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

  1. 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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  2. Ask Why Your Students Want to Learn English

    December 10, 2014 by Eric

    “Well begun is half done.”
    Ancient Greek proverb

    Sometimes we forget the most basic questions.

    What brings the students in your English class into the room? Are they fulfilling school requirements, pursuing academic achievements, or creating new possibilities? How do you motivate your ESL and EFL students to do their best from day one? Asking students for their motives, needs, and hopes creates a stronger English class.

    Many students enjoy studying English, some find English class boring, and a few students resent studying English. Therefore, we sometimes need to explore their motivations, hear their concerns and desires, and even “sell” learning English – and our own English class in our opening classes.

    Here are some simple questions that I have often asked students to ask each other during the first or second lesson. Students are encouraged to write down their partner’s responses. Sometimes I collect the student responses; sometimes I let students simply reflect on the semester’s possibilities. This engaging exercise also establishes that we will have interesting conversations in class, and their opinions count in our English class. I have used different variations of these questions with international university students, high school English language learners, community college English classes, and even adult school English programs over the years. Getting students to buy-into the advantages of improving their English and committing to working hard has remained crucial in all these diverse situations and teaching contexts.

    1. Why do you want to speak better English? Give three reasons.

    2. How can speaking better English help you?

    3. What activities or methods have you found most helpful in improving your English? Why?

    4. What is best English class that you have had? Can you tell me more about that class?


    5. What are some reasons some people dislike English class?

    6. How else could speaking fluent English change your life outside of school?

    7. Can you list three topics that you would like to discuss with your classmates this semester?
    • _____________________________________________________
    • _____________________________________________________
    • _____________________________________________________

    8. What are your strengths as an English language learner?




    9. What are some challenges that you want to work on this semester?


    10. What three things can you do this semester to improve your English?
    a) __________________________________________________________________
    b) __________________________________________________________________
    c) __________________________________________________________________

    Asking these simple conversation questions helps set an open, relaxed, and even democratic classroom. I also find their answers helpful in tweaking and modifying the planned course to better match the students who actually sit in the class. It also helps create more motivated students and autotelic (self-driven) English language learners. So far, the results have been quite positive.

    How do you start your classes? Do sometimes feel the need to “sell” your English class? How do you find out the motivates and concerns of your English students in the first week? What teaching tips can you share from your ESL classroom?

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


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

    July 14, 2014 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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  4. Homophones Can Confuse: A Minor Mistake in Miner Valley

    June 20, 2014 by Eric

    Why it is so important for English learners to tackle homophones in the classroom

    “For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity.”

    ―Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), German writer

    English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. For instance, the gap between a word’s spelling and its pronunciation often presents a challenge for English learners. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones―different words with the same pronunciation. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number two from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.

    A “good mistake” I made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized the confusing nature of homonyms. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Sonoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists. The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley,” so the passenger asked Siri for directions. Siri, the impressive iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes, but did emphasize the importance of context in understanding everyday conversations. Few native English speakers will misunderstand the noun “miner,” the hard working people who hunt for gold, silver or coal for a living, with the important adjective “minor,” which means small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can still be confusing and colorful. Both “Miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” happened to be the names of two fine wineries in the area. (Do they whine about each other’s wine? I don’t know, but that pun came to mind.)

    Of course, English language learners make these sort of “good mistakes” all the time. While we might seldom confuse “by” the bank for “buy” the bank, it’s easy to confuse “realize” for “real lies.” Sometimes our students complain, or whine, about our how confusing English is for them to master. And if they “eat” their final syllables like “s” or “r,” even attentive listeners can find themselves confused too. Did the ESL student mean “mine,” “mines,” “mind,” or “miner?” To understand each other, we must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better comprehend what our students want to say. If the context is unclear or vague, we might not know if the speaker is referring to a miner or minor problem. Many comedians, of course, delight in these situations, but homophones can haunt English students. English teachers and English tutors can turn these common good mistakes into teachable moments and practical lessons in speaking skills. We must first admit that English is a crazy language.

    If you’re interested in learning more about homophones, you might enjoy reading Wikipedia’s informative article on homophones or reviewing an impressive list of many confusing homophones/homonyms. I enjoyed reading both.

