“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education.”
~John F. Kennedy(1917-1963), 35th President of the U.S.
Tough question! Context, as ever, matters.
Are you going into a new semester of class looking for a clear, detailed chart to evaluate the speaking skills of your students? Check out the practical chart with ten categories for listening comprehension and speaking skills developed by the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement and revised by the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning. Where did I find it? As so often, I went to the Center for Applied Linguistics website. This wonderful resource has been around for years, but maintains its relevancy.
Their chart seems quite sensible for most teaching situations with clear Student Performance Level (SPL) descriptors. The descriptors for listening comprehension and oral communication are intended to establish a consistent standard that government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profits can all use to share evaluations. Despite the bureaucratic title, the chart itself contains excellent descriptions that English teachers and testers can use for adult English language learners. After having been in several long faculty discussions over standards for oral skills, I appreciate the explicit standards combined with some flexibility.
Developed specifically for adult refugees, it resembles other charts, yet includes more details and an explicit acknowledgment of economics. I like that awareness even if this factor can sometimes be misused to justify low standards in adult education programs. Our job as educators is to provide our students with the language skills to live fuller, more satisfying lives – in English – wherever they choose to live and work.
Here it is in its entirety:
Student Performance Level (SPL) Descriptors for Listening Comprehension and Oral Communication
SPL General Language Ability Listening Comprehension Oral Communication
0 = No ability whatsoever
No listening comprehension ability whatsoever
No speaking ability whatsoever
1 = Functions minimally, if at all, in English. Can handle only very routine entry-level jobs that do not require oral communication, and in which all tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers can rarely communicate with a person at this level except through gestures.
Understands only a few isolated words, and extremely simple learned phrases.
Vocabulary limited to a few isolated words. No control of grammar.
2 = Functions in a very limited way in situations related to immediate needs. Can handle only routine entry-level jobs that do not require oral communication, and in which all tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have great difficulty communicating with a person at this level.
Understands a limited number of very simple learned phrases, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
Expresses a limited number of immediate survival needs using very simple learned phrases.
3 = Functions with some difficulty in situations related to immediate needs. Can handle routine entry-level jobs that involve only the most basic oral communication, and in which all tasks can be demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have great difficulty communicating with a person at this level.
Understands simple learned phrases, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
Expresses immediate survival needs using simple learned phrases.
4 = Can satisfy basic survival needs and a few very routine social demands. Can handle entry-level jobs that involve some simple oral communication, but in which tasks can be easily demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have difficulty communicating with a person at this level.
Understands simple learned phrases easily, and some simple new phrases containing familiar vocabulary, spoken slowly with frequent repetitions.
Expresses basic survival needs including asking and responding to related questions, using both learned and a limited number of new phrases. Participates in basic conversations in a few very routine social situations. Speaks with hesitation and frequent pauses. Some control of basic grammar.
5 = Can satisfy basic survival needs and some limited social demands. Can handle jobs and job training that involve following simple oral instructions but in which most tasks can also be demonstrated. A native English speaker used to dealing with limited English speakers will have some difficulty communicating with a person at this level.
Understands learned phrases easily and short new phrases containing familiar vocabulary spoken slowly with repetition. Has limited ability to understand on the telephone.
Functions independently in most face-to-face basic survival situations but needs some help. Asks and responds to direct questions on familiar and some unfamiliar subjects. Still relies on learned phrases but also uses new phrases (i.e., speaks with some creativity) but with hesitation and pauses. Communicates on the phone to express a limited number of survival needs, but with some difficulty. Participates in basic conversations in a limited number of social situations. Can occasionally clarify general meaning.
6 = Can satisfy most survival needs and limited social demands. Can handle jobs and job training that involve following simple oral and written instructions and diagrams. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speak¬ers will be able to communicate with a person at this level on familiar topics, but with difficulty and some effort.
Understands conversations containing some unfamiliar vocabulary on many every¬day subjects, with a need for repetition, rewording or slower speech. Has some ability to understand without face-to-face contact (e.g. on the telephone, TV).
