How English Native Speakers Do It: Having Worthwhile Conversations to Connect and Grow

When we learn the rules for polite conversations in English, those in the know tell us to avoid controversial topics: don’t talk about religion, politics, or unpleasant or sad topics. Frankly, that’s what I want to hear about. Maybe you feel the same way.

When it comes to talking, though, I am a different person. I’m not going to lie: some of my favorite conversations are ones where I get to talk a lot. However, I hate it when people ask me about controversial topics, because I feel vulnerable giving away my thoughts. What if the listener judges me? I tend to want to control what I hear and what I say. A blog is a great format for me, because no one talks back (except the spammers!). Maybe you feel the same way.

There’s a part of me that wants to control what I hear, what I say, and the reaction the other person has. Maybe you feel the same way.

A good conversation leaves you feeling like you have learned something new about another person or about the world–in other words, you feel more connected. So the question is, how can I have a good conversation? More specifically, what are the rules for good conversation in English?

One approach is the one offered by Celeste Headlee, a radio host who has interviewed hundreds of people. She gave a TED talk where she suggested 10 basic rules for having a good conversation. I have summarized Headlee’s rules for you:

  1. Be present. In a conversation, don’t multitask, don’t check your phone or watch people walking around.
  2. Assume you have something to learn. Everyone is an expert in something. Don’t pontificate, don’t push your own opinions too strongly.
  3. Ask open-ended questions. If you use the yes/no format, you will not learn much. If you use a question word–who, what, where, why, when, how—then the speaker will provide a more personal or original answer. For example, don’t ask “were you angry?” Instead ask, “how did you feel?”
  4. It’s like meditating. Stories and ideas will enter your head while another person talks. Let your stories and ideas simply melt away. Headlee says, “go with the flow.”
  5. “If you don’t know, say you don’t know,” Headlee says.
  6. It’s not about you. Don’t steal someone else’s spotlight by breaking in with your own “similar” story. Your life is not the same as someone else’s. Don’t equate your life with theirs. Conversations are not opportunities to promote yourself.
  7. “Try not to repeat yourself,” Headlee advises, acknowledging this is hard to do.
  8. Skim the surface. When you are painstakingly providing names and dates, you are boring your listener. Unless it makes a point, leave out the small details. Headlee calls this “staying out of the weeds.’
  9. “Listen,” she says. This is the most important point. In the beginning of her talk, she even jokes about how we are told to make eye contact, nod our heads, and give feedback channels like “uh-huh,” in English to show we are listening. She says if we are actually listening, it will be obvious.
  10. “Be brief,” she says. She also punctuated her advice with this slide:
Celeste Headlee’s Slide: “Be Brief”

Headlee said if you can even become an expert at just one of her rules, your conversations will improve. I am guessing you are already practicing some of these. Personally, I want to learn to stop repeating myself!

One of the main takeaway points from her advice was the role that control plays in listening versus speaking. When we are speaking, we are neither listening nor discovering the other person, and this can make us feel like we are the center of attention. Plus, we feel like we are bolstering our own identities. If the listener is actively interested in us, all of this is fine—for a while (but see Rule 10).

Still, listening to the other person can be satisfying. Headlee observes, “I am always prepared to be amazed, and I am never disappointed.

Headlee’s advice is a great start, but I still have questions. What do you do when you are in a conversation with someone, and they get distracted? What if they pontificate? What if they equate your story with their own story, and take over your spotlight? What if they are longwinded? What if the other person is overly controlling? And so on. This will have to be fodder for a post on “advanced conversation skills.”

With conversation, there is no set of rules that is going to work 100 percent of the time.  Like practically everything else when it comes to human interaction, you have to have a lot of experiences so that you arrive at your own personal default approach.

The Tale of the Misunderstood Toolmakers

Long ago when humankind was still young, there existed four distinct communities that never visited each other’s lands. Even if they tried to visit each other, they could not, for someone even longer ago had built giant walls between the groups, and they could neither climb the walls nor break them down. Each community lived in its own terrain, told its own stories, spoke its own unique language, and raised its own families. They knew exceedingly little about the other communities if they knew anything at all.

Some people didn’t believe there were other people living outside the walls. Those who had no contact with the portal, who lived far away from it, were suspicious of the portal. Others worshipped it. But that is a story for another day.

