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

  1. 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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  2. Teaching Matters: How democratic is your ESL classroom?

    January 15, 2016 by Eric

    college professor leccturing group of students

    “Education is a kind of continuing dialogue and a dialogue assumes, in the nature of the case, different points of view.”  

    ~Robert Hutchins (1899-1977), former President of University of Chicago and educational philosopher


    Continuing on the theme of creating a better classroom this semester, it is essential to make sure there is an ongoing dialogue between teachers and students. With this in mind, ask yourself: Who gets to speak in class? Whose ideas count? Who chooses the assignments? How do students receive feedback? Do students have a chance to conference with their instructors? Do you want your students to become self-directed – or autotelic  – in their studies?

    Here’s a quick checklist that ESL teachers that I created for a CATESOL workshop a while back called “Techniques for a More Democratic Classroom”. My core assumption remains that giving students more opportunities to literally speak, write, and share their insights leads to a more engaging, dynamic, and valuable classroom experience. Here are some more questions to consider:

    1. What are some of the students’ personal interests?
    2. Who do you currently teach? How would you describe the students?
    3. How can student interests be better incorporated into the curriculum?
    4. Which assignments do students currently choose? Which seems most successful? Why?
    5. What are some benefits of greater student participation?
    6. What are some risks of greater student participation?
    7. Do you want to increase the number of choices students make?
    8. What critical language skills can be taught by tapping into their interests?
    9. How can you tweak current material to better individualize instruction?
    10. What internet resources can you use to augment the current curriculum?
    11. Which exercises or activities do you find most successful in your classroom?
    12. What decisions do you keep as your prerogative as the instructor?
    13. How can you encourage your students to become self-directed learners?
    14. What skills do your English students need to realize that goal?
    15. What habits do students need to practice in a democratic classroom?
    16. What are some obstacles to a more democratic classroom?
    17. How does technology encourage a more democratic classroom?
    18. How can you create a more democratic classroom?

    From my perspective, a more democratic classroom provides immigrants and international students with a chance to demonstrate both linguistic skills and personal freedom. Many immigrants, especially from more closed societies, continue to believe that the only good student is the quiet student who listens, takes notes, memorizes, and repeats back the teacher’s words. Therefore, it behooves ESL teachers working in democratic societies to demonstrate a different definition of a good student where all students share their experiences, contribute their knowledge, and use their expanding English vocabulary to contribute. Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

    For more content related to making and breaking habits – and discussing them in the classroom – check out Chapter 3: Making and Breaking Habits from Compelling American Conversations, with expanded materials from the Teacher Edition!

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  3. Discussing the New Year And Making Resolutions to Change in English Class

    January 4, 2016 by Eric

    New, year, debt.

    “To modernize is to adopt and to adapt, but it is also to recreate.”

    Octavio Paz, (1914-1998), Mexican writer and diplomat.


    Holidays and anniversaries often prompt personal reflections. As a new year beckons, millions of English language learners and thousands of English teachers  reflect on their lives and make new year resolutions.


    • What did you find satisfying in 2015?
    • What were some magic days and memorable moments?
    • What English words will you choose to remember?
    • What English lessons would you prefer to forget?


    Sometimes we look back with satisfaction on our classroom achievements, and sometimes we look back in regret. Almost everyone hopes for a happy, healthy, and more prosperous and productive new year. The challenge remains how we can move forward, and talking about change and hopes for change seems like a natural place.

    Often, we openly declare our hopes and goals for the New Year with bold resolutions that require serious change in our habits. We also know that change can be hard, surprising, and sometimes liberating in our classrooms and in our personal lives.


    • What do you hope for in 2016?
    • What changes would you like to make? Why?
    • How do you plan to realize your goals in the next year?
    • How will you measure personal success in 2016?
    • How will you measure your academic success in 2016?
    • Are you ready to keep your New Year resolutions?


    Given the rate of exceptional technological and social change in the 21st century, I find that discussing the topic of Change a perennial winner in my advanced English classes. Although public opinion surveys show that only a small percentage of Americans keep their New Year resolutions to change after a month, I suspect we can increase those odds of our English students by candidly discussing our hopes and plans to change. What are your New Year’s resolutions?

    Feel free to use this sample Compelling Conversations chapter on Change in your English class, as well as this combo chapter on Celebrating American Holidays from the Compelling American Conversations Student/Teacher editions.

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  4. Teaching Tips: Discussing Idioms in the Classroom

    December 23, 2015 by Eric

    “Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and goes to work.”

    ~Carl Sandberg (1878-1967), American poet and historian


    Idioms, or phrases that have their own meaning relative to their specific conjunction of words, are a unique feature of language that can be difficult for beginners to make sense of. Here are some common examples of American idioms:

    • You must be pulling my leg.
    • That’s the last time I stick my neck out for that guy.
    • She really jumped down my throat after I admitted I broke her tennis racket.
    • I’ve got to hand it to you; you did a terrific job on that presentation.
    • My uncle is hard of hearing so I practically shout when I talk to him.


