Spotlight on the 2020 TESOL Teacher of the Year: Neda Sahranavard
Interview by Nancy Flores
Meet Neda Sahranavard, the 2020 TESOL Teacher of the Year. Neda is a lecturer and academic coordinator at the University of California, Irvine, Program in Academic English, and an adjunct faculty at South Orange County Community College District. Here, she shares her teaching and learning experiences, her influences, and her thoughts on the biggest challenges facing teachers today.
The 2020 TESOL Teacher of the Year, Neda Sahranavard, is a lecturer and academic coordinator at the University of California, Irvine, Program in Academic English, and an adjunct faculty at South Orange County Community College District.
She has a PhD in English language and literature and has worked with multilingual students for more than 17 years. To help us get to know her, Dr. Sahranavard answered some questions about her personal and professional journey.
Please tell us something about your background. How long have you been living in the United States?
I value the rewarding profession of teaching. My career as an educator for the past 17+ years has also been extremely enjoyable. My passion for the English language, literature, and teaching led me to pursue a BA, MA, and PhD in English language and literature at Islamic Azad University, Tehran, Iran. I also hold four certifications: TESL, active teaching, basic skills initiative, and online educator.
I have lived in the United States for more than 12 years. I moved to the United States after completing my doctoral coursework and comprehensive exam, then wrote my dissertation while also teaching in the United States. My wide experience teaching at the university and community college levels in the United States and Iran has given me the opportunity to work with students from a range of socioeconomic, ethnic, linguistic, racial, religious, physical, gender, and academic backgrounds.
I actively participate in professional development workshops and activities in my discipline, and I am eager to contribute fully to the development of my discipline by conducting research in language pedagogy, particularly in the area of teaching effectively while using simple but powerful lesson plans.
Neda facilitates small group discussions and learning in her Academic English 23C class in which she trains her graduate students to become successful TAs.
I am currently serving as an academic coordinator and lecturer at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), Program in Academic English. I am also an adjunct faculty at South Orange County Community College District.
I aim to keep the best interests of my students at heart. I believe that responsive and helpful communication are the pillars of teaching effectively. I make my expectations clear from the first day of the class, and model what I expect from my students. I give them challenging opportunities, cultivate enthusiasm, and assist them to stay on track. I create interactive lesson plans that are simple, engaging, relevant, comprehensive, and meaningful. I always teach in context and work to create a seamless progression from one subject to another.
I understand that learning competence varies among students, so I make sure that my lesson plans meet different learning modalities. My goal has always been providing the best assistance to all of my students.
Neda believes in Distinguished Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o’s idea of languages around the world.
How old were you when you decided to become a teacher? What influences and/or factors informed your decision?
I was a teenage mom, and I had two children when I started college. I knew that my time in class was precious since I went home to bathe, feed, and care for my children. I was able to study once they were in bed. When I was in class, I took advantage of and enjoyed every single minute. I was there with all of my heart and soul. I decided then to become a teacher, inspired by key professors who showed me their love of learning and teaching. They were dedicated to the profession and eager to impact their students’ lives. I wanted to be that teacher.
My amazing professors opened my world and would change my life dramatically. They guided me in learning English and embracing English literature. Through them, I explored my potential and became confident of what I was doing with my life. I was able to raise educated children and a build a more successful family. I hope I am the teacher that my own professors showed me.
Your doctorate is in English language and literature. Do you feel that your studies in literature have had an impact on your current profession as an English to speakers of other languages (ESOL) educator, and if so, how?
By training, I am an English language and literature major, but by experience, I am a teacher of English to multilingual students. During my undergraduate and graduate studies, besides literature classes, I also took courses focused on theories and methods of teaching English. These courses fostered my appreciation and concentration in the area of teaching ESOL. My studies in literature had an immense impact on my TESOL career. Literature is about people’s experiences, their challenges and how they figure life out. Studying literature also involves analysis of how one crafts language. My studies led me to find common areas between teaching English and understanding literature and literary theories. This has helped me create bridges between these two disciplines and to conduct interesting and successful classes.
