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“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”
―Tony Robbins (1960- ), American motivational speaker
What does it mean to effectively tutor conversation skills to an English language learner? How can you make the most of your time – typically 60-120 minutes – together? How can you make the meaningful conversation lessons that keep clients coming back for future lessons?
Speaking English means being able to hold clear, comfortable and meaningful conversations. Yet this task often remains a challenge for many ESL and EFL students. Personally, I blame an old-fashioned, grammar-obsessed curriculum for creating the common situation in which long-term students can recite obscure grammar rules but can’t discuss their weekend plans or discuss their favorite movies.
Yet here we are. Students want to develop their speaking skills, but crowded English classes provide little opportunity for authentic conversations. Therefore, many English students hire tutors to help them develop their conversational skills.
However, effectively tutoring English students in conversation skills can be more difficult than it sounds. What does the English language learner want to learn? What will you really teach? How will progress be measured? While sometimes younger students just want to talk and be heard, I have also worked with older, more serious students. Time is money, and money matters.
What follows is some friendly advice for novice ESL tutors based on my own experience. Use or lose!
Great expectations are clear expectations
I strongly suggest establishing clear expectations regarding both content and business matters. Some ESL tutors even present a written contract outlining their rates, the location and times of meetings, and payment policies. One of my USC colleagues makes private students sign a form allowing her to videotape the entire tutoring session for her research. Another ESL teacher demands prepayment for packages of 10 sessions at a time. I have never needed to be that formal, but I have also never been burned the way some English tutors have been. While I have not tutored for over a decade, I’ve had only very positive experiences with professional clients and private English students.
Why? Perhaps luck, or perhaps because I carefully screen potential clients. I only work with professionals, graduate students, and/or friends and spouses of friends with a solid foundation in English. It is important to explicit about what you want and don’t want to teach a client. Be prepared to provide options for potential clients that you reject.
Setting clear expectations eliminates potential confusion and establishes benchmarks. We will review X number of articles and discuss Y number of topics during the next month or semester. We will cover a significant amount of ground in a comfortable, relaxed manner.
A little planning goes a long way
For English students who want to improve their conversation, I strongly suggest that, as the English tutor, you select the topic and materials in advance. You can use newspapers and/or magazines to find appropriate articles for beginning the conversation. I used to assign articles a week ahead and give English students my conversation worksheets. (These homework exercises, by the way, later evolved into the Search and Share worksheets.)
Partly as a result of these tutoring lessons over a few years, I wrote Compelling Conversations: Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics. Each of the 45 fluency-focused chapters is self-contained, with over 1400 questions, 500 quotations, and 450 targeted vocabulary words. The combination of poignant questions, vocabulary lists, proverbs, and witty quotations makes your job much easier.
If you have a weaker student looking to improve their speaking skills, then I would advise using a picture dictionary. There are several fine choices, though I would recommend the Oxford Picture Dictionary to open conversations. Additionally, many English students still find living and working in Los Angeles a fascinating experience. They often love to take photographs and talk about their experiences on social media. Try asking your client to bring in their photographs each week to discuss! Advertisements work well for this activity also. For more on using photographs and advertisements as an English teaching tool, check out the following posts:
Practice – and patience – make progress
Naturally, you will need patience tutoring ESL clients on speaking skills. Be prepared to repeat words, listen very carefully, and remind students to pronounce word endings. Many students will want to work on their pronunciation. This desire is why recording, with audio or video, your tutoring lessons can be quite helpful for students. It also documents student progress.
Do you know YouGlish? It’s Google’s fantastic audio-visual tool that features over 20 million authentic, searchable video clips for improving English pronunciation. I jot down students’ “good mistakes” in pronunciation and tell students to look up the words on YouGlish.
You can also assign them other listening activities on the web. I like Voice of America’s Special English programs for intermediate and TED Talks as well as This American Life for advanced students. You will have to direct lower-level learners to websites that feature drills for practicing their listening and speaking skills. They will love the work; you, on the other hand, might go mad repeating vowel sounds and noting stress words.
Finally, the key to tutoring adult ESL students – or anyone else – remains respecting the students, meeting their needs, and providing a solid structure for your lessons. I have found that using a set text, developing a known routine, and combining conversation, vocabulary and some writing skills makes for a both successful and satisfying experience.
As William Shakespeare noted four centuries ago, “All’s well that ends well.” Therefore, you should also have the grace to know when to end your lessons. For the clients who want to keep working with you, set a clear goal for your lesson package, and conclude when the students have reached that goal. Remember the old Hollywood cliché, and “leave them wanting more.”
Do you have any tips and/or tricks for conducting a satisfying and successful session? Let us know!