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 ( 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.


Man, it feels like I’ve been completely out of the loop for a year. I guess it looks that way too. I still exist, I swear. Sure, for most of 2014 I was subsumed by my dissertation (or at least its grey cloud looming over me), but I wasn’t completely lost to everything. I managed to become captivated by Serial (more posts on this later) and even binge-watched a few seasons of Downton Abbey (no posts on this later). What matters here in the present, however, is my annual rundown of reading that got to me this past year–proof I did actually read things other than Community of Inquiry research.

Adam Simpson’s EAP Infographics
1It would be horribly remiss of me not to give credit to Adam for his useful new EAP site. He combines relevant academic vocabulary with clear examples of usage and meaning in infographic animation form. I like this post in particular, Reporting what someone wrote, mostly because it was so directly relevant to academic writing my students were doing at the time. Plus, the simple volume of material Adam publishes is astounding.

Marek Kiczkowiak’s TEFL equity advocates
2When someone stands up for their beliefs, especially when they promote inclusion, tolerance and acceptance, I can’t help but applaud. On the same wavelength as individual posts here and there about the discrimination non-native English speaking teachers face in employment in our industry, Marek’s connected a number of advocates for the cause to combat this. In times where organisations sometimes hesitate to endorse yes/no positions, this one deserves better.

Russ Mayne’s E=MC Hammer
2I can freely admit that I often create lessons using my spidey-sense teacher intuition, which I justify based on years of classroom experience. While it sometimes works out, my year of camping in the research jungle edged me towards the evidence-based side of the tent. Russ’ blog includes so many discussion points for us as a group sometimes directed by well…less than sound beliefs. This is one of my favourites from the year because it directly relates to the plague of star-studded Facebook memes I see shared as though they are gospel, when in fact they are just bogus. It reflects our willingness to spread and accept misinformation at face value through social media. The stakes aren’t always as harmless as one might think. PS – you might want to check out Geoff Jordan’s post too.

Lindsay Clandfield’s Six Cool Tropes in ELT EdTech
4Continuing the ideology from Russ’ post, Lindsay lays six recent prominent (but tired) arguments about educational technology out there for what they are: plausible at first glance, wrong (at least partially) when actually considered.  Example: Young learners are digital natives. Teachers are digital immigrants. Uggh. I used to be the young learner in this argument in my youth. Now I’m on the other side and am appalled when someone younger than me thinks I’m naturally a luddite. Besides, I have a whole whack of students who can’t navigate Google docs intuitively, yet I can. :P Thank you, experience with and interest in the progression of technology.

Maria Konnikova’s (The New Yorker) I Don’t Want to Be Right
9Further to this critical thought, The New Yorker pulled this one out about why, despite mounting contrary evidence, we insist on upholding our beliefs. Here’s the kicker: “When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.” Hello! By the way, if you’re a Star Trek fan, I recommend this one, where an alien race decides to press charges of heresy against one of its scientists because his research contradicts their entire belief system.

Anthony Gaughan’s Where are all the unplugged teacher trainers?
5I don’t usually get pulled in by dogme posts. I’m not sure why. I think it’s probably on the same level as any discussion pointing heavily towards the virtues of any one approach/style/whatever, which tends to prickle the anti-extremist hairs on my arm. Anthony’s unique (to my knowledge) teacher training angle drew me in. It all made me wonder why dogme is dogme and not just teaching; why CALL is CALL and not just teaching; and what the appropriate readiness is for new teachers to attempt this teaching thing…

Mike Griffin’s Two quick (and cool?) location-based ideas ...
6Dear Mike - I could have included any number of your posts from the first half of this year including a guest post about conference presentations that kicks ass (but somehow to do so seemed wrong). You’re prolific. You’re entertaining. You’re appreciative. You have some of the longest post titles out there (rivaling you here). Much love, Tyson. Dear everyone else – Read his blog. For example, this quick post gives two easy-to-do classroom activities that utilise the room’s space for meaningful purpose. It made me think of how to make one part of my EAP classroom the i-can-say-anything-i-want-without-backing-it-up side and another part the i-have-to-make-claims-i-can-back-up-with-evidence area. PS – I didn’t get around to reading much in the second half of the year.

Writing for Research’s Academic citation practices need to be modernized
7Coming from someone with a fair amount of experience navigating the citation practices across a few disciplines, I’ve yelled at the minutiae included style guides. I know there’s a reason for everything, but as a mirror to much academic writing: it isn’t obvious.  It all seems far too needlessly complicated. This post nicely gives some reasons to update (e.g. the irrelevancy of publication cities, uggh…) and suggestions on how. Still, we have a ways to go.

Bored Panda’s 40 of the most powerful social issue ads…
8While ELT certainly is not on Bored Panda’s radar, this collection of very compelling advertisements brings attention to social issues that have seen their share of advertising campaigns, like racial profiling, deforestation and drunk driving. The difference here is so many in one place–many shocking, many with such effective clarity–raise my heart rate and make my brain race with urgency to share with students. Who says we should stay away from issues in language classrooms?

The round’s Academic Reading Circles by Tyson Seburn
10The one piece of writing that has had to take an unfortunate backseat all year to my dissertation is my inaugural ebook, which will be published by the round. This has been a long time coming (I’m thinking in TESOL France 2012 it all began!) and Lindsay’s been ever gracious with accommodating my delayed after delayed after delayed timelines. The one good thing about taking this time is that between its inception and now, I’ve learnt so much about process, I’ve seen my writing transform for the better (I hope) and have been inspired by posts like those above. Trust me, you’ll know when it’s done (before IATEFL?). Until then, you can get a taste from this, my favourite post of the year.

To all you other aspiring/inspiring ELT bloggers out there, my hat’s off to you for your work this year. I struggled to keep up. I look forward to rejoining our community in 2015.