Neda gives feedback to her graduate students as they work on their group project.
My current position at UCI has let me use my background in English literature to design curricula for our program. I combine the pleasure of reading and appreciating literature with promoting my students’ English skills. My colleagues have adapted my teaching approaches, materials, and activities and expressed their appreciation of my teaching techniques.
Furthermore, I have been able to contribute to my profession by using my background in English literature to conduct research in my ESOL classes. To enhance the quality and experience of teaching and learning in my classes, I have designed lesson plans driven from literary theories. I have gathered data to investigate the effectiveness of my philosophy and teaching methods. I am confident that innovative lesson plans have a great effect on our students and I am excited to conduct research and find out more effective teaching practices to facilitate learning.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing teachers today?
In my opinion, the biggest challenge facing teachers today is lack of well-paid and secure teaching positions. ESOL educators are mostly part-timers who need to teach on multiple campuses. We all know that teaching is a profession that requires professional development and dedication. The challenge of being a freeway flyer impedes teachers from being their best. I have experienced the fact that it is not easy to teach effectively while working at several school districts and campuses.
I have also witnessed the challenge of nonnative-English-speakerism. I am very lucky to work in an environment that celebrates diversity, but not all ESOL colleagues are aware of the depth and wealth of knowledge and skills of multilingual educators. I accept as true that having no accent or being a native speaker of English does not guarantee conducting effective and successful teaching. Subjects of marginalization have been the focus of my master’s and doctorate dissertations and I am very aware of the fact that many nonnative English educators are facing the challenge of being marginalized.
Neda holds one-on-one conferences with her students and coworkers in her office.
You have been very active in your local TESOL affiliate CATESOL. What roles can TESOL affiliates play in supporting the professional development of ESOL educators?
I believe that TESOL affiliates play a vital role in supporting ESOL educators in terms of networking and professional development. Local workshops and professional development opportunities are more convenient and less costly for educators to attend. Getting involved with local TESOL affiliates would be a great opportunity for novice teachers to exchange ideas about the best practices in our discipline. Moreover, local TESOL affiliates tailor their workshops to address the specific needs of local educators.
I have presented workshops at CATESOL annual conferences. I also serve as a board member of Orange County CATESOL, where we do our best to provide cost-effective and high-quality workshops for our fellow ESOL educators in Southern California. My goal is to promote, plan, and offer more research-based workshops in Orange County CATESOL.
Nancy Flores is the membership coordinator at TESOL International Association. She has been with the association for 10 years and helps to assist members and manage membership-related projects. Originally from Honduras, Flores is a fluent Spanish speaker and has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from George Mason University.
Happy New Year From TESOL: A Year of Growth
by Christopher Powers, TESOL Executive Director
TESOL Executive Director Christopher Powers looks back on 2019 and outlines all TESOL International Association has done this past year to advance the expertise of professionals who teach English to speakers of other languages in multilingual contexts worldwide.
As 2019 comes to an end, I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a peaceful, prosperous, and happy 2020. I also want to take this opportunity look back on the past year and outline what we have done this year to advance the expertise of professionals who teach English to speakers of other languages in multilingual contexts worldwide. As you know, at the end of 2018, we launched our new strategic plan, pledging to work to expand our global presence and connectivity, to increase knowledge and expertise among TESOL educators, to raise the voice of and advocate for English language teaching professionals, and to advance our organizational sustainability by doing so in financially and socially responsible ways. So, after one year, how have we done?
In terms of global presence and connectivity, we have seen our total membership increase by more than 20% in the last year, with TESOL membership now at 11,855. With large numbers of English language teachers from China and Peru joining us through strategic partnerships, we are seeing our membership becoming more geographically diverse. In 2018, 77% of our members were in the United States. Today, 60% are from North America, with 25% from Asia and 10% from South America.
