Catalyst: A Conversation Taskbook for English Language Learners

Just as ToD puts the banter back in the box, Catalyst is the spark that reignites classroom chatter. Both Catalyst, the book, and ToD, the game, employ a unique topic creation mechanism. With either resource the result is nearly instantaneous oral output in the language learning classroom, making for very efficient use of limited class time. Catalyst takes things further, leveraging that output for the acquisition of conversational tactics.

Catalyst Features In Brief

  • Eliminates teacher prep
  • Sets your school apart
  • Empowers students
  • Student-centered content
  • Neurally connects experience
  • Maximizes oral output
  • Maximizes retention
  • Enhances student recruitment
  • Built-In Topic Creation Mechanism
  • Tactical Targets
  • Built-In Review
  • Built-In Assessment

Catalyst comes in two flavours: Digital and Analogue

Digital Analogue

Catalyst is the first [and only] interactive, “multi-touch” iBook created expressly for ESL/EFL classrooms. Download a free sample iBook through iTunes:

Catalyst: A Conversation Taskbook for English Language Learners
Catalyst is also available in traditional paper, with a twist. This is a brandable, customizable version that is available for bulk purchase only. Schools looking for a unique resource that will empower their students and set their speaking or conversation classes apart from the offerings of competitors can stop looking. You’ve found it. You’ll be wanting to make contact next.

But Wait! There’s More!

Catalyst is designed for flexible deployment and can be used as a core textbook in conversation or speaking classes or as a supplementary text in units requiring a strong productive component. Catalyst is designed with the productive skills in mind. Oral output is buttressed with written journal exercises as part of a comprehensive strategy of “spaced repetition.”

Tactics? What Are they?

Tactics are highly idiomatic elements of communication like active listening techniques, signposting strategies, discourse markers, supportive backchannel gambits, tangent markers and a whole lot more. Acquisition of tactics empowers language learners with finesse and control that extends well beyond the classroom walls. Through a series of graded tasks students learn a variety of entrance and exit strategies, mastering the smooth segue along with the abrupt shift, interruption techniques along with the power to stave off intrusion, digression and the rebound, hedges, intensifiers, verification, afterthought and on and on. There are 46 graded Tactical Activities altogether.

Spaced Repetition? Far Out, Man!

Well, not that kind of spaced to be sure. Spaced repetition refers to a protocol whereby learning targets are reprised at regular intervals to maximize retention. Ideally, learning targets are reintroduced according to the 1:1:1:1 premise, that is, 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week and again 1 month after initial introduction. Spaced repetition is built into Catalyst. Follow-up journal assignments are a part of that overall pedagogical strategy, as are peer- and self-assessment, warm-up and follow-up activities and contextualized review targets. See the table below.

Spaced Repetition Principles as Deployed in Catalyst Taskbook
Timeline Activity
Task Introduced Full Class Focus
Task Enacted in Group Group Focus
Immediate Follow-Up Peer/Self Assessment
Reporting Phase

Reported Speech
Other Task Fulfillment
Near-Term Follow-Up Journal Assignments
Pre-Lesson Recap
Longer-Term Follow-Up Built-In Review Targets
Distant Follow-Up Journal Assessment

Assessment Built-In

Journal assignments figure prominently in the assessment process as well. In addition to this mode of instructor-centred assessment, most lessons contain opportunities for self- and peer-assessment with reflective-style debriefing a regular occurrence. In those programs that require grading, instructors will find it simple to use roll call to amass marks that can serve as the basis of grades.

You Mentioned a Topic Creation Mechanism?

One of the more daunting challenges of mounting a successful “English conversation” class is the difficulty of selecting topics that interest and engage students. Often a significant portion of class time is wasted on that messy little dance that instructors and students of such classes typically engage in while attempting to negotiate a topic for the day. That’s why many conversation classes aren’t. Instead the program fakes it by building ostensible opportunities for oral output into a grammar or functional-based syllabus. Rather than creating meaningful output on the fly students are, in essence, being tasked to mechanically crunch through thinly disguised drills.


In the Initialization and Output Phases of Catalyst students learn to leverage simple word associations to instantaneously access anecdotal or experiential kinds of oral output. That student-centred output is then tasked with the acquisition of tactical targets in the third and much more comprehensive phase.

Coming from cultures where structuralist drills and grammar-translation remain the norm, the students simply can’t tell the difference. In Catalyst, topics are generated on the fly by the students themselves with topic creation taking mere seconds. Being student-centred, topics resonate with students, fully engaging them. Being personalized, L2, the target language, is neurally connected to real-world experience. Moreover, the approach followed by Catalyst reduces nervous “Teacher Talk” while equalizing the contributions of gregarious and shy students.

No Prep? Imagine That!
Bluntly put, Catalyst is self-contained. With lesson plans, targets, review, assessment and topic creation built into Catalyst, instructors will have very little prep to do beyond understanding the lesson du jour. There may be a bit of a paradigm shift to overcome in some cases but from the point of view of teachers the advantages of little or no class prep should be obvious.

Admins Love It
From the point of view of administrators a number of dividends will become apparent as well. There will be less griping about unpaid prep time to contend with while teachers will have more time and energy to devote to actual teaching. The result of a more contented faculty will mean less upward pressure on wages or on the inclination to unionize or engage in job action.

But What About the Students?
Students benefit most of all from the Catalyst approach. Many students are actively seeking the kind of “tactical” English that the Catalyst Taskbook is built around. With course content that is wholly student-centred [and NOT dictated from the top down] students will find learning to be more relevant and effective. Since peer and incidental learning, the kinds of learning with demonstrably more staying power, figure prominently in Catalyst students will retain more and retain it longer. We’ve mentioned empowerment but students will also experience a broadening of expectations with both lateral thinking and empathetic responses enhanced.Since Catalyst puts students at the centre of the learning paradigm, expect less griping from that quarter as well. Instead, anticipate that word-of-mouth will have a positive impact on student recruitment.

Infographic depicting the relationship of Chatterbox and Truth or Dare for English Language Learners with Catalyst.

Catalyst Learning Paradigm

Infographic depicting the relationship of Chatterbox and Truth or Dare for English Language Learners with Catalyst.
ToD bridges the first and second phases with a strong emphasis on unbridled output. Chatterbox [unpublished] embraces the Output and Tactics Phases providing simple structure for practicing both on the fly.

Off label, Truth or Dare for English Language Learners is proving popular with admins who find the game to be a useful diversion for filling the gap between teacher call-in and the arrival of a substitute. Instead of a classroom full of fuming students the sub arrives to a class fully engaged in English conversation. Students themselves are reportedly borrowing it for party play on weekends. We suspect there’s more than a beer or two involved.


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