Google Docs for Collaborative Writing Activities

Last week, I was preparing a lesson plan for my composition class on how to write a research report. I found a nice description on how to organize and write a research report in one of the textbooks on technical communication that I have been using for my class. I thought I would simply introduce these guidelines to my students and have them analyze a sample research report based on these guidelines.

I found an absolutely incredible example of a research report online, which was clearly written and well organized and which followed the APA conventions (the citation style that I am using for documenting sources in my class). However, although this report was great, its organization and content did not exactly match the guidelines I found in the textbook. Because I really wanted to use that report as a good example, I decided to write a set of guidelines myself and present the report as an illustration. And then I thought: How about we write the guidelines together, as a class? In other words, the students would use the example report I found, and based on it they would create a handout describing how to write a research report. This inductive approach sounded like a good idea, and I decided to try it.

Here is the list of steps I followed to implement this activity in my class:

1. I created a Google doc file, which I shared with the students in class.

2. I divided the students into four groups. Each group was assigned to work with one section of the report: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion.

3. I explained the task to the students:

You are going to collaboratively create a document “How to write a research report.”

Each team will read the assigned section of the sample report, analyze it, and based on this section, create a list of guidelines explaining how to write this particular section. You will have to cover the following points in your guidelines: 

1. Identify the purpose of the section.

2. Describe the organization of the section: What parts should/could be included in this section? Provide specific examples from the paper.

3.  List a few rhetorical strategies that can be used in this section of a report (e.g., emotional appeal to the audience, asking rhetorical questions, supporting an argument with credible sources). Provide specific examples from the paper.

4.  Give examples of phrases that can be used in this section. (After the activity was finished, I also shared with the students a website, Academic Phrasebank, that has numerous examples of phrases for research papers.)

5. Outline any other special characteristics of this section.

4. The students were advised to be general in their descriptions. In other words, although they were working with a particular report, their guidelines were supposed to be generalizable (just because “How to…” can be applied to a variety of situations, normally).

5. I also emphasized the concept of audience. For this document of guidelines the students themselves were the audience, because they were creating this document to use while working on their own research reports.

6. Next, we read the abstract of the report together to get an idea of what the study was about. After that, each group began to work on a particular section of the report (I had them draw for the sections).

7. When the groups were done with their guidelines, they pasted them into the Google doc. By the way, my students had access to the Google doc from the beginning of the class, so they were all working online (and, they were also having fun by making random comments about each other and joking. I was making sure, though, that they were staying on task).

8. After the document had been put together, the students read the guidelines and each team created at least one question for the other three teams (e.g., about something that was not clear to them). As the questions were being discussed, the students were making necessary revisions in the document. This negotiation step definitely improved the initial draft.

9. Later on, I went through the document and did minor editing and formatting.

When, later, the students were creating outlines for their research reports, they were using their own set of guidelines, instead of the descriptions from the textbook I initially prepared.

This activity can be applied virtually to any genres or types of writing you teach in your class (e.g., professional email, resume, proposal, argumentative paragraphs).


from TESOL Blog

The Reasons for the Seasons: Making Holiday Activities for ELLS

When I was a student, I planned my months around the holidays. The abbreviated weeks were much needed breaks from the classroom routine and milestones towards summer vacations. I’d like to say I used that extra time to do some homework, but honestly the only thing I caught up on was sleep.

As a teacher, I still plan my months around holidays. Now, though, I use these to think about how to design lessons to make the classroom routine less boring. Many ELLs are either unfamiliar with American holidays or accustomed to seeing them practiced in different ways, which makes each one a potential teachable occasion.

