Photocopier or No-to-copier

23 Aug

Is a step away from photocopiers a step forward? (Photocopier photo from net_efekt on Flickr)

Yes, this title is taken from Luke Meddings.  I recently saw his British Council Lecture, 20 steps to teaching unplugged (see the video at the end of this post).  In it, he advocated that we should be using texts which are short enough to dictate.

There’s really no need for photocopiers.  They cause so much trouble.

This sentiment is reflected in Tom Walton’s comments on his blog;

I never use the photocopier, the learners create, not merely consume — and especially they don’t consume photocopies!

For the last six months I’ve been working at a school that doesn’t have a photocopier.  I knew this was the case before arriving and actually looked forward to the challenge.  However, after six months I’m screaming for a photocopier that is close to hand with five minutes to go until the class starts.   In spite of this, I still feel that Luke Meddings and Tom Walton are correct.  However, this leaves me with a question.

Why do I really want a photocopier?

I’m going to take another nugget of wisdom out of Luke Meddings’s recent talk, referencing a business strategy called “The 5 Whys”.  The basic idea being to approach a problem with the question ‘Why?’ and keep asking that question until you have the underlying cause that needs a solution.

1. So, why do I feel uncomfortable without a photocopier?

Because I can’t make up worksheets or photocopy interesting articles that I read and want to share with my students.

2. Why do I think I need a photocopier for this?

Because it’s something I’ve always used, something I’m used to having and something that I’ve never really questioned the use of.

3. There are alternatives, why do I prefer a photocopier to these alternatives?

Picture from Giugiaro21 on Flickr

OHPs*, IWBs  and Projectors are useful if I have them but sometimes, even if I do have them, I just want to be able to get the text into the students’ hands quickly to get on with the activity.  In contrast to this, Luke Meddings talked about taking texts “at a slower pace” with learners and written resources.

Dictation** is a great activity which practises the learners’ listening, writing and spelling skills and gets them thinking faster if done regularly.  However, again, such work takes time away from other activities that I might want to cover with my students.  Again, a photocopier gets the text into the students’ hands quickly.

4.  Why is it important to give the text to the students quickly?

So that I can get on with the original activity.

5.  Do you think the students benefit from having this photocopy in their possession? (Yes, I know, I’m breaking the rule of it being a ‘why’ question.)

No.  I think a majority of the time texts are not exploited as much as they could be, learning opportunities are missed and photocopies are wasted on activities that would be of far more benefit to the learners if they had to make their own copies in their own writing.

I think this for a number of reasons:

a.  In today’s digital world, physical writing is getting less and less common yet I think that it is a skill we should be helping our learners keep or develop (depending on their age and schooling).  Especially among my teenage students at the moment, writing activities are not welcomed and writing of any kind is avoided wherever possible.  This being the case, it is important to make writing an integral part of as many activities as possible – they need the practice!

b.  I have seen too many photocopies left behind on the table at the end of class, stuffed carelessly into backpacks and pulled out as crumpled messes from backpacks to believe that those photocopies are getting any worthwhile attention outside of class.

c.  The action of writing something down is an action of memorization.  Giving out a photocopy is taking away this opportunity for processing and memorizing new language.

d.  A photocopy holds no worth to many students whereas a text written out in the students’ own hand provides at least some measure of ownership for the learner, regardless of the origin of the text.

Returning to the original question; why am I screaming for a photocopier?

Because it is an easy way out, I wouldn’t need to deal with resistance from my teenage students so often while I ‘force’ them to write.  It would be easier for me, but it deprives them.  By photocopying a whole text I’m also being a bit lazy as a teacher as it requires less thought from me as regards where the focus of my students’ reading is going to be.

So where do I think a photocopier is useful?

I disagree with Tom Walton’s ‘never ever’ stance in one area – longer texts for intensive reading or other academic reading skills necessary for EAP (English for Academic Purposes) or preparation for exams like IELTS or FCE.  It is impractical to dictate texts of up to 1000 words.  It is also unfair to simply display them via projectors, OHPs or IWBs – for various intensive reading activities the students need to have a physical copy, to underline or highlight and to read at their own pace without the pressure of having the majority of a class dictate when to move onto the next page.

Obviously the unplugged approach works from a communicative perspective but not all English language teaching/learning is focused on this skill and where communication is not the priority – a photocopier still comes in very useful.

* Regarding OHPs, click here to watch a great little video by Claire Spooner describing an activity for OHPs.

** For more information on dictation, click here to read Dave Dodgson’s explanation of a dictogloss activity.

Luke Medding’s 20 steps to teaching unplugged


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4 responses to “Photocopier or No-to-copier

  1. phil

    August 23, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Really interesting post Gordon.

    By the way, that’s a nice looking photocopier you have. Industrial if I’m not mistaken.

    I used to work at one place where I was the photocopy repair man when he couldn’t come cos the thing broke all the time BUT it wasn’t a problem with the machine it’s just that the average machine is only for a couple of copies not the 20 copy per 20 teachers every morning 5 mins B4 class. There are also the copyright laws to think about.

    If you add these 2 up you realise that we are not supposed to be copying at all!!!But we still want to cos we image students feel and look for educated if they leave with lots of paper. I even know people who retype whole pages to get round copyright which is mad. Then when you get into large quantities you have to order them from some man in the basement who delivers your 80 packs of 10 page copies BUT half the time they are not used or just left behind. All the money and time and paper for what? A couple of exercises and pictures. I think minimalism is best. I saw Sam McCarter say he only takes a reading text to a 2 hour exam prep class compared to the textbook, copies of workbooks, testbooks, online supplementary exercises, handout speaking roleplays, games and what ever else is copiable.

    In a nutshell, perhaps the best lessons emerge when the photocopier is broken but there is nothing to strike fear into the hearts of a language school like turning up in the morning to see ‘out of order’ on the control panel. when I was in London the photocopy die hards would even run round the corner to a papershop to get their copies done. Another bloke would use his local copy shop on his way home.


    • Gordon Scruton

      August 24, 2011 at 2:10 am

      Yeah, I think for the most part a photocopy is a crutch for many teachers. Certainly there is a place for the production of some materials (there are some handouts and exercises I’ve been very proud of, in fact) but, as you say, the loss of a photocopier strikes fear into many teachers and it requires confidence in yourself and your teaching to abandon that tool and carry on unphased.

      Is the use of a photocopier a necessary step in a teacher’s evolution? I’m throwing this one out there.

      Certainly when I was in training, it was a rewarding step for me to produce a piece of additional material that didn’t come from the book or supplementary materials. This built my confidence to move away from the book when I felt like it. Should we see photocopies as that intermediate step; between complete dependence on the coursebook and the ability to be independent of a coursebook? We are still handing out papers to the students (as most students tend to expect) but these handouts represent content chosen by us and more likely tailored to our specific classes.

      I’m not sure if I completely agree with my hypothesis but I thought I’d share it nonetheless.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. phil

    August 24, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Which is better or worse:

    Teachers spending hours copying random pages of different books
    Teachers spending hours cutting up photocopies and pasting them together to make a new page to photocopy

    There seem to be both these types of people in staff rooms but then there are also those who:

    Print of 10 page lessons from the net and copy every page
    Make their own ‘find someone who’ and print it off and copy it for everyone.

    We are addicted I think.

    On school used to maximise copies by making the text as small as possible, having double sided and almost microdots.

    Perhaps there should be an input session on the CELTA about unjamming a photocopier and how to do double sided stapled packs of copies too. Now that’s serious and you feel like a serious teacher when you give them out and then rub your back in agony.


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