Strictly speaking

‘Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius’.  Edward Gibbon

I think we can see quite clearly into Mr Gibbon’s learning style from his quote.  He likes to learn socially, i.e. by talking through new ideas with others, but then also likes some time of reflection to make those ideas concrete in his mind.  Many of us are similar, and even if we lean to one end or the other of the spectrum, an overall learning experience that incorporates both can cater to many different learning preferences.  Luckily, blended learning can offer our learners all this and more!


Obviously, when we as language learners refer to conversation, we are talking about developing speaking skills.  In the classroom, this is quite easy to envisage.  We can set up a debate or an exchange of anecdotes, a role play or a more complex task.  We can maximise the Student Talk Time by getting them to do some preparation at home before class so they are conversing as much as possible and getting lots of constructive feedback on their performance.


With Touchstone Blended Learning, students can do a lot of the prior language work by engaging with the online course to learn the structures and vocabulary they need to get the most out of doing the task.  Don’t forget that a quick vocabulary game at the start of a lesson can help you to set up the context for the speaking task  (they will always need a warmer!)  But this isn’t the only way that students can prepare for the speaking task.  If you take a look back to the post on voice tools, you’ll remember that learners can also practice their speaking at home.  They can do this both in solitude and in conversation.

There is a great deal of safety in being able to practice presenting arguments in private, with the added advantage of being able to record themselves to check pronunciation and see whether or not they sound convincing, without having to expose any potential mistakes to others so students can feel free to experiment a bit before they have to do this ‘for real’.  Many exams such as the Cambridge Upper Main Suite and IELTS, require students to give a ‘long turn’.  After class, when students have debated the points of their arguments and had feedback on their performance, you could ask them to reflect on the lesson and then record and share a 1-2 minute talk on the same topic.  Students can then listen to each other and comment as appropriate.  This is a nice way to prepare for one of the most daunting parts of the speaking tests in these exams.

Taking risks

Many cultures don’t like to take risks, particularly if that risk means you could end up looking foolish in front of your peers.  That’s why there is built in safety in the Touchstone online course in the form of voice recording that cannot be shared and the more risky but still relatively safe activity of recording yourself and then sharing it with others when you are happy with your work.  Coming to class then becomes a comparatively risky business. Students cannot erase ‘stupid’ things they say because everyone has heard them so it’s important that you have created an environment where students trust each other and feel comfortable enough to potentially make mistakes in front of others and engage in real learning conversation.


What have you done recently to ensure that your classroom is a Safety Zone?  Do you have any top tips to share about making your students feel comfortable enough to take risks in class?  The teacher’s manner is always important.  What about feedback, using students’ names, how the class is laid out etc?  And how do you think it works in online conversation?  What do you think the main similarities/differences are? And what are the implications for us as teachers?


Magic? A teacher’s first term with Touchstone Blended Learning

Teacher Dina Dobrou

“We’re going to run a Blended Learning course using Touchstone from Cambridge”, my school director announced.

These two words instantly ‘clicked’:

Blended Learning:

A mixing of different learning environments. It combines traditional face-to-face classroom methods with more computer-mediated activities.(Wikipedia)


1. A test or criterion for determining the quality or genuineness of a thing.

2. A fundamental or quintessential part or feature. (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary)

This should be interesting…was my first thought, as teaching with technology has been the apple of my eye for the past two years.

Darn! I have this class with a couple of older students (60 something)…it’s going to be a mess with technology…Why me?…was my second thought…(Yes, the fear of technology going wrong or stakeholders not being able to handle it, is an issue apparent even among the techiest of our profession).

For a start, I think I was being a bit biased about my older students as they very pleasantly surprised me as you will see later on. Secondly, it being Blended Learning I knew I had to focus on both the technological aspects and the face to face ones. I soon discovered that they work separately as well as hand in hand, perfectly well.

On Technology:

Upon completing the online course for teachers I was more confident about converting even my most non-techy student into a confident, independent user of the interface offered by Touchstone. Initially, some tech training in class was involved and follow-up on the students’ ability to work independently from home.

It was a long process at first and to this day I can’t say that we’ve used all Touchstone features such as the Wiki, Blog, Voice Tools, Chat, Forum, though we did go through them one by one, taking time to make sure they know how to navigate the Online Course, which was of paramount importance as whenever someone missed a class they knew they could keep up with the rest of us by catching up online (so dropout numbers…dropped).

Overall, I can now proudly say that, because of this course, my most non-techy student set up an email account, got a laptop, discovered the world of online dictionaries, Wikipedia, YouTube and TED talks and became a very independent learner whose skills have developed considerably.

On face-to-face:

As a new teacher (some 16 years ago) I had to rely a lot on Teachers’ books for teaching guidance and lesson plans. If you have been around for as long as I have you will have learnt the hard way that Teacher’s books are not always what they’re cracked up to be. More often than not, instead of a book that guides teachers (especially inexperienced ones) and provides lesson plans for the content in the Student’s book,  they’re a mere “key-to-the-SB-activities-with-the-occasional-photocopiable-material” (correct me if I’m wrong on this).

What I’ve discovered in Touchstone was that I can completely rely on the Teacher’s book to get a clear, thorough and concise step-by-step journey into language exploration with my students and a wealth of ideas and opportunities for stimulating discussion. It is not, however, a “teacher-breathes-in-teacher-breathes-out” approach to lesson planning and allows for adaptation to fit your students’ needs.

So, if you’re starting out with Touchstone, here are a few tips I found useful:

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. Embrace the Teacher’s book lesson plan and let it guide you. If anything, it might change some of your established routines and your classroom dynamics (the inductive approach to teaching is apparent throughout) and urge you to ‘step out of your comfort zone’ and teach differently.
  • Take time in class to provide some tech training. It is not a waste of time. It will be a lifesaver eventually.
  • First things first…or…the easiest things first. Start training your students with what you (and especially your students) find easier to handle. One thing at a time, plus follow-up worked best for me:
  • Online Course/ Online Workbook etc.
  • Voice Tools
  • Forum
  • Wiki
  • (…you define the order…)

I will finish with my favourite motto and a picture to illustrate this:

                                                Step out of your comfort zone!

From the chalkface…

As a teacher, whenever I came across a new activity or way of teaching something, I would always ask a colleague whether they had tried it, and how it went, especially if it was something very different from things I had done before.  I realise it’s all very well me giving you suggestions about what you could do with your students, but I know that what you really want to hear is how it went for someone who tried it.  Of course you’re always welcome to post your comments on any of the blog posts when you’ve tried something out but I thought we might take it a bit further.

Next week, Dina Dobrou, a teacher from Greece, who recently started using Touchstone will be telling us about her experiences and giving some advice on surviving those first few months in the new realm of teaching online.

If you or a teacher at your organisation would like to share the wisdom of your experience, then please do contact me at – the more the merrier!


‘I meant what I said and I said what I meant.’ Dr Seuss

How many of our students worry that they’ve put the wrong sound into a word and ended up saying the wrong thing altogether?  And how many of them don’t worry enough about using polite intonation and end up sounding rude??

When I ask my students what they want to focus on during chess piece including queena course, often the answer is ‘Pronunciation!’, which in itself, is a bit of a tongue twister!  They say they want me to correct them all the time but students always say that and it’s possibly not the best way to help them reach a balance of intelligibility and appropriacy without feeling overly self conscious about having an ‘accent’.  If we over-correct they will just lose confidence about their ability to say anything at all.  We all have an accent – even native speakers don’t all speak the same way but we all (usually!) understand each other and almost nobody speaks like the Queen…

One piece of advice I have given my students is to get a graded reader that comes with a recording and ask them to read the book while sometimes listening to the recording.  Then for one paragraph in every chapter, I ask them to read and listen and then read the paragraph aloud and record themselves and then listen to themselves and compare that with the recording on the CD.  This is a very easy solution but your students might need some help with it to start with.

In Touchstone Online there are similar activities that are the same idea but a bit more high tech and is also more relevant to their current studies.  The ability to record is already built in so students don’t need to go looking for recording equipment and the pronunciation work is built into contexts that students are studying for language work already like this activity where students can participate in a role play type exercise based on the language and situation they have covered in the unit.

exercise for recording self as part of prerecorded dialogue

As a lot of Touchstone work is to be done online and alone, students can’t be corrected by the teacher even if they wanted to.  So how can they use the online course material to help them instead?  Sometimes students can hear that what they are saying is not the same as what they hear on the recording but they don’t know how to fix it so you need to help to break it down for them.

Recognising patterns

Train your learners to recognise patterns in pronunciation beginning with simple exercises.  For example, play 2 sentences and ask them to tell you if they are the same or different.  Ask what is different between them.  (the words or context or maybe one is a question and the other isn’t) Then play the same sentence uttered by different people and ask them to say if they are the same or different.  Again ask what is different between them.  (e.g. man/woman’s voice or maybe one speaker is angry and the other is calm) Then play the same sentence spoken by a native speaker and a non-native speaker.  Ask what is the difference between them.  (Any number of things!)  Do this type of exercise regularly but in small doses. Next, ask them if they think they are more like the first or the second speaker and why.  Then ask them to record themselves, listen to eachothers’ recordings and say whether their peers sound more like the first or second speaker and why.  As with all peer evaluation activities, this helps raise awareness of what they say themselves and helps them to look at or listen to their own output more critically – and hopefully in a constructive way!

Do these types of exercises regularly so students get used to having to evaluate the sounds and intonation patterns made by others.  Vary it so that sometimes you are looking at individual sounds and sometimes you are thinking about sequences so that over time students build up a variety of parameters to use when evaluating their own language.  Then when they record themselves, ask them to think about what they hear themselves saying in the ways you’ve trained them to use in class.  You could even give them a short self evaluation sheet if they are really struggling with yes/no questions to help them identify areas they need to work on.

If you have any favourite activities for training students to improve their own pronunciation, please share them with us!

What have they been up to?

‘I have eyes in the back of my head’. Teachers everywhere

Classroom management is all about knowing and controlling what is going on in your classroom and is a core competency for teachers teaching face to face.  This is reduced to a certain degree in online teaching but we still need to know what our students are getting up to when they think we’re not looking.  Teacher omniscience is not only about behaviour though.  It’s also about appreciating what our students are understanding or struggling with and making decisions about how to address this.  So how can we be sure they are doing what we want them to do?

1. LMS access data

examples of dataUsing the information in Teacher Reports, you can easily track how much time your students have spent in the LMS.  You can filter the reports so that they just show one class so you can see straightaway if anyone is spending a lot less time than the others in the system.  This may mean that the student is slacking and just doing the bare minimum.  Be careful though – it could mean that the student’s level is a bit higher than the others so they are getting through the material faster.  If this is the case you will need to devise some additional tasks e.g. research and blogging that they can do to keep them interested but how do you know which is which?

2. Student progress data

Looking at student progress, you can see very detailed information on how the students are doing at any one time by clicking on the student’s name.  You can even see how many times a student attempted a particular exercise.

students progressLooking at the data for the student above, we can easily see the area she needs more support with.  She probably understands yes/no questions fairly well is struggling with the vocabulary for the lesson.  Hover over learning outcomes to get a clearer picture of what the student should be able to do now that she’s finshed this lesson.

This data isn’t really worth putting on certificates.  It’s for you to get a clear idea of what you need to do in your next face to face session or synchronous activity*.  Think about doing a grammar gamble or a quiz or a communicative activity that uses the language or skills in question that would give you an opportunity to address the issue with the group and see if they can help each other find the answers.

3. Web 2.0 Tools

web 2.0 tools imagesThese communicative tools provide you with a unique window on your students’ world.  You have the chance to see what they are thinking and how they express themselves in ways that are not available to you face to face.  For instance, with Voice Tools you will be able to hear the pronunciation of even those shy students who stop talking whenever they see you approaching.  Because the tasks in the Forum and Blog are directly prepared and scaffolded in the Touchstone content, you can get a very clear picture of what your learners have understood from their activity in the online course.  Take care not to fall into the trap of trying to correct all mistakes for everyone but do invite comment on common errors when in class.  Give them the opportunity to correct themselves as a group first and then fill in the gaps in their knowledge when they’ve run out of options.

Speaking of behaviour, you may still need to check into forums etc to make sure everyone is ‘playing nicely’.  It is important to establish an atmosphere of trust in the online learning environment so that students feel confident enough to risk making mistakes that their peers will see.  If there is anyone in the group who is behaving antisocially, e.g. making fun of other students, they are damaging that atmosphere and negating the value of the community of learners.  Part of the cure for this is to agree ‘class rules’ or netiquette and to emphasise its importance during orientation – not what punishments are available for rule breakers but what value there is for everyone if everyone follows the rules.

We no longer need to have eyes in the back of our heads but we still need to know what our students are getting up to and how we do that is changng too…

Let’s play!

‘In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play.Friedrich Nietzsche

Children learn a great deal through play…and so do grown ups!  That’s why Touchstone Online despite being aimed at young adult and adult audiences contains a plethora of games for language practice.  Watch the Dune Buggy Dash form Level 1 Unit 4 (the sound in the recording isn’t great but you get the idea!).  What is the language point being practiced here?

Dune Buggy Dash first frame

Dune Buggy Dash Flash Video

How do you play?

A sentence appears at the bottom of the screen with a word missing?  Players ‘drive’ a dune buggy along a road and have to crash into the word that fits in the sentence. It’s basically a gap fill exercise but much more fun!  It’s a lot simpler than Play Station 3 that our students may be more used to but this is a good thing!  It means they spend less time figuring out how to play and more time enjoying the game and doing lots of consolidation work without realising it’s work.

How can I use this?