Understanding holidays can make someone feel more accultured in a new place (Lvovich 2000), but at the secondary level we have to tie our activities to output-based standards. That actually isn’t a problem, because focusing how we want students to demonstrate language progress can guide our instruction. There’s enough context with each holiday for us to create a wide range of activities for all language levels, including:

Compare and Contrast

Practically every country has some sort of harvest festival, although no two countries seem to celebrate it the same. That means Thanksgiving gives you the opportunity to compare and contrast the American traditions to Chuseok, Mid-Autumn Festival, Pokrov, or any other feasting holiday. You can start from the traditional American table setting, then slowly replace each item with something from the students’ cultures to show the difference. It may also be interesting to ask students who have been in the USA for a while about their Thanksgiving experiences.


What is a Jack-o-Lantern? Why do we have little boys with wings for Valentine’s Day? What is with the shamrocks in March? After you answer these questions, your students may be interested in talking about some common symbols from their cultures and what they mean. You can follow up by having students design a holiday that commemorates their target culture, complete with how people would dress and act for those occasions.

Political Holidays

Most American teachers won’t see students on the 4th of July, but they will see students during Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, and Election Day. These can give you the opportunity to do civics/social studies/history activities and make connections to news stories or even advertisements.

The Stories Behind Holidays

Now that you’ve seen how holidays are practiced, you may want to teach students the reasons for Christmas and why it involves trees and what eggs have to do with Easter. Many of your students may not be familiar with the pre-Christian ancient world, and that’s the kind of background information most teachers will not think about reviewing after the student exits your program. A few questions about ancient times will let you assess how much you’ll need to address.


Lvovich, N. (2000). Becoming a cultural insider: How holidays can help ESL students’ acculturation and language learning. The Internet TESL Journal, VI(12). Retrieved from

from TESOL Blog

Graffiti Grammar: A Four Skills Activity

I recently read that “sitting is the new smoking,” or, in other words, that a sedentary lifestyle is a serious and under-appreciated health hazard. With this in mind, I have recently made a conscious effort to incorporate activities that regularly give my adult ELLs the opportunity to stand and move around the classroom.

I call one of these activities “graffiti grammar,” and I used it recently to help students practice the use of gerunds after certain verbs to express an opinion or to comment on certain actions. But the model is flexible, and could be adapted to practice any grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation concept.

Here’s how it works. Before the students arrive, I tape eight blank flip chart pages to the walls of the classroom. On each page, I write a different expression that calls for the use of a gerund, such as:

  • Would you mind … . .
  • I’m not sure about this, but I’m considering … .
  • Please stop … . .
  • I can’t talk to you know. I haven’t finished … .
  • I have never enjoyed … .
  • I am so annoyed! I keep … . .
  • I miss … .
  • I enjoy .

To scaffold this activity, I first write one or two of these expressions (“Please stop … .” or “Would you mind … .”) on the board for all to consider together. I ask my students to think of a public figure of their choice. I then ask them to imagine a conversation involving that public figure that uses one of the expressions on the board. Working with a partner, they came up with ideas like:

  • I would want to ask Donald Trump to please stop making stupid generalizations about immigrants.
  • I think that President Obama would want to ask President Putin to please stop messing [sic] his last term in office.

I then put my students into pairs and invite them to begin to circulate around the room, looking at each of the blank pages on the wall and working with their partner to think of a new way to complete the sentence using a gerund. They then write their idea on the paper on the wall (whence the idea of “graffiti”), and move on to the next posted piece of paper (which features a different expression that calls for a gerund).  At each stop along the way, students have the opportunity to read and review (and if necessary, correct) what was written by their classmates, before adding their own idea to the list.

So, for example, on the flip chart labeled, “I’m not sure about this yet, but I’m considering … . .”, students wrote:

I’m considering having a baby.

I’m considering renting a bigger apartment.

I’m considering changing my car for a new model.

By the end of the activity, everyone has had a chance both to practice each expression and to evaluate how their classmates responded to the same challenge. It provides a lot more speaking, listening, reading, and writing practice than just working at a desk with one partner would, and it gets everyone’s blood flowing!

from TESOL Blog

Plickers: A Lower Tech Student Response System

For one reason or another, I sometimes stop using a resource for a period of time and then get to experience the joy of discovering it all over again. This happened to me recently with Socrative, my student response system of choice, which got me thinking about what other options are out there.

