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Focus On Basics

Volume 8, Issue A ::: November 2005

Rewarding Conversations

When university students partner with ESOL learners for English practice, who learns more?

by Betsy Kraft
It is the second week of summer term, and the university students have arrived a few minutes before their first conversation hour in the community college’s class in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). The university students are a little nervous, but many of their conversation partners have been involved in this exchange for several terms. The ESOL students’ warm welcome puts their university partners at ease. One of the university students describes her first session.

“Today was my first day doing a conversation group with the higher-level students. When we first arrived, the class was on a break and the ESOL students were congregating in the hallway. A student started to talk to us right away, which eased my nerves tremendously! … I got the opportunity to speak with Roberto, from Mexico, and with Sam (Saman is his real name) from Iran.”

Heidi and other Portland State University (PSU) students were enrolled in an academic course taken during their senior year. They were leading conversations at the Portland Community College (PCC) ESOL program located in the PSU Lab School. The university students and the ESOL students were conversation partners, meeting once a week throughout the term as part of their respective courses.

The university students were not volunteers; their participation was part of a six-credit, academic course with a community service component. They were proficient speakers of English (although not necessarily native speakers), and part of their coursework involved learning strategies to start and maintain conversation with language learners. Their conversation partners, all immigrants, participated as part of their ESOL course. Both groups were providing a service to each other: they all gained practice in communicating across cultural and linguistic differences. The two groups of students taught each other about family, work, art, literature, sport, and friendship. They shared stories about their lives, exchanging advice, and, as part of that process, learning about cultural differences. They broke down barriers and confronted assumptions as they got to know each other.

Although the Lab School is located on the Portland State University campus, there had been very little interaction, beyond the research project, between the university community and the community college ESOL students. By bringing university seniors into the Lab School classrooms, both communities had the opportunity to learn about intercultural communication. ESOL students could practice their developing conversation skills with proficient speakers other than their teachers and engage in conversation with a variety of adults from varying backgrounds. Forming a partnership between the university and the Lab School classes provided a chance to capture the nature of conversation between language learners and proficient speakers on videotape as part of the research.

The Participants

The ESOL students in the Lab School classes represent a wide range of educational backgrounds, literacy levels, age, work status, language groups, and countries of origin. Many have completed high school in their countries of origin, some have higher degrees, and some have not completed high school. A small group has fewer than six years of education in their first language. Their ages range from 17 to 77. First languages include Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Ukrainian, Korean, Arabic, Tigrinya, Indonesian, Japanese, Thai, Amharic, French, Lao, Tamil, Tibetan, Burmese, and various Mayan languages.

The conversation project involved 12 university students each term: six who conversed with the Lab School’s intermediate-level ESOL classes and six who conversed with the higher-level class, for one hour a week. The university students registered for the class on a first-come, first-served basis and, by coincidence, during most terms the class included approximately six students born in the United States and six who either had immigrated here or were international students. They ranged in age from 21 to mid-50s, and more women than men participated. Of the 72 university students involved over six terms, about one-third majored in applied linguistics education, or a foreign language.

Preparing the ESOL Students

To prepare the ESOL students, their instructors often asked them to formulate questions for their university partners; they practiced the questions in class before conversation time. Sometimes, the students were given topics, either in class or as part of their homework, so they could look up vocabulary and background information and formulate questions. If the students were focusing on something specific in their coursework, the ESOL instructor informed the university partners so that they could bring up the same topic during conversation time. For example, before a holiday or a local or national election, the ESOL class focused on specific vocabulary and background information, and then during conversation time the students might compare and contrast the customs in this country to those in their native country. Local elections provided rich material for conversation, since Oregon was debating several social issues such as doctor-assisted suicide and gay marriage during this time. When the university students knew what topics were covered in class, they could brush up on the knowledge of the subject, anticipate questions their partners might pose, and bring articles, posters, or pictures to the conversation.

Preparing the University Students

The university students’ coursework focused on basic principles of intercultural communication, strategies for maintaining conversation with English language learners, and issues related to immigration in the United States. To introduce intercultural communication, I presented Bennett’s developmental model of intercultural sensitivity (Bennett et al., 1999), which describes one’s experience of cultural difference through a model suggesting six stages of increasing intercultural sensitivity. We also used DeVita and Armstrong’s book, Distant Mirrors: America as a Foreign Culture (2002), which provides a wide perspective on American culture.

In selecting specific strategies for the university students to use in maintaining conversation, I turned to Kathleen Olson’s article in ESL Magazine called “Content for Conversation Partners” (Olson, 2002). She stresses fluency over accuracy, conversation content that is familiar to the participants, and leading, open-ended questions based on a relevant topic designed to stimulate conversation. She also advocates giving feedback, using gestures, and asking for clarification. We discussed giving “wait-time” to the ESOL students so they could formulate what they wanted to say. I handed out examples of leading questions collected from the interview guidelines for the Southern Oral History Program, Department of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (English Language Institute of Virginia Tech, n.d.). The questions fell under topics such as family history, parents and older relatives, childhood and adolescence, courtship and marriage. The university students formulated open-ended questions that encourage analysis, synthesis, and evaluation and took them with them to conversation class. Even if they never referred to their prepared questions, the exercise expanded their ability to spark or maintain conversation.