    How will you make homophones easier to handle?


    Ask More. Know More. Share More.
    Create Compelling Conversations.


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  5. Fantastic YouTube videos for the ESL classroom

    June 17, 2014 by Eric

    CompellingConversations’ compilation of YouTube videos for ESL teachers and students alike

    “We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn.”

    ―Mary Catherine Bateson (1939- ), American writer and cultural anthropologist

    Want to make use of YouTube’s gigantic collection of ESL and language-related videos, but don’t know where to start? Every semester, I compile a diverse set of useful, relevant and interesting videos for a wide range of difficulty levels. Here’s the ten favorite this time around to share with your advanced English (or ESL) students:

    1. English Pronunciation – vowel changes in stressed and unstressed syllables

    This 2011 video by AccurateEnglish uses common words to highlight how to pronounce English vowels in stressed and unstressed syllables. In seven minutes, Lisa Mojsin, author of “Mastering the American Accent,” reviews common mistakes she encounters in her English classes, and uses a rubber band as a visual tool to demonstrate which vowels should be stressed.

    2. Being a Good Conversationalist – Responding to Good News and Bad News

    VOA Learning English, in a 19-minute Google+ Hangout session, displays the proper responses to good news and bad news in English. This video from 2013 features Guest Jane Mairs, writer of the Ask the Editor column for Merriam-Webster, who explains why certain responses are polite or impolite in conversation.

    3. Job Interview – Learn English

    Duc Lai gives a six-minute breakdown of the job interview process while providing several tips along the way. In two different job-interview settings, this video from 2010 explains why certain questions are asked and notes that the word ordering changes when a sentence is transformed into an inquiry.

    4. How do Accents Work?

    Made in 2014, this video covers a very relatable topic to English learners. Brainstuff – HowStuffWorks delves into the explanation of how accents work in roughly six minutes. This concept is explained in terms of social, geographic and scientific aspects, and with the help of diagrams, is made easy to understand.

    5. The World We Explore- Sir Ken Robinson Zeitgeist Americas 2012

    In this video from 2012 by zeitgeistminds, Sir Ken Robinson, known for his work covering the imagination and education, explores creativity in our education system and society. Throughout the twenty minutes, Robinson engages the audience and uses anecdote to push forward his point that the standardization of school systems is stunting creativity. This leads many to ask: are we educating or miseducating in our classrooms?

    6. How to Improve Spoken American English – Sound Like a Native Speaker

    Rachel’s English, a prolific YouTube Channel for teaching ESL, uploaded this six-minute tutorial in 2013. By using a “Ben Franklin exercise,” Rachel shows that with just a recording of a native speaker, students can begin to sound like ones themselves.

    7. Advanced English 1a – Vocabulary – Olympic Games

    The first in a 2008 playlist by JenniferESL, this eight-minute video is designed for upper-level students wishing to learn the vocabulary of a common conversation. Jennifer, well-known for her YouTube channel, teaches Olympic vocabulary words in context by using a multiple-choice scenario. The other videos in this playlist follow a similar structure for different topics, such as Olympic Games grammar and Yard Sale vocabulary.

    8. Difficult words “world,” etc

    AccurateEnglish uploaded this 5 minute lesson in 2009 in order to help students pronounce the most difficult words. In this quick guide, Lisa Mojsin presents little tricks to show how students should “imagine” the spellings of these words in order to pronounce them correctly.

    9. What Makes a Word Real?

    TEDtalk host Anne Curzan discusses in 17 minutes what makes a word “real” and why people should not resist the emergence of new words, like “adorkable.” This video, which came out in 2014, explains why certain words are in the dictionary, and at what point does a word become “real.”

    10. Daniel Gilbert- The Surprising Science of Happiness

    In 2012, TEDtalk host Daniel Gilbert discusses how our “psychological immune system” determines our happiness, independent of whether or not things go according to plan. His interesting examples of people who face adversity yet are still happy lead us to wonder what the true path to happiness is–and all in just 21 minutes.

    How do you use YouTube in your classrooms?

