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?


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…

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:)

Oh no, not grammar!

‘I am the Roman Emperor, and am above grammar.’ Emperor Sigismund

Yeah right!  Nobody’s above grammar – even the Emperor’s sentence is grammatically correct.  There are people out there who don’t get on with grammar, either because they don’t like the idea of rules or they don’t get it at all so they need to learn languages differently but often it’s because they think it’s boring…but it doesn’t have to be.

You’ll notice that in Touchstone Online there are no long grammatical tables of verb conjugations with spellings and tenses that send our students to sleep.  Instead, every grammar point is raised within a specific context so the language point is grounded in some kind of communicative purpose i.e. to furnish the students with the language they need to talk about about a particular topic or get a particular thing done.  This makes the language so much more memorable for the learners especially as in the discussions using that language, they get to talk about their own personal experiences.  So far so good.

I’ve learned a number of other languages and I always feel my heart sinking when my teacher presents me with a long table of nouns and verbs and then reads it to me.  I know that no matter how dedicated a grammar nerd I am, by the time the teacher gets half way through the table I will be doing my shopping list in my head and not listening to a word.  So I really feel for our students.  Contextualisation, making it ‘real’ and applying it to situations they might actually encounter and even enjoy (gasp!) is the key to making your grammar lesson successful.

And that’s what the Touchstone Online grammar videos do.  The truth is that the grammar is being taught all the way from the beginning of the lesson.  The grammar is there in the very first example sentences when it is not highlighted.  It is there in the Figure it Out section when the students are asked to do a sentence structure exercise without any explanation (but with the help of a reading text) and again in more Figure it Out work where they are asked to think a little harder about the structure with a bit less help, again without an explanation.  So by the time they come to look at the Flash video with the explanation, the grammar is not being explained to them but should be confirming what they have hypothesised throughout the earlier part of the lesson.  This then leads on to lots of lovely practice where they get to put it into use in fun personalised ways.  The key difference between the two approaches is that the students make the rules and the course confirms their suspicions rather than going in cold and being told stuff.

So what does this mean for you?  Lots of teachers have asked me whether they can use these videos in class instead of doing grammar presentation.  It depends largely on how you want to use it.  If you want to teach them the present perfect so you show them the video on the Present Perfect and then ask them to do exercises then the answer is definitely ‘no’.  The students will like the interface and the fact that it’s high tech but other than that there is no difference from reading out a grammar table.  If you have set up the context and done lots of figuring it out activities, you could potentially use it as a summary of the rules they have already discerned for themselves.  Use this judiciously however as it is easy to look lazy if you are always putting on videos and the students will eventually bore of this too.  Use it occasionally to bring some variety into the classroom but don’t rely on it.  It’s best to let the students use it themselves at home so you can do a game to review it in class and place a heavier emphasis on either the communicative activities or specific skills or problem areas so you really maximise their time with you.

Have fun!

Using your voice

‘The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.’ Sigmund Freud

The voice is important in language learning for obvious reasons.  We use it to express what we are thinking and feeling, to show we have understood and to communicate.  Training our voices in this context is to work on speaking skills, active listening skills and pronunciation.  But how can this be done online when we are usually at home working alone?

Working alone is the ultimate safety zone.  We have nobody looking over our shoulder to see what we’re doing so it doesn’t matter if we make mistakes or how many times we have to try something before we get it right.  This is great but we do at some point need to make ourselves heard by other people.  At various points in the Touchstone Online course, you’ll find About You sections.  These sections invite the students to personalise the language they are learning by applying it to their own situations and lives.  These sections allow students to listen to a pre-recorded question and record their answer, listen to it and try again until they’re happy with it.  Because no-one else can hear these recordings, this is a very safe environment for them to practice in.  There are similar activities in the content where students can even listen to a pre-recorded version of the sentence so they can compare their pronunciation.  The activities within the content are not saved and recordings cannot be accessed once the learner has navigated away from the page.

After all that practice, students should now be ready to communicate with their class.  In the Web 2.0 area of the course, you will find the Voice Tools.  Instructions for using them are in the video below.  What’s nice about the voice tools is that students can respond to eachother.  They have some time to think about their response and how to say it before they try recording it too.  Conversing in this way does not come naturally to most students so you will need to train them a little on how to use the tool, but not just about which buttons to press.

