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

  1. Savvy Tips to Score Higher on the TOEFL iBT Speaking Section

    March 23, 2014 by Eric

    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”>( 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 . I learned from it; you might too.

    Finally, let’s hope more dedicated international students and English language learners reach their target TOEFL score!

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  2. What Three Tips Would You Share with Novice ESL / EFL Teachers?

    August 15, 2013 by Eric
    What three tips would offer new a ESL/EFL teacher?

    Hall Houston, author of Provoking Thought: Memory and Thought in ELT, posed this question to several prominent English language trainers and teachers last year. Sean Banville, Russell Stannard, Chia Suan Chong, Nik Peachey, Scott Thornbury, and myself replied. (Naturally, I feel grateful to be included with these far more notable and accomplished ELT educators.) Houston placed these practical, sometimes surprising, and often illuminating responses together in the back of his latest educational book The ELT Daily Journal: Learning to Teach ESL/EFL.

    Here are my three tips for novice English teachers working with English language learners.

    1. Create Classroom Rituals – Beginnings and endings matter. Establishing clear classroom expectations and class rituals increase student comfort, establish a professional atmosphere, and improve student learning. One of my favorite classroom rituals is asking a personal question on the daily attendance sheet that re-enforces the day’s lesson, checks off a bureaucratic necessity, allows individual student expression, and builds group cohesion and student curiosity. Adding a relevant pithy quotation at the bottom adds another layer of engagement.

    2. Encourage “Good Mistakes” – Since mistakes are both inevitable and part of the learning process, encourage students to take chances, stretch their English muscles, and make “good mistakes” in a safe, tolerant space. Good mistakes are common mistakes that we can learn from so we can go on to make new, different, and better “good mistakes”. Sometimes students allow the demon of perfectionism to paralyze them, and framing errors as “good mistakes” can reduce the fear and stigma around making errors so students can learn more by doing more.

    3. Deploy YouTube (or other video channels) – The easy access to thousands of authentic materials on YouTube and other online channels makes teaching English easier and more satisfying than ever. Instead of just playing a single video clip in class, you can have high intermediate and advanced students find their own videos for homework and summarize them for classmates. “Search and share” homework assignments encourage student curiosity, develop critical thinking skills, and require students to speak as they describe and evaluate videos for classmates.

    (You can find several such worksheets that I’ve created here.)

    The ELT Daily Journal provides over a dozen similar sets of responses in the appendix. Designed for new teachers, the simple format poses a question or provides a suggestion to stimulate writing about classroom experiences. Although I’ve taught for over two decades and seldom kept a formal teaching journal, I found it a quick, satisfying read that evoked some positive and a few awkward classroom experiences. Consequently, this book serves as a quick primer on best ESL/EFL teaching practices and core ELT principles.

    This thin, practical book has been added to my ESL/EFL library and professional development workshops. I look forward to sharing the book, especially with novice English teachers. I certainly wish I had read and used this journal when I taught my first English class so many moons ago. You might find it useful too.

    We all have classroom experiences as students or teachers. What advice would you offer to new ESL/EFL teachers? Why?
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  3. Why Are So Many EFL Textbooks So Bland, Boring, and Culturally Tone Deaf?

    September 28, 2011 by Eric

    Why are so many EFL Textbooks so bland, boring, and culturally tone-deaf?  Allow me to ask a more polite question.

    How can English teachers working abroad and international English textbook publishers both respect local cultures and create more engaging English classroom lessons? The challenge may be more complicated than you might suspect.

    A long, informative, and detailed exchange on a TESOL list serve recently focused on  the peculiar sensitivities of Saudi Arabian students. An experienced American English teacher reported that his Saudi students expressed anger over a paragraph in their writing book. The imported American English language textbook, which has collected considerable critical praise, contained a paragraph celebrating friendships across many countries and religions – including an unpopular democratic rival nation of the Saudi kingdom. Working in a closed, theocratic society where women are banned from driving evidently raises many delicate problems for English teachers, and many EFL and ESL materials must be carefully edited.  Obviously, discussing politics, religion, sexuality, and gender issues is clearly culturally inappropriate and often legally forbidden in this rigid Islamic kingdom.

