Language teaching at a distance: establishing key principles to develop professional practice

Author: Linda Murphy


What skills, knowledge and attributes do distance language teachers need? How do these differ from classroom teaching? Although the requirements for teaching a range of subjects at a distance and for classroom language teaching have been examined, few studies explore the nature of the distance language teachers role, despite increasing numbers of distance language teaching programmes. Although researchers have emphasised the importance of the tutor in distance learning, the tutors voice is undervalued. This paper reports on a research project to articulate and recognise the skills, knowledge and attributes deployed by distance language teachers in order to enhance professional development.

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Table of contents

Conference 2006

This paper was originally presented at our conference: Crossing frontiers: languages and the international dimension, 6-7 July 2006. Download print version: this paper is also available as a pdf (129Kb)


Growth in distance learning programmes has been fuelled by recent developments in e-learning and rapid technological change. A measure of the increase in distance language learning in the UK can be seen in the way in which demand for The Open Universitys (OU) courses in French, German and Spanish has grown. In just over a decade, since they were first offered, numbers have increased to around 7000 students per year.

Most distance education providers employ tutors (often on a part-time basis) to support learners as they study, to assess their work and give feedback on progress (Mishra, 2005: 147). In the case of languages, these tutors are likely to have gained their experience and teaching skills by working in classroom environments. Although an institution may deliver support for learners through a variety of people and resources, as Lentell (2003: 69) points out, the tutor is key, a regular point of contact for the learner who helps them learn by mediating the course materials. But, the generic tutor support role has received relatively little attention (Tait, A., 2000: 287) and subject specific roles do not feature in the research literature at all.

The focus of this paper is on the skills, attributes and knowledge required by language tutors working in distance education and the extent to which they differ from those required for classroom language teaching. The context of this work-in-progress is an international, collaborative project between academics based in The Open University (UK) and Massey University, New Zealand, which began in 2004 and aims: to articulate the skills, attributes and knowledge required by tutors for effective distance language teaching; to understand the nature of expert professional practice in distance language teaching and to develop effective support for the professional development of distance language tutors based on research findings.

The knowledge, skills and attributes required by both distance and face-to-face language teachers depend on the roles which they are expected to undertake. In distance education, tutors are part of a support network comprising three basic functions: cognitive support and development through mediation of the course materials and learning resources for individual students; affective support in developing a positive learning environment fostering commitment and self-esteem, and systemic support through administrative procedures and information management systems which are effective, transparent and student-friendly (Tait, A. 2000: 289). Mishra (2005: 147-8) notes that distance tutors usually perform cognitive functions, but in many institutions, such as the OU (UK), they perform affective functions and a knowledge of institutional systems is also crucial. The project team is investigating whether there are substantive differences in the knowledge, skills and attributes required to perform these support functions in distance language teaching, or whether differences are more a matter of emphasis and interpretation in the different teaching environments.

The Research Project


The project team has adopted an exploratory-interpretative approach (Grotjahn, 1987: 59-60) in that it is non-experimental, produces largely, but not exclusively, qualitative data and uses interpretative analysis. The team have also adopted a flexible approach in an unfolding research design (White et al., 2005) to allow opportunities for consultation, reflection and responsive changes, while acting in a principled manner to make each step in the process explicit (Borg, 2006: 8).

Research questions

  • What do distance language tutors see as essential skills, attributes and knowledge for their role?
  • What differences do tutors perceive in their practice as distance language tutors as compared with their experience in other face-to-face teaching contexts?

Methods of investigation


This paper reports on work-in-progress on one aspect of a wider project concerned with understanding the distance language tutors experience. The initial phases have involved tutors in the Department of Languages at the OU (UK) which was set up in 1992. It offers distance language courses in French, German and Spanish from beginners to graduate level and a degree in Modern Language Studies. The courses follow a well-established open and distance learning model of supported self-study with specially designed course books as their core, audio and video materials, now gradually being replaced by interactive DVD-ROMs, and other supplementary materials. Each student is assigned a personal tutor. The OU language tutors role is to facilitate students study of the course and involves tuition, assessment and support.

Data Collection and analysis

Phase 1: Language tutors from one OU (UK) region were invited to participate in one of three workshops as part of a staff development day in 2004. Participants were self-selected (n=19) and included tutors of all three languages and all levels. In the workshops they were asked to consider what they felt to be the knowledge, skills and attitudes required to fulfil their role, using individual and group techniques.

