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

  1. Finding more practical materials at CATESOL

    May 5, 2009 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Time flies. Or, as the Romans used to say, “tempus fugit.”

    Two weeks after the CATESOL 2009 convention in Pasadena ended, I’m finally having a chance to sort through the numerous books, doublecheck website leads, and evaluate materials that I picked up. Sometimes “the eyes are too hungry”, and I went a bit overboard in collecting ESL materials and resources for advanced English language learners. Of course, English teachers love books, new curriculum materials, and free ESL materials. I also have the excuse of working as a consultant for a workplace ESL program so I went hunting for some particular products for healthcare workers.

    Here is a short list of promising materials:

    VSOE ideas from CATESOL convention

    American Speech Sounds program for Healthcare workers. Also has powerful training materials for focused workshops for non-native English speakers working in hospital, clinics, and across the medical field.

    1. Effective Practices in Workplace Language Training (TESOL)
    2. Getting Ahead in the US (Living Language) – videotape/textbook series
    3. New Citizenship DVD for future naturalization tests. This free DVD, perfect for adult educators, confirms that the new citizenship test will only require a “high beginning” level of ESL to qualify for American citizenship. Personally, I consider this an absurdly low standard that implies new American citizens can speak worse English than at least a half a billion English speakers outside of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.
      Of course, low standards have many fans in the world of adult education and with many immigrant groups. More on this topic later.
    4. The Center for Applied Linguistics continues to offer wider and deeper variety of resources for ESL teachers, especially for adult education.
    5. I had several fascinating conversations about various English competency tests and their possible use in the workplace. The TOEIC test, on its merits, seems the strongest by far. Unfortunately, this test – used by millions in the workplace worldwide – has become almost forbidden due to lawsuits claiming discrimination in the United States. What does this mean? Millions of applicants and employees in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, France, Germany, and other non-English speaking countries have taken this test of English skills. Why? Because English has become a global language and competency in English has become an essential workplace skill.
    6. But not in the United States! So-called labor and civil rights activists have promoted the concept that requiring English proficiency, as tested by the TOEIC, is discrimination unless the ad explicitly states “English skills required.” This strange situation means that American workers can, and so often do , speak at a lower level than educated workers in Asia and Europe. What’s wrong with this picture!!!
    7. Software programs continue to become stronger day by day, minute by minute. English language learners, international ESL students, and adult ESL educators have more choices than ever. I will spend a solid chunk of time researching these language programs during my summer break. So far, however, it’s clear that and offer great values for administrators, teachers, and students. ESL teachers will also find a wonderful, innovative, and time-saving site.

    More later, but I must return to a large pile of research reports that need grading!

    Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.



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  2. Does Uncle Sam want immigrants to learn English?

    July 18, 2008 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Learning to read, write, and speak English remains a legal requirement for legal immigrants to become citizens in the United States. National polls also consistently show that over 80% of American voters favor making English the official national language. Immigrants to English speaking countries like the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia also want to learn more English to gain better jobs, feel more comfortable, talk with doctors and teachers, and a thousand other reasons.

    Yet funding for English language classes, especially for adults, remains quite limited. Government programs only help students learn rather basic English, often around 1200 essential words. Students can “pass” all their ESL classes and learn enough English to hold low-level jobs. The learn to listen more than speak, and read more than write. These low standards, by the way, also include a very, very low level definition of “can read, write, and speak” English for citizenship. (More on this subject in future posts.)

    Many states, like California, are cutting back on all their education programs. English as a second language classes face even more dramatic cutbacks, partly because the students seldom vote. On one hand, this decision makes perfect sense during economically difficult times. Recessions and economic fears force citizens and governments to make tough choices, and cutting funds for English classes for immigrants – especially undocumented (illegal) immigrants is popular. It’s also very short-sighted and counter-productive. America is a stronger, better, and smarter country when we allow immigrants to use their intelligence and creativity, and we develop everyone’s skills.

    ” Uncle Sam wants you to speak English” reads a popular bumper-sticker. Uncle Sam, the traditional symbol for the United States government, probably does want everyone to speak English. The American people clearly want immigrants to know how to speak English too. A gap exists between vague desires and concrete actions. For instance, cutting English classes for immigrants seems unlikely to help them learn English.

    I saw this “Uncle Same Wants You to Speak English” bumper-sticker on the way back from an English teacher’s conference again last week. I also wondered about the driver.