Between the TESOL International Convention, TESOL China Assembly, certificate programs, virtual seminars, and self-study courses, we helped bring TESOL knowledge and expertise to more than 12,500 educators in 2019, an increase of 25% compared to 2018. Our publications were equally as strong, as we released the second title in The 6 Principles® series, The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners: Adult Education and Workforce Development, aimed at teachers of adult English learners. Our journals, TESOL Quarterly and TESOL Journal, continued to demonstrate TESOL’s leadership in research and dissemination of knowledge and expertise to scholars and practitioners alike. While the number of articles from TESOL Journal continued to increase, TESOL Quarterly’s impact factor continued to rise, as did its ranking among linguistic journals, from 10th in 2018 to sixth in 2019.
In 2019, we also took our voice and advocacy efforts to a new level. In June, we hosted our second largest TESOL Advocacy and Policy Summit, and U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin’s staff credited our efforts in securing bipartisan and bicameral support for the Reaching English Learners Act. With the launch of our new Advocacy Action Center, we have sent 703 messages to members of the U.S. Congress in support of our priorities. This advocacy was critical in helping to secure increased funding to support English learners through Title III of the Every Student Succeeds Act, Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
2019 was also a positive year for TESOL’s organizational sustainability. After working through a budget deficit in 2018, we economized and modernized our office space and staff structure, and finished the year with a slight budget surplus and an increase in net assets. The past year also saw us launch our Diverse Voices Task Force, which we hope will, among other things, help us to ensure that the next generation of TESOL leadership reflects and includes all of the voices that make up our profession.
Even as we look back on 2019, we are looking ahead to 2020 and planning to build on these successes. The TESOL Board of Directors recently committed to priorities that will advance our strategic outcomes in 2020. To expand our global presence and connectivity, we will strengthen and reinvigorate connections and partnerships in the global TESOL community through the Affiliate Network and other organizations while continuing to identify and pursue opportunities to increase and diversify the association’s membership globally.
To strengthen TESOL knowledge and expertise, we will investigate and develop innovative models for professional development for TESOL professionals.
To increase our voice and advocacy, we will empower TESOL professionals globally to be effective advocates for their students, their programs, themselves, and for one another.
These are ambitious priorities that will take a great deal of work, but building on our success in 2019—and with TESOL staff, the board, and all TESOL members working together—I am certain that we can continue to strengthen our association and profession.
Happy New Year to all of you! I look forward to seeing you in Denver for our TESOL International Convention & English Language Expo, at one of our many other face to face events, or online.
6 Ways to Tackle Your ELT PD in the New Year
by Stephanie N. Marcotte
With the new year upon us, it's important to take time to review professional development opportunities for the upcoming year and create a clear plan of action.
As educators and professionals within the field of English language teaching, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day activities that fill our busy schedules. Often, we might write “update résumé” on a to-do list, but we never quite find the time to do this. This can also be said for professional development (PD) as well. It’s much easier to take whatever workshops might be offered at work than it is to explore the true training that will help us move closer to our teacher and leadership goals. However, with the new year upon us, it is important to take the time to review PD opportunities for the upcoming year and create a clear plan of action.
Six Categories for Professional Development Planning
When thinking about PD, it’s easy to get caught up in attending the same conferences or waiting for the same workshops to come around again. However, this often leaves holes in both teaching and leadership. Planning out PD takes a bit of scaffolding that can often be broken down into six categories. These six categories can help teachers of all levels outline their goals and truly scaffold their development, especially when transitioning into a new year.
1. Updating and Polishing Professional Documents
Before outlining new areas to study or items to apply in teaching, it is important to update the work that has already been completed. This can often be a launching or spring board to help remind you of where you are in your journey and where you want to go. Try to think outside of the box when creating, updating, and polishing these documents.
Pro Tip: Consider using programs like VisualCV.com, where you are able to create a modern CV and cover page. Even if you don’t have anything new to add to your CV or résumé, you can always think of new ways of formatting and organizing the information that you already have.
