English is crazy? Grammar police? I look at both concepts with a similar disbelief. If you do too, this post may not be for you. You’re the choir, so to speak, but feel free to read along with a collective nod. That kind of agreement comes up again a little later in this post.

In one part of my life, I get emails or Facebook shares with funny language tidbits which, to anyone but teachers, indeed make English look stupid. See this famous vocabulary poem and this pronunciation poem as examples. Harmless, but not as funny as they might think.

Elsewhere, near these poetic forays into our language landscape comes a seedier claim: there is one correct unchanging version of our language. You don’t see that claim so clearly stated out loud, but it’s evident when the self-proclaimed language police quickly (selectively) point out broken rules. Doing so suggests a belief that shifts in usage occur at a distance, not within our lifetimes, as though everything that conflicts with ‘hard and fast’ language rules are temporary, bastardized, or both.

Is it? Grammar police in misguided action.

The truth of the matter is that somewhere above a basic foundational use distinguishing English from gibberish (though check out old English or middle English sometime), the rest of our neat rules are up for grabs. Change may be gradual (e.g. colonial power struggles, loan words) or quite abrupt (e.g.social media crossovers). Marek Kiczkowiak points out that had early definitions persisted, some common expressions would involve entirely different meanings now. I’ll be bizarre in the face of language purists by suggesting that correctness should be dependant on the agreement of a majority who use it in a particular context, not a stubborn minority who teach it or cherish a childhood rule. To borrow a phrase coined by Stephen Colbert (though mockingly), there is a wikiality to our language in these times of connectedness.

Yes, there are examples of carelessness that irk me too: would of instead of would have; your instead of you’re; and others like them. Rationally considered, however, a few start to persuade me of their value. For example, I’ve noticed a marked increase in the deletion of apostrophes in social media texts. Initially I cringed, but youre is the product of efficiency. Would it be so terrible if those pesky apostrophes simply became part of the past? Then the idiocy of the it’s/its rule would disappear too. That cant be bad… Then there’s that reductive because + noun. If it can be named word of the year, who am I to resist?

I’m not arguing we throw complete caution to the wind and abandon everything that helps learners be able to communicate, but as language teachers, our challenge comes in accepting that what we think we know is actually not so absolute. We must face the available evidence (check out Google’s nGram Viewer, various corpora, or just the world around us really) and recognise our expertise involves flexibility. Otherwise, we become irrelevant records of the past.

PS – Having said all this, I still want to maintain linguistic differences between Canada and the States. Read more here.

PPS – For your interest, if you haven’t seen this dandy 10-minute animation, check it out. It’s not comprehensive, but gives a useful glimpse.

PPPS – Believe it or not, Anna Loseva, this is a terribly failed attempt at #paragraphblogging. I’ll try again next time.


Google docs works well to model the writing process with EAP students, who are navigating the expectations and mechanics of an undergrad research paper.

The assignment

Suppose you’ve given an assignment to your students with the steps something like these:

  1. Basic exploratory research
  2. Narrow focus and create research question(s).
  3. Research, organise and outline
  4. Annotate bibliography
  5. Draft paper & revise

Naturally, class time is spent explaining instructions, understanding readings, and working on language appropriate for introducing argument, supporting with evidence and the like. Individual feedback, if time permits, may touch on grammar, clarity and academic style. All this is wonderful, but regardless, I’ve realised students struggle with time management, know the writing process in theory only, and lack exposure to desired final products. They crave exemplars: they want something to compare themselves to before submitting; they need to see the real writing process in action. This gap between theory and practice led me to experiment with showing my students how I write; I did so through Google docs, particularly focusing on the transition from Step 4 to 5 (above).

In this assignment, Toronto was the very broad topic all students began with in Step 1. They narrowed this down to individual topics through Steps 2-3 and by Step 4, had a working understanding of topical background information, an argument to prove, and a general sense of the direction their paper was heading.

I did everything too

I did the assignment alongside them on my own focussed topic: bike lanes in downtown Toronto. Until this point, however, their access to my version was limited to class presentations explaining instructions clearly and activities practising relevant language: not good enough. So I uploaded my exemplar annotated bibliography and began a new shared Google doc, where I’d demonstrate how to write an introduction section from writing already completed in Step 4.