    • Does he support helping immigrants learn English?
    • Does he really think immigrants who don’t speak English will understand his message?
    • Would a Spanish speaking immigrant, for instance, know who Uncle Sam is?
    • Or is the driver simply stating that immigrants – who might speak two, three, four, or more languages – should only speak English in the United States?
    • Or would he prefer illegal immigrants just leave the country? Was he inviting everyone to share his language and country, urging linguistic unity, or expressing a distrust of people speaking other languages?
    • Would he expect French tourists, Japanese visitors, and international guests to only speak English too? Really?

    Unfortunately, I never had a chance to talk with the gentleman who placed this provocative message on his car. I don’t really know what he meant by his “Uncle Sam wants you to speak English” bumper-sticker.

    I hope, however, that he supports adding, not cutting, English language classes. We both would like more people to be able to speak to him and ask him questions in his best language (English) too.


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  3. Can I turn that paper in next week?

    June 15, 2008 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Sometimes time just seems to escape, and we fall behind. Despite the alarm clocks, cell phones, and wrist watches, and many labor-saving appliances, the hours just seem to rush by, the work piles remain, and time vanishes. Modern life can feel more hectic than relaxing – even in summer.

    This uncomfortable experience that life is too hectic is quite familiar to adult education students who often work two jobs, take care of their family, and go to school at night.

    ESL Teacher: What do you like to do you in free time?

    Adult ESL Student:  What is free time?

     Many college and university English language students feel pressured and short of time. I’ve had ESL students tell me that “sleep is for the weak” and they can’t afford to get even six hours, let alone eight hours of sleep. This lack of sleep, of course, reduces their ability to think clearly, write strong papers, and increases their stress levels.

    ESL teachers, who sometimes work at two or more locations, can also feel overwhelmed and stressed by deadlines, traffic jams, and work loads. Getting to class ten minutes early is a wonderful practice, but many evening ESL instructors find it difficult to squeeze just 10 extra minutes into their crammed schedule.

    Therefore, it’s useful for ESL teachers and English instructors to teach a few helpful phrases to English language learners to use when they need more time at work or school for projects and class assignments.

    Can I have an extra hour?

    Can you give me an extension?

    Is there any way we can postpone this?

    When is the absolute final deadline?

    Do I have to work overtime?

    Can I have the weekend off?

    Is there somebody else who can do this?

    Would it be okay to turn this in a day late?

    Can I turn that paper in next week? 

    While nobody would ever fall behind on their work schedules in the perfect world, ESL teachers and students live and work under imperfect and sometimes challenging circumstances.  We should, therefore, help our students develop the vocabulary and verbal skills to request extensions, reduce their stress levels, and shift deadlines. Students should also be prepared to explain why they need an extra time.

    These requests may be denied, ignored, or accepted, but our students should at least have the vocabulary to ask for more time.


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  4. Learning by Doing and Good Mistakes in English classes

    by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    How can English language teachers create a rigorous, tolerant, and focused classroom atmosphere?

    One effective technique is encouraging English students, especially ESL students, to “learn by doing” and “make good mistakes” as they expand their vocabulary, experiment with new sentence structures, and use English more in their daily lives. A good mistake, as I explain on the first day of class, is a logical error that makes sense, but just happens to be wrong. For example, a young boy might think 2+2= 22. You can see the logic, but the answer is wrong. The student needs to know that 2+2=4. But you can also acknowledge that “22″ is a good mistake. Some teachers might consider this mistake a systems error or category confusion.

    Far too many ESL students, especially in countries that worship standardized exams, have created psychological barriers to experimenting in English. These students often want to avoid making any mistakes, and prefer to remain silent in conversation class to expanding their verbal skills. The ESL teacher, therefore, has to directly confront this trend or learned behavior. You can’t learn to speak a new language without making mistakes.

    So I encourage English students, in both conversation and writing classes, to make good mistakes. Take chances. Try something new. Stretch your learning muscles. And make good mistakes. A good mistake is also a mistake that we acknowledge and learn from and avoid repeating. A good mistake is not a good mistake if you’ve made it ten times before in a class or on previous papers. Students usually understand, relax a bit, and proceed to experiment a bit more in our crazy, confusing, and misspelled English language.

    Our goal, I sometimes joke on that first day, is to make many good mistakes, learn from these good mistakes, and move forward to make new, different, and even better good mistakes.” We usually realize this goal in our English classes!