    It is important to explain to your students the concept and uses of idioms, as slang, street talk, casual speech, etc. as well as the difference between a literal expression and a metaphoric or figurative expression. Ask your students to name places where they are likely to encounter idioms. Explain where idioms are not used, such as in formal writing.  If you have willing students, you can even act these expressions out. For example, you can ask, if I say I’m pulling your leg, am I actually pulling on your leg? Is this expression literal or figurative?

    Go through all of the idioms with similar questions: If your boss was angry and yelled at you, did she literally jump down your throat? While snakes can swallow whole animals, human beings cannot. These examples should illustrate for your students the crucial skills for defining and understanding idioms.

    Want to learn more? Check out the Studying English chapter from Compelling American Conversations, available here with additional commentary from the Teacher Edition!


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  5. Home vs. House: What does this mean?

    November 4, 2015 by Eric



    “No matter under what circumstances you leave it, home does not cease to be home. No matter how you lived there – well or poorly.”

    ~Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), Russian-American poet & Nobel Prize winner


    What’s the difference between a house and a home? English speakers clearly distinguish the two words. A house is simply the building where people live. It’s a physical structure. A house can be a stand-alone house, an apartment, or a condo.

    A home, however, is the place where people live, create their lives, and feel comfortable. Often, teenagers who are forced to move may feel that their new location is a house, but not a home. They may have no memories there or friends nearby.

    Does the expression “A house is not a home” in seem different when you understand this point?

    You can continue to explore what home means with your students through the following prompts. Have them use complete sentences to respond.


    1. When you were a child, did you live in a house or an apartment?

    2. What did you like about it? What did you dislike?

    3. Which was your favorite room? Why?

    4. What is your favorite childhood memory at home?

    5. Have you ever felt homesick? What did you miss the most?

    6. Is your neighborhood the same today as it was when you were a child? In what ways is it different? In what ways is it the same?

    7. What makes a good neighborhood?

    8. Would you rather live in an apartment or a house? Why?

    9. Would you rather live in a city, a suburb, a small town, or the countryside? Why?

    10. Can you suggest some places to find interior design ideas? Where is a good place to buy furniture? Why?

    11. What would your dream residence be like? Can you describe it in detail?

    12. What modern appliances would your dream house have? Do you have—or want to have—a robot? Why?

    13. What are some advantages of an apartment compared to a house?

    14. What makes a house a home for you?


    For more on this topic, try Chapter 3: Home Sweet Home, featured in Compelling Conversations – Japan!


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  6. How do you flip your English class? What homework activities do you use to spark lively small group discussions in class?

    September 4, 2015 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    How do you create lively small group discussions in your English class? What homework do you find most likely to spark student-led conversations? Are you interested in flipping your ESL class so English language learners collect information outside of class and share the information inside the class?

    ELT researchers consistently recommend that students talk at least 70% of class time, but many English teachers find it hard to actually achieve this goal. Students want to speak – in the abstract, but both boring materials, limited vocabulary, and sometimes shyness and fear of making mistakes can often inhibit student speaking.

    Group of Young Students Studying together at Library, High View

    Letting Students Make More Choices

    One effective teaching technique I’ve often used is called “Search and Share”. This communicative internet homework activity encourages – actually requires – English students to take an active role in their English classes. The ESL or EFL students find their own videos and newspaper articles that match their interests, summarize the material, and evaluate its quality. Search and Share also allows students to also share more of their personal interests with classmates in a safe, focused manner on chosen themes. By letting students choose some of the class materials, they often become much more interested in participating in both small group and class discussions.

    What is Search and Share?

    Over the last six years, I have used Search and Share activities as homework in intermediate and advanced high school and university English classes. The popular activity can be used for supplemental speaking exercise or extended into an entire class. Because students often want to present compelling material, they will spend far time reviewing possible videos and articles than I would ever require for homework too – and they become far more familiar with the concepts too.

    Students share the information they have collected (job interview advice, review of a favorite film, product information/review, a TED talk, restaurant review, local tourist destination, favorite charity/non-profit, etc). Students begin in small groups of 3-5 students. Everyone presents their “research”, and the other students proceed to ask at least one question each. Each round usually takes 15-20 minutes to finish a search and share in university classrooms.

    In my latest book, Compelling Conversations – Japan, you can find Search and Share exercises at the end of each chapters. Click here for a complete set of the “Search and Share” homework worksheets come from Compelling Conversations – Japan: Questions and Quotations for High-Intermediate English Language Learners.
    While specially designed for English language learners in Japan, you can easily adapt and deploy the worksheets for EFL classrooms across the globe.

    Why not download the free worksheets” Compelling Conversations – Japan includes a dozen search and share worksheets.” Compelling Conversations – Japan includes a dozen search and share worksheets, test the material in your English classroom, and flip your classroom?

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