Eyes on the Prize

‘To get where you want to be
You have to set a goal
And keep your eyes on the prize’

Bob Dylan

Simple, isn’t it?  Or is it…

There are 2 sides to motivating learners to work independently.  One is through assessment and the other is through engagement with the process and outcomes (the prize).  Let’s look at establishing the prize.

Working with learning portfolios, learners need to set goals, fill the portfolio with task output (e.g. voice recordings or pieces of writing) that prove by the end of the semester that they have achieved those goals.  We don’t have to adopt portfolios to borrow a little from portfolio philosophy to help us establish the prize for our learners.

There are different sets of prizes – long, short and medium term rewards.  Spend time getting to know your learners’ final aspirations for their careers or travel or social lives.  Get them to write down how having (some) English will help them work towards attaining those things.

Long term goals are life oriented – better jobs, the ability to chat up people they like on holiday:), understanding their favourite music, film or literature more profoundly.  Medium term goals can be a bit more strategic, such as passing the year end exams, getting to the next level, staying in the same group as their friends when they all pass. These can also refer to fluency and skills work, the ability to do something more accurately/fluently. Short term goals can be based around individual language points as well as subskills, e.g. skim reading articles quickly to find out if they are relevant or not.

What to do?

goalsSet some time aside at the beginning of the semester to identify and write down their long term and medium term goals.  Once they have done this individually, you can ask them to discuss in small groups and then as a a class to establish the priorities for the group.  You can use the more general version of the CEFR can do statements for this if you like.  Take a note of this and make a ‘Mission Statement’ for the class.  You could get them to do this as a negotiation activity if their level is high enough.  At mid point through the semester, you should do some mid-way counselling to see how well they feel the course is going.  Refer to the mission statement.  Do you and they feel they are moving in the right direction?  Have the group’s priorities changed since the beginning?  In which case, do you want to change the statement?

For shorter term goals, ask the students to complete the more CEFR can do statements at the beginning of the semester.  You may need to do this in the students’ L1 as they can be quite difficult to understand at first.  When you ask them to do this, don’t give them a binary decision for their response. i.e. not yes or no but more like ‘I can do this easily’, ‘I can do this well,’ ‘I can do this but I don’t feel very confident yet,’ I can do this with difficulty,’ ‘I can’t do this at all.’  This way you give them a graded progression through to full competence with a particular skill or language point.

Refer to these regularly and ask the students to consider which of the can-do statements have been addressed since the last time they looked.  Get them to reassess themselves on the relevant statements.  If they have made no progress, ask them why. Try and recycle this language point in your classes or give them back up work to do at home on the LMS.

Importantly, you should always highlight the link between the short term prize and how it helps work towards the longer term prizes.  After you do this for a while, they will start to think about this for themselves.  Rather than telling them, you can ask them:  ‘so, how does this fit in to our mission statement/long term goals.’  They may not get it straight away but persevere and it will help them keep their eyes on the prize and you can use this to help get them interested in completing activities they may otherwise not be very excited about.

Have you done any of this before?  How did it go?  Give it a try and let us know!

For more information on portfolios, have a look at the following links:

European Language Portfolio (ELP)

British Councill article on portfolios for language

How to create a portfolio with Evernote

The Consultants-E list of resources for portfolios


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 dcijffers@cambridge.org – 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!


‘Mistakes are the portals of discovery’  James Joyce

In Touchstone Blended Learning, students’ mistakes are ‘exposed’ in several ways.  Most obviously, you’ll be able to see and hear their mistakes in the classroom.  In addition you’ll be able to use Student Progress in Teacher Reports from your home page and their posts in the Web 2.0 tools in the LMS.

So really, there is nowhere for their mistakes to hide but what discoveries can we make from all of this?  In Student Progress, it is possible to see your student’s results from each individual activity.  You don’t see their mistakes per se but you see the score.  The fact that you can’t see the mistake is not important.  When you see that a student has a low score, hover over the Learning Outcome and it will show you what the purpose of the exercise was.  This will inform how you plan subsequent lessons as well as help you advise the student on the best course of action for them to take to improve.

When we write or speak in another language there are different kind of mistakes we produce.  Mistakes of distraction happen when we’re rushing or not paying enough attention to what we’re doing.  Mistakes of lack of understanding happen when we don’t know the rules or the words.  Both are useful for the learning and teaching process.  If your learners are making inconsistent mistakes around a point of grammar for example that show that they do not understand what they have done in class, you can either direct them to the supplementary resources in the LMS or ask them to do the relevant section of the online course or plan a review into your next class.

If it is clear to you that your students understand the rules but are making mistakes here and there, this is your chance to institute some self correction measures.  Give them a short form like the self evaluation example here to prompt them to review their work and train them to do this every time before they post something or hand something in.  Alternatively, you can ask them to use the same form to evaluate a partner’s work and train them to give constructive diplomatic feedback.  In this way, the discovery is not so much seeing that they have made a mistake but realise that they can correct themselves and make decisions about what they need to study next and what they need to review again.

All this is sounding like a lot of work.  Don’t forget that not every mistake needs to be corrected and that this can be counterproductive as students may lose confidence and end up demotivated.  If in class you focussed on the present perfect, then when correcting or reviewing work, focus on the present perfect.  If you looked at the organisation of a text, then focus on students’ organisation and don’t worry about spelling and punctuation.  In this way you will be able to more clearly evaluate your students’ learning lesson by lesson and give them positive feedback and more specific suggestions for improvement.  It will also save you a lot of time!

It is true that we learn from our mistakes, as well as those of others, but we can also learn from what we do well.  Highlight this in class.  While it is tempting to always look at mistakes as areas of potential improvement, it’s also important to recognise achievement to help boost confidence and a sense of ‘being able to do this.’

Try this with your learners and let us know how they respond.

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