The inventors knew there were people outside the walls. From the beginning of time, as far as they knew, they had submitted blueprints of their inventions to the portal. Eventually, they would receive alternative blueprints from the neighbors that they would attempt to decipher.

Aaron the toolmaker lived in a land covered with trees and plants, and his world revolved around growing and harvesting. One day he developed a rake out of wood—he fashioned a long handle and attached a wooden comb to it. He could remove debris and preserve plants with his special tool.   He recorded his invention on a special blueprint form and submitted it to the portal.

In the community next door, Bob pulled Aaron’s blueprint from the portal. He set to work creating the design. He had just enough wood to make a handle but had to use stone to make the rake comb. In Bob’s land, there were many, many rocks. He imagined the mysterious tool from the portal was used to remove rocks so people could plant crops. Once completed he thought the “rake” was an incredibly heavy tool and wondered how anyone could use such a weighty invention to remove rocks. He marveled at the strength of the people in the neighboring community. For his own purposes, he refashioned the rake into a two-pronged tool that was lighter and that removed rocks from the ground. He submitted his revised design to the portal.

Carsten lived in a third adjacent community. His community was swampy, and he was looking for ways to remove plants by chopping their roots and scooping them away.  He inspected the different blueprints, but couldn’t understand their uses. His “rake” turned out to be a hoe, which he could use to chop roots and remove plant matter from swamps. He submitted his design to the portal.

David lived in still another adjacent community that was set on the ocean. People used boats to get around. When he saw the different “rake” designs, he created a harpoon with a curved hook for hunting fish. He offered his revised design to the portal.

One day, Aaron returned to the portal and found everyone else’s blueprints. He had little experience with rocks, and could not imagine how Bob’s tool was used. Likewise, he couldn’t imagine how Carsten’s hoe could protect his plants. David’s harpoon seemed to be a completely different tool, perhaps something used for reaching high in trees.


  1. Can you think of a time in your life when you had trouble explaining an idea, thought, or feeling to someone else?
  2. What is good communication?
  3. What is bad communication?
  4. Whose fault is it when communication fails?
  5. According to The Toolmakers, there are different obstacles that prevent good communication. What are some of these?
  6. Describe a scenario
    1. where you might have trouble sharing your thoughts.
    2. Where you could easily share your thoughts.
  7. What are some ways to promote good communication?

© H. Stewart Carpenter, based on Reddy’s (1979) Toolmakers Paradigm

Source: Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp. 284–310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29626-9 paperback

How to Unlock the Mysteries of L2 Growth with Outstanding Class Conversations

I took two semesters of French. In one class, the teacher forced us to talk a lot. We spoke in pairs or small groups and performed skits. In the other class, the teacher sat in front of the class and talked to us a lot, but rarely let us talk to each other. My French speaking abilities stalled.

Don’t be that teacher.

To develop speaking proficiency, learners must practice speaking. So how do you know what speaking activities will work with your students? Many of you have a decent textbook, which can be useful.

However, teachers who want to provide speaking practice beyond textbook exercises face a dilemma. If you design speaking tasks that are too easy, you will not challenge your students. Likewise, if you design tasks that are too difficult, you will effectively mute your students into stunned, disparaging silence. Your goal in speaking practice is to encourage your students to speak as much as they can (quantity) and as well as they can (quality).

Think about it. We want students to have opportunities to notice the gap between their current knowledge and what they need to know—and yet, we do not want the gap to be so large that students feel embarrassed to speak.

How can teachers design good tasks that target students’ proficiency levels? Below I discuss how speaking proficiency develops using easy-to-understand proficiency guidelines from the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Then I discuss how to develop tasks that elicit speech at the different levels.

1. Warm up!

To begin today’s activity let’s take a look at prompts that encourage student discussions.

DO THIS: Check out this link of conversation questions (

English teachers from around the world developed and submitted the questions. But be warned, the last time I tried to submit my own questions, I could not. It looks like the site’s funding dried up in 2010, so now they just preserve what they already have. All the same, iTESLJ is a great resource.

2. What does speaking proficiency sound like?

Knowing what speaking proficiency sounds like will change your life. Speaking abilities grow from small units to big units. A quick rule to remember is that learners progress from words to sentences to paragraphs to extended discourse. See the chart below.

