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?

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:)

New Directions

‘You cannot look in a new direction by looking harder in the same direction.’  Edison

I actually borrowed this quote from Michael Peluse who is the Managing Director, Cambridge ELT who was talking about how we all need to change as our environment changes.  He was talking about publishing as we enter the digital age but it applies just as well to how teaching and learning has to adapt as the landscape of new materials, ways of working and communicating change all around us.  It requires us not only to adapt to a new way of thinking but to develop the ability to adapt to constantly changing needs and demands of our learners and their sponsors, be they parents or employers.  Books and materials change.  Activities change.  Relationships change.

So, whether you’re teaching with Touchstone or any other online or blended learning product, you may need a bit of inspiration from time to time so here are just a few of the great resources that are out there to help you.  If you have any favourites of your own, do tell us!

Resources for Teachers

Teaching Online: A new skill set by Dewar and Whittington

An academic article on exactly this theme   Written in 2000, the article is quite ‘old’ but the notion of developing new skills for a changing environment still holds true.

An old favourite – the BBC’s Teaching English site.  This link is to a blog post on the kinds of skills that have been identified in online teachers.  Can you see where you are on the pyramid?

The full pyramid is represented here:

A similar theme is explored by Nicky Hockly in her post and subsequent discussion linking face to face and online teaching skills

The on teaching online blog is a bit more about the bigger picture of teaching online so moving away from individual interactions and thinking about creating a course framework or assessment strategy around the materials you are using.

Resource for Learners

And finally, a little something for the most important people in the process, our learners. 7 tips for developing online learning skills

So it seems there are plenty of us going in this new direction.  Let’s keep in touch!