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?


‘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!

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:)

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