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  5. Creating Top Ten Tip lessons for Advanced ESL/EFL classes

    by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Americans love to create, read, and discuss top ten lists. Newspapers and magazines use the simple format to summarize large chunks of information in a friendly manner. Year end issues often expand the technique to create “100 best” or the year’s “ten best”, “top ten”, or “ten smartest” lists. Naturally, many English teachers use this format in their classrooms to express ideas and create discussions.

    Sometimes, however, students will simply create a list and avoid providing clear reasons. In order to emphasize the need to share information and exchange insights, I often ask for a “top ten tips” to doing something. This twist also invites a wider range of topics from the practical to more philosophical, and shows respect for students knowledge and interests.

    You can ask students for their top ten tips for:

    choosing a school?

    saving money?

    staying healthy and happy?

    making and keeping friends?

    avoiding boredom and finding satisfaction?

    getting good grades?

    learning English?

    traveling to a new city/country?

    Break students into groups of 3-4. Give them 20 minutes to come up their top ten tips on a given topic. Ask them to provide at least one reason and/or example for each answer, and agree on a final order. During the discussions, students will use common phrases like “this is better”, “I disagree”, or “what do you think?”

    What does the teacher do? Circle around, listen in, and pass out different colors of chalk for each group. I ask more questions than I answer at this stage. Have each group select a student to write their “top ten tips” on the board.

    The instructor goes through the list, asking questions – both soft and hard, and engages student groups. Finally, after the instructor lead discussion, the entire class votes on the top ten tips. This democratic element takes only a few minutes, and encourages more student participation.

    This flexible, communicative activity can be constantly used to create engaging, lively classroom conversations. Students enjoy sharing information, telling stories, and helping each other make sense of an often strange land where people speak a strange language. By giving students a chance to offer advice, you also get to learn as you teach!

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


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  6. Make time for conversations – in and outside of English classrooms

    by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    The art of conversation, once considered the sign of a civilized individual, seems less common today.  Yet I treasure the moments of sharing experiences, collecting news, and exchanging ideas.  I make a point of knowing my neighbors, allowing casual greetings to become long conversations, and making time to explore the feelings and perceptions of friends and relatives in depth. These natural conversations provide information, encouragement, laughs, and pleasure. 

    Life today often seems very hectic. Who has time for long lunches and civilized conversations? Yet accepting this notion cheats us and denies our responsibility for our choices. We can choose to watch television programs, play computer games, or listen to the radio rather than talk to relatives and friends.  It’s a choice.

    The internet, a modern wonder, provides another way to find ideas, explore possibilities, and connect with friends. Many find surfing the internet easier, even better than having actual conversations. Sometimes international students also feel too shy to speak to the people next to them. Many Americans, it seems to me, have forgotten how to hold good, deep conversations, or even a friendly chat on the phone.  I suspect this lack of real communication lessens their daily joy. 

     Of course, adult students, immigrant workers, and other people learning English as a second, third, or fourth language face even more barriers to a satisfying conversation in English. First, English remains a confusing, difficult, and strange language. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable when speaking in this new tongue.

    What questions do I ask? How can I keep a conversation going? What vocabulary words are needed? How do I show agreement, or disagreement, in a lively, yet polite way? How can I share my experiences in a clear manner? How can I have better, more engaging conversations in English?

                 Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics addresses these issues for both native and non-native speakers. The focus is on learning by doing, and making good mistakes. (Good mistakes, by the way, are natural mistakes that help us learn so we can make different and better “good mistakes” next time.)  Each of the 45 chapters includes 30 or more questions, 10 or more targeted vocabulary words, a few proverbs, and 10 or more quotations. Although designed for advanced students, intermediate ESL students will find plenty of material to use and can benefit from exposure to the new words, phrases, and questions.

                 Each chapter focuses on a promising conversation topic. The questions allow the reader to practice exchanging experiences and ideas in a natural style. You can add questions, skip questions, and move on to related topics. Each chapter begins with easier questions and moves on to questions that are more abstract.

        Both native English speakers and English language learners will find the questions allow one to share experiences, exchange insights, and reflect on life. The questions are conversation starters, and not scripts to follow. The goal remains to create a real dialogue, increase your understanding of your classmates, and gently push you toward using a richer vocabulary in your English conversations. Further, the engaging material allows ESL students to recycle material and use the questions outside of English language classrooms. Students learn by doing, and discover they can create compelling conversations in English!

    Click here for a sample chapter on Studying English. Enjoy!

    Ask more. Know more. Speak more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.



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