    Without passing judgment for the moment on the Saudi students’ perceptions and religious passions, let’s zoom out a bit. This awkward incident illuminates the need to explicitly tailoring English as Foreign Language (EFL) content to reflect different national cultures. It also identifies a core defect in the many EFL publishers and why so many EFL and ESL textbooks are bland, boring, and heavily censored. Who wants to offend many potential customers and clients by just mentioning a small country’s name?

    As I heard explained at two fascinating TESOL workshops for EFL material writers at the 2011 conference in New Orleans, the current practice for EFL publishers is to simply collect all the possible objections, adopt the “red lines” of all countries, and uniformly impose these taboos around the world. The default advice for EFL material writers includes prohibiting not only politics, alcohol religion, sex, and nudity (predictable), but also mention of luck, negative emotions, Israel, gender roles, and pork.

    Here are some memorable examples. One EFL materials writer detailed how he had to drop a chapter on bad luck because it implied that God wasn’t in control of events and might encourage superstitious thinking. Another writer told TESOL participants about having to drop a health chapter which included a “no smoking sign” because it implied that smoking was a choice. Another presenter felt proud that he was able to list “negative emotions” such as “bored”, “tired”, “unhappy” when outnumbered by positive adjectives by a 3-1 margin in a chapter on feelings.

    Evidently, many educational bureaucrats evidently place creating a “harmonious society” and teaching conformity above actual language acquisition or student expression. Shock, shock. The ban on mentioning Israel comes from – as demonstrated in the Saudi Arabia classroom that sparked this informative discussion among TESOL professionals – the fashionable desire to see a democratic, successful nation abolished among many Arabs. Many British publishers have also found many Arab countries, including several former colonies and a few royal kingdoms the British Empire helped create after WWI,  to be  important, lucrative EFL markets. The predictable result: pandering to local prejudice and the systematic omission of positive references to Israel.

    Naturally, printing world maps that ignore the existence of a small country is also an explicitly political decision so the “avoid politics” advice is a tad dishonest here. Further, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, I find the strange belief that every group deserves a nation except Jews pure bigotry and fashionable group hatred. Yet, for worse or for better, this quasi-official ban seems to be widely adopted by many British EFL publishers. (American textbook  publishers, perhaps inspired by a federal law that prohibits honoring the Arab boycott of Israel, don’t appear to follow this particular practice.)

    Yet rather than focusing on the passionate politics of the Mideast, let’s remember that the largest clients often dictate content in many fields. And governments and their education ministries remain, by far, the largest clients for international educational publishers. In fact, educational ministries– especially in closed, dictatorial societies where teaching critical thinking is more than discouraged, censorship taken for granted, and English often viewed with some lingering suspicion as an old imperial tongue – hold exceptional power to approve or veto EFL textbooks. Focusing on pleasing these clients, many American and British publishers have chosen to adopt all the “red lines” of various cultures. Unfortunately, this current practice ends up imposing the safest, narrowest paradigm on all their international clients – across the globe. The Saudi standard becomes the standard for French, Brazilian, Japanese, and Korean English language learners too.

    After all, efficiency matters in publishing too. From a publisher’s perspective, creating one core EFL textbook and making very minor tweaks (usually illustrations) for each region works just fine. The downside, as many of us know from personal experience, is the resulting product often becomes bland, often fails to engage students, and effectively allows the most closed societies to dictate content across the globe. Both English teachers and their students lose access to more meaningful, reflective, and accurate information and wider, more modern and tolerant perspectives.

    Yet satisfying student interest is far less important from a global sales perspective than meeting a ruling regime’s dictates to re-enforce local beliefs and uphold the political status quo. These larger concerns translate into many boring EFL textbooks that both pander and overlook local cultures by promoting a one-size fits all English language learners textbook. As of now, many of these well-known EFL titles still manage to sell huge numbers – and avoid dozens of engaging topics that directly relate to students’ actual lives, experiences, and hopes.  For instance, English students in poor Asian, African, and Central American countries currently have to learn about housing vocabulary written from an abstract, universal perspective with examples from London, New York, and Tokyo.  How relevant, appropriate, or accurate will the housing vocabulary be?