Well, you can ask students to play at home as extra practise and compare their scores in a forum.  You could set up a Games League to see who gets the highest scores.  You could even use them in class – sparingly of course.  It might be a nice pace changer to play a game in teams and see who gets the highest score.  You could ask the person holding the mouse to close their eyes and have their partner tell them which way to drive.  Fun and chaos to energise a long Friday afternoon lesson!

Have a look through the other games and see which ones you like the best.  Which ones do your students find useful?  Tell us your thoughts.

Reaching your learners

‘Be interesting, be enthusiastic…and don’t talk too much.’ Norman Vincent Peale

Teaching can mean a lot of talking but doesn’t involve ‘talking to an audience’ as much as people think.  It involves orchestrating, instructing, checking, asking, encouraging, prompting, directing and supporting i.e. getting students interested and enthusiastic and letting them do the talking instead.  How can we achieve this online where we can’t ‘talk’ at all? (See Student/Teacher Talk Time in the Glossary)

Comunicating online

There are of course lots of ways to communicate online – instant messaging, email, VOIP (e.g. Skype), forums, blogs etc etc  Each more suited to particular purposes can be used in a variety of ways to fulfil the functions of Teacher Talk and Student Talk. Touchstone is hosted in the Cambridge Learning Management System (LMS) which provides a number of ways of reaching your learners.

Cambridge LMS: Course Tools

calendar announcements buttons


Use the calendar to set regular events at the start of term so your students know what’s supposed to happen throughout the course which will help them manage their time and workload.  Click the Calendar icon and then click Add, fill in the required fields and click Save to finish.  This system will send out reminders of upcoming events to everyone in the group.  You can add attachments to these events.  This means that you can send the instructions for participating in the event with each reminder so students know exactly how to do what you are reminding them about.


Announcements are for more ad hoc communication.  They work in a similar way to the calendar.  Click on the Announcements icon and then click Add, fill in the required fields and click Save to finish.  If for example, you’ve noticed a lot of your learners are struggling with a language point or an idea, you might decide that an effective way to get everyone together to sort it out quickly is to have a Chat meeting about it.  Use Announcements to set a date and time and share the instructions.  An email will be sent to the whole group and you can have your session

Cambridge LMS: Web 2.0

A popular division of task types is as follows:

Tool Activity Teachers can: Learners can:
blog button Learner diary (‘What did I learn this week?   What part of this week’s work was easy/difficult for me?  How will this help me learn other things?) See effectiveness of particular task types and activities.Provide support and encouragement for strugglers See commonality of experienceComment on each other’s work to support and encourage
chat button Grammar clinicRole play Step in and resolve issues quickly.See how students manage under a bit more ‘pressure’ when having to respond quickly.Provide feedback to learners on performance in other areas Practise quick fire conversational use of new language.Quickly get answers to questions that may be stopping them progressing
forum button In depth discussion and debate Observe how well students can express and reinforce opinion given time Make considered responses to questions and each other.Focus on paragraphing.Practice conciseness
voice tools button Role playExam practice – long turns Hear students’ pronunciation and assess appropriacy and discourse management Have vocal ‘dialogue’, hear each others’ voices and get feedback on pronunciation and language use.

The majority of these activities are pre-set and are overtly linked to topics in the main content of the course so they are relevant and you don’t have to spend time thinking up questions although you will have to think about how much participation you expect and what points to see raised in discussion and how to encourage the conversation in a particular direction if necessary.

One-to-One Communication?

In the Cambridge LMS there is no one-to-one communication built in to the system.  The idea is that many learners have the same problems and questions and struggle with the same ideas.  If each learner asks you an identical question in a one to one email, there are two distinct disadvantages: 1) you end up answering an identical question lots of times and; 2) learners have the impression that they are the only ones with this particular problem.  By effectively pushing these types of questions into the .’public’ domain of forums, learners can see the answer before they ask the question and feel less like they are struggling away alone and more like they are at the level of the class.  It also means that when they know the answers themselves, they can answer each other, which can help to build trust and rapport in the group.

There will of course always be times when you notice a learner is dispirited or falling behind and needs some one to one ‘counselling’.  As many of you are running blended courses, your chance to do this in on the face to face side of things, exactly as you would normally.

But what about fully online courses?  Make sure your students are blogging and that you periodically respond to them personally, make encouraging comments or signpost to other learners who have had similar issues or overcome the same difficulty.  If all else fails, your administrator has access to the learners’ email addresses but this should only be used as a last resort.  Communicate with your colleagues too, especially if you notice you have a learner who is in danger of dropping out.  It may be that they have dealt with something similar and have some advice to share.
And what about you?  How have you been reaching your students so far?  If you have any lessons learned to share with your colleagues, do post them here:)