Compelling Conversations logo

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
    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?
    Ask More. Know more. Share more. Speak more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (8)

  2. 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.

    Ask More. Know More. Share More.

    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (3)

  3. Why We Wrote Compelling American Conversations for Intermediate American English Language Learners

    July 18, 2012 by 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.

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.



    Comments (2)

  4. 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.

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.
    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (13)

  5. Dwell in Possibility: Discussing Books Enlivens ESL Classes

    December 15, 2010 by Eric

    “A word is dead when it is said, some say.
    I say it just begins to live that day.”

    Emily Dickinson

    Cheap pleasures can sometime be the most satisfying.

    Reading, an activity that often costs nothing, falls into that category. Reading provides many pleasures and many insights. So does talking about reading.

    Following a December ritual, I’ve been reviewing the year and find many reasons for satisfaction. Co-writing a monthly column called “Instant Conversation Activity”  in the newspaper Easy English Times makes the list for the third straight year. Each monthly newspaper column in the Easy English Times, modifies and expands a thematic chapter from Compelling Conversations, an advanced ESL textbook, for lower level English language learners. The August issue, for example, talked about watching television and favorite programs; the November 2010 issue celebrated the American tradition of choosing leaders in elections. (Immigrants, refugees, new citizens, and potential citizens often appreciate voting while too many American citizens fall into apathy.) It’s an honor to have the lessons used in ESL, EL/Civics, and literacy classes.

    In reviewing the 2010 clips, however, my favorite column this year remains “Reading Pleasures and Tastes.
    Reading can be a great – and overlooked – pleasure. Reading allows us to imagine life in distant lands and times – and better understand our own lives and climates. It broadens our imagination, highlights absurd situations, shows new possibilities, and can deepen our sympathy. Since urban Californian classrooms often resemble a mini-United Nations, reading provides a passport to better understand our classmates and our ever-changing world. .

    Yet too few American adults – including adult education students – allow themselves the pleasure of reading books and newspapers in English. We can see and hear on adult school campuses how the inability to read causes real problems. We know the many studies that document the links between illiteracy, poverty, and criminal activity. One reason might be that reading builds empathy and instills information. Reading can also provide solace, inspiration, and perspective. Celebrating the pleasure and power of reading to the Easy English Times column audience, including adult immigrants, GED students and some prisoners, seems appropriate. Perhaps it could have been called “Three Cheers for Reading – Even if Life is Hard.”

    Yet I also like the Reading Pleasures column because discussing books has created some of my most poignant classroom moments. During a decade of teaching advanced adult ESL, we often read short stories, memorized proverbs, and wrote about living in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Many ESL students also demonstrated their passion for literature. A Polish student sought help translating romantic poems, a Mexican immigrant constantly recited lines from Cervantes, and an Iranian woman journalist discussed her fear of reading banned books – even while in the United States.. Reading matters and transcends borders.

    Let me give another example from a global classroom with a dozen or so different best languages. Each evening we would have a “brave volunteer” give a short oral presentation at 8:30 as a closing activity.  I wanted everyone to be a volunteer, but I left the choice of presenting to students. Some students introduced their hometowns, a few  gave product reviews, and many recommended movies. Topics and styles varied.

    One night an older Korean woman gave an eloquent, moving book review of To Kill A Mockingbird that combined personal biography and literary criticism. Chloe, not her real name, began smiling because she had just finished rereading her favorite book in its original language – English. She joked about how long it took, but she had patience. Chloe went on to confess that she often had racist feelings like some ugly characters in the novel. “But I learned from the noble character too”. Chloe stated that living in Santa Monica and studying English she had learned to overcome racism. Her daughter was going to marry a non-Korean – something once unthinkable. Then, returning to the novel, she concluded by quoting her favorite character. “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks. ” Her daughter visited our class that night, and cried. She was not alone. Powerful. Poignant. Unforgettable.

    Reading remains a great pleasure and a helpful guide. Literature can also enliven our ESL classrooms, and discussing our favorite books opens up new possibilities. The humanities should be for everyone – including English language learners. Let us, as Emily Dickinson advised, “dwell in possibility” and bring more literature into our English classrooms.

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.
    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (2)

  6. Do You Use Newspapers in Your English Class Yet?

    July 23, 2010 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Newspapers tell us the news, and inform us about how today is different from yesterday. They provide us with some clues and some information to help us better understand our rapidly changing world. They arrive at our homes, on our laptops, and in our libraries.

    But what about our English classrooms? How often do you use newspapers in your ESL classes?

    Newspapers allow students to expand their vocabulary, follow current events, and deepen their understanding of our rapidly changing world. As a former journalist, teaching English with newspapers and magazines seems absolutely natural. My standard homework requires students to select, read, summarize, and evaluate an article of their choice and bring to class for a discussion.

    Students provide the basic background information:
    Title author
    publication date
    length # of sources:
    List five new or important vocabulary words:

    The ESL students also make some judgments:
    What’s a key quote?
    What’s the main idea? Why?

    Finally, students answer three other questions:
    What did you learn in this article?
    Why did you choose the article?
    How would rate the article on a scale of 1-10? Why?

    Students pursue their own interests – with some guidance – and develop a stronger English vocabulary that they want and need for their personal and academic development. Naturally, they bring in topics and articles, in English and from the internet, from around the world. This regular homework activity creates an engaging, informative classroom atmosphere while allowing students to “create” some course content.

    Many ESL and EFL teachers, however, often feel reluctant to use newspapers. Sometimes teachers feel that newspapers distract from their textbooks; sometimes it adds elements of uncertainty. I suspect, however, that many English teachers also don’t quite know how to effectively deploy newspapers in their classrooms. The newspapers in classroom movement remains more of an ideal than common practice in the United States.

    American newspapers would like to change that fact. The New York Times wants ESL teachers to add their quality international paper to the curriculum. Here’s an excellent 4-page primer outlining 10 Ways to Support English Language Learners with the New York Times . And despite the descriptive headline, the informative article actually outlines over 25 activities and provides links to dozens of exceptional educational resources for both students and teachers. Students can find archival photographs to write postcards from the past, research their birthdays in history, find tourist information on their hometowns for oral presentations, and compare and contrast how different countries approach global problems. Worksheets have been developed for an online vocabulary log, understanding prepositions, and a problem-solution organizer.

    Bottomline: This exceptional, flexible teacher’s resource makes using newspapers much easier for novice English teachers and time-starved experience ESL instructors.

    Can all English classrooms use newspapers? No. Yet many low level and intermediate classes can use Easy English Times, USA Today, or the local English paper and focus on simpler, shorter headlines and articles. High intermediate and advanced students, however, can – and I would suggest should – try to read serious newspaper such as The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

    So let’s help our students and bring newspapers into our classrooms.
    Our students, after all, want to understand their world – in English!

    Do you teach lower level English students? See these tips from the American literacy newspaper Easy English Times for beginner students)

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.
    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (4)