Compelling Conversations for English Teachers, Tutors, and Advanced English Language Learners
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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Category: adult education, adult ESL, book reviews, educational philosophy, ELL, ELT - English Language Training, English, English langugage learners, English Teachers, ESL, ESL English as a Second Language, teacher training, teaching tips, TEFLTags: Add new tag, adult ESL, advanced ESL, book review, educational philosophy, EFL English as a Foreign Language, ELT, English teachers, English as a Second Language, English Language Training, English teacher, Eric Roth, ESL, ESL teachers, ESL teaching tips, Hall Houston, teaching English, teaching ESL, Teaching matters
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.
Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak more.
Create Compelling Conversations.
Visit www.Compelling Conversations.
Category: adult ESL, censorship, Compelling Conversations, EFL English as a Foreign Language, ELL, English langugage learners, ESL, TEFL, TESOLTags: Boring textbooks, censorship, Compelling Conversations, EFL publishers, EFL textbooks, English teachers, English as a Foreign Language (EFL), English Language Learners, ESL, TESOL
September 11, 2011 by 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.
Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak More.
Create Compelling Conversations.
Category: censorship, Compelling Conversations, EFL English as a Foreign Language, ELL, English langugage learners, ESL, ESL/EFL teachers' resources, Teaching English in Vietnam, Teaching matters, TEFLTags: Compelling Conversations, Conversation lessons, EFL English as a Foreign Language, English teachers, English Language Learners, English teacher, English Teaching Professional, Eric Roth, ESL, ESL teachers, Hall Houston, Our World, Steve Charles, Steve Riggs, Teaching English in Vietnam, teaching tips, Vietnam, Wabash College, Wabash Magazine
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.
http://larryferlazzo.edublogs.org/ – 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.
http://teacherbootcamp.edublogs.org/ – Tech savvy, energetic English teacher trainer Shelly Terrell.
http://theedublogger.com/ – The Australian education blogger Sue Waters.
http://evridikidakos.edublogs.org/ – 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!
http://kalinago.blogspot.com/ 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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Create Compelling Conversations.
Category: adult ESL, EFL English as a Foreign Language, ESL/EFL teachers' resources, teacher training, Teaching English in Vietnam, teaching tipsTags: autotelic teacher, becoming an English teacher, creating autotelic students, EFL teacher, ELT, English teacher, ESL teacher, ESL teacher blogs
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 www.TED.com accomplishes all these goals. For the last four years, I have asked both college and international graduate students to select a short TED.com 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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Category: academic matters, Compelling Conversations, democratic classroom, EFL English as a Foreign Language, English class, English langugage learners, ESL, ESL worksheets, ESL/EFL teachers' resources, Speaking Skills, teaching tips, TED.comTags: academic presentations, advanced EFL, advanced ESL, class presentations, ESL teachers, oral skills, Speaking Skills, TED.com
June 5, 2011 by Eric
“How can rural Chinese students develop their listening and speaking skills with very limited opportunities to speak with actual native speakers in person?”
This question remains the billion person question! English language learners across Asia – in China, Thailand, and Vietnam – and the entire globe – confront this profound problem. As somebody who has only taught English for a limited time in a developing Asian country and has never had the pleasure of teaching English in China, I have to admit that I am not completely sure. I will, however, try to answer to the best of my ability.
Clearly, this challenging question illuminates both the deep desire of many Chinese to speak with native speakers – and often hope to sound like native speakers. At the same time, many experienced EFL teachers and linguists often emphasize that students need “realistic expectations” for themselves, and English language learners don’t need to sound like native speakers to speak with native speakers. The rarity of native speakers may also indicate some official ambivalence about closing societies opening up. The good news, of course, remains that advanced technology, provides dozens of options that simply didn’t exist 50 years ago for English language students.
As English teachers working in China are keenly aware, China remains a relatively closed society where officials maintain a strict censorship policy. Surveys often place China among the ten least internet friendly nations. In this context, it’s almost impossible to disassociate English from some broader cultural associations and ambitions. A few older Chinese officials may even still view the presence of native English speakers with some suspicion in more remote, backward rural areas.
Yet during both the successful Beijing Olympics and Shanghai World Expo, the national Chinese government strongly promoted the study of conversational English so more Chinese could help international tourists feel comfortable in China. The exponential growth of English, as the lingua franca of the business world, across the major cities of China has been amazing in the last decade. The Chinese government has clearly endorsed the widespread learning of English among children and adults in both urban and rural areas. The opportunity, however, to actually hold conversations in English often remains limited.
So what is to be done? We can’t let the ideal become the enemy of the good. English language learners have many choices today to hear excellent examples of English spoken. Students can listen to podcasts and available quality English language radio programs, speak English on Skype with English tutors, and watch hundreds of fine American, British, and Australian films. Many of my Chinese students tell me that they joined conversation programs like English Corner to practice simple conversation, and some language schools have afterschool English clubs. Bolder students might try forming friendships with native-English speakers on social media sites. Today a billion people who have never personally seen a native English speaker can still listen to the authentic voices of native-speakers in more ways than ever before… even if there’s not a single native speaker in town.
I also suggest EFL teachers create speaking opportunities both in class – in small groups or pairs – and consider adding speaking elements to homework assignments. Fluency, after all, requires practice and speaking English – even to a fellow Chinese, non-native speaker – will develop their evolving English speaking skills. Practice may not make perfect, but it will push students to make real progress.
Let’s help English students get into the habit of asking and answering questions – to the best of their ability – about topics they care about in English class everyday. How? Focus on student interests. I’ve had considerable success, for instance, using Being Yourself from Compelling Conversations with intermediate and advanced students because so many students find themselves fascinating.
Bottomline: adding short, meaningful conversation exercises to every English class should help EFL students gain the confidence and experience they need to hold real conversations. English students may not have a chance to speak with a native speaker today, but we can help make sure they can create a real conversation when they talk with native speakers tomorrow… or the year after tomorrow.
Yet I’m confronting this billion-person question from the perspective of an American college professor who has taught dozens of Chinese students at an elite university. What advice do other English teachers, especially teachers who have taught in rural, relatively isolated areas with few native speakers, have? Are there some low-tech solutions that I’ve overlooked? How would you answer this billion-person question?
Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak more.
Create Compelling Conversations.
Category: Compelling Conversations, conversation starters, EFL English as a Foreign Language, ELL, English class, English langugage learners, ESL/EFL teachers' resources, Speaking Skills, teaching tipsTags: billion-person question, Chinese English language learners, Compelling Conversations, conversation, Conversation Corner, EFL teachers, English students, Eric H. Roth, ESL, native speakers, Speaking Skills, Teaching English in China