Functions independently in most survival situations, but needs some help. Relies less on learned phrases; speaks with creativity, but with hesitation. Communicates on the phone on familiar subjects but with some difficulty. Participates with some confidence in social situations when addressed directly. Can sometimes clarify general meaning by rewording. Control of basic grammar evident, but inconsistent; may attempt to use more difficult grammar but with almost no control.
7 = Can satisfy survival needs and routine work and social demands. Can handle work that involves following oral and simple written instructions in familiar and some unfamiliar situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can generally communicate with a person at this level on familiar topics.
Understands conversations on most everyday subjects at normal speed when addressed directly; may need repetition, rewording, or slower speech. Understands routine work-related conversations. Increasing ability to understand without face-to-face contact (telephone, TV, radio). Has difficulty following conversation between native speakers.
Functions independently in survival and many social and work situations, but may need help occasion¬ally. Communicates on the phone on familiar subjects. Expands on basic ideas in conversation, but still speaks with hesitation while searching for appropriate vocabulary and grammar. Clarifies general meaning easily, and can sometimes convey exact meaning. Controls basic grammar, but not more difficult grammar.
8 = Can participate effectively in social and familiar work situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can communicate with a person at this level on almost all topics.
Understands general conversation and conversation on technical subjects in own field. Understands without face-to-face contact (telephone, TV, radio); may have difficulty following rapid or colloquial speech. Understands most conversations between native speakers; may miss details if speech is very rapid or colloquial or if subject is unfamiliar.
Participates effectively in practical and social conversation and in technical discussions in own field. Speaks fluently in both familiar and unfamiliar situations; can handle problem situations. Conveys and explains exact meaning of complex ideas. Good control of grammar.
9 = Can participate fluently and accurately in practical, social, and work situations. A native English speaker not used to dealing with limited English speakers can communicate easily with a person at this level.
Understands almost all speech in any context. Occasionally confused by highly colloquial or regional speech.
Approximates a native speaker’s fluency and ability to convey own ideas precisely, even in unfamiliar situations. Speaks without effort. Excellent control of grammar with no apparent patterns of weakness.
10 = Ability equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.
Listening comprehension equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.
Speaking skill equal to that of a native speaker of the same socioeconomic level.
These standards, of course, remain more relevant for adult educators, social workers, and workplace programs than more academic programs. English teachers should, however, create classroom activities where students can engage in extended conversations in English on a wide variety of topics. The higher levels of this chart (SPL 9-10) articulate an excellent standard for all English language learners, including academic English and Business English students. What standards will you adopt for your English classes?
“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.”
~ John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), 35th President of the U.S.
Are you a teacher looking for fresh tips to flip your classroom discussions? Do you ever wish the Teacher Edition of your textbook was more adaptable to your classroom needs?
Compelling American Conversations – Teacher Edition includes Search and Shares from the original CAC and the newly released Compelling Conversations – Japan
Chimayo Press, an LA-based educational publisher, releases Compelling American Conversations – Teacher Edition. This new title assists educators of English as a Second Language (ESL) working with intermediate students at the American high school and adult education levels, immigrant and international alike. Complementing and expanding upon the original material, Compelling American Conversatons – Questions and Quotations for Intermediate American English Language Learners, this guide also includes new content on pronunciation, idioms and word structures to spark more lively English classroom discussions.
This 120-page expansion on the original fifteen chapters comes from Eric Roth, also the co-author of four other Compelling Conversations titles and a master lecturer at the University of Southern California (USC). His co-authors are Mark Treston, who has over 15 years of teaching experience in the US, Korea, Japan, and Israel, and Robert Glynn, a tenured adult ESL teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Their collective, hands-on teaching experience is what makes the Teacher Edition an invaluable resource for more inexperienced teachers and adjunct faculty alike.”We’ve probably taught immigrants and refugees from 75 or more countries in our careers combined.” notes Roth.
First released in 2012, Compelling American Conversations, written by Toni Aberson and Eric Roth, gained some critical praise and a small group of enthusiasts.“This book is fun and stimulating and, fortunately, very accessible for the intermediate learner,” noted Planaria Price, author of Life in the USA and Realistically Speaking.