How language grows

Next, we have placed a chart from ACTFL that sums up the development of speaking proficiency.

Click on the link:

ACTFL Guidelines Chart

In the chart, notice that each row belongs to a level of proficiency (intuitive), and the columns each pertain to different aspects of proficiency. Let’s discuss the latter.

  • Global Tasks and Functions. This is what learners can do with language. So, don’t expect a Novice speaker to tell stories; but an Advanced speaker will be able to.
  • Context/Content. These are the kinds of things learners talk about. Like infants, at first it is easiest to just talk about themselves and their basic needs. Intermediate should be Inter-ME-diate, because, at that stage, it’s all about “me.”
  • Accuracy. How well can listeners understand speakers based on the types of errors they make?
  • Text Type. Learners begin with words and, usually years later, end with extended discourse.

The following images depict the kinds of things speakers say at different levels. The images feature artwork by Salvadoran artist Luis Cornejo.

ACTFL Beginner

ACTFL Low Intermediate

ACTFL High Intermediate

ACTFL Advanced

ACTFL Superior

Another way to look at proficiency is through Can-Do statements, which are sentences that tell what a person “can do” with language.  Check these out.

Now let’s listen to some speaking samples, so you can hear what speakers sound like (Spanish).

Listen again. can you hear the progression from words to sentences to paragraphs to extended discourse?

If you want to hear more samples, I encourage you to check out ACTFL’s website.

3. Different tasks elicit different levels of speech. 

Notice in the speech samples above how the tasks changed. First, the learners responded to a task about directions. That’s because stating directions is typically a sentence-level task. The Novice could not state sentences yet, but repeated words to express herself. The Intermediate used sentences on the task. The Advanced speaker provided a paragraph of speech about losing an umbrella. Finally, the Superior level speaker had to deal with a complicated situation involving persuasion. She used several connected ideas and communicated with accuracy.

Let’s take a look at the following tasks. What kind of speech would these tasks elicit?

  1. List the items in your closet.
  2. Name the members of a family.
  3. Propose a solution to help with climate change.
  4. Describe your favorite meal.
  5. Describe how obesity harms someone’s health.
  6. Describe your job.
  7. Describe the perfect job.
  8. Discuss how crime affects the economy.


  1. Lists of clothing, etc. = Novice.
  2. Lists of names = Novice.
  3. Propose a solution  =Superior
  4. Describe a meal = Intermediate
  5. Describe how obesity harms health = Advanced
  6. Describe your job = Intermediate
  7. Describe the perfect job = Advanced
  8. Discuss how crime affects the economy = Superior

DO THIS:  Now go back to this link of conversation questions ( Take a look at different questions. Try to figure out what kind of language a speaker needs to produce in order to answer the question. Try to imagine what levels different questions might target.

4. Can you create a few questions of your own? Make one each that targets Novice, Intermediate, Advanced and Superior levels of proficiency. Practice answering the questions and verify that they elicit the quantity and quality of speech you want.

© 2016 H. Stewart Carpenter


Good Advice: NPR’s Fascinating StoryCorps for Practicing Listening Skills

StoryCorps is a project that presents stories of different people in the United States. Many of the stories are fantastic for ESL because they feature authentic English and frequently come with transcripts. The language can be a little difficult for learners with Intermediate-level skills, so it is important to play the story audio two or more times.

Often, the stories work well with themes used to teach ESL, such as goal setting (at the beginning of the semester) or love (Valentine’s Day). But be careful: choose the interesting and upbeat stories. Some stories, however, are very sad, and may not be appropriate in a classroom for learners who have experienced trauma.

Now to provide a concrete illustration of how to use StoryCorps: say you are teaching students about how to set goals. You might use different materials and introduce different kinds of vocabulary or goal-setting methods. Then, to liven things up, you can introduce a narrative told by Clayton Sherrod, a man who set goals and as a result, succeeded. This exercise gives learners a concrete experience to consider as you move them towards setting goals of their own. Plus there are plenty of  things to discuss after they understand what Mr. Sherrod says.

Instructions for ESL Students

  1. Open this document: Story Corps Clayton Sherrod goal setting
  2. Then listen to this story, told by Clayton Sherrod:

Afterwards, the teacher can lead a discussion about the narrative. Discuss Mr. Sherrod’s life and times (racism, poverty); his tactics (the fake resume he made for his boss); and importantly, the specificity of his goals and how he tracked his success.