Eight broad categories were identified: desirable qualities; pedagogical expertise; subject matter expertise; IT skills; one-to-one interactive support skills; self-management; group support and management and professional skills and responsibilities. Each category contained a number of sub-items.

Phase 2: Tutors in the same region were asked to reflect on the importance of the statements via a questionnaire. The yoked subject technique (White, 1994) was used whereby tutors were asked to imagine they were talking to a new tutor about the attributes and expertise which are important in distance language tutoring. Participants selected up to ten statements from the classification (generated previously) which they considered particularly important and elaborated explanations of each as if they were talking to the hypothetical novice tutor. At the same time, they were invited to comment on the statements and suggest amendments. The data from the questionnaires (n=17) were analysed by a numerical summary with ranking of the items selected as most important, and by constant comparison analysis.

Closer examination indicated that the data appeared to represent tutors implicit theories of tutoring, the principles underpinning their personal view of what constitutes good distance language tutoring, referred to by Richards (1998: 53-4) as teacher maxims. Further constant comparison analysis was carried out in order to identify maxims represented in the data.

Phase 3: The results of the analysis so far were presented to three groups of tutors in the same region, in order to provide an opportunity for discussion and critical reflection on the statements and maxims. Many of the participants (n=20) had been involved in the previous phases of the project. The discussions were recorded, transcribed and analysed by identification of key themes relating to the language tutors role and evidence of further maxims.

Phase 4: Data collection had so far been confined to language tutors working in one region of the OU (UK). To check that the perceptions and experience of tutors in this region were representative, tutors in eight other regions were invited to examine the statements and complete a questionnaire in the same way as participants in phase 2. The responses (n=31) were analysed in a similar way to those gathered in Phase 2.

Phase 5: In order to examine tutor perceptions in more depth, four semi-structured interviews have been recorded with experienced OU tutors of French who teach in both distance and face-to-face environments. More interviews are planned, including tutors of German and Spanish. The interviews are based on the statements in Table 1, generated through the first two phases of the project. The interviews explore the tutors view of any differences in practice between environments, their perceptions of how they have developed their practice and effective approaches to professional development.

Findings and discussion

What do distance language tutors see as essential skills, attributes and knowledge for their role?

Table 1 shows the essential skills, attributes and knowledge generated by OU tutors, as derived and refined through the processes described above. New items suggested in phase 4 are shown in italics. Items in bold were selected by 10 or more tutors as most important in the surveys (phase 2 and 4 combined, n=48). The tutor commentaries on the selected statements convey their strength of feeling about individual items, but also highlight how difficult tutors found choosing between them, as much because they felt all were important as because areas of potential overlap remained.

Table 1: Essential skills, attributes and knowledge for distance language teaching

Desirable qualities

Open minded
Respecting individuals
Encouraging and supportive

Multicultural awareness, empathy

Pedagogical expertise: be able to

Give examples
Offer useful language models
Exploit material for students benefit
Take account of different learning styles
Encourage students to locate and use resources in their environment
Adapt flexibly to needs that may arise
Differentiate/cater for a variety of needs
Assist development of pronunciation
Use coaching/mentoring skills
Manage groups flexibly/ with variety
Respond to developments in methodology

Subject matter expertise

Understand how students acquire grammar
Provide appropriate help with grammar
Be up-to-date with cultural/linguistic development of target language countries
Have native or near-native speaker competency

Be aware of linguistic diversity in target language
Have knowledge of the countries and cultures where language is spoken

IT skills

Have basic computer literacy skills
Use web resources for communication and information between individual, institution and learner
Use e-mail (First Class) for communication with learners and institution
Use text/audio conferencing

Optimize/integrate on-line learning with other support
Be aware of relevant resources

One-to-one interactive support skills

Establish a friendly atmosphere
Understand what the students require
Adapt to students language levels
Provide unambiguous, individualised, and prompt feedback using language at the appropriate level
In feedback give specific advice/e.g.s

Provide appropriate support
Understand learners needs/strengths
Spot problems students may be hiding
Treat as individuals, cater for needs
Offer extra support where necessary
Know your students
Listen first before speaking
Reassure students
Make students feel they matter and are not on their own
Have respect for individual backgrounds
Be honest in your feedback
Keep in touch regularly
Acknowledge feelings

Self management

Be well organised with records/materials
Respond promptly
Sort out problems quickly