2. Reflection and Discussion
We hear time and time again how important reflection is in our learning and development as educators, leaders, and members of our field. This can’t be reiterated enough. Reflection is a way to think about ourselves, our identity, our students, our communities, and so much more. Reflection is about more than just documenting lessons; it can be a tool used to help push thought and learning forward.
Pro Tip: This year, consider reading a new book and start pushing yourself to think about topics that frame teaching, learning, and society. You might think about reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, Social Justice in English Language Teaching by Christopher Hastings and Laura Jacob, or Supporting English Learners with Exceptional Needs by Patricia Rice Doran and Amy K. Noggle with Heather Wayson Wilson, June Lucas Zillich, and Gregory Knollman. You might even choose to hold discussion groups with other educators to talk about this or similar books.
3. Teaching Tools and Tips
This is often seen as the go-to PD category. Think about your teaching practice and new tools, lessons, or resources that you would like to integrate into your course. You might decide to explore a new book or topic in the classroom. You might also decide to think deeper about your technology use.
Pro Tip: You might consider playing with resources like Screencast-O-Matic, where you can record online lectures and videos. Instead of searching the internet for the perfect grammar video, you could create one yourself in minutes. There are a myriad of options available; however, think about what you want to prioritize in your own teaching.
4. Continued Learning
Next, try and find one class that might be interesting either to help support your teaching and/or to help you develop as a learner. Often, we are burning the candle at both sides, taking a class is a great way to decompress and focus on something else. Taking additional courses, whether with or without college credit, is often great in terms of developing transferable skills or gaining stackable credentials.
Pro Tip: You might consider purchasing a MasterClass membership or taking a Coursera or FutureLearn course. TESOL International Association also has great certificate programs, courses, and online workshops. Think about what you might like to participate in. If you are new to online teaching and learning, for example, this might be a great area to focus on.
5. Job Exploration
Whether or not you love your job, there are often other jobs out there that could be interesting. Try and take stock of the job you want, and schedule time to constantly be building toward that dream job or searching for it.
Pro Tip: Take stock of the transferable skills and experiences that you bring to any position. Be sure to highlight these in your professional documents. Then, scope out the ELT jobs that are currently open. One great place to look is the TESOL Career Center. If there is a job that you would like to pursue, see what the requirements are for that position. Then use this information to help tailor your application or continued PD.
6. TESOL Affiliate Involvement
Take a deeper look at what opportunities exist within your TESOL affiliate. Your TESOL affiliate is more than just a Facebook page or conference; there are often copious other services that are provided to help build community and development within the field of TESOL.
Pro Tip: Consider reaching out to your TESOL affiliate and offering to write a blog, volunteering to help plan a conference, sharing resources to be posted on social media, or acting as a liaison between your affiliate and other affiliates. There are many affiliates that provide free membership. Take a look at the affiliates in your area, and reach out to them to learn more.
Your Professional Development Plan: Get Started!
PD is a constant muscle that we must strengthen. We cannot fall victim to the same old workshops, but we must strategically look at what we need to do and learn in order to better develop our teaching and leadership muscles.
These six areas can be a helpful lens in order to view our own PD past, present, and future. Consider using the following table (also available as a printable PDF in the Appendix) to help plan out what your PD plan is for the new year.
Professional Development Category
1. Updating and Polishing Professional Documents
2. Reflection and Discussion
3. Teaching Tools and Tips
4. Continued Learning
5. Job Exploration
6. TESOL Affiliate Involvement
In this new year, take some time to reflect on all that you have learned and all that places that you would like to go. PD is a journey, and you’re in control as to where it will take you. Don’t shy away from new experiences or opportunities, but have a plan so that you make the most out of everything that comes your way.
Download this article (PDF)
Stephanie N. Marcotte is the nursing resource coordinator and an adjunct AESL professor at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, USA. She is a MATSOL board member, and she recently finished her term as the past president for NNETESOL. Also, Stephanie is ABD in her doctoral program, focusing on transformative leadership in higher education.
