Say What You Think


For my twelfth grade English conversation class this year, I wrote a short textbook titled, Say What You Think. I wrote the book for high school seniors in Japan, who I teach, though it should be usable with eleventh graders or motivated tenth graders. The class met for fifty minutes once a week, with an annual total of around thirty classes. The ideal pace is approximately one page a day, with adjustments for projects, presentations, and tests.

The textbook and related materials are under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. You can do most anything with it, as long as you cite the author (me) and source (i.e., this webpage). I think education materials should be free wherever possible. This makes it easy for teachers to share ideas and teach as effectively as possible. If this textbook is of interest or use to you, please talk, blog, or write about it.



The book is bundled with worksheets, listening tracks, quizzes, and other supplementary materials. It's available on Here are the current and previous versions.

Table of Contents


The files here are all connected with the ESL textbook, Say What You Think, written by Douglas Perkins. The textbook and associated files that I've produced are all under the license as noted below. In a few cases, snippets of externally-copyrighted work are included. These are labeled as such. This information is brief, limited in scope, non-commercial, and included for nonprofit educational purposes. As such, its inclusion is fair use.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Part I: Discussion

The standard ostensibly high-level English conversation foci are: discussion, debate, and drama. Of these, the easiest is discussion, because there are no fixed rules. You can say whatever you want. On the other hand, things with no rules are hard to start. You can do anything, so how do you decide where to begin? The tendency with discussion is to make it too open-ended. Though being open-ended is generally a positive thing, teachers should take care to have an initial focus and later be flexible in allowing students to explore tangents as motivation and interest dictate.

Along with discussing various topics, students are asked to distinguish between facts and opinions. This is useful in general, and it's particularly necessary in the subsequent chapters on debate. To be precise, an opinion is something a person thinks that cannot be true or false because it doesn't depend on proof. A fact is something empirically true, supported by evidence. A sentence like Apples taste good. is an opinion, and another sentence like Apples come in many colors, such as red and green. is a fact. An interesting activity is for students to convert opinions to facts. If Joe says, Soccer is fun., we can take this opinion and change it to a fact about Joe: Joe thinks soccer is fun..

Chapter One: Ideas

Free talking is a good way to strengthen dynamic speaking abilities. In free talking, you set a topic and a time limit, put students in groups, and tell them to talk until time runs out. Even three minutes can feel like a long time, and five minutes would be excessive. If you've just done brainstorming — about places to go on summer vacation, let's suppose — and then your topic for free talking is, "What do you want to do for summer vacation?", students can get ideas of things to say just by looking at the chalkboard.

Chapter Two: Dangerous Sports

Dangerous sports are interesting because people typically have strong feelings about them, especially so if you show a video to introduce the topic. Some people think skydiving looks scary, others want to try it, but almost nobody has no feelings about the sport. Showing video of some of these sports is a worthwhile use of time.

In this chapter, I introduce the idea of rewriting sentences while maintaining the meaning. There are many variations on activities for writing sentences with equivalent meaning, and to start things out, I ask students to rephrase negative sentences in positive words. For example, if the starting sentence is My math test score was not good. then it can be rewritten as My math test score was bad. In most cases, positive phrasing is easier to understand and therefore preferable.

Chapter Three: School Life

Many of my students have studied abroad in several different countries, and in doing so they learned a lot about school events and school life. In this chapter, we take a look at a standard academic year in an American high school and talk about various school events.

At my school, students wear school uniforms, and they enjoy comparing their uniforms to those worn by students in other countries. Looking at school uniforms, describing them in English, and guessing what countries they're from are obvious chances to practice speaking English without realizing it.

Part II: Presentations

In an English conversation classroom, students should be talking a lot. Typically we ask students to talk about things that relate to their everyday lives. Everyone knows about their own life, and no two students are identical. Everyone can speak, and everyone is unique. Sometimes, we branch off on tangents where students talk about new materials. A good way of doing this is to give students an information sheet and ask them to write and deliver a short presentation on it. Several years ago, my friend Adam recommended making country posters so students could deliver short presentations on countries around the world. That was for ninth graders, and the exact same topic works well for high school students, too.

Chapter Four: Organization

One listening or reading comprehension activity that I like to do is identifying parts of a speech. Give students a sentence, and ask them whether it goes in the introduction, body, or conclusion. The structure of speeches and academic papers is different in Japan and the U.S., so it's important for students to practice organizing information. Also, any sentences that you use in this activity become example sentences later when students make their own presentations.

Chapter Five: Karate Poster

The first page is an example of a poster introducing karate. Students take a look at the poster, and then answer some questions about it on the second page. Some of the questions are reading comprehension questions, and others are style questions.

Chapter Six: Education City Poster

The example poster here is one about Education City, a campus located in Qatar. Students read the poster, look at the pictures, and learn a little about it. After that, they are asked to compare this poster to the previous chapter's karate poster. Specifically, students are asked to look at the two poster styles. For example, the posters use different alignments, picture layouts, picture sizes, fonts, and text breaks.

When considering graphic layout for posters, often students can make good decisions if asked about things specifically. For example, sometimes students choose fonts that are too fancy and hard to read, but if you asked them to do a side-by-side comparison of two fonts, they would probably notice that simpler fonts are easier on the eyes. In some cases, though, the teacher might want to talk about general formatting rules. Here are some general rules.

The last activity in this chapter is a poster creation project. Students create a poster introducing some cultural element (for example, a sport, an activity, or a notable place). Many of my students have lived abroad, and I encourage them to choose something they experienced when they were abroad.