Instructions for Teachers in Training

Teachers can further investigate the language by analyzing or manipulating the text in the narrative. Below are some ideas.

  1. Check the Readability Score. Let’s examine the text used in this narrative. Using the document, copy and paste the text into Readability Score. Enter the text, then click the “Measure Readability” button. Look at the righthand sidebar, and see what the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score is. If the score is above 80, then you can consider it to be fairly general and easy to read.
  2. Make a Cloze Test. Make a copy of the written text and save it as “Cloze Test.” Then replace every 12th word (or 10th, or 8th, or 6th) with a blank line (_____________). Then go back through and read the text with the missing words. Can you guess what the missing words are? Try giving this to your students before they listen to the audio. Give them some time to read through the text and attempt to fill in the blanks. Then play the audio and let them check their answers.  (Hint: to make this task easier, provide a Word Bank of the deleted words).
  3. Take Inventory of the Grammar and Vocabulary. Read the text again. This time look for different grammatical structures or vocabulary that might be useful to highlight for students. For example, (1) Mr. Sherrod uses many FANBOYS to connect his thoughts and add coherence. This is a common strategy in story telling and in speaking. These connectors are a great way to transition from strings of sentences to paragraph-level speech. Your students can try speaking like this. In addition, (2) Mr. Sherrod uses many past tense forms, and several of them are irregulars. Finally, (3) Mr. Sherrod uses different types of imagery that convey meaning, like “big white hat.” Point out examples of these and make sure your students understand what he is saying.

© 2016 H. Stewart Carpenter

Computer Lab Day Is Here: Begin with Helpful Vocabulary

Access to technology in ESL/EFL class can vary widely. When students first engage in computer-assisted language learning, you may need to provide them with the vocabulary they need to follow directions and communicate. To model the terms , you can (a) draw an image of the computer or tablet on the white board, and then label it; (b) use a photo or image someone else drew, either on the whiteboard or projected onto the whiteboard; (c) use an image on the smartboard; (d) use a real-life tablet or laptop and demonstrate each term; (e) use video that you create in advance; or (f) design a computer-based activity. Students can draw along with you, or if they are seated with their computers or tablets, they can act out what you demonstrate. Computer-savvy students easily understand the actions you are performing, and can move on quickly once you supply them with the labels.  However, in some situations, you will have to actually teach students how to use computers, an undertaking that will require a bit of time, effort, and preparation. Whatever you do, the following basic terms come in handy:


  • address bar
  • app
  • cursor
  • dialog box
  • keyboard
  • mouse
  • screen
  • search box
  • sidebar
  • tab
  • touchscreen
  • URL


  • to backspace
  • to click
  • to click enter
  • to copy
  • to cut
  • to delete
  • to double-click
  • to enter
  • to google
  • to highlight
  • to left-click
  • to paste
  • to right-click
  • to search
  • to select
  • to type

Assess learners’ knowledge of these terms as they work on other projects, or design a challenge that requires them to follow instructions well in order to produce the correct outcome. If you have time, you can have students create their own sets of instructions for others to follow using the terms.  Later you can use these terms in a weekly spelling test, or in games of Taboo or Hangman.

If you have time, you can have students create their own sets of instructions for others to follow using the terms.

Later you can use these terms in a Quizlet activity, weekly spelling test, or in games of Taboo or Hangman.

Click this link to access the Quizlet activity we made for this lesson.


Want to share your own thoughts? Use the comments button.

© 2016 H. Stewart Carpenter

Googling: For Adult ESL/EFL Students, It’s Not as Easy as It Looks

English language learners (ELLs) benefit from learning how to conduct an effective search in Google.  Searching for information means knowing enough English to enter the proper search terms. It can take time to learn the language of internet searches, so we can give learners a head start by teaching a few symbols and search operators in class.  The goal of teaching learners to conduct Google searches is to empower them to find answers to their questions in English.

“How to Google” Lesson. Here is my approach to teaching students to conduct searches. It’s not very detailed but is sufficient to get them up and running.

