Tag Archives: Learner Autonomy

Collaborative writing with Google Docs… AKA, Students producing something worthwhile with their English

Google DocsI feel quite proud that I’ve cracked this one.  For a while I’ve been trying to figure out how to use the fact that my students, all teenagers, seem to spend most of their free time on the computer.  I’m not putting them down for it, I’m the same way (though I can’t wait for an iPhone that will allow to get out of the house with the Internet – is that a sign of addiction?)

Google Docs has provided a fantastic resource that some of my students have embraced with gusto and the best thing about it is that it is getting them reading, thinking, writing and reflecting in English – a bunch of things that teenagers are not known for liking.

So what did I do?

As with all projects, we need a deadline to work to.

First of all, I made all this work voluntary.  I told the students that if they wanted to work on this that was their choice but that it wasn’t compulsory.

Basically I identified a couple of big translation challenges that the students could get their teeth sunk into.  This included a Wikipedia page as well as a tourism brochure for the local cathedral.  In the first case, the Spanish Wikipedia article (I’m down in Argentina) was 10 times the size of the English one.  As for the brochure, there was no English translation for non-Spanish speaking tourists.

The “carrot” in both cases is certificates that will be signed by me, the director of my school and a 3rd person, likely a local official, acknowledging this work as helping to improve the town’s international profile for tourism (an industry they are trying to build here).

I took the files, the text from Wikipedia (both Spanish and English) and the brochure and uploaded them to Google Docs (two separate files for two separate projects).  Then I shared the file with all of my students and let them get on with it.  I set rules for them and a deadline – in this case they have until the end of August to work on this.

If the students don’t have a Google account, that’s not a problem…

So what problems/challenges have I encountered?

Hotmail.  Nearly none of the 60 or so students I’ve invited to work on these

projects have Google accounts; they all have Hotmail account and the reason for that is that they don’t even use email, it is all for MSN Instant Messenger and that’s it.  I suppose that email is irrelevant to them at this stage in their lives.  Either that or I am, in my late 20s, already a relic of a generation that still holds on to email as something useful (but that’s another thought for another post for another blog).

The students can use their existing email accounts to get a free Google account.

I had to spend time with each class going through how they could set up a Google account with their Hotmail accounts.  Not a difficult process but we did hit some bumps on the way – all part of the learning process.

So how has it gone so far?

Strangely enough, and I think there is a lot to be learned from this, the first group that I tried Google Docs with has been, without a doubt, the most enthusiastic.  I think the reason for this is that I took things slowly with them as I was unsure of what I was doing and was learning with them.  With subsequent classes I obviously skipped over steps that I, as a learner, no longer needed but they obviously did – bad Gordon, bad!  I’m not talking about a lack of technical understanding but more a lack of handholding at the beginning and baby steps towards familiarity and confidence in the process.

Bearing in mind that this project was given a week before winter vacations and classes don’t start back until next week I’m quite pleased with the results so far.  Both projects have about 60-70 students invited to work on it; one project has at least 6 contributors at the moment, the other has 16.  For teenagers on vacation doing a voluntary translation project, I count that as a win!

So why is Google Docs so brilliant?

I’m going to just list this part.  For more information, check out the video below from Commoncraft.

  1. It gets rid of multiple copies of the same document.  The document exists online and everyone edits the same document online.
  2. It auto-saves every 20 seconds.
  3. It saves every iteration of the document so if someone deletes the whole thing by mistake (or intentionally) then nothing is lost.
  4. It shows who has edited what.

So why is Google Docs so brilliant pedagogically?

I’m going to list this part as well as give you a small look at one of the examples that my students worked on last month.

  1. It encourages peer-assessment.  The students have to read through what their classmates have written and consider whether it is good, needs to be corrected or can be improved.
  2. It encourages peer-reading and peer-correction.  It is the students’ job to not only contribute their own material but fix or improve their peers’ contributions.  This has the added benefit of improving confidence among the students who might not feel comfortable physically crossing out peers’ work.
  3. It encourages reflection.  If a student sees their work has been changed by another student, then it provokes the first student to ask themselves, “Is that a valid correction?  Should I change it back?  Is there an even better way I can write it?”
  4. It encourages learner autonomy and ownership.  While a collaborative effort, this method can produce pages and pages of learner-generated content.  It blows me away, it really does.
  5. It encourages repetition.  Since students should be adding and correcting a document throughout the whole week, other students must keep going back to check on their own work and to see where they can improve other peers’ work.
  6. It allows the teacher to be less intrusive in observing the collaborative writing and re-drafting process, while at the same time being able to clearly see who is working in what area and what problems they might be having.
  7. If a mistake is missed by a whole class after they’ve had a week to review it, it becomes glaringly obvious to the teacher that there is a combined gap in the group knowledge that should be worked on in class.