    Yet there is a better, smarter, and more culturally sophisticated way to both acknowledge the political realities of working in closed societies and create more engaging EFL textbooks that express and reflect national cultures. We could develop more appropriate EFL materials that authentically reflect the actual life experiences and aspirations of English language learners in their current context.  More on that topic in the next Compelling Conversations blog post.

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  4. The Language of Opportunity – Wabash profiles an English Teacher

    September 11, 2011 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Small American colleges often love their ambitious graduates. Wabash College, my alma mater and outstanding private liberal arts college in Indiana, certainly celebrates her favorite sons and treats them like stars. This fall’s Wabash Magazine advises graduates to “Look East, Young Man” as it celebrates the opening of the College’s new Asian Studies Center.

    Inside, the magazine editor describes a “Language of Opportunity” article as “Eric Roth ’84 recounts how his attempt to start a free-thinking university in Vietnam led to the realization that the spread of the English language—in part through his own conversational English primer—may be the more immediate path to freedom of thought and expression in the region.”

    Fortunately, the article also provides a larger context of teaching English in a closed (but still opening) society. The writer, Steve Charles, also explores the difficulties of adapting Compelling Conversations , an advanced conversation for ESL (English as a Second Language) students into an acceptable EFL (English as a Foreign Language) textbook, and explains how I came to publish two very different English language conversation textbooks. Please note that the original ESL book has 45 chapters, including “Voting”, and the EFL version for Vietnamese English Language Learners has 15 chapters with more vocabulary definitions.

    “In addition to teaching at the University of Southern California, the former congressional aide and journalist (Roth) is co-author of Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. The book is an alternative text for teaching conversational English as a second language (ESL). It is recommended by a leading trade journal of English teaching professionals.”

    The three-page glossy magazine piece continues to provide perspective and illuminate the role of English in the 21st century. “And in case you haven’t noticed, English is well on its way to becoming the world’s dominant language,” writes Charles.

    “This is the first time in world history we actually have a language spoken genuinely globally by every country of the world,” writes David Crystal in English as a Global Language. As of 2005, almost a quarter of the world’s population spoke English as a native or second language. It is the de facto language of commerce and diplomacy. More than 80 percent of information stored on the Internet is in English. And while there are more speakers of Chinese, Spanish, and Hindi, they speak English when they talk across cultures, and it is English they teach their children in order to give them a chance in the world economy. More than 20,000 ESL teaching jobs are posted monthly; no longer a fallback, teaching ESL is becoming a lucrative first or second career. Some experts predict that by 2030 more than half the world’s population will speak English.”

    Reading those simple, powerful facts about the explosion of English renewed my appreciation for our role as English teachers today. English remains the language of opportunity for millions seeking to study, work, and move abroad.  The article allows me to explain. “I had been teaching ESL to immigrants, and I knew English was essential to their lives in the U.S., but on this trip we saw English as a truly global language. It is the gateway to a modern world, and to 21st century lives. And in countries like Vietnam and other developing nations, English is sometimes the only accessible means to advance yourself.” This insight lead to the title “the language of opportunity”.

    The article also describes the educational philosophy behind Compelling Conversations .

    “Combining his teaching experience and his liberal arts background, Roth collaborated with his mother, Toni Aberson—an English teacher for 35 years—to self-publish the first edition of the book. Dedicated to his father, Dani Roth—who spoke six languages and “could talk with almost anyone”—the book provides an alternative to “presentation-practice-production” approach to language learning, instead using quotations, questions, and proverbs to prompt conversation.”

    “Some [quotes and questions] will have students roaring with laughter, while others require careful introspection,” wrote a reviewer (Hall Houston) for the ESL journal English Teaching Professional. “They are highly effective for promoting student discussion.”

     “In the classroom and in the book we try to create a space that’s tolerant and rigorous at the same time,” Roth says. “The focus is on learning by doing, and we want to give people room to make good mistakes—errors that help us learn. When people expect themselves to be perfect, they go silent.”