One important component of the university class was the students’ opportunity to observe their assigned ESOL class before conversation with partners began and then several additional times during the term.

In observing, the students watched the ESOL instructors using myriad strategies to encourage learners. In their logs, the university students described what they saw and what they wanted to try themselves.

When we observed, I tried to pay attention to my group, but also to the others in the class. David and Jin are less dominant in class than they are in conversation groups. [The instructor], I noticed, is very visual. I could not hear so well today, which had its benefits. I paid closer attention to how [she] used her hands. When she described a place, she “drew” the place in the air. . .

When we worked with our groups, I was a copy-cat. I used my hands far more, and it seemed to work better than my attempts to explain and re-explain x, y, z. When I have attempted to explain something more than two or three times, I      confuse everyone, including myself.                    —Karyn

The university students also studied attitudes toward immigration and current American immigration policy, analyzing and evaluating it in light of its social, economic, and political ramifications. They investigated attitudes about American culture and what it’s like to immigrate to America, using journal articles, Andrew Pham’s book Catfish and Mandala, the anecdotal stories of their classmates and their conversation partners, and a variety of films. They explored organizations and agencies that provide services to immigrants, both locally and nationally. They examined organizations that inform policy on immigration, analyzing their rhetoric of persuasion, statistical data, and their political, economic, or social agendas. They analyzed the content of the articles they read on immigration in light of information they discovered about the authors or the organizations the authors represent; they applied what they learned about immigration to their own experience as members of a community; and then they added to their understanding their emerging pictures of the lives of their conversation partners: who they were, what brought them to the United States, their hopes and dreams, their struggles and accomplishments.

The Conversation Groups

Arriving while ESOL students were on their break, the participants mingled and then settled into their groups together. Three ESOL students and one university student usually sat around a table designed for four. A video camera was focused on the table in the center of the classroom, where the ESOL students wearing microphones that day sat with their university partner. The instructors rotated this group each week.

The ESOL classes that participated in the partnership differed in their ability levels, the instructors’ unique teaching styles, and class chemistry. Because we integrated flexibility into the conversation groups, the instructors were free to experiment with grouping and guidance; sometimes groups stayed with the same partner all term, sometimes they traded partners when it seemed appropriate, based on participants’ linguistic skill, adaptability, and personalities. Three times during the six-term project, a university student enrolled who was shy, soft-spoken, or difficult to understand, so the instructor paired that student with another, forming larger conversation groups that had two university students and three or four partners from the ESOL class. A few times, a group had a member who dominated the conversations, and in those situations the ESOL instructor moved students around appropriately. The instructors could step in for support or guidance at any time.

The university students kept logs of their participation, and both instructors communicated regularly with me, sharing their impressions of the exchanges. In the following excerpt from a log, the student tells about a session where the ESOL partners had prepared questions to ask her, and had drawn a timeline marking events from their lives.

“They asked me questions about my life as I drew a timeline diagram, providing short phrases describing the event. I helped them transfer the information into complete sentences in their notebooks, correcting grammar and spelling mistakes when the students asked. I had already told them a lot about myself during last week’s class, so most of the information I was giving was a review for them.

I asked them to tell me about their timelines. I interjected with questions to get them to expand a little more on their sentences. This activity went well because the students already had something written out to start from, making them more confident to expand on the events orally. Several times during the students’ descriptions of their lives we got into lively discussions regarding their differing  cultural customs and traditions. The students are becoming much better at negotiation of meaning between each other. They were also less shy with me and eager to share information about their lives. Annie, from Hong Kong had brought in some pictures of Hong Kong and her family. I let her explain the pictures and the other students and I asked her questions.                —Susan

As the proficient speakers in the conversation groups, the university students were responsible for encouraging all their ESOL partners to participate. They engaged quiet partners by asking them direct questions; they monitored the ratio of their own speaking and listening and the ways they gave feedback; they maintained an awareness of their tempo, tone of voice, and the clarity of their speech. They utilized a variety of methods to negotiate meaning, including use of synonyms, antonyms, writing, and illustrating. The ESOL partners helped each other understand concepts or phrases, using many of the same strategies their university partners employed, and this all became part of their conversation.

At the same time, the university students were encouraged to respect the privacy of their conversation partners. Although the university students investigated policy and issues pertaining to immigration, they were not in a position to offer immigration advice. They could, however, recommend resources such as the government’s immigration services web site or local agencies that serve the immigrant community. Finally, the university students were not ESOL instructors. Many times, their conversation partners would ask them questions about structure and grammar. The best suggestion was for the ESOL students to ask their instructors for specific grammatical explanations.