Here’s a screencap video using Jing which I hope will demonstrate a lot of what I’m talking about.  Many apologies about the feedback with the audio – hope it doesn’t put you off!

Setting up and sharing a Google Doc

So how will I improve this exercise in the future?

I’ll let you know once these projects are finished. 😉


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Translation in Class, part 2… AKA, Translation v2.0

In my previous post, I explained the almost unmitigated disaster that was my first attempt to do a translation exercise with a monolingual teenage group of around B2/C1 ability (according to the CEFR).  This was my 2nd attempt at the activity.

So what did I change?

Well a lot actually.  First of all, and this might be cheating, I changed the class.  I tried this with a younger group of B1 students.  I also started off by explaining all the steps of what we were going to do so that the learners would not be left bored wondering “Why am I doing this?

We started with a free-writing exercise with a bit of variation.  I suggested the topic of ‘English’ (whether it was English-speaking music, movies, classes, teachers, etc. was up to the students) but I made it clear that if they wanted to write about a different topic they were welcome to.  The main variation of this writing was that it had to be in L1, in this case Spanish.  I put two provisos; all writing for this class should be double-spaced and it was very important that handwriting was as legible as possible.

After this I had something like 12 pieces of writing in L1.  I then put the students into groups of 2 or 3 and gave them one piece of writing – not their own – to translate into English.

While I did have an L1/L2 dictionary ready what I set up was much better – the help board!  On the whiteboard I had two columns, ‘Spanish’ and ‘English’.  If a word or phrase came up that the learners couldn’t translate, they had to put it up on the board, leave a space in their translation and wait for other members of the class to write up the translation if they could.  I would use the dictionary to check these translations if necessary or if the whole class was drawing a blank.

Why did I take this approach?

Well, after my first attempt I felt that I needed a more forgiving crowd than the apathetic, older teenage crowd that v1.0 had failed with.

The free-writing was a way of easing the students into an exercise that they might otherwise have been resistant to.  Trying to get teenagers to do writing at all is a challenge but doing writing in a foreign language is usually seen as too much like hard work (“es un viaje” as my Argentinian students are wont to say).  The L1 writing also produced texts to work on that were at least moderately interesting for the learners.

Group work for 'dry' exercises like translation is probably a must.

By putting the students into groups I made this a group learning exercise.  On this point I would like to draw your attention to a talk that Sir Ken Robinson gave about changing educational paradigms (See the whole seminar at the bottom of this post, here’s the link for the specific section of the seminar relevant to what I’m talking about).  We learn and work together in the real world so why is it so important that we work separately in the classroom or even in the tests?

The teacher-centred benefit for the students working in groups is that once a group had finished one translation I could give them another one and it would give me time during the lesson to review and correct their collaborative translation effort.  This was also aided by the ‘help board’, which meant that I was not the first person to go to as soon as the learners hit a barrier.  This wasn’t immediately successful as a lot of the students aren’t entirely sure what to do when they are given autonomy but at least by the end of the class they had thankfully stopped asking permission to get up and write something on the board.  Baby steps. 🙂

By holding back the dictionaries this also forced collaboration and got the students to recognize each other as fountains of information.  This is a bigger problem I’m trying to overcome… how many times have you been asked the same question two, three even four times because the students aren’t listening to each other, don’t listen to the question and therefore don’t register that they are listening (or not) to an answer they themselves are about to ask for.

So where will this not work?

Well obviously this approach depends on a common L1 among the learners so those of you with multi-lingual L1 classes will have to come up with something different.  For some ideas you should look at Ceri Jones’s article, a second look at translation, which focuses translation exercises in multi-lingual groups.

So what went wrong?

