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Conversation Circles Program
Facilitator Handbook
About this manual: This manual relies heavily on the work done by the ...
I. Conversation Circles Leader Guidelines
A. Moderate the conversation
1. Encourage equal participation from all members...
B. Help with language and cultural questions
1. Help with grammatical and speaking mistakes
Consider whether the problem...
could start with “How did you get to Denver? By car? By train?” You could also ask other participants
the same question ...
D. Additional Ideas
IV. Communicating Across Cultures
Cross-Cultural Values
Intercultural communication is about more than just language. Wh...
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Los Alamos County Library System Conversation Circles Program Facilitator Handbook


Published on

NCompass Live - March 29, 2017

Learn how Los Alamos County Library System put together a simple, cost-effective English conversation program for patrons who wanted to practice their English speaking skills. Conversation circles are not English classes: you don’t need ESL teachers, a registration system or a fancy curriculum. We’ll show you how we put it together, what worked, what still needs development and share resources so you can develop your own conversation circles program.

Presenter: Elizabeth Rivera, Reference Librarian, Los Alamos County Libraries, Los Alamos, NM.

Published in: Education
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Los Alamos County Library System Conversation Circles Program Facilitator Handbook

  1. 1. 1 Conversation Circles Program Facilitator Handbook About this manual: This manual relies heavily on the work done by the English Language Institute from the University of Michigan and their Winter 2013 Conversation Circle Leader Manual, available upon request. The Conversation Circles Program at Los Alamos Public Libraries is designed to provide an informal space for people who wish to practice and improve their English speaking skills in a relaxed environment. A conversation circle is not an English class, but it can complement formal classroom instruction by providing additional opportunities to speak the language. It is also meant as a vehicle to welcome, promote intercultural understanding, and provide a social space in which to make friends and learn about the community. As a group leader, you are not expected to teach English. Your job is to keep the conversation flowing. Fall 2016: Library Conversation Circles will take place Tuesdays at 10:40 in The Zone at Mesa Public Library starting September 13. If you have questions or problems, please don’t hesitate to contact us: Katy Korkos ( / 505-662-8247) Liza Rivera ( / 505-662-8251) Last updated: 3/30/2017
  2. 2. 2 I. Conversation Circles Leader Guidelines A. Moderate the conversation 1. Encourage equal participation from all members It’s important that all of the participants get equal opportunities to speak and share their opinions. Just because some participants are quieter than others, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to participate in the conversation. If this begins to happen, you may redirect the conversation to quieter members. (Learn how to pronounce everybody’s name!) Spend a bit of time learning about where each member is from, what they are studying, etc. Learn to listen and ask questions. With beginning speakers, provide some of the necessary vocabulary in the question itself. For example, “Do you like to live in the country or in the city?” Then ask questions that require a more elaborate reply: “Why?” “How?” If one participant is dominating the conversation, you could politely say something like “That’s an interesting idea, A. What do you think about that, B?” or “Let’s give B a chance to tell us about his/her experience.” You could also go around the group, asking each participant to take a turn sharing their ideas or experiences. 2. Think of topics to discuss / activities in advance This is both to get the conversation started and so you can start fresh if an awkward silence falls on the group. Collect questions, topics, objects, materials, etc. to use with your group. Consider keeping notes on what worked and what fell flat to share with the other group facilitators. (See p.4 for ideas) 3. Make sure all members can follow the conversation a) Make sure they understand you Participants may nod and respond “yes” even when they don’t understand what you’re saying. They may simply be showing you that they’re listening, they may think they understand, or they may be embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand. If you aren’t sure whether they understand, you may want to rephrase in simpler language, and think of a way to check the participant’s comprehension. For example, you could ask questions related to what you just said, or you could ask participants to paraphrase what you just said. Be sure that members feel comfortable interrupting if they don’t understand what’s going on. b) Make sure they understand each other Even if you are able to understand a participant, that doesn’t mean the participants understand each other. If the participants come from countries in which the accent is very different, they may have a hard time understanding one another. Also, lower-level participants may not understand higher-level participants. In some cases, participants pay close attention to what the conversation circle leader is saying, but they may “tune out” when the other group members are talking. However, participants can learn a lot from each other, and can benefit from giving and receiving feedback about how they are, or aren’t, being understood. Encourage more advanced participants to slow down, and frequently check that lower-level participants are “with it.” You could also ask the “listening” participants, “What do you think about what A just said?” If they didn’t understand A, encourage them to ask A for repetition or clarification.
  3. 3. 3 B. Help with language and cultural questions 1. Help with grammatical and speaking mistakes Consider whether the problem really impedes understanding. If that is the case, wait until a lull in the conversation, then try a phrase like, “You know, B, I noticed something you might change to be a little clearer. Instead of stressing the first syllable, say e-CO-no-my.” 2. Pay attention your language Keep in mind that participants in the program want to learn English the way it is “really” spoken. Speak naturally, but watch closely to see if they really understand you. Adjust your speed and vocabulary if necessary. Think of different and simpler ways to say the same thing. Try to become aware of idioms, figures of speech and slang when you’re talking. Your group will probably be interested in hearing these expressions; but they’ll need help in understanding what you mean. (See p.5 for more about simplifying your language) 3. Remember that communication across cultures is about more than just language Coming from different cultures, your conversation circle members will probably have different styles of communication. Style includes how long we speak uninterrupted, what kinds of questions we ask, and what topics we choose to discuss. Other differences may be related to body language, eye contact, gender-role expectations, etc. Expect to be surprised at some point by cultural differences. (For more about intercultural communication see p.6) C. Common problems 1. You ask a question, and no-one answers. Give the participants plenty of time to think about, and formulate, their answers. Remember, they need the time to translate your question into their