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  6. The Language of Opportunity – Wabash profiles an English Teacher

    September 11, 2011 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Small American colleges often love their ambitious graduates. Wabash College, my alma mater and outstanding private liberal arts college in Indiana, certainly celebrates her favorite sons and treats them like stars. This fall’s Wabash Magazine advises graduates to “Look East, Young Man” as it celebrates the opening of the College’s new Asian Studies Center.

    Inside, the magazine editor describes a “Language of Opportunity” article as “Eric Roth ’84 recounts how his attempt to start a free-thinking university in Vietnam led to the realization that the spread of the English language—in part through his own conversational English primer—may be the more immediate path to freedom of thought and expression in the region.”

    Fortunately, the article also provides a larger context of teaching English in a closed (but still opening) society. The writer, Steve Charles, also explores the difficulties of adapting Compelling Conversations , an advanced conversation for ESL (English as a Second Language) students into an acceptable EFL (English as a Foreign Language) textbook, and explains how I came to publish two very different English language conversation textbooks. Please note that the original ESL book has 45 chapters, including “Voting”, and the EFL version for Vietnamese English Language Learners has 15 chapters with more vocabulary definitions.

    “In addition to teaching at the University of Southern California, the former congressional aide and journalist (Roth) is co-author of Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. The book is an alternative text for teaching conversational English as a second language (ESL). It is recommended by a leading trade journal of English teaching professionals.”

    The three-page glossy magazine piece continues to provide perspective and illuminate the role of English in the 21st century. “And in case you haven’t noticed, English is well on its way to becoming the world’s dominant language,” writes Charles.

    “This is the first time in world history we actually have a language spoken genuinely globally by every country of the world,” writes David Crystal in English as a Global Language. As of 2005, almost a quarter of the world’s population spoke English as a native or second language. It is the de facto language of commerce and diplomacy. More than 80 percent of information stored on the Internet is in English. And while there are more speakers of Chinese, Spanish, and Hindi, they speak English when they talk across cultures, and it is English they teach their children in order to give them a chance in the world economy. More than 20,000 ESL teaching jobs are posted monthly; no longer a fallback, teaching ESL is becoming a lucrative first or second career. Some experts predict that by 2030 more than half the world’s population will speak English.”

    Reading those simple, powerful facts about the explosion of English renewed my appreciation for our role as English teachers today. English remains the language of opportunity for millions seeking to study, work, and move abroad.  The article allows me to explain. “I had been teaching ESL to immigrants, and I knew English was essential to their lives in the U.S., but on this trip we saw English as a truly global language. It is the gateway to a modern world, and to 21st century lives. And in countries like Vietnam and other developing nations, English is sometimes the only accessible means to advance yourself.” This insight lead to the title “the language of opportunity”.

    The article also describes the educational philosophy behind Compelling Conversations .

    “Combining his teaching experience and his liberal arts background, Roth collaborated with his mother, Toni Aberson—an English teacher for 35 years—to self-publish the first edition of the book. Dedicated to his father, Dani Roth—who spoke six languages and “could talk with almost anyone”—the book provides an alternative to “presentation-practice-production” approach to language learning, instead using quotations, questions, and proverbs to prompt conversation.”

    “Some [quotes and questions] will have students roaring with laughter, while others require careful introspection,” wrote a reviewer (Hall Houston) for the ESL journal English Teaching Professional. “They are highly effective for promoting student discussion.”

     “In the classroom and in the book we try to create a space that’s tolerant and rigorous at the same time,” Roth says. “The focus is on learning by doing, and we want to give people room to make good mistakes—errors that help us learn. When people expect themselves to be perfect, they go silent.”

    Most of the book’s prompts ask for recollections or personal opinions.“Whatever perspective you bring to the book, I want you to find validation in some great thinker, that it’s okay to see things that way. That gives us all the freedom to be ourselves and less of who we think we should be, or who we’ve been programmed or conditioned to be.”

    You can read the entire article here.

     Like many other English teachers – of all kinds – I feel rich in life experiences, but we seldom get recognized for our hard work.  We also also clearly make significant contributions to our grateful students and larger, positive global trends. And recognition feels good.   Therefore, I’m grateful that Wabash College,  a small Midwestern college in a small town, taught me  to “disagree without being disagreeable” and see the big picture.

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


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