Carl W. Hart, author of Rocket English Grammar and The Ultimate Phrasal Verb Book, called Compelling American Conversations “a gold mine . . . . The combination of compelling conversation topics, which students enjoy; new vocabulary, which students crave; and brief grammar reminders, which students need, will get students talking and learning!” Despite this critical acclaim from some ESL authors and excerpts in the literacy monthly Easy English Times, Compelling American Conversations remains relatively unknown outside of Southern California adult education circles.
Many ESL Educators Can Benefit:
“I learned so much from Mark (Treston) and Robert (Glynn) about teaching speaking skills with my own book during this creative collaboration,” says Roth. “It’s both surprising and delightful. They brought so many insights and savvy techniques from their own ESL classroom experiences into the book. I suspect many other ESL educators can benefit from their teaching tips too!”
“Each chapter includes a list of learning objectives, extended vocabulary lessons, minimal pairs, and advice on paraphrasing proverbs and other extension activities. The combination of teaching tips, diverse extension activities, and additional cultural references makes it easier to provide insights into American culture while teaching English conversation. “Sometimes teachers are reluctant to teach conversation because students may ask unexpected questions,” adds Treston. “It can be stressful or wonderful. Our book reduces the stress and increases the wonder. And we like lively class discussions.”
Chapter titles – of both Student and Teacher Editions – include: Opening Moves; Going Beyond Hello; Making and Breaking Habits; Studying English; Being Yourself; Choosing and Keeping Friends; Playing and Watching Sports; Talking About American Television; Celebrating American Holidays; Being Stylish; Handling Stress; Practicing Job Interviews; Valuing Money and Finding Bargains; Exploring American Cities and Seeing Our World With Photographs.
Each chapter also concludes with reproducible ‘Search and Share’ communicative homework exercises in the appendix. These communicative, reproducible worksheets and tips help flip the classroom environment. The Search and Share format – where students collect information to share with classmates in small groups – both encourages and requires greater student participation and speaking in class. “English students need to be encouraged and supported as they gain competency and confidence,” concludes Roth. “Speaking English is harder than it looks.”
Although tailored for college and adult education students, the fluency-focused ESL textbook remains adaptable to other English programs and level. This ESL textbook expands the innovative fluency-focused ESL/EFL series that started with Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics written by Toni Aberson and Roth (2006). Since publication, Compelling Conversations has found readers in over 50 countries and established a niche among dedicated English teachers, online EFL tutors, and English conversation clubs. Compelling American Conversations is the third conversation book. The series also includes Compelling Conversations – Japan: Questions and Quotations for High Intermediate English Language Learners (2015) and Compelling Conversations – Vietnam: Questions and Quotations for Advanced Vietnamese English Language Learners (2011).
Photo Source: Photo taken by Nicola Sapiens De Mitri
“In any field, find the strangest thing and then explore it.”
-John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008) American theoretical physicist
We live in a world full of wonderful resources from books to television to the internet. These resources remain invaluable to encourage our students to immerse themselves in the English language. Think of the conversations that can arise as a result!
Search and Share exercises, otherwise known as Webquests, present themselves as popular tools for many teachers. Compelling Conversations has developed some of their own, which can be found here. These worksheets allow students to record what resources they used and what aspects to look out for. The questions accompanying each activity allow the student to reflect on the “search” aspect, and also serve as perfect conversation starters when students “share” with one another.
Note the variety in the approach of these wonderful exercises. For instance, students may be looking out for body language, comparing with a video in their native language, hidden meaning or parallels to their own lives. They no longer have to dread filling out tedious, repetitive worksheets.
I like to use these worksheets for Tedtalks, New York Times articles and of course, to accompany the chapters of Compelling Conversations. How do you encourage your students to “search and share” information in your English class?
Ask More. Know More. Share More.
Create Compelling Conversations.
CompellingConversations’ compilation of YouTube videos for ESL teachers and students alike
“We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn.”