Part III: Debate

Administrators like debate, but for teachers it's a problem because it's hard to do well. The biggest problem with debate in an ESL classroom is that, even if a group can clearly articulate their ideas, other students in the class may not understand the words. Since debate has several rounds, this lack of comprehension is a critical issue. When we're planning a debate, we have to keep in mind that if a group uses a dictionary to figure out what to say, everyone else might be screwed later. Tangentially, this issue — saying things that people around you don't understand, how that can lead to problems, and how to solve them — is an important one for students to consider. In the narrow context of debate, the simplest thing we can do is to schedule the rebuttal round to be the class following the introduction round. We give both groups a copy of both groups' notes, and for homework students write an outline of their rebuttals.

Chapter Seven: Resolutions

A debate starts with a resolution. You then divide into two groups and debate the resolution, but if the resolution is worthless then so will the debate be. A resolution is a sentence that tells us something. It often makes a comparison — for example, ninjas are stronger than pirates. It could make an absolute claim — for example, violence is wrong. School rules are a popular topic — for example, students should not dye their hair. The resolution has to be a clear statement; to the extent that it is vague or ambiguous, students will speak past each other. If possible, word your resolutions as positive statements to make them easier to understand. For example, Cats are better pets than dogs. has a simpler sentence form than Dogs aren't better pets than cats.. The final criterion for a resolution is that people should disagree on it. They don't have to reasonably disagree, but they do need to disagree. My students all want to bring phones to school, so if I assign the topic Students shouldn't bring phones to school., it won't work very well. Sometimes one is assigned to support a resolution that they actually oppose, just for the purpose of the debate, but if everyone opposes the topic, ideas will be a scarce commodity and the entire debate won't make sense. After all, if everyone agrees on something, why would we bother debating it?

Chapter Eight: Trains Over Cars

Sometimes we intentionally choose topics where the premises are unclear. In this chapter, students compare travel by train, car, and other methods. It is desirable they observe that what method of travel is best varies based on factors like distance, time of day, fun, price, and numbers of travelers. You can't expect a solid winner in the trains vs. cars debate in any universal sense, because both have their merits. It is sufficient that students organize their thoughts on the matter clearly and sensibly.

Chapter Nine: Pirates or Ninjas

This chapter is designed for use with four groups. Two groups debate pirates vs. ninjas, and two groups debate cats vs. dogs. As mentioned above, the first round of the debate should happen in one class, and the rebuttal round should happen in the next. Additionally, and with all debate topics, polls before and after the debate are often interesting to see. It's one way of deciding who wins the debate, should you care about winning and losing, and more importantly, it's another way of getting students to think about and state their opinions.

Depending on your students and the term's lesson count, you might want to skip this chapter and instead introduce more substantial or serious topics. The primary objective is for students to understand the structure of a debate by doing one, and topics should be adjusted to suit student interest and ability.

Part IV: Emotion

Originally I planned to title this section, "Drama", but that felt too limiting. When we think of drama, we think of acting, Shakespeare, and movies like Twelve Angry Men. Those are all worthwhile topics for the ESL classroom, but the more general topic of, "How do we show emotion?" is of greater interest and utility in life. People might tell you that in Japan, people express their emotions less openly in America. Is that true? I don't think so, but at first glance it might appear so. Many of the visual cues used to express emotion vary widely from the United States to Japan. Looking for these differences and details on how people show emotion is surprisingly engaging. For example, to generalize broadly, it is common enough in conversations in Japan for the listener to nod his or her head "yes" every sentence or two, just to show that he or she is paying attention and understands what the speaker means. If the listener subsequently stops nodding "yes", that's a good sign that either they don't understand what the speaker is saying or that they disagree with some conclusion the speaker just drew. Or maybe they're just spacing out because the conversation is boring. We don't know what exactly is going through their brain, but we do know that something happened leading to a shift in behavior. And you wouldn't think to look for that kind of hint if you just stepped off the plane from New York.

Chapter Ten: Feeling

A simple beginning to speaking with emotion is to speak emphasizing the key words. As students are able to understand and stress the key words in a sentence, they gradually develop the ability to emphasize those words with expressiveness that suits the situation. On the other hand, telling your classmates to speak emotionally about themselves is often unproductive. People naturally get shy when you put them on the spot like that. Instead, it is worthwhile to ask students to guess or imagine what others are thinking.

Chapter Eleven: Sadness and Politics

In this chapter we introduce students to the idea of using a pinpoint adjective instead of a multi-word phrase. Students read a short snippet of Lincoln's First Inaugural Address and a long piece of Obama's 2016 speech at Hiroshima.

Chapter Twelve: Sight and Sound

There is a close link between sight and sound. What we see changes what we hear, and what we hear changes what we see. This chapter contains several video clips illustrating some surprising experiments that clearly illustrate the connection between our senses.

The second topic is humor. Are jokes from your own country funny in another one? Jokes like puns are vocabulary-based, so second language learners may enjoy them if their language skills are well-developed, but other types of jokes might not cross international and cultural boundaries as effectively.


For playing video and audio, probably your computer's default media player can do the job. If you'd like to try a new one, VLC is a good choice. It's free, open source, and runs on all major operating systems. If you like, you can play audio and video files at reduced speed, which can be a nice way to spice up a listening activity.

The textbook, tests, homework, and most other materials were produced in LibreOffice. LibreOffice is free and open source. It's an office suite that's better than Microsoft Office in most ways.

For editing images, I use the GIMP, a free alternative to Adobe Photoshop. For vector graphics, I use Inkscape.


For general information on the textbook, see the author's website or contact the author on twitter.


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