native language, think of how they want to respond, and translate their response back into English. Also, some people from other cultures are more comfortable with silence for thought or reflection than many people from the USA are. Be patient. Wait a little longer, repeat your question more slowly, or rephrase your question in a simpler way. 2. You are doing most of the talking in the group. It’s important that participants get a chance to hear native English speakers, but it’s also important that they get a chance to practice speaking English. If you’re doing most of the talking, try to talk less and elicit more from the participants. You may feel uncomfortable with silence and feel the need to fill it with your own words. But remember that the participants need more processing time than you do, and that silence is sometimes okay. 3. One participant is very quiet, and doesn’t participate freely in the conversation. The participant may just have a shy personality, or the participant may lack confidence, especially if s/he is at a lower level than the rest of the group. If the participant seems to be at the same level as the others, you may need to ask questions to that participant directly. In some countries people are used to being called on individually to speak, so this should feel comfortable for them. If the participant seems to be at a lower level, try asking him/her easier questions. Instead of asking an open- ended question, ask the participant a question that can be answered with one or two words, and suggest possible answers. For example, instead of saying “Tell me about your trip to Denver”, you
  4. 4. 4 could start with “How did you get to Denver? By car? By train?” You could also ask other participants the same question and then ask the lower-level participant, after s/he has had a chance to understand the question and hear other participants’ responses. 4. One participant continually asks detailed questions about vocabulary, grammar, etc. The primary goal of Conversation Circles is for participants to practice informally. Facilitators can comment on vocabulary or grammar issues that may be needed for clarification, but you don’t want to spend a lot of time on this. It’s okay to clear up immediate confusion, but don’t let the conversation turn into a formal English lessons. Participating in a Conversation Circle is not a substitute for a formal class. Remember that free formal classes are available in the community. 5. Someone asks you a question you don’t feel comfortable answering (e.g., about age, weight, marital status, etc.) If you don’t feel comfortable answering the question, politely tell the participant that you’d rather not answer the question. If it’s a culturally inappropriate question, explain to the participant that in the US, it’s not polite to ask that question. You could also ask them if it’s common to ask that question in their country, and what other questions may be inappropriate in their culture. II. Conversation Circle Ideas A. Conversation topics  Customs & Cultural Differences - Traditions, holidays, government, meals, dress, social issues, raising children, etc. (See more about intercultural communication on p.6)  Current events - Local, national and international news.  Day to day interactions - Visiting the doctor, calling the police, meeting children’s teachers, shopping, using the library, etc.  Language - Slang, idioms, phrasal verbs, superlatives (most, least, -est), words or expressions that don’t translate easily. B. Conversation Starters  Pictures - Family photos, weddings, holidays, other celebrations, trips. Ask participants to bring their own.  Illustrated books – children’s picture books, photography books, art books  Hobbies and Crafts - Exhibit related items (materials, finished products, tools, etc.); explain and demonstrate to each other.  Games & toys - Games are a great way to break the ice and start conversation without much stress. C. Community focus  Community resources - Local news outlets (Monitor, Post), how to use a telephone book, recycling center, etc.  Recreational facilities - Trail network, pool, library, parks, skating rink, etc.  Community activities - Where to find out about community activities, discuss upcoming or past community activities  Community Attractions - Bandelier, Walking Tour of LA, Bradbury Museum, etc.
  5. 5. 5 D. Additional Ideas      III. Simplifying Your English Conversational English is full of idiomatic expressions and two- or three-word (phrasal) verbs that many people learning English as a Second Language haven’t learned yet. Participants often want to learn these expressions, but they need you to interpret and explain them in simpler English, using basic vocabulary. Here are some examples of expressions that may confuse participants: A. Phrasal verbs Common phrases Simpler form show up come blow it make a mistake or fail give up quit figure out understand take off go / leave or remove call off cancel work out exercise or resolve Additional resources:    B. Idiomatic expressions Idiom Simpler form give it a shot try piece of cake very easy or simple an arm and a leg expensive beat around the bush not speak directly at the drop of a hat instantly or immediately cut corners not done well to be under the weather to feel sick Additional resources:   
  6. 6. 6 IV. Communicating Across Cultures Cross-Cultural Values Intercultural communication is about more than just language. When communicating across cultures we must consider different manners, body language and communication styles. We must also consider the underlying values and assumptions of the participants. Societies follow certain behavioral patterns based on values that are deemed essential for social organization. The following is a list of cross-cultural behaviors and values. Keep in mind that these are generalizations, and that they change over time. Also, there are personal and sub- cultural variations to these behaviors and values. Western (non-traditional) Non-Western (traditional) Individualism • emphasis on the importance of the individual • autonomy is discouraged; the good of the whole group is more important than the individual Punctuality • promptness is a virtue, tardiness an insult • emphasis on schedules • prompt people can be considered aggressive • minor regard for schedules Privacy • privacy is valued, and achieved in terms of space • privacy is maintained by withdrawing into oneself Life Goals • emphasis on material goods and achievement • emphasis on spiritual and personal characteristics Destiny • man controls his own destiny • the universe is controlled by exterior forces Equality • greater equality of sexes • women are more independent • roles are sometimes interchangeable • man protects, shelters, and controls his women, who depend on him and obey him • roles are clearly defined Friendships • often taken casually • mean complete loyalty and commitment Personal Characteristics • impulsive • cautious Perspective On Life • youth-oriented, with an emphasis on the future • elders are more important, as is past tradition Physical Contact • touching is not important in communication • touching is important in human relations Conversation • coming to the point is important • frankness may be considered rude Parenting • children are openly praised • told to look adults “in the eye” when being scolded • considered unwise to praise a child in public • children lower their eyes when being reprimanded Formality • informal in dress and business relationships • more formal in dress and business relationships Importance Of Name • take pride in own accomplishments • take pride in family name