Compelling Conversations logo

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

  1. 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!

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (6)

  2. 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.

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (2)

  3. 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!


    Ask More. Know More. Share More.

    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (0)

  4. 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!


    Ask more. Know more. Share more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (0)

  5. 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?

    [contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]


    Comments (1)

  6. 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.


    Comments (8)