Exercise discipline in time keeping
Be willing to seek advice from colleagues

Group support and management

Establish a friendly and communicative atmosphere
Allow space for students to think/talk
Explain mistakes clearly in a non-threatening manner
Design tutorial activities where student involvement predominates
Put students in contact with each other if desired

Professional skills and responsibilities

Know the course materials well
Receive/respond appropriately to students feedback on all aspects of tuition
Advise students on what they can do locally to improve their learning experience
Help/facilitate/inform about self-directed learning

Judge when to refer a problem on to other support services
Get students to review their ways of learning as appropriate
Know what is expected from students for assignments/exams and tell them
Share good practice

Meet colleagues whenever possible to reduce isolation
Know organisational procedures well

In the discussion of this set of statements in phase 3, the significant themes to emerge were the teacher-learner relationship; working with adult, self-directed learners; the significance of tutor support functions as opposed to teaching; contrasts with classroom language teaching (with which all were familiar prior to joining the OU) and the impact of teaching languages rather than another discipline (or rather, their perception of other disciplines).

Four maxims, or underpinning beliefs, were identified from phase 2 data: empowerment, appropriateness, honesty, and openness (White et al., 2005), and a fifth, humility, was identified in phase 3. Tutor maxims can provide a framework of values within which to construct a professional profile for the distance language teacher derived from the skills and knowledge identified in Table 1.The yoked subject procedure proved to be a particularly rich means of identifying key qualities, and how they relate to practice. The importance of qualities such as enthusiasm, approachability and encouragement was stressed in virtually all the reflective responses from tutors.

What differences do tutors perceive in their practice as distance language tutors as compared with their experience in other face-to-face contexts?

In the descriptive explanations for new tutors provided in phases 2 and 4 of the project, tutors made a variety of references to the differences from classroom practice that these novices would encounter and they explained how items took on greater or different significance in a distance context. For example, in relation to the items respond promptly and sort out problems quickly one tutor explained how important this can be because contact is less frequent. In selecting the item design tutorial activities so that student involvement predominates, a tutor identified what she saw as an important difference, we are not so much teachers as facilitators. The teaching has been done in the course book. Tutors were very conscious of the fact that they are not teaching new language forms as they would be in a face-to-face context, but rather providing opportunities for students to practise and use what they have already studied.

The most obvious difference between the two teaching environments is, of course, that distance tutors may never actually meet students in person. A number of tutors referred to this and the skills and attributes this necessitates. Tutors clearly try to help students overcome their potential isolation, but the isolation of distance language tutors compared with the position of teachers working in face-to-face institutions was also highlighted in some of the explanations.

The discussion in phase 3 and in-depth interviews carried out in phase 5 encouraged tutors to identify differences in practice in classroom/distance teaching environments. They have confirmed the key differences identified in tutors descriptive explanations (phases 2 and 4) and elaborated on them. In relation to overcoming student isolation from both the tutor and from fellow students, for example, they highlighted the need to articulate non-verbal communication and interpret unseen reactions rather than making assumptions or taking things for granted. Light-hearted or tongue-in-cheek comments can badly misfire without the supporting facial expressions or gestures and no matter how often you repeat a sound, a student may just not understand how to produce it. Distance tutors have to provide students with a range of strategies which they can use to develop their pronunciation, or other language skills, on their own, rather than deciding to set up some relevant group activities as she might do with a class. Explicit articulation of advice and examples in feedback on assignments was also felt to be an important skill. It was pointed out that the lack of casual contact between students or with a tutor in corridors and coffee bars means that tutors have to be skilled in maintaining regular contact between assignments or tutorials, perhaps via group emails.

Throughout the interviews, it was clear that empathy with the distance learner was crucial. Interviewees particularly emphasised the skills needed to fulfil the affective support function of their role and the ways they have had to adapt classroom skills developed to fulfil the traditional cognitive support function.


In identifying knowledge, skills and attributes which they perceive as essential for their role, distance language tutors have highlighted the significance of affective support functions in particular, due to the isolation of the student and the absence of non-verbal communication channels. This situation has impacted on their cognitive support functions, causing them to re-think how they deliver explanations of language points or pronunciation or intonation patterns or how they comment on performance.

As indicated at the start, this project is on-going. Apart from carrying out further interviews with tutors in the UK and in other linguistic and cultural contexts, interviews with line managers and course writers remain to be analysed and a study of the learner perspective is planned. These latter studies will enable the project team to examine the degree of consensus between stakeholders in distance language teaching/learning and contribute to the overall goal: a profile of the distance language tutor and the values which support effective practice.


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