  1. Direct students to
  2. Tell them that Google is a search engine. Search engines are the websites that help you search for information, images, and whatever else gets posted on the internet. (Another one is Bing).
  3. Wh-question search. Students should all be on the Google homepage. Go to the search box and enter the phrase “What is Google?” The answer changes over time, but there should be an adequate, though boring for most, description of the company on the righthand side of the page.
    • Notice that we used a Wh-question to help focus our search. I use Wh-questions  for whatever question I have. How do I create a website? What are the key qualities of a good a college essay? Where are good places to take a vacation on the east coast? How do I make an appointment with the dentist in English?  (Note: this lesson pairs well with grammar instruction on asking questions).
    • Another trick is to use a to-infinitive in the search phrase: How to carve a pumpkinHow long to cook chicken. When to plant a garden. Creating statements like these may be a little easier for some students than inserting “do” and then performing inversion (or preposing “do” and conjugating it according to the subject, if that’s how you want to teach it).
    • Direct students to enter their own question(s) or statement(s)  and search for the answers. Walk around and see what kinds of problems arise. Discuss any issues before you transition to the next step.
  4. Keyword search. Now enter the keywords “computer vocabulary” into the search box. tell the students to use quotation marks. That way the search will focus on the exact combination of words between quotation marks.
    • Discuss the results. There are many useful web pages that list this vocabulary.
    • Click on the first result. At the time of writing this blog post, it is an English Club page
      • Success: Can your students find the word icon? (yes). What is an icon?
      • Problem: Can you find the word search engine? (no).
  5. Search by command (using a reference operator). Go back to Google. In the search box, enter the phrase define search engine” and discuss the results.
  6. Summary. What are the three ways we searched for information on Google?
    1. We asked a Wh-question: what is google?
    2. We typed in keywords: “computer vocabulary”.
    3. We gave a command: “define”.

Conducting internet searches is ultimately more sophisticated and complicated than what we have discussed here, so we can encourage students to continue to learn new ways to conduct searches. But for English language learners who are just beginning to work with the internet in English, these three strategies can go a long way.

Application: Gratitude and Appreciation. Once the students have learned about Google searches, they are ready to apply their knowledge to some task. Since it is Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, I will share an activity I used with Intermediate-level (ACTFL Scale) adult learners a few years ago: writing a thank-you note to a teacher.

  • General Objectives. To use the internet to find examples of English to use in everyday life. To write a good thank-you note by saying something meaningful or touching.
  • Linguistic objectives. To write accurate simple sentences and accurate compound sentences using FANBOYS. To push self to write complex sentences.
  • Materials. Students’ notebooks, to take notes. Computers or tablets. Internet connection. (Choose: Thank-you notecards and pens OR MS Word; another word processing application, such as Google docs; or email).
  • Activity Description. Students will research examples of thank-you notes in English. Then they will write personal thank-you notes based on the examples they find.
    1. Enter search terms: “How to thank a teacher”  OR  “Teacher thank-you notes”.
    2. Conduct reading and research. Students read examples and note what they like.
    3. Write a thank-you note. Students choose a teacher to thank. They should create a draft on paper or through word-processing. They can seek feedback from peers, classroom volunteers, and the teacher.
    4. Finalize the draft on paper or on the computer.
    5. Deliver the thank-you note.

© 2016 H. Stewart Carpenter

Want to share your own thoughts? Use the comments button.

TEFL-nology: Online Treasure Troves for EFL Teachers

Google can show you better than I can tell you: there are countless technology resources for teachers of TEFL. Today we will explore but a few. As TEFL teachers, you are probably concerned with finding materials to (a) teach students, (b) design curricula, (c) create assessments, and (d) develop professionally. Below are a few links I think are particularly useful.

  1. American English
  2. Busy Teacher
  3. Teaching Channel
  4. Teach Hub
  5. TESOL Resource Center
  6. The Internet TESL Journal

If you have a favorite that I have not listed here, please send me a note through the comments form.

Internet Scavenger Hunt. Let’s explore the different links listed above via an internet scavenger hunt. Open this document in MS Word: Scavenger Hunt for TEFL-ology Day.

You will use this document to guide you through today’s lesson and to record your answers. Remember to SAVE your responses at regular intervals. when we are done, send it to yourself via email as an attachment.

© 2016 H. Stewart Carpenter

Want to share your own thoughts? Use the comments button.