A USC English professor Eric Roth released a book called Compelling Conversations a few months ago.


And in this book, he shares exercises to push your English conversational abilities – great for IELTS.


After teaching in prestigious global IEP programmes he is now talking to me on the IELTS Podcast (logically 🙂 )

In this episode you will learn:

  • Why the IELTS exam is better than the others, (TOEFL).
  • Keys to becoming a better international student.
  • Make good mistakes,
  • A trick to show the examiner you have control of the language.
  • How and why to use a ‘ten dollar word’. 

Download the whole episode here, for free, then sign up.

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Click to read transcript

Hello there. Thank you for downloading this episode. This one is really good. I’m really happy with this one. It’s the second part of the episode we

did with Eric Roth from compellingconversations.com and he shares how the IELTS is better than the TOEFL. That’s at the end of the interview. Then

he gives us some great advice for the speaking; how we can improve it, how we can impress the examiner and he talks about making good mistakes,

which is an interesting and valuable concept when you are learning English.

So, hope you enjoy this episode. Also, I decided I want to try and reach fifty podcast reviews. So, I would be really grateful if you could go over

it iTunes and give us a 5-star rating that’d be awesome. So my goal for this year is fifty IELTS Podcast reviews. I think I’m on about ten I don’t

know but if you could do that I’d be very very grateful. OK thank you very much.

Eric’s going to start off with good mistakes.

I love this phrase Good Mistakes. Partly because it reminds us that we are not born perfect and in learning a language, we have to learn from our

mistakes. You know, I think of a good mistake as a systems mistake. So the little child goes to the board and puts down two plus two equals twenty

two. She’s got a system. It’s wrong. For us it’s often subject-verb agreement, using do instead of doesn’t. Same with he instead of she.

Yeah, like the system is there but it’s just installed incorrectly. It just needs a few fine adjustments.

Yes I like that expression a lot. The thing also is that we are evolving and just by practising for the IELTS and taking the IELTS exam, you are

becoming a more successful international student, regardless of the results. You’re on that path and even if you quote “fail” and I don’t think you

will fail, but even if you did fail, you’re coming closer to reaching your goal and take it again. Work harder. So let’s make the mistakes and don’t

give up.

One of the things Americans are not as good at as some other people in general is persistence. Resilience, bouncing back. When you’re learning a

language you have to give yourself a lot of room to make good mistakes. And even if you feel like you’ve made a mistake, don’t beat yourself up, you

know, it’s a new slate, new shot, let’s continue.

Yeah exactly. You might have made a small mistake but if you think, exactly like you said, OK it’s Part 3. I’ll pick myself up and I’m just going to

go for it in this one and hopefully I’ll be able to impress the examiner enough and correct any errors that were made beforehand you know, and show

them other facets of my language that I can pick up points from.

Absolutely. I really like that. Sometimes you can do tricky things too, like if you want to demonstrate control of the language, you can use a word

that is both a noun and a verb, like schedule. If you can tell us about your schedule as a typical schedule in your day, even if we ask you about

your daily habits, and you replace the word habit with schedule, that’s nice. And then if you show us that you know how to use it as both a noun and

a verb, that’s even nicer. That’s a stronger response. Your examiner will notice that.

Another thing you can do is take just a few, one or two really nice what we call in America ten dollar words and use those ten dollar words or

phrases appropriately. Beautiful.

Give us an example of a ten dollar word. I haven’t heard of this before.

Like cajole. Cajole’s a beautiful word. You know I want to convince, I want to nudge, I want to push, I want to cajole you into studying harder for

the IELTS exam.

I see. I see.

Cajole is a nice word. If you’re an examiner and that word is used appropriately, you’re like nice.

Yeah, exactly. Because not even native speakers would use a word like that, unless, well the average Joe Bloggs wouldn’t you know.

It’s true.

So if a student, an international student can wind it into a conversation appropriately then happy days.

Exactly, exactly happy days. So you’re trying to demonstrate facility with language but all you need to do is have one really good word. And if it’s

used appropriately, check. One nice idiomatic expression. Yeah, correctly is the key. Correctly is the key.

Yeah, if you can hit nail on the head then it’s all good.

Beautiful expression. Hit the nail on the head.

I have a question down here. How would you prepare a student? I know you’ve into sort of like the strategies and things like that but say if you had

a student and they had like five classes with you, what would be your main objective of just thinking out the speaking parts. What exercises would

you do?

Well I like the agree/disagree and why because it reminds us that we’re always responding and I think the more practice you have in that format, the

more comfortable and effective your responses will be. So you know, if we have a question that says “you are what you own.” You might think well of

course you’re going to disagree with that. It’s an awful thing to reduce a human being to just their collection of physical possessions. One needs

to articulate and explain why that is. And so more and more you say well, what matters most in a life is the character more than the possessions. I

mean give us some examples. Why you think your grandfather was a great man. He might have been a poor man but he was a kind man; he was a loving

man; he sacrificed for his family; he taught his children and grandchildren; he contributed and he had a wonderful laugh. So he was a great man even

though he was a poor man, OK. So if you can give us these kind of stories over and over again I think that’s helpful.