―Mary Catherine Bateson (1939- ), American writer and cultural anthropologist
Want to make use of YouTube’s gigantic collection of ESL and language-related videos, but don’t know where to start? Every semester, I compile a diverse set of useful, relevant and interesting videos for a wide range of difficulty levels. Here’s the ten favorite this time around to share with your advanced English (or ESL) students:
1. English Pronunciation – vowel changes in stressed and unstressed syllables
This 2011 video by AccurateEnglish uses common words to highlight how to pronounce English vowels in stressed and unstressed syllables. In seven minutes, Lisa Mojsin, author of “Mastering the American Accent,” reviews common mistakes she encounters in her English classes, and uses a rubber band as a visual tool to demonstrate which vowels should be stressed.
2. Being a Good Conversationalist – Responding to Good News and Bad News
VOA Learning English, in a 19-minute Google+ Hangout session, displays the proper responses to good news and bad news in English. This video from 2013 features Guest Jane Mairs, writer of the Ask the Editor column for Merriam-Webster, who explains why certain responses are polite or impolite in conversation.
3. Job Interview – Learn English
Duc Lai gives a six-minute breakdown of the job interview process while providing several tips along the way. In two different job-interview settings, this video from 2010 explains why certain questions are asked and notes that the word ordering changes when a sentence is transformed into an inquiry.
4. How do Accents Work?
Made in 2014, this video covers a very relatable topic to English learners. Brainstuff – HowStuffWorks delves into the explanation of how accents work in roughly six minutes. This concept is explained in terms of social, geographic and scientific aspects, and with the help of diagrams, is made easy to understand.
5. The World We Explore- Sir Ken Robinson Zeitgeist Americas 2012
In this video from 2012 by zeitgeistminds, Sir Ken Robinson, known for his work covering the imagination and education, explores creativity in our education system and society. Throughout the twenty minutes, Robinson engages the audience and uses anecdote to push forward his point that the standardization of school systems is stunting creativity. This leads many to ask: are we educating or miseducating in our classrooms?
6. How to Improve Spoken American English – Sound Like a Native Speaker
Rachel’s English, a prolific YouTube Channel for teaching ESL, uploaded this six-minute tutorial in 2013. By using a “Ben Franklin exercise,” Rachel shows that with just a recording of a native speaker, students can begin to sound like ones themselves.
7. Advanced English 1a – Vocabulary – Olympic Games
The first in a 2008 playlist by JenniferESL, this eight-minute video is designed for upper-level students wishing to learn the vocabulary of a common conversation. Jennifer, well-known for her YouTube channel, teaches Olympic vocabulary words in context by using a multiple-choice scenario. The other videos in this playlist follow a similar structure for different topics, such as Olympic Games grammar and Yard Sale vocabulary.
8. Difficult words “world,” etc
AccurateEnglish uploaded this 5 minute lesson in 2009 in order to help students pronounce the most difficult words. In this quick guide, Lisa Mojsin presents little tricks to show how students should “imagine” the spellings of these words in order to pronounce them correctly.
9. What Makes a Word Real?
TEDtalk host Anne Curzan discusses in 17 minutes what makes a word “real” and why people should not resist the emergence of new words, like “adorkable.” This video, which came out in 2014, explains why certain words are in the dictionary, and at what point does a word become “real.”
10. Daniel Gilbert- The Surprising Science of Happiness
In 2012, TEDtalk host Daniel Gilbert discusses how our “psychological immune system” determines our happiness, independent of whether or not things go according to plan. His interesting examples of people who face adversity yet are still happy lead us to wonder what the true path to happiness is–and all in just 21 minutes.
How do you use YouTube in your classrooms?
Ask more. Know more. Share more.
Create Compelling Conversations.
Explore the benefits of using Skype to tutor English learners around the world.
“A conversation can be made easy. Just ask a question and then listen.”
―Robert Bly (1926- ), American poet and author
As millions of English-learners across the globe take advantage of new technology, English tutors may want to consider hosting their sessions via Skype. At no additional charge, both parties can Skype and hold live conversations from home.
This modern approach remains particularly advantageous to tutors offering their services beyond their neighborhoods, or even beyond their country’s borders. Skype also allows both teacher and student to “share their screens,” thus allowing for effective sharing of teaching material and student work. Perhaps the most useful capability is the record option: tutors and students alike can benefit greatly from being able to re-watch videos of their sessions.
