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

  1. Context Matters with Conversation Idioms

    March 20, 2016 by Eric

    Resources_and_Notes photo

    “Confidence contributes more to conversation than wit.”

    ~Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), French writer


    Conversation styles are wonderfully varied. Just as one size never truly fits all, one conversational approach may not be appropriate depending on the situation. Fortunately, in the English language there are myriad idioms we use to distinguish these different modes of conversation.

    Here’s a quick rundown of a few noteworthy idioms to share with your English classrooms. Use your judgment as a teacher as to which idioms and expressions are appropriate for your particular school, class and student population:

    Water Cooler Conversation – Workers in offices and other work sites congregate and gossip when getting glasses of water at the water cooler, or cups of coffee in commons or kitchen. “Water cooler conversation” usually consists of talking about what was on TV programs, movies, sports, general chat, “small talk,” (see below) and office gossip.

    Small talk – make conversation about the weather, sports, family and other prosaic, everyday topics, usually to start a conversation, socialize with and get to know strangers, or acknowledge respect for and awareness of co-workers, relatives, and other people.

    Chit Chat – Innocent small talk. It can become disruptive and distracting when it occurs during class.

    Back talk – A heated response, often to a parent or other authority figure, usually without listening or considering what the other person has to say.

    Talk past each other – Arguing couples, co-workers and others who state their opinions without listening to what the other person has to say.

    NOTE: You can explain that Americans tend to feel uncomfortable and awkward with moments of silence. This feeling differs from some other cultures and language groups, such as Japan, where silent stretches in conversation are prized as moments of harmony. This difference is good to keep in mind, as sometimes people from other countries can perceive Americans as talking continuously, whether or not they have anything to say.

    What are some other idioms we use?

    Check out free sample chapters from the Compelling Conversations series at both and!

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  2. Teaching Matters: Do Our Students Need to Swim in English or Pass Grammar Tests?

    February 19, 2016 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth


    “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

    ~C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), British novelist, theologian, and literary critic


    Last week we discussed English as a lingua franca (ELF), and how emphasis on a mutual understanding between conversation partners remains the goal. Earlier last month, we questioned what standards were reasonable for listening comprehension and speaking skills in the classroom. This post extends both those subjects.

    Do our ESL 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.

    Some Crucial Questions and Authentic Tasks

    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?

    Students Speak English to Communicate

    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 this simple truth. These errors are 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.”

    English Students Have to Swim in English

    Our ESL students don’t have to be speak perfect English; they have to be understood in English 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.

    For more content on this subject, check out the Learning in School chapter from Compelling Conversations Japan!


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  3. Teaching Tips: Approaching Immigration Issues in the Classroom

    January 29, 2016 by Eric


    “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

    ~George Washington (1732-1799), 1st President of the United States


    Millions of people, around the world, have chosen – or been forced – to leave the nation where they were born. And today, more people than ever before in human history consider themselves immigrants.

    Immigration remains a vital, if controversial, topic – especially with the media circus surrounding Trump’s semi-recent statements and reform proposals. Why do people immigrant? How have immigrants contributed to your country? How important is the distinction between legal and illegal? Do wealthy nations have an obligation to open their doors to refugees? What qualifies someone as a refugee? Should nations chose their immigrants? If so, what criteria should nations use? Questions like these have been asked time and again, but today are reaching more of a fever pitch, and discussions oft become heated and even ugly.

    On one hand, the United States celebrates the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol and accepts more legal immigrants than any other nation on the earth. On the other hand, the continuing economic crisis and high unemployment rates have led to widespread resentment about the large number of illegal immigrants. President Obama has called for a civil, open, and honest debate as the United States debates its immigration policies. Many other nations are holding similar debates.

    Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and many other English-speaking nations continue to attract immigrants and refugees from around the world. As English teachers, we know the faces and stories behind the statistics. We also know the crucial role that English skills play in creating successful immigration policies. But do we teach about immigration? And, if so, how?

    Context, as ever, remains crucial. Teaching the history of American immigration in an EL/Civics class is far easier than discussing current events in my advanced adult ESL classes in Santa Monica. Why? Everyone in the EL/Civics class was pursuing citizenship, and held legal status. On the other hand, the advanced ESL class – on the same campus – was clearly divided between refugees, visa lottery winners, other legal immigrants, and many undocumented/illegal immigrants. With limited language skills and great passion, the topic was too controversial to rationally discuss.

    In my experience, however, it was perhaps easiest to discuss immigration debates with graduate students at the University of Southern California, where everyone has the same legal status. It was also easier to discuss the controversial immigration issues in the Citizenship class at Santa Monica College for similar reasons, and the shared interest in both becoming American citizens. This – compared to the Advanced ESL class at Santa Monica Adult School where refugees, legal immigrants, and undocumented workers/illegal immigrants all learned English together – really makes one reflect on how important perspective is to these discourses.

    How do you teach about immigration issues? Teaching Tolerance, an exceptional educational non-profit that provides many free resources to American teachers, has excellent content on embracing classroom diversity and discussing subjects such as this with students. Join the discussion here.

    Interested in learning more about thought-provoking classroom conversation? Check out the Studying English chapter from Compelling American Conversations, featuring expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!


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  4. Changing Work Titles & Greater Equality

    November 6, 2015 by Eric

    Firefighters with water hose (2)

    “Habits change into character.”

    ~Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), Ancient Roman poet

    Which is correct: fireman or firefighter? The answer is both! But one has been gaining traction lately, along with many other gender-neutral terms for occupational titles. Here’s why:

    Many professions were traditionally only open to men. As women have gained greater rights and society has become more equal, the titles used for many professions have changed. It is important, however, to recognize both traditional and modern terms for various professions. We recommend the use of modern terms that show women can hold these important positions too.

    Other examples of this include:

    chairman => chair/chairperson

    businessman => business professional

    mailman => mail carrier

    Can you think of any more occupations that have made the shift towards more inclusive language? Encouraging your students to do so can open up enlightening discussion on new workplace policies, and get them familiar with even more helpful terminology!

    Interested in learning more? Get the info on Compelling Conversations – Japan, including where to find sample chapters, here!

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  5. McREL standards provide universal guide for teachers

    July 14, 2014 by 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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  6. How Do You Teach the Difference Between “Make” and “Do” in Your English Classrooms?

    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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