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:)