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

  1. Teachers and Tutors Should Know About Compelling Conversations

    July 26, 2014 by User ImageEric Roth
    Eric Roth

    English teacher and tutor Joan V reviews Compelling Conversations

    “We all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work.”

    ―Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) American astronaut

    Sometimes you just have to smile.

    Praise, especially from an experienced colleague, on a difficult project feels satisfying. In the last week, I’ve received three emails from Joan V., an ESL teacher and tutor, praising Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics – the book that I co-authored and self-published. Her experiences mirror my own experiences with the material, and validate the book’s premise: engaging students in sophisticated conversation helps build their vocabulary, leads to memorable conversations, and deepens relationships.

    Here, in Joan’s own words, are excerpts from her strong recommendation for the unorthodox ESL book.


    I am an English tutor working with Japanese adults in Jackson, Michigan. I was a public school and ESL teacher for many years, retired, and now my retirement job is tutoring. A few weeks ago I purchased the PDF of your book and then this week I bought the hard copy which just arrived from you this morning. I want to tell you what a marvelous book this is!

    I’ve always used questions as a conversation stimulus, and now I have this whole organized around topics book to use with my students! As you probably know, Many Japanese arrive in this country with a fair understanding of English grammar and quite a lot of vocabulary, but are initially unable to engage in conversation. This book is the perfect answer to this situation!

    Thank you so much for putting this together!

    Teachers and tutors should know about Compelling Conversations. I was a classroom ESL teacher for many years, went to conferences with book displays shopping for books, and was usually disappointed by the books I saw. There were a lot of boring books out there!

    The book needs to on display at ESL conferences if they are still being held. ESL teachers and tutors working with intermediate and advanced level students would choose this book over almost anything else if they knew about it. Also many community colleges have ESL programs using traditional materials focused on grammar and repetition rather than real meaningful conversation which your book provides.

    I happened on your book accidentally on the internet and looking at the sample lessons, I quickly knew that this book would work for my students.

    I wanted to add one more thought regarding Compelling Conversations. It is saving me a lot of time! I have been tutoring Japanese adults (businessmen and their wives) for nine years after retiring from almost 30 years of teaching in public
    schools. I’ve spent so much time gathering materials from various sources–textbooks, my own materials, bilingual dictionaries, etc.

    Now I’m finding that printing out a chapter of your book provides plenty of conversational focus for at least two hours or more of tutoring time. Even more important, our conversations are at a deeper level. For example, in
    chapter two there are some questions about childhood. A couple of weeks ago a student bordering on fluency was able to tell me about his childhood dreams and that now he is living that dream! I was thrilled!




    Thank you, Joan! You made my week!


    Check out sample Compelling Conversations lessons for yourself at:


    Hopefully, you will have the same satisfying experiences that Joan and other satisfied teachers and tutors have had with Compelling Conversations. Enjoy!


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  2. Creating Simple ESL Lesson Plans Around Top Ten Lists for Advanced English Classes

    July 1, 2014 by User ImageEric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Advanced ESL/EFL classes benefit from making top ten lists

    “Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve immortality.”

    ―Tenzin Gyatso (1950-) 14th Dalai Lama

    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, easily digestible manner. Year-end issues often expand the technique to create “100 best,” “top ten” or “ten most” lists. Naturally, many English teachers also use this format in their classrooms to express ideas and create discussions.

    Sometimes, however, students will simply create a list without providing clear reasons as to how the material is linked together. In order to emphasize the need to clearly share information and exchange insights, I often ask the students to compile a “top ten tips” on how to do something. This twist also invites a wider range of discussion topics from the practical to more philosophical, and shows respect for both the 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 have them agree on a final order. During the discussions, students will use common phrases like “this is better,” “I disagree because…” or “what do you think?”

    What does the teacher do during this time? Circle around, listen in and pass out different colors of chalk for each group. I ask more questions than I answer at this stage. Toward the end of the 20 minutes, I have each group select a student to write the group’s “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 leads discussion, the entire class votes on which tips, of those on the top ten lists, are most helpful. This additional democratic element takes only a few minutes, and encourages students to participate and clearly display their opinions.

    This flexible, communicative activity can be constantly used to create engaging, lively classroom conversations. Students enjoy sharing information, telling stories while providing examples 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!

    What top ten lists will your students create?

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  3. Learning by Doing and Making “Good Mistakes” in English classes

    June 28, 2014 by User ImageEric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Why English learners must practice and make “good mistakes” in order to grow

    “A man’s mistakes are his portals of discovery.”

    ―James Joyce (1882-1941), Irish novelist and poet

    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 to “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 follows logical thinking, but just happens to produce an incorrect outcome. For example, a young boy might think 2+2= 22. You can see the student’s 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.”

    Far too many ESL students, especially in countries that heavily rely on and sometimes 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 mentality. After all, 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.” By making “good mistakes” once or twice, and then correcting them immediately, students can learn not to repeat them. A “good mistake” is not a good mistake if you’ve made it ten times before in a class or on previous papers. Students with this mentality can usually understand the value of making mistakes and so they can 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, whether purposefully or accidentally, realize this goal in our English classes!

    How will you guide your students through their “good mistakes?”

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  4. 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!

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  5. Does Uncle Sam want immigrants to learn English?

    July 18, 2008 by User ImageEric 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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  6. Can I turn that paper in next week?

    June 15, 2008 by User ImageEric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Accommodating English teachers, students and the need for more time

    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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