Very little really.  Due to the fact that this was the first time I was doing this, I made myself a little more available to the students than I would have liked but everyone needs training wheels when they start something new.  Having more free time would have allowed me to look at what they are producing in more detail but once we’ve done this a few more times we should get a little faster at it and that might allow time at the end to review various phrases, grammar, etc.

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Posted by on July 12, 2011 in Activities, Reflections


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Pizza with my Students

When are we all going to go out for pizza?

This was the question from all of my advanced students almost from Day 1.  Teenagers are persistent and after three months I was eventually worn down to saying ‘yes’  a couple of weeks ago.

And what a revelation!  In the hour and a half (the length of a class) I probably got more English out of them and more of their stories than I had in the last month of classes.  Comfort really is the key (affective filters and all that) but it also helped – not hindered – that the conversations were switching from L1 to L2 depending on which part of the table I was in conversation with.  I placed myself strategically at the middle of the table so as to be accessible to all and then I simply let the conversation happen.

So now I have a conundrum – where does and should L1 fit into a conversation class for a homo-linguistic group of B2/C1 English speakers?  Everyone, including the teacher it must be said, enjoyed this forum of communication far more than the classroom.  Instead of me actively monitoring them, they were checking themselves and asking me for clarification or correction.  If I wasn’t part of one end of the table’s conversation then it would slip back to L1 (as we would naturally expect) but this meant that the conversation continued and nobody got bored and, most importantly, the periods of English conversation during that dinner probably had more value and were of more interest to the learners than a great majority of discussion we’ve had in class.

So this brings about an interesting point for dogmeists – environment and space.  Working around emergent language and a conversation-driven syllabus is great and can be rewarding and sometimes very successful, but how easy is it for our learners (and the teacher for that matter) to handle this approach, a departure from traditional methodology, while still surrounded by the four traditional walls of the classroom.  Here I am considering the hidden curriculum of space and a thought-provoking post that Willy Cardoso wrote a few months ago.

Can I move every class to the pizza parlour?  No – I don’t think my school would cover the cost of all that food!  Would it be a good idea to do this regularly?  Yes.  Would it be a good idea to do it frequently?  Probably not – I feel you get less out of special occasions when they are not special.  Can this ‘success’ be moved back into the classroom without the pizza?  I don’t know.

Thoughts, suggestions, ideas?



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Websites to Get Your Students onto Immediately!

Recently I did a guest post on Alan Tait’s excellent blog about various favourite websites of mine.  This has started something much bigger – I’m still going through my unsorted bookmarks!*  As I go through and sort out my many bookmarks, I try to post the really good stuff on this blog so keep coming back for more great links!

Anyway this all got me thinking about websites for students.  We talk about learner autonomy all the time and one area where students can quickly enjoy autonomy is the Internet.  So here are a few suggestions about websites to introduce to your students as quickly as possible.  Websites that will challenge, engage and entertain them.

One important thing – all of these websites have one thing in common.  What they offer is bitesize and doesn’t take any more than 10 minutes.  I’ve made 6 suggestions here so I’d suggest that introducing these would make for a very rewarding first hour of class with a new group of students – their homework: go and do two of them at home and report back tomorrow.

Lyrics Trainings

I’ve posted about this already on Alan’s blog and here on my own.  Recently, one of students has started contributing to the site!  Enough said I think.

As Catherine Walker has mentioned in a couple of her seminars (British Council, London, 2010; IATEFL, Brighton, 2011), coming up with explanations of grammar rules and examples for the various uses of specific words on the spot is very difficult, nigh on impossible for even an experienced teacher.  I’m a great proponent of inductive grammar learning and to this end I’m trying to introduce the British National Corpus to as many of my students as possible.

As with all things, this won’t be embraced by all students but a simple little exercise like “Look up “if” and “whether” and let’s discuss the patterns of use in the next class”, will give you a little more time to check up on your grammar and, more importantly, may also empower one or two students to figure it out for themselves and feel the satisfaction of teaching their peers.  Often the students will also have other ways of explaining it that might be more effective than the teacher’s.  Many hands make light work!

Phrase Mix

Again, this is another site I mentioned on Alan’s blog.  Get the students on to this site as quickly as possible and this may give you an interesting discussion topic as a warmer for each and every class you have with them.

6 Minute English

A BBC gem with a glossary of specific words and an active listening question.  Simplicity and autonomy wrapped up in one little bundle.  Brilliant.