    Most of the book’s prompts ask for recollections or personal opinions.“Whatever perspective you bring to the book, I want you to find validation in some great thinker, that it’s okay to see things that way. That gives us all the freedom to be ourselves and less of who we think we should be, or who we’ve been programmed or conditioned to be.”

    You can read the entire article here.

     Like many other English teachers – of all kinds – I feel rich in life experiences, but we seldom get recognized for our hard work.  We also also clearly make significant contributions to our grateful students and larger, positive global trends. And recognition feels good.   Therefore, I’m grateful that Wabash College,  a small Midwestern college in a small town, taught me  to “disagree without being disagreeable” and see the big picture.

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  5. Becoming an Autotelic English Teacher

    July 7, 2011 by Eric

    “The wise are instructed by reason, average minds by experience, the stupid by necessity, and the brute by instinct.”

    Marcus Cicero, Roman statesman and orator

    How do potential English teachers gain the experience and knowledge to become successful English teachers? The answer is both more complicated and simpler than many people believe.  The internet provides exceptional opportunities for potential English teachers to become autotelic (self-directed) learners. Following your own interest and creating your own educational program has never been easier.

    The cult of paper continues to reign – especially in educational bureaucracies. Perhaps this remains the largest discrepancy between ESL and EFL faculties. In immigrant-friendly societies English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors usually have been formally trained in actually teaching ESL learners. Many English as a Foreign Language (EFL)  instructors, in contrast, are enticed to pursue teaching English while traveling abroad as a means of earning some extra cash. While some of these impromptu instructors are confident, worldly, intelligent, and often become outstanding educators in their own right, more often they are less-than-successful, holding to the assumption that teaching is easy, and teaching English even easier.

    As the Bulgarian adage goes, “Many learn to walk by stumbling.” Over time and after several awkward classes, some instructors grow through experience, becoming better, more effective teachers. A key fact remains the ability to zoom out and reflect upon an English lesson; what worked, what didn’t work, what could be done differently, etc. By reading and reflecting, and then developing Personal Learning Networks, some “instant English teachers” can become stronger and smarter classroom guides.

    Further, the reality remains that too  many education classes  bore students,  obsess  over  theory, and neglect teaching any practical instruction techniques. Plus, these formal certificates and advanced degrees can become rather costly and do not guarantee success in the actual EFL classroom. Combined with the reluctance of so many private English language schools to spend money on professional development and pay higher salaries for more credentialed teachers, many EFL teachers choose to find their own paths to becoming outstanding instructors. Teachers’ conferences, professional seminars, carefully observing successful English teachers, and finding a mentor are all beneficial for English teachers, both novice and experienced, trying to learn how to better instruct their students.

    While it is obviously possible for EFL instructors to be hired in China, Vietnam, Thailand, and many other countries without a strong background in teaching, I still recommend that most EFL and ESL instructors get more training and share teaching experiences – for your students sake and your own pursuit of excellence.

    Yet this professional development does not have to be sanctioned by any formal educational institution. As the great American historian Henry Adams observed, “”They know enough who know how to learn.”

    The best thing that I can advise ESL instructors is to create a PLN, or Personal Learning Network, as it has become the fashionable rage among many English language and trainers around the world. Here are some links for insight into becoming a more learned and practical English teacher, all 100% free internet resources that I personally follow and have learned from over the years. – Larry has become a living legend among American English language and social studies teachers for his ability to find, analyze, and describe the best sites for educators. I learn every time I allow myself the pleasure to explore his “best of” series of links. – Tech savvy, energetic English teacher trainer Shelly Terrell. – The Australian education blogger Sue Waters. – Teaching with technology creates new possibilities and Evridiki Dakos  has established herself as a leading expert, especially for teaching English to children. Check her creative blog out! The always informative ELT specialist and conversation enthusiast  Karenne Joy Sylvester.

    Bottomline: Do yourself a favor, check out these outstanding EFL and ESL experts, and become an autotelic English teacher.


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  6. 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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