELL and ESL classrooms. Students should be able to not only listen and understand, but speak and be understood.

    Finally, the authors hope American English language learners begin asking more questions in classes, speak more in their workplaces, and create their own compelling American conversations – outside ESL classrooms.

    See sample chapters from Compelling American Conversations here.

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  6. Fluency Requires Practice

    February 7, 2011 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    “To know and not do is to not know.” The Talmud

    Fluency requires practice. Our students also know that speaking English can be both satisfying and stressful. Therefore, we require speaking activities in class – and strongly suggest ways to speak more out of class. Our students want to be fluent, but they often hesitate to practice their speaking skills. Many students do not want to risk making mistakes, being misunderstood, and feeling awkward. Some prefer to silently take notes, and speak as little as possible in their English classes. We have all probably faced this situation.

    Yet, as far as I know, there is no magical shortcut to fluency except practice. Our English students must practice speaking – in pairs and in small groups – even if it feels awkward. “Practice makes perfect” goes a popular proverb. Although perfection seems like a dubious ideal, practice certainly makes progress. And our students want to make meaningful progress in their speaking skills and gain greater fluency.

    That’s why creating a comfortable class atmosphere remains essential. One effective way to reduce grade anxiety or classroom stress is to clearly emphasize that some activities will focus more on fluency” and other speaking activities will focus more on “accuracy”. For instance, including one casual fluency activity per class helps students simply exchange ideas and engage in low risk, safe communication between themselves.

    Speaking exercises can be added across the ESL curriculum. You can often drop a short communicative exercise even in acadenuc writing classes. Fluency, after all, requires practice. Casual, ungraded classroom conversations also increase student confidence and create a more lively ESL classroom.

    Asking students to reflect and share their experiences as an English learner can often lead to fascinating conversations and compelling essays. Here’s a favorite fluency activity called Learning English that I’ve used with both intermediate and advanced ESL students in both oral skills and writing classes. When I taught advanced ESL at Santa Monica Community College, I often used Learning English to introduce their first essay. Students often responded with enthusiasm. Perhaps your English students will too.

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