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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!

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  2. Hedging Language & Seeking Clarification in Our Arguments

    December 29, 2015 by Eric

    Raised hands in class of middle school.


    “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), educator and philosopher


    In academic writing, especially argumentative essays, it is important to argue your claims with supporting facts. Yet, the importance of seeing the other side of the claim or argument is equally as important; a feat that would be nearly impossible without the aid of hedging language. Hedging allows the writer to acknowledge evidence and alternate points of view while remaining non-committal, allowing the reader to see the big picture through the focus of your argument.

    Chimayo’s own Eric Roth co-lectured a presentation about this very topic, available to watch here on YouTube. Here’s a worksheet he’s crafted to get students into the practice of using hedging language:


    Hedging Language: Poetry vs. Accuracy


    What are three vague generalizations about the United States?


    What are some proverbs or slogans from your country or culture?


    What are some popular songs that make universal claims?


    Can you think of two sayings that contradict each other?


    Techniques for turning vague generalizations with more accurate, responsible statements:

    • Add frequency adverb (sometimes, seldom, often)
    • Weaken the verb (seem to, appear, tend to)
    • Add modal (can, may, might,)
    • Add qualifier (one of the best, an effective method)
    • Identify conditions (when the information is known)
    • Cite source (according to a 2013 WHO report)


    Can you rewrite a generalization about an American city (New York, Los Angeles, DC, etc.)?


    Can you rephrase a traditional proverb or popular slogan?


    Seek Clarification: Key phrases

    Checking what someone means:

    • What do you mean by that?
    • Do you mean…?
    • In other word….?
    • So are you saying…?
    • Can you clarify that statement?
    • Correct me if I’m wrong, but do you mean…?
    • Sorry, I’m not sure if I got that. Are you saying…?


    Asking someone to explain what they mean:

    • Could you expand on that?
    • Which means what?
    • Which means exactly what? (more sceptical)
    • What are the implications?
    • Can you spin that out?
    • Sorry, what exactly do you mean by that?
    • Sorry, could you go over that again?


    Checking that someone has understood you:

    • Is that clear?
    • Are you with me?
    • Does that make everything clear?
    • Can we move on?


    Want to learn more? Check out the Being Yourself chapter from Compelling American Conversations, available here with additional commentary from the Teacher Edition!

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  3. 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?

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  4. Reflections from Fourth of July, Independence Day

    July 9, 2014 by Eric


    Source: Wikipedia Commons

    Drawing inspiration from the American holiday

    “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

    ―Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), Principal author of the Declaration of Independence and Third U.S. President

    Every year Americans celebrate the Fourth of July in honor of the Declaration of Independence and the eventual birth of the United States. I find it a delightful conversation piece in my classrooms for many reasons. After all, students from other nations are often eager to learn more about the history of the United States. Additionally, discussion of principles like independence, freedom and democracy always sparks engaging debate. This year, I’ve assembled some great resources to supplement discussing Independence Day in the classroom.

    For instance, the July edition of the Easy English Times, edited by Lorraine Ruston and published by Betty Malmgren, features several American-themed pieces including the front-pager “Symbols of America.” There are also a few pieces on immigration and presidents. Of course, I’m also pleased to see an excerpt from Compelling Conversations on page 6 on American Culture.

    With respect to the Fourth of the July, I found American historian Kenneth C. Davis’ TedEd, “What you might not know about the Declaration of Independence” thought-provoking. It’s a great conversation starter on the topic of freedom and if all Americans truly obtained it in 1776. Davis, the best-selling author of “Don’t Know Much About History”, clearly follows Frederick Douglass’ classic “What the Fourth of July Means to American Slave.”

    One final resource I like is the Constitution Center, and its section on the Bill of Rights. Conversation about the Declaration of Independence opens a door to its followers–the Constitution and the subsequent amendments. Though not specifically for ESL classrooms, the activities, particularly the “Creating Your Own Flag” one, balance the celebration of patriotism and diversity.

    How was your Fourth of July weekend? How will you discuss independence, freedom and the history of the United States in your classroom?

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  5. Ask Your English Students to Review TED.Com videos – and Create Compelling Conversations

    June 8, 2011 by Eric

    How can you encourage your advanced ESL students to develop their speaking skills and tap their interest in our rapidly changing world? Create compelling classroom assignments that respect their intelligence, engage their curiosity, and model great speaking skills. Let your students be hunters, gathers, and presenters of new information to their classmates!

    Adding a homework assignment that requires ESL students to go the “ideas worth sharing” website at accomplishes all these goals. For the last four years, I have asked both college and international graduate students to select a short video, watch it, and prepare to share their impressions in class.  Since many students have evolving English language skills and the course is an advanced oral skills class,  they just take notes. What’s the title? Where was the lecture given? Who gave the lecture? Date? How did they open the presentation? Was their a significant quote? What sources were orally cited? How would they rate the video on a scale of 1-5? Why did they choose this TED video? Why do they recommend we watch it too?

    Students will often watch several TED videos before choosing a favorite one. This advanced ESL homework assignment seems to capture their imagination as they explore the TED website. The next day, students discuss the TED video that they selected in small groups of four. Afterwards, I ask for “brave volunteers” to share their impressions – i.e., review – with the class. Usually everyone wants to present so we extend the lesson to a second class where I videotape all the presentations. The class sessions are always illuminating, engaging, and surprising as I learn more about students, their interests, our evolving world, and their English language speaking skills.  This democratic speaking skills activity creates an atmosphere where “everybody is a student,  and everybody is a teacher.”  Result: the entire class creates compelling classroom conversations!

    As the old American cereal commercial used to say, “try it – you’ll like it” – at least with more advanced English students!

    For ESL teachers who want a more formal assignment, you can also use this more detailed worksheet.

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  6. Do You Really Use Youtube in Your EFL Classes? How?

    June 7, 2009 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Do you use You Tube in Your EFL classes? How?


    Like so many other English teachers, I begin teaching with student interests and habits in mind. Of course, I also want to take them from the old and familiar to new and unfamiliar while improving their English language skills. You Tube remains a powerful classroom tool to achieve that goal.

    I’ve used YouTube to have students research job interview tips, stress patterns, pronunciation problems, and informational interviews. The results have been consistently positive as I have students write concise video reviews and email me their reviews for homework before the next class.

    Then I slightly edit the reviews, watch the videos and add my own comments in blue ink, and combine the reviews into a single document that is emailed to all class members. “Use or lose” I say, but here are the reviews from your classmates. Result: almost every student watches every video recommended and spending far more time on the topic than I could allocate in class. It’s both popular and quite effective.

    As English teachers, we are truly blessed to be working in the YouTube era.

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