Compelling Conversations logo

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

  1. Search and Share exercises enhance learning resources

    October 10, 2014 by Eric

    Explore with Search and Share worksheets

    search and share

    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.


    Comments (0)

  2. Fantastic YouTube videos for the ESL classroom

    June 17, 2014 by Eric

    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.


    Comments (0)

  3. Skype Makes Tutoring English with Clients Across the Globe Easy and Comfortable

    June 16, 2014 by Eric

    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 and/or
    -Consider offering a short free online session as an a teaser for your online tutoring

    Additional Considerations

    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.


    Comments (4)

  4. 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!

    Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak more.
    Create Compelling Conversations


    Comments (0)

  5. 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?
    Ask More. Know more. Share more. Speak more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (8)

  6. 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.

    Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak more.

    Create Compelling Conversations.

    Visit www.Compelling Conversations.


    Comments (23)