Experimenting with a conversation model captured on videotape presented its own set of challenges that might not occur in a different setting. For example, the students met in conversation groups in the same classroom, creating a noise level that could be bothersome. When one group was particularly animated, it drew the attention of the other groups. Likewise, if a group leader was shy, or if there was a lull in conversation, the group members were well aware that other groups were engaged, which created discomfort. The instructors said that it was often difficult not to interfere, or to determine when interference would be beneficial. Some ESOL students expressed a preference for spending their class time with their instructor, who is an expert in language development, and were not convinced that using class time to converse with a proficient speaker other than their teacher was valuable.


The model we created for the Lab School worked for a number of reasons, and over time we learned some basic principles that kept the partnership healthy. Because it was part of the students’ coursework, all the instructors involved were able constantly to evaluate and make adjustments according to our sense of what was needed. Regular attendance and punctuality on the part of all the participants made for a more rewarding experience. Including conversation time as part of their respective classes increased the likelihood that students would show up. We also learned that the university students needed to be somewhat outgoing and willing to take risks, since it fell on them to keep the conversations going. When students had an opportunity to prepare a conversation topic, participation was more evenly distributed, especially for ESOL learners with intermediate- level skills.

Transferability of the Model

The conversation groups captured on videotape ended during the winter term of 2005. The following summer, a PCC ESOL class was set up on a different campus specifically for conversation and journaling. Again, university students in my class met with small groups of English language learners. This time, the two groups of students met in the ESOL computer lab, adjusted their own groups, as needed, for absenteeism, and then walked together to the coffee shop or lounge area to talk. The university students brought with them short readings on a variety of topics as a focus for their conversations. Sometimes, the conversation partners had so much to talk about they didn’t get to the readings. At the end of each session, both sets of students wrote log entries into an interactive web site the ESOL instructor set up so that she and I could both respond. Since neither of us was present during conversation time, this allowed us to monitor the needs of the groups and provide immediate feedback through electronic dialog. Like the model set up for the Lab School, the ESOL students had an opportunity every week to practice their English with a proficient speaker. Again, the university students learned about intercultural communication and immigration issues in their coursework and, in addition to conversation strategies, they were given some tools for tutoring reading and helping with journal writing. One of the university students expressed her enthusiasm for her conversation group in a log entry:

Today, I lost all track of time and all ideas of teaching strategies and structure. We spent the entire time talking about our lives more in depth than ever before. I’ve been thinking about these women so much lately, thinking about their lives and struggles, and I wonder how they relate to my life. It was really fulfilling to hear their stories, their reasons for coming here, and their feelings about children, marriage, cultural differences and things they can relate to each other by. I felt this was necessary today. Instead of doing reading and writing, I felt it was important both for them and for me to really explore each other as people and as women and be able to communicate with each other using English.          —Christina

ESOL instructors interested in forming a partnership between their language learners and proficient speakers could contact their local universities with courses in intercultural awareness, community-based learning, or service learning projects. Conversation tutors should be prepared with strategies to maintain conversation with English language learners and basic principles of intercultural communication. By looking into issues surrounding immigration in the United States, the tutors gain insight and compassion into some of the challenges their conversation partners face. This aspect of their preparation could be organized as part of their coursework or training, through web-based dialog forums, or as part of continuing support meetings. Key to a successful partnership is the active involvement of the instructors and their ability to monitor and make adjustments according to the needs and dynamics of the conversation groups. This could be achieved by the instructors’ presence in the classroom during conversation time, or by monitoring and providing feedback to students’ electronic log entries. The organization should allow for flexibility in grouping, spontaneity of topics, and allow the classroom instructor the freedom to determine when to step in. Above all, the model needs to fit its unique situation.

Click to read Excerpts from the Conversation Handbook


Bennett, J., Bennett, M., & Allen, W. (1999).” Developing intercultural competence in the language classroom.” In R. Paige, D. Lange, & Y. Yershova, (eds.) Culture as the Core: Integrating Culture into the Language Curriculum,
pp. 23-27. Carla Working Paper #15. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

DeVita, P. & Armstrong, J. (eds) (2002). Distant Mirrors: America as a Foreign Culture (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

English Language Institute of Virginia Tech (n.d.). “Classes/Schedule: Conversation partners.” Retrieved July 31, 2004, from http://www.eli.vt.edu/classes/conversation.html

Olson, K. (2002) “Content for conversation partners” [Electronic version]. ESOL Magazine. Modern English Publishing Ltd. January/February 2002. Retrieved September 27, 2003, from http://www.eslmag.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=9

Pham, A. (1999). Catfish and Mandala. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

About the Author
Betsy Kraft earned a master’s degree in TESOL from Portland State University, Oregon, after teaching elementary school for 22 years. In addition to the PSU class described in this article, she teaches ESOL and Education classes at Clackamas Community College, Oregon City, Oregon.


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Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL