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


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Teacher presence

‘We convince by our presence’  Walt Whitman

In face to face teaching, teacher presence is something we strive to attain and maintain.  It is a delicate balance between authority and approachability, knowledge and openness.  It is what makes students stop when we say stop and start when we say start.  It is a mixture of confidence, tone of voice, appearance, how we carry ourselves and how we interact with our learners and it doesn’t come to all trainee teachers straight away.  It is a persona that we develop throughout our careers that commands and shows respect but that is also true to our real selves.  We all have one and we are all different.

Presence in Absentia

Our presence seems to be totally dependent on our physical selves but we are now working in a new environment where we cannot be physically with our students but we would like them to behave as if we were.  We want them to be able to work on self access and collaborative tasks without having to give them explicit instructions each time.  Not all students are skilled or confident at this (or motivated!).  So how do we adapt our presence to support and guide them working in this new mode?

Face to face time

Emphasise the fact that the learners are engaging in a single learning journey that happens to have both face to face and online parts.


At the beginning of every class, share your observations of their performance online.  This doesn’t have to mean extensive corrections or reading online but look at the student progress report.  How are they getting on?  If they did well, say so.  Reward positive benaviour with recognition.   If they are stuggling, offer them an opportunity to ask questions.  When you’re learning in a group, it’s reassuring to know you’re in the same situation as others, either in the things you do well or the things you found difficult. Offer praise and support as needed.  ‘I notice everyone has done well in the grammar exercises online this week but the scores for the about you section later were lower.  Is there anything you’d like to ask me?’  Alternatively, you could put them in groups and ask them to come up with questions they would like to ask you about the work they did online.  Hopefully, they will be able to answer the questions for each other as well.  You may also need to ‘encourage’ students who haven’t done their blog activity for that week.  Remind them why they should be doing it.  Praise them if they have done it too.

Set up

Plan time at the end of your lessons to discuss the activities you want them to do.  Get them interested in them.  Explain the purpose of them i.e. what they consolidate from this class and what they prepare for the next class.  Try to avoid just giving them ‘leftovers’ that you don’t get to at the end of the lesson you planned.  They will perceive this as them doing your work for you and will make them unhappy about doing it, whereas if they perceive it as something you decided would be good for them, they may be a bit more keen!


Some teachers worry that they will have to spend forever looking at exercises online and reading and correcting blogs and forums but this is not the case.  By all means, check the reports and mention them in class.  Always know what they’ve done, or what they’re supposed to have done;)  Your presence online is apparent in where you respond.  No student expects you to interact with them individually on everything they say in a group activity in class so you can assume the same is true online.  Always look at everyone’s contributions and collect common mistakes relevant to what they are currently studying and perhaps deal with those in class.  You don’t need to respond to everyone every week though.  You can respond to a discussion thread, mentioning an idea you agree with or inviting someone to comment.  Comment on one or two blogs.  Keep a note of who you’ve responded to by name so you can be democratic about it and vary it each time.  The idea is mainly so that your students know you’re there, even if you are not ‘looking directly at’ them.  They know your presence.

If you have any other tips or tricks for asserting your presence online, do let us know!

Blending for beginners

‘I’m really a scientist. I follow recipes exactly – until I decide not to. And then I’ll follow something else exactly. I may decide I could turn this peach tart into a plum tart, but if I’m following a recipe, I follow it exactly.’  Ina Garten

So, we’ve got all the ingredients.  We’ve got teachers with great ideas and lots of classroom experience.  We’ve got a pedagogically sound product to help students learn English online.  We have classrooms and students have access to internet computers.  Now what?  Where’s the recipe for us to follow?

Unfortunately, there is no perfect recipe for us all.  We’ve all been in the situation where we have 2 classes of the same level but we can’t prepare the same thing for both because we know that some activities that are roaring successes with one class can be total disaster with the other, and vice versa.  Any collection of individuals of different ages, life stages, personal situations, goals, moods, preferences will have its own unique set of values and reactions that we as teachers have to address every day so a one-recipe-fits-all approach won’t work.

But all is not lost.  There are some basics to think about when embarking on Blended Learning.

1.Know your learners. 

What do they want? What do they need?  How do they learn best?  How do they not learn?  How much time do they have outside of class?  Use this knowledge to decide what and how much to focus on with them.

2. Be clear on your learning objectives. 

What will the learners be able to do by the end of the lesson or the end of the time they spend on a unit?  Are these appropriate to your learners?  Do your learners have their own objectives for each session?  Use your objectives to inform your decisions about what work to focus on most.

3. Class time is prime time.

Being in class is not just time to ‘get through’ the material but your chance to focus on what your learners need most, whether that’s interaction or grammar or writing skills.  Use the online work to sufficiently prepare students for prime time work so they get the most out of it and make sure they consolidate the language and skills when they work online afterwards.

4. Online work is not just ‘homework.’

Students feel that homework is just practice of what they’ve done in class or finishing off something there wasn’t time to do in class.  Learning happens online too and this needs to be planned to make sure you are asking students to do the right preparation or consolidation activities for them personally and for the activities you have planned for class time.

5. Blend the learning. 

Students shouldn’t feel that they are engaging in two different learning experiences.  They should feel they are participating in two aspects of one experience.  Link up the two sides by by having logical links from one into the other.  This needs to be planned.  Set up online activities in class.  Refer to them afterwards in class.  Congratulate learners on a job well done or encourage further exploration e.g. of an idea under discussion in a forum.  If you’ve checked your student progress scores and have decided to do some extra work on the present perfect, explain this to them.  Let them ask you questions about it.

6. Train your learners. 

Our students all have facebook accounts and share photos and blog and tweet and send emails and instant messages so it won’t take them long to figure out what buttons to press to make things happen in the LMS.  They probably won’t be so quick to pick up how to use the material online in the way that’s most effective for them.  You will need to show them how to manage their time, to self edit and evaluate, to identify and work on their own areas of weakness, to make useful records of language…and the list goes on…  Spend time at the beginnning of the course raising their awareness of these issues and challenge them to come up with their own solutions.  Revisit these ideas throughout the course too so they don’t lose momentum.

That’s probably enough to get you started.  So while there’s no specific recipe necessarily, there are some ingredients you can’t do without.  How do the points above match up with your experience so far.  What do you think you’ll put into practice straight away?  Do let us know…

Tricky wiki?

‘Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very;” your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.’  Mark Twain

But who is the writer and who is the editor?  We all know about Wikipedia, where anybody can write anything about anything as long as they can back it up or change anything other people have said, i.e everyone is a writer and everyone is an editor and re-writer.  I’ve heard that if you put a mistake on aWikipedia page it takes less than a minute for someone else to notice the mistake and correct it but there are millions of people using Wikipedia and only about 25 in your class.  How can you use the principles that power the Wikipedia phenomenon with your students and what might be the point?

How does the wicourse tools menuki work in the Cambridge LMS?

Go to your Course Home page and look at the Course Tools menu on the left hand side where you’ll see the link to the wiki. Follow this link to see the wiki introductory page.  You’ll see some instructions on how to get started.  Next click Edit to get writing and editing.  The teacher can do this or the students can do it.  Watch this short video to see what the various headings mean.


What’s the point?

Unlike the other Web 2.0 tools, activities in the wiki are not pre-set and are not prepared quietly and privately in the main content so on the one hand it’s a bit more work for the teacher to prepare but on the other, it can be used to provide a change of pace or as a review activity for salient language points or to provide some good practice of Process Writing.  You can use it to train your learners to keep records of what they’re learning e.g. a class vocabulary notebook, or to share resources they used for a project or exam practice.

As a collaborative writing tool, there is a lot of potential for building skills like self and peer correction, text organisation, logical sequencing and writing descriptively.  Take for example an activity where you post the skeleton of a story I found on Nik Peachey’s blog:

A girl had two sisters.  They didn’t like her.  A Prince had a party.  The sisters went to the party but the girl had to stay at home.  Later, the girl went to the party.  She met the Prince. The girl lost a shoe. The Prince fell in love with her.  He used the shoe to find her.  The sisters weren’t happy.

I’m sure you recognise the story:)  This is a very short version of it.  A lot of the details are missing.  There are no adjectives and the sentences are short.  There are several activities you can make out of this.  Students can add adjectives and relative clauses to make the story more engaging.  They could use conjunctions to link the sentences.  They could develop each sentence into a paragraph by adding more details.  On Nik Peachey’s blog, he talks about telling the story from the perspective of different characters (and has lots more ideas).  Any student can change the story and even change the ending if they want.

But why do this on a wiki?  Students can change the details or correct eachother’s mistakes or build on the ideas of their classmates by writing and editing.  As teacher you can post a question within the story to prompt students to write a bit more or to keep them on track.  Or you could highlight a word or sentence and ask ‘is this the right word here?’  to prompt a student to fix a mistake without you having to do it.  This will help make your presence felt while the students are working.  You could do similar things with exam preparation writing tasks.  Have students collaboratively build out an essay from a skeleton as practice for the essay they hand in later for individual marking and feedback.  The possibilities are endless.

Has anyone tried doing anything like this before?  Tell us about it.  What do you think are the implications for marking and assessment?  How can we do this without creating lots of work for ourselves?  Let us know what you think.  If you’d like me to go into more detail on how any of these activities work, let me know and I will elaborate on preparation steps and assessment.  If not, give the story activity a go and let us know how you get on.

Good luck!

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?

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!