Creating Your First ESL Video Lesson
As teachers, we often create new handouts or tests because the ones provided in the textbook or teacher’s manual weren’t exactly what we were looking for. We’ve also had the same experience with YouTube videos that we want to use in our classrooms. We find something on the topic we’re searching for, but it’s not quite how we would put it, or the examples don’t really work for us. We know we could explain it so much better. If you have had these thoughts, this article will take you through the ins and outs of creating your first YouTube video, why you should give it a try, and why your students will appreciate it. Start off the new year by learning a new skill to enhance your teaching practice!
When and Why Are Videos Useful for ESL Students?
One of the most popular uses of videos is to flip part or all of your class, which means that students watch the lecture material as homework before class, which frees up classroom time for more interactive, hands-on, and challenging activities. This is an excellent option for language classrooms because students do this more challenging work in class with the support of their instructor and classmates, instead of spending precious class time passively listening to a lecture.
Students can also use videos to review core concepts of the course in their free time. Students often need to hear the same point explained several times before they really get it, and videos allow them to get that much-needed repetition outside of class. This opportunity for repetition also builds learner autonomy because students have more tools at their disposal to problem-solve when they’re struggling.
The Value of Instructor-Created Videos
Your students (probably) like hearing your voice and/or seeing your face. It’s comforting for them to have some familiarity with their lesson. They are used to you and your style.
You are an expert in your subject area, so why not share that expertise with the world?
Creating your own library of videos will save you time in the future. You have ready-to-go lessons at your fingertips. Share a few links with a student who is struggling with grammar so they can get some extra practice at home. Your YouTube channel can also serve as an online portfolio to show to prospective employers when an in-person teaching demonstration is not an option.
Creating Your Videos
You need a lot less technology than you think in order to create your own instructional videos. You might think you need a fancy camera or complicated editing software, but in reality, all you really need is an internet-connected smartphone and its built-in camera and microphone, and a quiet space to film. Check out (Figure 1), but in a pinch, you can get by with just the materials found in your classroom (Figure 2).
Figure 1. Filming with a smartphone on a tripod.
Figure 2. Filming with found materials.
Planning an instructional video is very similar to planning a lecture, but you’ll have to be a little more careful in choosing your examples because you won’t be able to check student comprehension during your explanation. Be sure to consider common student confusions and questions, as well as all of the aspects of the language point that you want to address. For example, when planning a video about the basics of adjective clauses, it’s nice to include examples that have the adjective clause placed in different positions throughout the sentence, and to include a variety of relative pronouns.
We recommend choosing the examples you want to use in the video and using them as an outline. Practice explaining the content and examples out loud first. This will help you to find any problem areas before you start filming. We don’t recommend writing a script because it will add stress to the process and likely result in a monotone video. Think about your students’ presentations—they are typically much better when they are referring to a brief outline of notes instead of reading from a meticulously prepared script. If you’re stressed about the plan for your video, please refer to the “Perfectionism” section below.
In the video, you should imagine your target audience. Imagine a student has just asked you to explain this point, and you’re giving them your best explanation. Speak to them with appropriate speed and enunciation, based on their level. For example, you can speak much more quickly in an advanced grammar video than you can in a beginner vocabulary video.
We aim to keep each video under 5 minutes to keep students’ attention. If your video is very long, it’s a good idea to break it into several shorter videos. Students are often much more likely to watch a playlist of five 3-minute videos than they are to watch one 10-minute video.
The Filming (and Posting)
The easiest way we’ve found to get videos to our students is to publish them on YouTube, and send them electronically. For more details and step-by-step instructions on this process, see the Appendix (PDF).
Here’s a basic summary:
- Make sure you have an active Gmail account.
- Download the YouTube app to your smartphone, and log in using your Gmail account.
- Use the camera app on your smartphone to film your video.
- Use the YouTube app on your smartphone to trim, upload, and publish your video clip.
- Log into YouTube on a computer to edit the settings of your video, and share it with your students.
Common Barriers for Instructors and How to Overcome Them
What’s holding you back? There are a number of reasons why ESL teachers don’t make their own videos. Let’s examine at a few common barriers stopping teachers from creating their own videos and our suggestions for how to push past these obstacles.