You want to have a range of ideas and be able to express them. I think it’s helpful.

So do you use like quotes as an exercise? Get two contrasting quotes and stimulate a debate with those quotes.

Exactly. It doesn’t even have to be so much of a formal debate. It’s just a casual talking back and forth.

This is what you book is based around then. The book Compelling Conversations or Compelling American Conversations. Is it a series of quotes like

these debates, exercises and frameworks to develop speaking skills.

Yeah, thank you for mentioning that. So, the subtitle for both those books is Questions and Quotations. So we have many questions, like thirty

questions, some very simple and direct, some more abstract and difficult. How do you win the game of life is one of the questions in the sports

section. Well that’s the last question because it’s abstract. There’s no simple answer to it, or at least I don’t see a simple answer to it. You

have a range of questions then you have vocabulary that’s related, then we have some, we ask students to write questions because asking questions

and writing questions is more difficult than is often acknowledged by English teachers. Then we have like paraphrasing proverbs and then we have a

lot of these agree/disagree and why. So they’re interesting and they’re worth thinking about. They’re also excellent practice for IELTS Part 3 but

the casual conversation questions are very useful for Part 1 and also then Part 2 where you’re giving you know. Any time you’re asked to give your

opinion that’s preparation for Part 3 and you want to learn phrases like as far as I’m concerned or you know, generally speaking or it seems to me

or you know, others may disagree but, you know, from my perspective.

I see. And then with the exercises in the book you get a perfect opportunity to put all these expressions into practice.

Exactly. And I really do believe that practice does not make perfect but we will make progress. So one thing we can do is have good, meaningful

conversations in English as much as, as frequently as possible. Whether it’s in your English class or a private tutor or in a conversation club or

at the bus stop, if you’re in an area where you can have an English conversation at a bus stop and I know your listeners are not. I apologise for

the good mistake in giving the bus stop example.

Actually, I think to be honest Eric, half of them are in the UK and the other half are listening in Australia.


Yeah honestly. I think yeah because a lot of students they take the IELTS test either to get, well, to stay for immigration purposes to stay in

Australia or maybe the UK but also they may be studying there already and they need to take the test to start the university there. It all depends

but you would be surprised. Quite a lot are in Australia or in the UK.

Well I’m very glad to hear that! Let me ask you a question about the use of IELTS to stay in Australia. Could you tell me about that?

I could give you a rough idea but I’ve never done the immigration process. I’ll give it my best shot to answer your question.

Great I’d appreciate that.

For a start off, to get the visa and everything like that you get points. You get points for the amount of time you’ve been there, for the amount of

money you’ve earned. No, no, for the amount of time you’ve been there, maybe for the qualifications that you have if you’ve got a degree in

engineering or a Ph.D. in medicine then you pick up more points. And then one way you pick up a good chunk of points is to take the IELTS test.

That’s one of the requirements.

That’s fantastic. And the IELTS tasks are they looking for a six? Are they looking for a seven?

Yeah I think before it was a Band 7.

But I think it’s been.

That’s a very high standard.

Yeah. But I think they’ve increased it as well to a Band 8. My personal opinion is that I think they’ve increased it more for political reasons than

other reasons to be honest. And rather disappointingly I don’t know, I think it was increased for that reason because I might be wrong, I don’t


I hear your discomfort and I appreciate your honesty there.

Yeah thanks.

You know in the United States, you know, the citizenship tests are rather low and this is a real question that we’re trying to ask as we try to

adopt a more humane kind of comprehensive immigration reform and bring out of the shadows millions of people who are living here without documents.

But then the questions is, OK, if they’re going to become citizens, they’re going to join the national family, what level of English? The current

test is very low and I know that there is a, it’s nowhere close to an IELTS 7 or 8.

I see.

We’re talking maybe like an IELTS 3.


So somewhere in between those extremes might be the golden mean. Our immigrants, for the first time, are not doing as well as the preceding


I see.

Now, there are, you know, a lot of factors there but one of those factors is probably the decreased assimilation of English. That’s a tricky one

because you want to be humane and generous and at the same time, there are countries, like what used to be known as Czechoslovakia is now Czech and

Slovakia that divided over language.

Just one more question. You said that, well, you work with international students. How do you help them learn English. How do you help them, like,

get that, well learn English basically?

Well I’m lucky right now in that I’m able to work with international students from a wide range of countries from a wide range of disciplines at USC

and I currently teach the Advanced Oral Skills Class, Speaking Skills Class, if you will. And where we do a number of presentations, student led

discussions monitored and unmonitored conversation activities and use a lot of video tape. I’m a real believer in the use of the video tape in the

classroom. So if you give a presentation, you get instant, you give a five, eight minute presentation on an important term in your discipline and

then all the audience members, not just the teacher give you their comments and feedback.