Quizcon (100 Most Common English Words)

This doesn’t have much communicative value (unless you use it in class) but at the very least it can challenge your learners and get them to focus on words they should be seeing and using in their every-day English.

Free Rice

It’s strangely addictive and while the learning might be very passive, it is certainly better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.  I remember showing this at the beginning of a class once; I caught one of the students playing it on his iPhone a couple of times over the next hour!  There are much worse distractions if you ask me.

*Small Request

Can anybody help?  As far as I know, there isn’t yet an unobtrusive program or application for me to store and neatly arrange everything I’ve bookmarked over the months and years.  I’m sorry but I just don’t like the look/interface of I’m using Xmarks Synchronizer to keep all my bookmarks together over my various browsers but if anyone knows of a better way to do this, please comment below!

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Posted by on June 14, 2011 in Recommendations


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A video explanation of my ‘1000 Words & Phrases’ challenge

You might have already read my recent post about a sponsored event I am arranging to raise money for charity at the moment.  Well, after spending a few hours recording and cutting this little video about it, I thought it would be stupid to share it on only one of my blogs.


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Posted by on June 10, 2011 in Activities


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My Personal 1000-word Challenge: For Charity and Inspiration

I recently posted an article on my learners’ blog about learning vocabulary.  It reminded me of how I learned vocabulary for a Spanish course at university.  I thought it quite effective and I’ve got to say that as much as I enjoy the communicative approach, I certainly recognize the need for basic, almost ugly memorization when it comes to language learning and acquisition.

So what was I thinking and what was my motivation?

Yep... I wasn't a perfect student!

Well at the moment I’m in Argentina for a year.  This is not the first time I’ve lived in a Spanish-speaking country as I was in Mexico back in 2007-08.  Mexico really helped my communicative skills and finally put my vocabulary to good use.  I failed one of the Spanish modules at university, I’m sorry to say, because I had it in my head that I could simply learn lists of vocabulary and in that way I would be learning Spanish.  The results of my first exam soon set me straight there!

But now I’m in Argentina and I think my communicative skills have caught up and surpassed my vocabulary knowledge.  So I want to return to a little bit of cold, hard vocabulary work.

Of course, now I think I understand the language learning process a lot better (well at least I should do, I’m a English language teacher!) but I was curious to see how effective such memorization really is and whether I should be encouraging it in my learners more than I do.

So what am I doing?

Well, I thought back to the “30 words a day” that were required of us by the Intensive Beginners Course I took.  Could I do that again?  I like lists, I like crossing things off lists and, as far as I remember, I enjoyed the process of vocabulary memorization (no pun intended).

Okay then, I’ll try it again.

Then I thought, should I keep it to myself?  Obviously not, I’m a blogger, it’s simply not in my blood!  I think my students would like to know that I am making an effort to improve in their native tongue.  As far as they know, I have little to no Spanish.  That approach works well if you don’t want them depending on your abilities in their language but after a while, I think a teacher who doesn’t start learning the native language runs the risk of losing their potential as a role model;

“Learning a language is really difficult – my teacher lives in this country and he’s learned almost nothing!  What chance do I have?”

Okay then.  So I’ll tell my students about it.

So what do I hope my students will get from this?

There is a rather long list of things here, the main one being inspiration.  I hope that my efforts will show my students and really all the students in my school what is possible with a little bit of effort and hard work – this is an issue for these learners as they are mostly children and teenagers.

In the process of collecting 1000 words and phrases I am asking the students, whether they are in my classes or not, to help me.  They can email me or they can leave a note with a piece of Spanish and its English translation.  This way, I hope I am focussing a lot of the students on their own vocabulary.

I am asking for as many phrases as possible as I want the students to move away from a word-by-word translation which they might not yet realize doesn’t really work.  So raising awareness of language chunks is another potential benefit.

A lot of the students I’ve talked to believe that I will need an hour or more every day to learn 1000 words in 30 days.  I hope that my success (fingers crossed) will show them that less is more and that a little studying a few times a day will help them to improve enormously.  They won’t need to study and study and study for dreaded tests and the lessons and even the exams will all be much easier and perhaps even more rewarding.

Okay, I know the last one there is dream… but I can still hope.

So how does this help charity?

