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

  1. 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.

    Ask more. Know more. Share more. Speak More.
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  2. 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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  3. Ask Your English Students to Review TED.Com videos – and Create Compelling Conversations

    June 8, 2011 by Eric

    How can you encourage your advanced ESL students to develop their speaking skills and tap their interest in our rapidly changing world? Create compelling classroom assignments that respect their intelligence, engage their curiosity, and model great speaking skills. Let your students be hunters, gathers, and presenters of new information to their classmates!

    Adding a homework assignment that requires ESL students to go the “ideas worth sharing” website at accomplishes all these goals. For the last four years, I have asked both college and international graduate students to select a short video, watch it, and prepare to share their impressions in class.  Since many students have evolving English language skills and the course is an advanced oral skills class,  they just take notes. What’s the title? Where was the lecture given? Who gave the lecture? Date? How did they open the presentation? Was their a significant quote? What sources were orally cited? How would they rate the video on a scale of 1-5? Why did they choose this TED video? Why do they recommend we watch it too?

    Students will often watch several TED videos before choosing a favorite one. This advanced ESL homework assignment seems to capture their imagination as they explore the TED website. The next day, students discuss the TED video that they selected in small groups of four. Afterwards, I ask for “brave volunteers” to share their impressions – i.e., review – with the class. Usually everyone wants to present so we extend the lesson to a second class where I videotape all the presentations. The class sessions are always illuminating, engaging, and surprising as I learn more about students, their interests, our evolving world, and their English language speaking skills.  This democratic speaking skills activity creates an atmosphere where “everybody is a student,  and everybody is a teacher.”  Result: the entire class creates compelling classroom conversations!

    As the old American cereal commercial used to say, “try it – you’ll like it” – at least with more advanced English students!

    For ESL teachers who want a more formal assignment, you can also use this more detailed worksheet.

    Ask more. Know more. Share more.

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  4. English Teachers Confront the Billion-Person Question

    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.

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  5. Do You Use Newspapers in Your English Class Yet?

    July 23, 2010 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Newspapers tell us the news, and inform us about how today is different from yesterday. They provide us with some clues and some information to help us better understand our rapidly changing world. They arrive at our homes, on our laptops, and in our libraries.

    But what about our English classrooms? How often do you use newspapers in your ESL classes?

    Newspapers allow students to expand their vocabulary, follow current events, and deepen their understanding of our rapidly changing world. As a former journalist, teaching English with newspapers and magazines seems absolutely natural. My standard homework requires students to select, read, summarize, and evaluate an article of their choice and bring to class for a discussion.

    Students provide the basic background information:
    Title author
    publication date
    length # of sources:
    List five new or important vocabulary words:

    The ESL students also make some judgments:
    What’s a key quote?
    What’s the main idea? Why?

    Finally, students answer three other questions:
    What did you learn in this article?
    Why did you choose the article?
    How would rate the article on a scale of 1-10? Why?

    Students pursue their own interests – with some guidance – and develop a stronger English vocabulary that they want and need for their personal and academic development. Naturally, they bring in topics and articles, in English and from the internet, from around the world. This regular homework activity creates an engaging, informative classroom atmosphere while allowing students to “create” some course content.

    Many ESL and EFL teachers, however, often feel reluctant to use newspapers. Sometimes teachers feel that newspapers distract from their textbooks; sometimes it adds elements of uncertainty. I suspect, however, that many English teachers also don’t quite know how to effectively deploy newspapers in their classrooms. The newspapers in classroom movement remains more of an ideal than common practice in the United States.

    American newspapers would like to change that fact. The New York Times wants ESL teachers to add their quality international paper to the curriculum. Here’s an excellent 4-page primer outlining 10 Ways to Support English Language Learners with the New York Times . And despite the descriptive headline, the informative article actually outlines over 25 activities and provides links to dozens of exceptional educational resources for both students and teachers. Students can find archival photographs to write postcards from the past, research their birthdays in history, find tourist information on their hometowns for oral presentations, and compare and contrast how different countries approach global problems. Worksheets have been developed for an online vocabulary log, understanding prepositions, and a problem-solution organizer.

    Bottomline: This exceptional, flexible teacher’s resource makes using newspapers much easier for novice English teachers and time-starved experience ESL instructors.

    Can all English classrooms use newspapers? No. Yet many low level and intermediate classes can use Easy English Times, USA Today, or the local English paper and focus on simpler, shorter headlines and articles. High intermediate and advanced students, however, can – and I would suggest should – try to read serious newspaper such as The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

    So let’s help our students and bring newspapers into our classrooms.
    Our students, after all, want to understand their world – in English!

    Do you teach lower level English students? See these tips from the American literacy newspaper Easy English Times for beginner students)

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  6. Becoming A More Autotelic – Self-Directed – English Language Learner

    July 4, 2010 by Eric Roth
    Eric Roth

    Why do you want to learn English? What are your interests and priorities? Why not create your own, independent English language program this summer – for free?

    Learning English, on your own and according to your own wishes and needs, has never been easier. Everyone with internet access can become autotelic, or self-directed, in creating their own educational program. Naturally, ambitious English students, innovative ESL educators and EFL schools have embraced these possibilities. Why not you?

    The endless web continually offers pleasant surprises. This weekend I spent time on four more exceptional free websites for English teachers, tutors, and students: ESL video; USA Learns; BBC Learning English; and YapPR. You might find them valuable too.

    ESL Video - This relatively new site allows you to watch short video clips, take an online quiz, read the transcript, and improve your listening comprehension. This smart, effective approach makes the site valuable for you, English teachers, and tutors.

    BBC Learning English – The BBC takes its once imperial obligations to spread English seriously. This outstanding website includes the latest news in audio, transcripts, and sometimes video in clear English.

    USA Learns – The popular U.S. Department of Education website for adult immigrants and future American citizens also offers video lessons for lower level English students. The new citizenship, for worse or for better, only requires a second grade English level. As an American educator, consider me disappointed that the expectations and standards for our new American citizens is so very low. By the way, one way the administration can build support for immigration reform is demand higher standards for citizenship and expand adult education ESL and open more EL/Civics classes. As Obama used to say, “yes, we can!”

    YapPR – This innovative public relations site highlights short music videos, amusing commercials, and AP news stories with English transcriptions for English language learners. Designed for English students from around the world, it also includes materials in several languages. Does the public relations element bother me? Not really. The transcription feature provides valuable information for students which outweighs the apparent “pay to play” selection bias.

    This is the best time – so far – to learn and teach English. We have never had so many resources available – often for free -to explore and experiment with new technologies. So be the captain of your own lifeboat, pick your English goals, and become an autotelic English student today.

    And tomorrow will be even better!

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


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