If you’re looking at the second link from above, you’ll see on Page 1 just a review of existing information from Step 4 (first link). On Page 2, you’ll see the bulk of my writing process, where I’ve revised these two paragraphs to lead to my thesis as an introductory section of the final paper. On Page 3, you’ll see the final product, colour coded to relate lessons from class to the introduction I composed here.

Let’s look more closely at Page 2 though, to see exactly how Google docs is magical for modeling my process to students.

Suggesting mode & revision history as process

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Google docs currently has three viewing modes: Editing (approved users can make changes that automatically update the document), Suggesting (approved users can make changes that appear similarly to “track changes” in Microsoft word i.e. different coloured text appears for edits made, strikethrough text for deletions, etc.), Viewing (approved users can only see, but not edit, the document at its current state). Through Suggesting mode, students are able to see all my edits to rework the original paragraphs into an introduction with my thesis. This affords a visual to emphasise the first draft is not where things end.

The two green arrows above indicate a second useful feature here: revision history. By choosing this option from the File menu tab, the right sidebar appears with many dates in chronological order. Clicking on one of these dates highlights the exact change made to the document. You can see from above that on October 23 at 12:28, I made the changes that appear in green on the document. Other changes are greyed out. This feature enables students to see these revisions as an actual process over a series of days and times instead of in one sitting.

Audio comments to explain process

These features alone prove Google docs’ utility, but students could only see what I had revised, not why I had done so: not good enough. I decided to highlight each change I’d made and explain why I did so using audio comment.

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The purple arrows indicate the Commenting function. When you highlight text within a Google doc, you can leave users a comment by pressing that icon. This results in the sidebar boxes on the right where you can have threaded conversations about the highlighted text. Clicking on any of these comments highlights this text. While explaining through written text could suffice, reading explanations while reading the text itself could be reading exhaustion. So I used a simple online recording tool, Vocaroo, to provide audio links of these explanations for students. You can hear an example Vocaroo link mentioned in the first comment on the Google doc itself or by clicking on the play button here:

(Aside: Yes, it lacks some enthusiastic, but I was aiming for clarity above entertainment.Normally I’m sound more interesting. I swear.)

Yes, there are apps/plugins that you can add to Google docs, like Kazeina, that also allow audio comments, but the learning curve was something I wanted to avoid, while keeping the interaction as intuitive for students as possible.

Going forward into the next term’s research project, I’ve elected to try this throughout all steps and encourage students to write their papers on Google docs so we can engage with their writing in real-time over a longer duration.

So there you have it. With 1 point from the last post, now it’s Google docs 2, pen & paper 0. ;)

If interested and you can get something from static slides, I recently led a session about this assignment at #realize15.


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NB: Let me preface this post by saying if you have never touched a Google doc before, you may want to watch a quick Youtube tutorial on the subject first, like this. You won’t regret it.

My first workshop of the year is coming up at the #realize15 forum on January 23-24. In this session, I’ll be talking about a blended EAP research project I did with students this past fall. In this second iteration of the assignment this year, I added more of a digital component through Google Drive, which I more heavily use with each new term. The basic functions have remained constant, but like with many everyday situations, the infamous ‘teacher eye’ continues to find stronger and more collaborative ways to incorporate Google Drive functions into the classroom. This leads me to the next few posts on its functions for course purposes, partially in support of my #realize15 session, partly just because I like to persuade people to use it. Today’s topic: Google Docs for in-class collaboration.

The traditional context

Very often in writing courses, some form of collaborative writing occurs. Probably one of these scenarios sounds familiar:

  • Build a story: one student writes a few lines. That gets passed to another who adds to it and so on.
  • Peer editing: one student finishes a piece of writing in class. The paper gets passed to a partner, who gives feedback in one form or another on it. Then it’s passed back.
  • Board examples: you choose a few students to go up to the board to put their sample sentences on for feedback.

I’m sure there are more. In each case, however, obvious limitations occur: the number of students who can give feedback to a piece of writing; the number of students who can be at the board at the same time; the temporary nature of board work; your ability to monitor student writing closely enough while walking through the classrooom; etc. etc. This led me to wishing there were another way to do these types of shared writing tasks.

Google docs with colleagues

Oddly, I have been using Google Docs as a shared document tool with my colleagues to plan our weekly syllabus and take notes at course meetings for several years. I’ve even shared information with workshop attendees using it. Though I’d never really cowritten anything substantial with a colleague,  a colleague of mine who teaches our first-year History credit course, Alexandra Guerson, often writes papers with a partner in different time zones. With this mounting familiarity in Google Docs, the leap to use with students for in-class collaborative writing was natural (and somewhat of a -why did’t I do this before- facepalm moment).