Lack of Confidence
You may think that you wouldn’t know what to do in a video, but think again. If you’re a classroom teacher or tutor, you can make a video! Do whatever you do in your classroom. As far as feeling self-conscious, it’s normal. However, (most of) your students like to see your face and hear your voice. And now they can take you with them wherever they go. The biggest hurdle to overcome here might be imagining the students sitting in front of you when you’re actually filming in your house or classroom alone. This gets much easier with practice. Think about grammar points that you have explained many times, points that trip students up, that they need extra help with. For example, how many times have you explained final –s with regular simple present tense verbs? You probably have a lot of good examples that you use as well as your own personal way of explaining this small but important grammar point.
Some of you might be thinking that you feel comfortable in the classroom but you feel strange about having your face and voice out there, exposed to the whole world. If you’re not trying to be the next YouTube sensation, you can use the YouTube privacy settings to set your video to “Unlisted,” so only people with the link can access it.
Lack of Experience or Technological Expertise
This is a hard one to get over. You may be intimidated by technology. You may say, “But I’m just not a computer person.” Actually, if you use a smartphone to take pictures and access the internet, you already have all the technology skills you need! And you know that many of your students are very comfortable with technology and watch a lot of YouTube…so why not join them? When you set aside the time to make your first video, you may be surprised at how easy it actually is.
Lack of Time
This is one we all struggle with, whether or not we are making videos. Teachers are almost always pressed for time, trying to squeeze in all the content we can while completing administrative tasks, attending to students’ needs, and staying up to date on the multiple institutions where we teach. For making videos to be a practical part of your teaching practice, we recommend filming each video in one take, and being okay with small mistakes. We also recommend filming several videos in one sitting. That way, you don’t need to set up your filming tools for each video.
Think back to when you first started teaching: detailed lesson plans, hours spent imagining possible scenarios, hours spent getting ready for every class. Think about what you do now. You probably wing it a bit more, don’t you? Be honest. Well, it’s the same with videos. You might want to plan for everything, but if you don’t make a video until everything is planned, you might never do it! Our advice is to just get in there and do it. Accept that it won’t be perfect, and actually, it shouldn’t be perfect. You don’t expect your students to be perfect, and you’re certainly not perfect when you’re teaching in the classroom. Why should your videos be any different? And furthermore, a perfect video can seem artificial and even boring. Seeing a real live teacher fumbling around is much more interesting. I appreciate when my kickboxing teacher on YouTube loses her balance or my YouTube aerobics instructor’s shoe falls off. It reminds me that they are human, just like me. People aren’t looking for polished videos on YouTube; they’re just looking for useful or informative content, so don’t sweat it.
Our videos are far from perfect, but they allow our students to see and hear from their teacher any time they need help. Here is an example video from each of our YouTube channels.
Do you have a new year’s resolution for 2020? Why not make it to create your first YouTube video? Go for it! (And if you do and want to share, please do! We love to see your creations. You can email it to email@example.com)
Download this article (PDF)
Diana Lease is an ESL instructor and tutor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, USA. She is passionate about flipped learning because it allows students to absorb material at their own pace, freeing up class time for deeper and more active and engaging practice. Right now, her favorite classes to teach are advanced reading and grammar courses, but she got her start in flipped learning with beginners.
Davida Jordan has taught ESL for more than 18 years. She teaches at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, USA and is the incoming president of ORTESOL, the Oregon affiliate of TESOL. She is also the co-chair of the TESOL Environmental Responsibility Professional Learning Network, which seeks to bring sustainability to the forefront of TESOL. Davida loves getting to know her colleagues and her students. Her goal is to learn all of her students’ languages, a list which keeps growing!
New Year, New Ways to Talk to Strangers
The new year is a chance for fresh starts—and a time for our students to resolve to speak more English. We can help them with this goal by creating activities that get them out of the classroom and into the real world, speaking with fluent English speakers. In the activities we share here, students conduct short interviews on prepared topics with someone outside of their circle of family and friends—often, a complete stranger.
