[Eric H. Roth & Toni Aberson. Los Angeles: Chimayo Press, 2008. pp. xii + 152. ¥3,147. ISBN: 978-1-4196-5828-0.]
Compelling Conversations is a textbook written for the upper-intermediate to advanced level adult or college level student, and provides readers with useful information and practice activities to assist English learners with starting and continuing a variety of compelling conversation topics. The textbook’s focus is on speech fluency, vocabulary development, American culture, and conversational pragmatics. There are no audio files or long reading activities included with the textbook. The authors’ primary objective of encouraging students to converse is easily attainable if the material in the book is employed by an effective teacher who facilitates the students’ learning by providing feedback and encouragement.
Compelling Conversations is organized into 45 separate lessons, each of which contains around 30 questions to promote pair or larger group conversation, 10 targeted vocabulary words in a list, and between 10 and 15 quotations or proverbs from famous authors, religious leaders, or historical figures. All of the questions, quotations, proverbs, and lexical items are centered on a specific topic, including gardening, musical tastes, dating, and controversial topics such as voting.
In my classroom, I found using the book to be extremely easy. When planning lessons, I do not have to worry that latter lessons will require any more grammar or vocabulary knowledge than earlier lessons. Therefore, if a topic in the book is relevant to current events or my students’ interests, then including some of these questions as warm-up or cool-down conversations in class has been a great way to motivate my students to speak more confidently on a variety of topics. Another way to use the book is to have students keep a written journal to answer several of the questions for themselves each week. These questions can be ones that I assign or those that are chosen by students, depending on how I want to organize the next lesson. This not only gives students an opportunity to write something other than academic prose, but also encourages those students who are shy in class by offering them a way to gather their thoughts. I have found this sort of prewriting activity to be an extremely useful tool for improving the spoken fluency and motivation of such students when the same questions assigned for writing are brought up during the following class.
Compelling Conversations is an easy way to engage students in meaningful conversations, either with each other, with the teacher, or as a whole class. On the other hand, the vocabulary presented in the book is not revisited in later chapters explicitly, and no pages are dedicated to grammar, study strategies, or writing. What this means for my classroom is that I cannot use only this book as a main text. Instead, I use the book as a supplemental tool to give the students a meaningful framework for using their newly acquired language, or practicing what they have previously learned.
From a theoretical perspective, using this book exclusively, without recourse to any sort of form-focused instruction, may be supported by an extremely strong version of meaning-focused curricula, such as communicative language teaching, but such a one-sided approach ignores the research suggesting the pedagogical efficacy of at least some focus on form (FonF) instruction (Loewen, 2011). Qin’s (2008) study of 110 EFL students in China showed that a dictogloss activity used to teach the passive voice resulted in increased acquisition, according to the results of a delayed post-test. Having students acquire grammatical structures is important when using a relatively advanced text like Compelling Conversations, and a dictogloss is one effective way to compensate for this during class. One other study looked at the effectiveness of recasts, and found them to be effective in terms of uptake and retention about half of the time, as measured by post-tests (Loewen & Philp, 2006). The most effective recasts were those that were made more explicit to students. As stated earlier, a teacher who provides feedback during or after student interaction can use Compelling Conversations most effectively. Therefore, I would recommend using the book as a supplement to a more well-rounded FonF lesson.
In closing, I would recommend Compelling Conversations to English teachers who seek ready-to-use conversation starters for their classes, or who are simply looking to give their students an extra learning tool for outside of class. I have had success using the book with my students, and would encourage other teachers to try it for themselves, especially if the students are having trouble starting or continuing a conversation in English.
Loewen, S. (2011). Focus on form. In E. Hinkel, (Ed.), Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning, Volume II (pp. 576–592). New York: Routledge.
Loewen, S., & Philp, J. (2006). Recasts in the adult English L2 classroom: Characteristics, explicitness, and effectiveness. The Modern Language Journal, 90(4), 536–556.
Qin, J. (2008). The effect of processing instruction and dictogloss tasks on acquisition of the English passive voice. Language Teaching Research, 12(1), 61–82.