I’m going to be sponsored by the students – at least I hope I am.  The financial sponsoring of a person to do something for charity is a big thing in Britain (I’ve run races, worn silly clothes and had ponytails cut off to this end) but apparently it is not so much the culture down here in Argentina.  I need to explain the concept to a lot of students who are suspicious of charity that involves money and not objects.  Oh well, it’s just another aspect of their inter-cultural education.

Going on a per-correct-word basis we hope that we can raise money and awareness of a local branch of a national charity, Fundación Conin, that helps malnourished children and pregnant mothers in this area of Argentina.  Never do something for free when you can do it for charity instead!

Anyway, wish me luck!  It’s day five right now, 830 words to go. 😀

If you’ve read this far, please retweet or mention this in your blog or on Facebook.  Maybe we can start a trend of sponsored language learning challenges!  In fact I’ll go further than that, if anyone wants to join me in a similar endeavour you can comment on this blog or get the word out with the hashtag #ELLchar.

I’ll endeavour to keep you updated on how I do.  See you on the other side,



Posted by on June 5, 2011 in Activities


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The Never-Ending Sentence (a.k.a. Cheddar Gorge)

Why the game is called Cheddar Gorge, no one knows.

I’m sure most of us have done this activity in class and it is certainly not original but it is fun, there are lots of possible variations and I want to share something I did with my classes this week which really seemed to work quite well – yes, this might be the first time I’m posting about a positive classroom experience!  Don’t worry, I’m sure I can find something in the activity that can be improved. 😉

So this is inspired by the I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue game, Cheddar Gorge.

Part 1

Put the students under the clock!

The students get into groups of four or five.  One student is nominated as a “writer” for the activity.  The class is then given 5 minutes, timed.  The objective is for each student to contribute a word to the sentence and the aim is to make the longest sentence possible without it finishing.  While the speakers are contributing words to the sentence, the writer is recording the sentence on paper.

Example of spoken dialogue:

  1. Amelia:  We
  2. Barry:  are
  3. Carlos:  all
  4. Deanna:  very
  5. Amelia:  happy
  6. Barry:  and…

You get the idea.

Part 2 (My numbers refer to the corresponding slides)

2.  After the five minutes are up, the students have a couple of minutes to review what they said and make any corrections to spelling or word choice (they have probably already been doing this during the original five minutes already).  They also have to do a word count.  Meanwhile, the teacher writes this up a table on the board.

3.  The teacher then gets the word counts from all the teams (I’ve put A, B and C, you could engage the learners more by getting them to make up their own team names).  After this, the students have to pass around their written sentence to another group.  With another team’s sentence they can get more points by finding errors.  I am quite open with what makes a mistake and this can include handwriting if the students are having problems reading it (this is an issue that learners need to be aware of just like any other).

So now the learners have all their points though you could get them to pass the writing round again for a second ‘proof-read’ by another group.

4.  For every error they found in other groups’ sentences they get 5 points.

5.  For every error they made in their own sentence they get 5 points off.

6.  Once they have gone through all of these, the teacher reads out each sentence to the class.  Any extra errors that the teacher finds will get deducted from final score.

Part 3

Once the students get the idea they then play the game again.  The 2nd round scores will be added to the 1st round (so teams have a lead to protect or have another chance to gain the lead).  This time you will notice that the learners are far more focused on not making mistakes that will hurt their points later.

So Why Did I Do It?

I’ll be honest, I initially thought of it as a fun little activity for the end of a class and mostly as a time-filler more than anything else but after seeing the reaction and studying the activity while it was happening I noticed that it can be so much more than that.

Students are involved in a highly communicative exercise where, after getting to grips with the activity, they quickly negotiate meaning and peer-correct as they “cheat” and help each other out.  The person who is writing soon understands that poor handwriting will lead to poor marks (illegible handwriting will lose points) and this helps put them in the same sort of mindset they need to various exams, like Cambridge ones.  Self-correction also improves as the students are eager not to lose and give away points for silly mistakes.

For the teacher this is a wonderful way to see what errors are being missed by all the students and therefore what correction will be of universal value.  For the other errors that are caught by the learners themselves, the students become each other’s teachers.

This is a wonderful activity and I highly recommend it.  It can be tailored be about a specific topic or to include specific vocabulary and right off the bat it forces increased use of relative clauses.

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Posted by on June 2, 2011 in Activities


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