You will need to assign tasks to get students to do this and make sure they know it’s part of the coursework.  Ask them to answer the question and respond to 2 other students’ answers.  Afterwards in class you can ask them if they found many similar answers to theirs or which was the most common answer, i.e. highlighting things they have in common as individuals and helping them gel as a group.  This will also lead you on to expressing things in common (‘me too/neither’ etc).  The advantage to you is that you have better visibility into the level of ability and confidence in the group.  You may have some students who always stop talking as monitor them in pairwork but you may not have the time to stop and encourage them as you have to consider the rest of the class as well.  The Voice Tools allow you to monitor everyone and check on students you’re concerned about.

This is starting to sound like a lot of marking and correction work, right?  Maybe.  If you try to correct every mistake that every student makes, it will take you forever.  A more sane approach would be to check that everyone has done the exercise listen out for common mistakes or examples of excellence and use these to feed back to the group in the following lesson.  Speak to any students who haven’t attempted the exercise as they may be falling behind, having trouble with the technology or might not be taking it seriously.

Try the task mentioned above and see how your students respond.  Do they like it?  Do they find it useful?  Do you find the insight you get useful and very importantly, what are you going to do with that insight?  How do you think you could bring in some peer assessment into this activity?

Video: Using your voice


‘No one can cheat you out of ultimate success but yourself.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Assessment plays an important role in the Touchstone Blended Learner’s experience.  As with any other course of study it is used to establish students’ level of knowledge and ability before and after study, to review material and to teach.

Take this activity for example.  The learner is asked to listen to a conversation to answer the questions.  To help her, the audio script and a glossary are available, the students can check her answers and try again.  To many teachers, this might seem like we are providing ways for the students to cheat.  However, we are not really interested in how they get the exercise done but that they attempt it and what they get out of it.

The exercise is a type of assessment but it is not a test.  It is designed to give someone a chance to try and figure something out (the question), receive feedback on their performance (‘Check’) and try again (‘Start Again’), this time attempting to reconcile their prior understanding with the answers they are given.  In this way students are given the opportunity to learn.  This is called formative* assessment, whereby the assessment is used as a tool for learning and is part of a process.  End of term tests or a placement test are summative* assessments.  They are events at a given time in the academic year at which the student must prove their knowledge to the teacher.  This is a part of the same process but does not contribute to it in the same way.

In the Touchstone Blended Online programme, there is plenty of summative assessment in the form of Reviews, Overviews and Tests as well as the extra practice provided in the workbook.  These can be hidden and then made visible for a specified period to minimize information sharing between students, if that is a concern.  Tests can only be attempted once.

Formative assessment is a bit more subtle, especially with many students’ assumptions about the way they learn and how they are evaluated.  Many students think they should get the best marks possible on each activity and move on, which can often lead to superficial engagement with the material.  It is our job as teachers to train them to take best advantage of the resources available.  In the example above, students have 3 legitimate options to use the exercise:

  1. Listen, do exercise, check script, close script, listen again, revise answers, click Check, listen again, revise answers, check and submit
  2. Listen and read script at the same time.  Do exercise.  Listen and read again.  Check answers. Revise answers. Check and submit
  3. Read question, look up vocabulary in glossary, imagine conversation, listen, do exercise, check script or check answers, revise answers, check and submit.

All of the above demonstrate good learning strategies of self evaluation and self correction and will develop listening skills to some degree.  Number 2 has a focus on pronunciation, not unlike the voice recording exercises in the About You activities.  All of them rely on using the other tools at their disposal in order to successfully complete the task.  Try giving your students these 3 options and ask them to try the exercises in this way.  Afterwards, discuss which option they preferred and why.  See how well they remember the information the following week and discuss which is the most effective for learning.  This way you are not only training them to be more independent but also to use the resources more responsibly and not view them as simple ‘cheats’.  Some students will still not engage of course but it is important to train the ones who will try and give them the tools to start teaching themselves.

Try out these three options and comment on the results here.  What worked best for your students?  What do you think is the difference in learning between the 3 options?

See posts on motivation for more ideas.


*Formative – helping someone grow or learn

*Summative – summarizing someone’s current position