Tutoring Tips for Skype
Here are some quick things to keep in mind when tutoring on Skype:
-Watch the informative 2009 Time Magazine video How to Ace a Skype Job Interview. Although clearly intended for job seekers, it provides a concise overview of helpful screen management tips for English tutors and teachers using Skype
-Set up an account with an easy to remember, appropriate username and an appropriate photo
-Familiarize yourself with the application, and how to video chat, share screens, record, etc.
-Test your microphone, speakers and webcam using Skype’s testing service before hosting any sessions
-Prepare for the English tutoring sessions, even if teaching conversation skills
-Set a clear agenda for the tutoring session and share materials with the client
-Host sessions from an appropriate, well-lit room
-Wait to start the clock until the microphone, speakers and webcam have been properly connected for both parties
-Ask questions and let the English student practice their English speaking skills
-Provide both direct and indirect feedback on the students’ “good mistakes” in a friendly manner
-Remember to periodically share screens or have the student display his or her work
-Advertise – for free – your Skype lessons on your resume at www.eslteachersboard.com and/or www.eslboards.com
-Consider offering a short free online session as an a teaser for your online tutoring
A good ESL tutor will still assess their students’ initial level and outline short-term and long-term goals for the meeting. However, because travel time and transportation costs are no longer part of the equation, tutors can now schedule shorter, more frequent meetings as well as the longer sessions. One hour seems most comfortable for me, but some more experienced ESL tutors have found 90-minute and two-hour sessions work too. Of course, the longer the session, the more crucial the need to carefully prepare for the English lesson.
You can also check Skype’s page on online tutoring to answer additional questions regarding the ins and outs of teaching over webcam. Since Skype is nearly as interactive as face-to-face, English tutors should consider its benefits when hosting their teaching sessions. Many students appreciate the ability to review the recorded sessions. You can encourage this reflective practice by asking about their reactions to watching themselves in the previous lesson.
Consider Using Compelling Conversations
Many Skype tutors have chosen to use Compelling Conversations materials to provide clear structure and help English language learners keep the conversation flowing. Naturally, I’m pleased with this unexpected development and appreciate this 21st century method of holding face to face conversations – across borders – in real time. English tutors will find our ready-to-use conversation lesson plans make teaching speaking skills easy and relaxing.
If you are considering teaching English as a profession, tutoring English conversation on Skype provides a practical way to both explore the field, gain practical experience, and put some nickels in your pocket.
Will tutoring English and teaching conversation skills on Skype be in your future?
Ask more. Know more. Share more.
Create Compelling Conversations.
What do you do with a problem like the TOEFL iBT test?
For worse or for better, the TOEFL test remains the standard assessment of English for international students planning to attend American colleges and universities. As a result, many international ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages) students often adopt the TOEFL test scores to self-assess their own ability in English too.
Of course, standardized exams – including the computer-based TOEFL-iBT – remain unfair to anxious students prone to extreme cases of test anxiety. It also assumes a false equivalency between responses to a computer and responses to actual, live conversations with individuals. (This difference in assessing speaking skills is why I strongly believe the IELTS remains a more authentic test of speaking skills, but the TOEFL remains far, far more popular among American universities as a measure of English language skills.)
TOEFL Scores Matter
Still, the imperfect TOEFL test remains part of current English learning experience for millions. An imperfect standardized test also provides more information to university admissions committees than no standardized test scores. When people have hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of applications to sift through, sometimes abstract numbers provide a reassuring sense of objective depiction of student potential. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “standardized testing is the worst possible form of applicant evaluation, except for all the rest.”
Students, even the students that I currently teach in the United States, often seek to improve their TOEFL scores. My standard advice on the speaking section has been practice speaking on a computer, time yourself, paraphrase and don’t parrot question, listen carefully, and videotape your responses. Giving your opinion and providing a short reason in less than 30 seconds remains a practical everyday life skill, and practice can help improve TOEFL test scores too.