Talking to strangers is scary, but real life requires it. In fact, research shows that this kind of contact actually boosts linguistic self-confidence (Cheng & Dornyei, 2007; Hummel, 2013). This confidence is the strongest predictor of adaptation to a new culture, even stronger than second language proficiency and motivation (Yu & Shen, 2012). However, many learners report that these second language interactions are difficult to initiate (Wright & Schartner, 2013). Students with strong English skills can still lack confidence, and thus, do not engage in the interactions that, paradoxically, will help them improve their confidence, and ultimately, as Cheng and Dornyei (2007) noted, improve their second language achievement.
These interview activities create interactions for our students. Although this may seem intimidating, well-scaffolded classwork prepares them for the task. Four principles guide the interview activities, regardless of the topic or theme. We highlight each principle and describe an activity that exemplifies each one. Every activity begins by learning about the given topic through readings, listening passages, vocabulary building, and in-class discussions. This is essential to give students the foundation for the topic.
Principle 1: Make the Interview Experience Less Intimidating
Whenever we announce an interview activity in class—regardless of the level of the students—we hear some inevitable groans and even expressions of panic and fear. And with good reason; not many people enjoy approaching strangers, let alone in a second language.
The key is to provide lots of practice in class before sending students out for interviews. The simplest (and often best) interview activities happen after a class discussion on a topic and practice with interview language and etiquette.
Example Activity: Names Interview
After completing a unit on names, students in a low-intermediate reading class interview people on campus about their own names. The students have already read articles about how names are chosen in different cultures and about famous people who changed their names. They studied the related vocabulary and had class discussions about their own names and cultural practices. On the day of the interview activity, students use a form to interview their classmates about the origins of their names (see Appendix A). This gives them a chance to practice asking their interview questions in a controlled environment and with a person with whom they feel at ease.
Apart from practicing the content of the interview, we also review and role-play helpful phrases to start the conversations. (“Excuse me, do you have a minute?” “Could you help me with a class project?”) Students practice what to do if rejected (“Thanks for your time!”) and how to show appreciation at the end.
Then, it is time for students to leave the comfort of their classroom and go out on campus and speak to strangers. They go out with a partner and use the same form for interviewing fluent English speakers on campus. Pairing up allows bolder students to support shyer ones and lets one student jump in if the other forgets a question. Because they have a form to complete, one can write while the other interviews. However, both students need to take turns talking. In this activity, we ask them to interview four people total, so each student should take the lead on two of the interviews. Afterward, they return to class and we tally the results on the board. Students generally return energized by the positive interactions they have had.
Principle 2: Find Willing Interviewees
In the previous activity, students are enrolled in a program on a community college campus, so there are many fluent English speakers available to interview. If your English program is similarly situated, then it should be relatively easy for students to find people to interview. If not, a little creativity will help you locate appropriate places in your community for students to find interviewees.
Example Activity: Leadership Interview
An advanced oral communication class interviews members of campus organizations about leadership. Again, this activity happens after a unit on the interview topic: leadership. Our campus has an activity fair at the beginning of each semester where clubs share information and recruit members. Students learn how to get involved on campus (a fantastic way to practice English!) but also complete a chart focused on the theme of leadership (see Appendix B). The club members are the perfect interviewees—they are sitting there, waiting for someone to talk to them, and they often have opinions about leadership.
Look for these types of fairs on and off campus. Volunteer fairs, job fairs, health fairs…local public schools and community centers often have events with tables set up with nice people willing to talk about their services. Other possibilities include farmers markets or arts and crafts fairs.
In addition to structured events, we sometimes ask our students to approach strangers in public places. They should always look for groups of friends who are relaxing and look like they have time for an interview. They shouldn’t interrupt someone seriously studying or a parent dealing with a crying child.
Finally, you may want to recruit interviewees from a community group, a retirement center, or a campus organization. There are people who want to meet English learners, and they would be happy to come to your class. You just have to ask!
