Compelling Conversations logo

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

  1. Homophones Can Haunt: A Minor Mistake in Miner Valley

    December 31, 2012 by Eric

    English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. The common “gap” between how a word is spelled and how it sounds is one challenge. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones, different words with the same sound. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number 2 from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.

    A “good mistake” made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized this obvious point. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Somoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists.  The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley” so the passenger and navigator asked Siri for directions. Siri, the amazing iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes,  but emphasizes 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” meaning small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can be confusing and colorful. Both “miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” are 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”?  We must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better understand 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. Yet we have to admit 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.

    Bottom line: English teachers need to both sympathize with the struggles of English language learners and teach homonyms in our ESL and EFL classes.


    Ask More. Know More. Share More.

    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (1)

  2. 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.


    Comments (0)

  3. 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)

  4. Attention, California English Teachers – Our CATESOL Conference Opens Thursday!

    April 15, 2009 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Time flies – especially when focusing on taxes, grading papers, and browsing the internet!

    Somehow, the calendar reads April 15. Everybody knows that this is America’s tax day. Yet California English teachers might also remember that April 16 marks the opening of our annual CATESOL conference too.

    For better or for worse, that also means I have less than 60 hours before presenting my workshop for ESL teachers too. Time to review the worksheet materials and update my presentation to include insights gained interviewing English teachers and students in Vietnam. Curious about my presentation?

    Here is the CATESOL program description:
    Techniques and Practices for a More Democratic Classroom
    Eric Roth, USC
    Demonstration C/U
    11:00 – 11:45 a.m. Convention Center 207
    A more democratic classroom encourages student speech, features student created content, allows student choice of assignments, reflects student interests, and includes peer evaluations. Democratic classrooms create autotelic, or self-directed, students where everyone learns by stumbling and making “good mistakes.” Includes handouts.

    If you are visiting Pasadena or Los Angeles, teach English, and want to discover new teaching ideas and find the latest ESL materials, please consider attending the 2009 CATESOL convention this week.
    Consider me psyched.

    By the way, a smile crossed my face while reading through the detailed CATESOL 2009 conference program. CATESOL, and the ESL field, continue to attract many dedicated teachers and ESL professionals who enjoy sharing their insights and teaching experiences. As so often before, I will learn a great deal. One presentation title, however, caught my eye. How to be a Benevolent Dictator! Naturally, it’s lead by a friend and fellow USC instructor.

    As so often in live, variety adds spice. Perspectives differ – especially among friends and English teachers!

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


    Comments (2)

  5. Vietnam Embraces English Classes – and Looks for Communicative English Teachers

    April 2, 2009 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    My recent trip to Vietnam to meet English teachers and lead a professional development seminar at the American-Pacific University, Vietnam lead to many wonderful moments and a few surprising conversations.

    Teaching English in developing countries always poses challenges, and Vietnam falls into that category. Lt me share a few selective details to provide a brief introduction to education atmosphere for English teachers who prefer a communicative approach to grammar drill and kill tasks. Consider the gap between a traditional teacher-centered education philosophy and modern student-centered approaches for teaching English.

    - An English language magazine cover story proclaimed: “Let Students Ask Questions.” The two-page article presented the idea of students – even college students – asking classroom questions as an overdue reform.
    -Vietnam, the world’s fasting growing economy, has embarked on a rapid expansion of English language classes. The official government ministry of Education and Training has even adopted a new slogan: Friendly School; Active Students. This new slogan presumably indicates that the old approach was something else!
    - Several APU high school seniors, in long interviews, indicated that they were forbidden from even talking in their old public high school English classes. These same students informed me that English class in the public high school ranged between 50-70 students. Sometimes the English instructor was believed to be unable to actually speak English. As a result, the class focused extensively on grammar and fill in the blanket tests.
    - A few APU students expressed gratitude that they could have actual classroom discussions because this was a new educational experience for them. “We ask questions, and the teacher responds,” laughed one senior. Imagine the possibilities!

    These few glimpses into Vietnam’s evolving education system indicate an increasingly awareness that communication skills matter. They also confirm that students, parents, and teachers want better schools and more communicative English language classes.

    So let me repeat two favorite themes. Good schools cultivate student curiosity, and English lessons should allow students to display their experiences and perceptions. Further, students who have been forced to take years of English class should be able to speak English – and I literally mean speak English. Conversation skills are not a bonus for excellent students; they remain an essential life skill for international students, entrepreneurs, and immigrants. Therefore, English teachers can and must allow students time and opportunity to develop their speaking skills in class. Why is this still controversial in 2009?

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


    Comments (3)

  6. How democratic is your ESL classroom?

    October 27, 2008 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    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? Can YouTube be a valuable source for homework assignment? 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 recent CATESOL workshop 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.  I will write more on this topic in a few days, but here are some questions to consider.

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

    “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

    Do you agree? Disagree? Why? Feel free to let me know.

    I’ll post an article in a few days outlining some of my thoughts and sharing some materials.

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (2)