Written feedback in class

One day before class, I asked students to bring their laptops to class (NB: this room had accessible wifi and a projector–pretty essential for maximised functionality). We were reading a short text with academic reading circles and learning how to respond to questions with short answers (SAQ)–those exam-type comprehension questions that require several cohesive sentences and evidence from a text, like mini-essay body paragraphs.

LB0228-001We began traditionally, by answering an SAQ individually with pen and paper. Upon completion, they exchanged with a partner who cluttered up their paper with little bits of pen/pencil scratches and questions in tiny print, aimed to be squeezed into the small blank spaces available. Once returned, each student took feedback and rewrote their answers on a new paper, sometimes whispering a question to their partners to clarify meaning or simply decipher the scribbles written feedback. I asked three to put their answers on the board (this is the definite max who can write on the board simultaneously) while others were finishing. Even though these students had already finished a second draft of their answer based on peer feedback, they still took their time, laboriously staring at the board, then erasing parts of their answer, then rewriting. All in all, this process probably took 10 minutes longer than I intended. Most other students finished. They waited, checking their phones. We then worked on the board answers together; I elicited errors from the crowd; I corrected in different coloured chalk all with the resounding permanence of being erased one fell swoop of my board eraser. Gone into oblivion (and perhaps a few photos taken by students who prefer not to write things down as we go).

Round 2: students use Google docs

For the second round of practice answers, I shared the link (bit.ly/020_conlin) to a Google Doc where I allowed anyone to edit anonymously if desired. On it was only the photo and I began typing the question and instructions in front of their eyes:

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Next, I asked students to type their answers as they were writing them into the space provided below it. To their amusement, they began seeing a few answers appearing on the screens before them, followed by heads turning around the room to see whom it was typing. After a few minutes of big eyes and little giggles, they were composing their answers above or below another. It was magical to watch 15 answers simultaneously appearing. I took this opportunity to add further instructions and my own answer to the document.

Once all students were completed, I projected the Google Doc on the screen and showed them the next instructions. It was time to give feedback to each other based on shading categories we previously used (…when despite my best sales pitch, not everyone had highlighters):

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First, I demonstrated on one answer. Then, I assigned each a classmate’s answer (NB: for this, they had to tell me if I’d given them their own since no one’s was clearly identified). Their goal was to read and highlight a classmate’s issues in these colours on the Google Doc. Colours began appearing all over the document like rigid horizontal brushstrokes! More whispering and giggling.  Here, they started to see how their answer was being mysteriously highlighted as they watched. Remember, because it was in anonymous mode, only students who had logged into their Google account on their own were identifiable at this point–a surprisingly effective way to overcome the initial fear of publicly sharing one’s writing. One answer looked like this, for example:

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The final step of this peer feedback was commentary and more specific editing. For this, I changed the Google Doc into “Suggesting” mode (very similar functionality to Microsoft Word’s Track Changes). I demonstrated on one answer that when reading an answer it’s valuable to give specific feedback through comments, asking for clarification or giving suggestions. I made a few edits to a paragraph–missing punctuation, incorrectly spelled word, etc–to show how the edits would appear in the document until resolved by the user. This time, I put students into partners to coedit an answer together. The result was fascinating. Students were drawn into this activity, giving loads of feedback (NB: sometimes justly, other times they were wrong too–a skill that improved slowly over time). Paragraphs became colour artwork like this:

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Once every last comment had been given, everyone looked with focussed attention at the feedback their answers had been given, accompanied by laughter and the occasional light-hearted accusation of injustice. We went back up the page to look at my sample answer, analysed it for strengths, and ended with new homework instructions to compare their answers to mine, consider the feedback they’d been given and resolve it (select to accept the changes or not) and revise to a second draft answer in a new Google doc they’d create and share with me.

Google docs = 1; pen and paper = 0

Using Google Docs for effective feedback is not an exact science, but the point was for students to become familiar with its functionality, appreciate what it can do more efficiently than with pen/paper/blackboard, and keep a permanent record of what we’d done in class together.

In a forthcoming post, I’ll talk about using Google Docs revision history and comments to demonstrate writing process and give feedback directly to students in real-time.

Click here to see the entire Google Doc discussed in this post.