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

  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. Teaching Themes Emerge at CATESOL: Use Technology To Meet Student Needs

    April 19, 2009 by Chimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Do ESL teachers want a more democratic classroom? Perhaps the workshop description discouraged English teachers, the title seemed too bold, or the other two dozen workshops held at the same time appeared more practical.

    Techniques and Methods for a More Democratic Classroom
    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 students where we learn by making good mistakes. Handouts.

    For whatever reason, my CATESOL workshop on “Classroom Techniques and Practices for a More Democratic Classroom” only attracted around 20 ESL teachers – and a few left early after taking the 12-page handout of reproducible lessons. Yet the ESL teachers who stayed asked good questions, shared examples to support my thesis, and several expressed gratitude. Consider me basically satisfied.

    Several other CATESOL presenters also lead workshops and shared materials and techniques to incorporate the internet, radio, and other authentic materials into ESL classrooms. While few other presenters used the word “democratic”, many other ESL professionals noted the need to be “student-centered” and include “critical thinking.” More and more English teachers, even the pseudo-Luddites, have become aware of teaching potential of 21st century technologies – and the ability to tailor instruction to individual student needs.

    I still wonder, however, why the idea of a more democratic classroom where students hunt and gather their own source materials to develop their language skills seems strange to so many English teachers. To me, it seems absolutely natural to guide students toward becoming self-directed, or autotelic, learners. Here are three handouts that I shared at my CATESOL workshop on Friday toward that goal. Use or lose. You choose.

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    This I Believe Homework Worksheet

    Links: This I Believe

    Please select one radio segment, based on a personal essay, and read by writers. Find a story that resonates with you. Listen carefully. Take notes. Fill out the worksheet below. You will be asked to share your selection with classmates in both a small group and the entire class.

    This I Believe Title:

    Who is the author?

    What’s the main idea?

    Why did you choose this podcast?

    Did you hear any new words or phrases?

    Who do you imagine is the audience for this podcast? Why?

    What is your reaction? Why?









    Please circle the appropriate overall rating 1-10 (10=BEST)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

    Getting Job Interview Advice from YouTube!

    Student Name:

    Please find an YouTube videoclip that helps people successfully interview for jobs – in English – that you would like to share with your classmates. Watch the video, take notes, and review it for your classmates.

    Video title:
    Web address:

    Please describe the video.

    What interview tips did the video provide?

    Where do you think the video was produced? Why?

    How practical did you find the advice? Why?

    What was the strongest part? Why?

    What was the weakest part? Why?

    Who do think is the target audience for this video?

    Why did you choose this video?

    How would you rate this video 1-5 stars? Why?


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  6. Let’s Talk About the American Elections, Voting, and Democratic Values in English Class

    November 7, 2008 by User ImageChimayo Press
    Chimayo Press

    Who makes the rules? Who chooses the rulers? Can citizens peacefully replace ineffective, unpopular leaders?

    Yes, we can!

    In the United States of America, voters enjoyed their opportunity to hire and fire their President. People voted, machines counted the votes, and millions of people around the nation smiled, laughed, and felt hopeful again. Senator Obama, as so often, captured the power and beauty of the peaceful transfer of power in his eloquent speech Tuesday.

    “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. “

    Barack Hussein Obama (1961- ), President-elect of the United States

    Read Obama’s entire speech.

    What a patriotic quotation celebrating freedom! Cara Fulton, at and ESL maven, suggests adding Obama’s quote to the list of great quotes and next edition of Compelling Conversations. Cara, who helps students develop the full spectrum of English language skills, sees the power of Obama’s election as a celebration of America. Reka, another friend and ESL teacher is adding excerpts from Obama’s speech to her oral skills course for international students. (Note: Reka watch the two times – back to back – on election night.) Americans, across the country, felt united in a shared moment of hope and pride. Our system, the democratic system, still works! Voting counts.

    We are coming back – to our ideals, our citizens, and our best traditions! The United States, the first nation explicitly created on enlightenment ideals, will become an inspiring 21st century nation.

    This surprising election seems like a very teachable moment. Immigrants and international students can rest assured that they made the right decision to come to the United States. English language learners around the world should feel the enlarged possibilities that come with our strange tongue. European sceptics and Arab critics should candidly reassess their prejudices about Americans and the American government. After all, Obama – the son of an international African student and an adventurous Midwestern scholar – has just won the Presidency of the United States. Where else could that happen?

    ESL teachers, especially in the United States, can and should celebrate this democratic tradition in our classrooms. Immigrants, refugees, and international students – in the United States and other western democratic countries – often understand the power of democracy on a deeper level than many jaded Americans. The passion of students for good government, justice, and voting will lead to an engaging discussions. Let’s give students a chance to speak up in our classes, and marvel at the election of Obama.

    Click here for a free advanced ESL conversation lesson on Voting from Compelling Conversations.

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