And it might just be that they ask you a question but they give you something. It might be saying good job, bravo, well done and a question or they

might make one observation. For the Writing Skills, it’s a higher media writing skills and in an academic context, we want to make sure you’re able

to do both academic and professional assignments. So you’re able to write an effective cover letter or letter of complaint on the professional,

business side and on the academic skills you’re able to do everything from writing a problem/solution essay to a tone research paper to analysing a

chart or graph.

Right I see.

And writing about that. I want to talk about graph language a little bit too.


I think it’s important. Not necessarily for the speaking section obviously, but it really is important that you first accurately read the question

then you provide the context, you give kind of a location statement and provide the context. In Graph G, we see and then tell us what do we see?


And you’re writing a description of what we’re looking at.


Then I want you. There are a lot of details there and we can get overwhelmed by details so then we need to zoom in an highlight the most significant

details and then give us a little compare and contrast. What are we looking at? Tell us what we’re looking at that you zoomed in as significant and


Tell us where we can find your, where your book is sold and the name of the book. It’s Compelling American Conversations, yeah and you sell that on

Amazon, on one of.

Yes it’s available in many locations but Amazon’s probably the most convenient and there’s an eBook version. The Compelling American Conversation

came out in 2012 and the original book was Compelling Conversations – Questions and Quotations on Timeless Topics.

I see.

And that covered a much wider range but it didn’t have all the internet activities that I call Search and Share that you’ll find in the Compelling

American Conversations. And you can find more about both books on the website and a special version for Vietnam on the website

compellingconversations.com and you’ll find free chapters and extensive worksheets for teachers and students on that website.

Awesome. OK.

Thank you for asking that. I do appreciate that.

Ah no, it’s fine it’s fine. I was thinking, because we get a lot of teachers listening as well and I know that, well, the way you’ve described those

exercises I know that they will be useful for a class preparing for the speaking.

They’ll also find on there some, sorry for interrupting. I think informational interviews are really a wonderful assignment, not just for job

seekers but even for your higher level IELTS test takers. I know it doesn’t directly relate or link to IELTS but it’s a wonderful activity because

it’s a real world activity where you go out and meet a professional, you have a conversation in English, you interview them and as part of that

interview you have to explain who you are, what you’re interested in, what you’re looking for in terms of information. Of course there’s some

storytelling there of your biography which I guess is linked, if I have to make a link to the IELTS part. But it also then it gives you a chance to

meet a working professional, learn about a profession, expand your social network, your professional network and demonstrate your proficiency in a

real world authentic context.


That’s why I like the informational interviews but it’s also why the IELTS test is so much better than the TOEFL. And you’re meeting with people in

person and it’s more authentic than the TOEFL where you’re just speaking into a microphone. Another advantage of the IELTS test and why I think

people even studying in America should, or want to study in America, should consider it, is the TOEFL test is not nearly as accurate as the IELTS in

terms of depicting student abilities. It’s just a much more nuanced, sophisticated test.

Wow. Why do you think that?

Well first of all it’s longer and more detailed. The speaking section is the difference between an eleven to fifteen minute interview which is

authentic, and you’ve got three structured parts as opposed to the TOEFL where you’re speaking into your computer. That’s not real. A handshake like

that is real.

Yeah. Yeah.

And in a real world as a physical being, your physical presence matters, your handshake matters, your eye contact matters your speaking-


1 or 1 to 2 is important and as a result you get a more reliable indicator of actual student ability from IELTS.


I’m really not a fan of the TOEFL test even though they keep revising it and making it better, there are many steps to go before they catch up to

the IELTS and the fine work that the British Council’s done.

Wow that’s interesting. Very true because my friend, she’s just taken the TOEFL and she was in a big room and first she had to do the speaking with

the headphones on, then she did the listening but, there was one student who was still doing the speaking while she was doing the listening and she

was automatically, she was tuning into his conversation sometimes and she had to get herself back on track and she said it was a horrible experience

‘cos half the work was just to focus and not getting distracted and that shouldn’t be the case. The focus shouldn’t be any problem at all it’s your

English test you know?

Right. It’s your English test and that sounds like a horrific experience and I wish I could say that was a one-off. I’ve had several students that

had their test results disqualified not because of any misbehaviour they did but because ETS didn’t provide adequate security that day and so they

just disqualified all the test takers that day. They just, so, you had, you know, OK, even if they give you back your money or they give you a free

test again you lost that day and many times, you know, time matters. So you needed to have a test result by certain date. The IELTS administration

is much better.

Well this has been a great conversation Ben.

Yeah definitely Eric, definitely man. It’s been great and thank you for agreeing to do it.

Oh my pleasure.