Principle 3: Give a Clear Purpose for the Task
We all work better (and harder) when we know the reason we’ve been asked to do something. For an activity as nerve-wracking as an interview, a clear purpose assures students that the interview will be worthwhile.
Example Activity: Third Place Interview
In this activity, intermediate students choose a place in their city that they would like to explore and determine if it fits the criteria of a third place. “Third Place” is a concept created by sociologist Ray Oldenburg and explained in his book The Great Good Place (1989). It comes from the idea that your first place is your home, and your second place is your work or school. Your third place is a necessary place in society where you can relax, meet with friends, and make new friends.
In preparation for their interviews, students create and practice their questions in class with a partner, and then visit their chosen place, interview patrons, and note their own observations, trying to decide if this place could indeed be a “third place.” They ask questions like “How frequently do you come here?” and “Why do you choose to spend time here?” Upon returning to school, they engage in a debriefing session in which they share their interview experience with their classmates. Later at home, they incorporate their interview information and observations into a presentation about their third place. In this presentation, they explain whether their place fits the criteria of a third place. When the presentations are concluded, the class votes on the best third place, and we visit it together.
Students know from the beginning that they will be using the interviews as the basis for their presentation. They have a clear purpose for conducting their interview, and they can’t do their presentation without collecting that information.
Students often report that when they tell an interviewee, “I have to do this for a class,” they get a positive response. So, just as knowing the purpose motivates our students, it also motivates the people they approach to interview.
Principle 4: Add a Language Focus
Many times, we want our students to practice a particular grammar structure or set of vocabulary. We may choose to add a language focus to an interview activity to provide this opportunity.
Example Activity: English Learner Interview
After a grammar lesson on embedded questions and reported speech, advanced students interview a nonnative English speaker who learned English as a teenager or adult and who now uses English daily. They write questions that ask about the interviewee’s experience learning and using English, obstacles they may have encountered and overcome when using English, and suggestions or techniques for mastering the language.
In class, students share their questions with each other and make corrections. Students also work to embed the questions for politeness. (“May I ask when you finally started to feel confident using English?”) Later, students conduct their interviews and record them. At home, they listen to the recording and prepare a presentation in which they use reported speech to share the highlights from their interview.
By adding a language focus, we give our students an opportunity to practice some target language in a real-life setting.
Again and again, we have seen students leave our classroom nervous about the prospect of interviewing a stranger and return with a confidence boost and stories to share. These small interactions can lead to big gains in helping them reach their language goals. By following these four guiding principles to create interview activities, teachers can help students reach their new year’s resolution to speak more English.
Note: This article is based on a presentation, “Do Talk to Strangers,” given by Alice and Amy at the 2019 TESOL International Convention in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
Cheng, H. -F., & Dörnyei, Z. (2007). The use of motivational strategies in language instruction: The case of EFL teaching in Taiwan. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 1(1), 153–174.
Hummel, K. M. (2013). Target-language community involvement: Second-language linguistic self-confidence and other perceived benefits. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 69(1), 65–90.
Oldenburg, R. (1989). The Great Good Place. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.
Wright, C., & Schartner, A. (2013). “I can’t … I won’t?” International students at the threshold of social interaction. Journal of Research in International Education, 12(2), 113–128. doi:10.1177/1475240913491055
Yu, B., & Shen, H. (2012). Predicting roles of linguistic confidence, integrative motivation and second language proficiency on cross-cultural adaptation. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36, 72–82.
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Alice Llanos began her teaching career in Tokyo, Japan and now resides in Houston, Texas where she has been teaching English as a second language in the Intensive English Program at Rice University since 2006. She also develops and teaches classes for the university’s online English language program and frequently presents at conferences where she enjoys talking to strangers.
Amy Tate teaches ESOL at Lonestar College – Montgomery, in a suburb of Houston, Texas. She received her MATESOL from the New School. In her free time, Amy enjoys international travel and was thrilled to be interviewed by English language students while waiting in a plaza in Oaxaca, Mexico.