Tag Archives: Reading

Photocopier or No-to-copier

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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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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Reading Finnegans Wake – A Guide to Student Thinking

Obviously, if you want to get a better idea of what is going through your students’ minds when they are given something difficult to read, like a Cambridge exam, simply look at your own language learning.  This is relatively simple and I’m sure most of us have endeavoured to learn a second, third or even fourth, fifth or sixth language – indeed English may not be your first language.

However, if you are not learning a new language at the moment (1) (2) or have just about mastered the language you are currently studying then you might have already started to forget some of those feelings of frustration and despair as you spent 10 minutes reading a small article in the newspaper and you still didn’t understand what it was talking about.  If this is the case, or you just want to try something different, then may I suggest Finnegans Wake by James Joyce.  You will quickly remember the frustrations and empathise with your students a little bit more.

To say I’m having some trouble with it would be an understatement – I picked it up about 5 minutes after finishing The Girl Who Played with Fire so it had some big shoes to fill in terms of readability.  But, I wanted to share my experiences of the first two paragraphs and how it suddenly made me stop and think of my students.

My Kindle edition has a long and detailed introduction to the text and the man – I skipped it.  There is also a section entitled “The Writing of Finnegans Wake” – I skipped that too.  That is followed by “The Structure of the Wake” – skipped it – and this is finished off by a piece entitled “A Babelion Act of War”, which I also skipped but for the sake of this piece I looked through it and saw it seems to be a short composition about how Finnegans Wake is regarded by other literary giants, such as T.S. Eliot and Umberto Eco.

And then, at last, I hit the first two paragraphs and so far I haven’t got any further.  This is not for lack of trying but lack of motivation – I’m not motivated to read further because I don’t feel I’ve understood the first part and don’t see much point in continuing until I feel comfortable with what I’ve already read.  I’ve already read it five times and every time feels new because none of it is ‘going in’.  None of it is going in because little of it is being understood.

So immediately I understand my students better – I recognize and understand most of the words (not all, some are made up) but when put together I get to the end of the 2nd paragraph and I feel like a total idiot for not understanding a single clause.  I suppose in this respect we could substitute Joyce’s odd yet critically praised composition with various student compositions I read from time to time which are complete gobbledygook.

But let’s consider my process, shall we?  I skipped all the instructions – I just wanted to get started with the reading.  This is natural yet, in the case of Finnegans Wake and many pieces of reading we give our students, important contextual, cultural knowledge is missing.  It will be some struggle but I’ll need to go through the first 6% of the book (the Kindle doesn’t work in pages) and get an idea of the background and a framework with which I can better understand the composition.

We then come to another point where I can sympathize with the students – the pre-reading, while almost always necessary, can sometimes really suck the fun out of reading.  At the moment Finnegans Wake hasn’t proved itself to me to be worth the several thousand words of pre-reading I seem to need to do before I can really sink my teeth into the story itself.  I will persist, in no small part, due to the recommendations of people in my PLN (3) however this stubbornness on my part is not something we can expect from most of our students.

In re-reading the first two paragraphs of Finnegans Wake – now for a sixth time – I’m taken back to the despair of my secondary school French and German classes: reading comprehension, 5 minutes and 10 questions.  Two or three would go unanswered and then three or four of my answers would be wrong.  How demotivating!

I may not get much further into ‘the Wake’ before I declare myself a lost cause, give up on it and move on to something easier (Stieg Larsson’s final part of his trilogy is calling to me even now).  Nonetheless, I am glad I spent the time and money on Joyce’s work because it has, quite inadvertently, reconnected me with language learning as I saw it as a student – something I’d lost being so connected and enthused as a teacher.


  1. And if you aren’t then you should be for two reasons, the first of which is a quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”  I love this quote and I see evidence of it daily when I realize something in my own language when I am studying another language and when my L2 provides me with a conversation or friendship that I would otherwise have missed.
  2. The other, more practical, reason for learning another language is laid out very clearly by Scott Thornbury in an interview he did for the British Council (see below).
  3. I was first got attracted to this by Mark Andrew’s excellent blog post about James Joyce’s work as an English Language Teacher in Trieste and Yssel.  Highly recommended reading.
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Posted by on June 23, 2011 in Recommendations, Reflections, Review


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