Listening to a Friend – and TOEFL Expert
Sometimes friends can help. I met Brent Warner two years ago, and we have had the opportunity to see each other at a number of CATESOL conferences. He’s become a bit of a TOEFL maven between his teaching and tutoring Japanese students for seven years for the TOEFL. He also currently works as the Academic Manager at Kaplan International in Irvine, California and deals with TOEFL headaches and desires on a regular basis. He’s one of my “go to” experts on TOEFL and edtech questions because he’s developed an expertise in an area I prefer to avoid.
Brent is also the author of a useful primer on TOEFL called title=”How to Pass the TOEFL iBT Test: Know What to Expect to Improve Your Score”>(http://www.amazon.com/How-Pass-TOEFL%C2%AE-iBT-Test-ebook/dp/B007Z55G4I/ I asked a simple question: “What else should I recommend students do to improve their speaking scores?”
Know the TOEFL Test: Structure Matters
“Know the TOEFL test; structure matters”, is a quick summary of Brent’s advice. “And read my book.”
His straightforward ebook steers away from countless practice drills. Instead, the book focuses directly on the structure of the TOEFL iBT test. As an English teacher who has never taken the test, I found it quite illuminating. Understanding that structure helps qualified students – and English teachers – save time and move through the test more efficiently and confidently.
Brent argues that understanding the TOEFL test structure allows test takers more time to think about the content of the questions during the test rather than trying to decipher “the best way” to answer. Never forget that the TOEFL iBT remains partly a test of knowledge about the TOEFL iBT as well as English.
Specific TIPS for TOEFL Speaking Section
In consideration of speaking, Brent wisely emphasizes that the speaking sections of the TOEFL test remain limited at best in comparison with natural, authentic communication. Who watches the clock and talks to recorded voices on a computer and pretends this is a natural conversation? Unfortunately, the TOEFL test remains the answer.
• “When the test gives an independent question prompt, you are expected to give an answer. While this is very common in standardized tests, the fact that there is no response may put many testers off-balance. In the real world, even if we are speaking into the screen of our phones, at the very least we can reasonably expect to get an indication that we are being listened to, and more commonly some sort of positive feedback that lets us know we are on the right track.”
• “In integrated question prompts, testers are expected to synthesize information from a listening and a reading passage, then compare and contrast the two and summarize it all in their own words. Admittedly this is a useful skill, especially for college-bound students. In practicing for the test, however, students often feel as though it’s only practical to compare a lecture with textbook passages and they quickly lose motivation to continue. It’s important to take these skills outside of academics and show how they can be used in daily life by talking about the news, movie reviews in comparison to your own opinions, and any of the myriad ways we might need to synthesize information. Making these skills practical and applicable outside of the realm of the test is hugely important to teachers, and should be integrated into the core of the TOEFL test as well.”
• “Speakers sometimes get so caught up with trying to give a perfect answer that they often forget there is a human being on the other end of the test. A light and breezy style focusing on being easy to understand rather than structurally perfect may provide a much welcome relief to the test grader. Remember that they may have been listening to similar answers for hours before they get to your response, so anything you can do to stand out from the crowd will only help you.”
A Quick Primer
I remain skeptical of the TOEFL test’s validity as a real measure of authentic English-speaking skills. However, Brent’s book demonstrates how English language learners can take back some control by deciphering the TOEFL test structure. His advice on understanding what ETS wants by their own definition of a “high quality” answer helps reduce the stress and confusion surrounding the controversial, highly influential test. Numbers do, after all, often provide precision and clarity. Warner’s ebook serves as a quick primer for TOEFL iBT test takers and English teachers working to help students improve their scores. And I would remember that practice seldom makes perfection, but it does make progress.
Some problems, like the TOEFL iBT test, can best be handled by preparation and practice. Brent’s ebook helpful in both understanding the TOEFL and deconstructing its inner logic. I like his sensibility and trust his judgements, especially on the test’s strengths and limitations. International students facing the TOEFL iBT test might also find it a valuable resource as they seek a target TOEFL score. Reading this ebook is one way to manage the TOEFL iBT problem. You can read more on Brent’s thoughts and reviews on TOEFL resources at www.toeflibtbook.com . I learned from it; you might too.