Previously, I wrote a post about Kahoot! which would be a great alternative for me since my students all have smartphones. Like Socrative, Kahoot! requires each student to be on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, but I realized that there had to be a lower tech option out there—and there is. It is called Plickers. Plickers comes recommended by Sergio Lorca, who left a comment on the TESOL Blog saying “it’s free and students don’t need to have any mobile devices.” In fact, only one device is required for an entire classroom.

Plickers works using a free app and a set of cards which you can download for free or buy for US$20 on Amazon. Now I have never used Plickers, but from what I can tell, each card has a different shape and number plus the letters a through d. You assign student names to card numbers and then students use the cards to answer multiple-choice questions. Students show their answers by holding their cards with their chosen answer along the top of the card. Once students have decided on their answers and are holding up their cards, use a smartphone or tablet to scan the room. The scan will pick up the cards and record the responses. It seems pretty straightforward and is a great choice for a classroom that is not 1-to-1.

Besides the very thorough help page, you can also browse YouTube for more information, reviews, testimonials, and tutorials on Pickers to get you started. Like anything new, students will require some amount of practice to get the hang of using the cards, but it seems as though teachers are having success with this method with students of all ages. Additionally, if you find yourself handling a lot of tech issues with student devices, you may choose to use Plickers instead of other student response systems simply to save time even in a 1-to-1 setting.

The benefits of using Plickers is the same as with any student response system, and every time I start using one again, I realize how marvelous they can be, so I highly recommend you try one out in your classroom. Share your student response system or Plickers experiences by leaving a comment below.

from TESOL Blog

On the Tip of My Tongue: Articulatory Awareness to Teach Pronunciation

Most of us can give students accurate and functional definitions of, say, verb, semicolon, and syllable, yet we may feel out of our depth when it comes to describing the workings of pronunciation. But pronunciation need not be so daunting and mysterious; it’s entirely mechanical, and if we understand and communicate those mechanics to our students, we’ll start to see some serious progress in their pronunciation.

First, a rundown of the articulators that we use in English:

  • the voice box (or larynx),
  • the tongue,
  • the teeth,
  • the lips,
  • the nose (yes, we all talk through our noses!),
  • the alveolar ridge (just behind the upper teeth),
  • the hard palate at the roof of the mouth, and
  • the soft palate (or velum) at the back of the mouth.

Linguists deal in more nuanced terms, but for classroom purposes, these will do just fine. Once students are familiar with the articulators, we can start asking questions:

—How do we make [m]?


—I know you can say [mmm], but what are you doing? How are you doing it?

We say [m] by putting our two lips together, using the voice box, and releasing air through the nose. The sound of [n] is similar because we are also using the voice box and releasing air through the nose, but in this case our mouth is blocked off with the tongue flat against the alveolar ridge. Sounds like [m] and [n] exist in nearly all languages, so they’re a nice, comfortable place to start students speaking about the articulators, but once they’ve got the hang of it, we can start leading them into more challenging territory.

Many speakers of Korean and Cantonese struggle with [z] but have no problem with [s]. How do we say [s]? Tongue flat against the upper teeth, a little space for air, and no voice box. Once they’ve got that, have them hold it, and get them activating their voicebox (fingers on the throat helps a lot for voiced sounds). Similar activities will help students with [f], [v], [θ], [ð], and other tricky sounds. Once they’ve got the mouth formation right, repeat, repeat, repeat to build that muscle memory. Beyond just single phonemes, the language to talk about articulators will help students with consonant clusters, voiced and unvoiced -S and -ED at the end of words, and a host of other common problems.

This kind of awareness raising can work at all levels. Beginners won’t be as articulate, but they’ll quickly start using phrases like “tongue and teeth together” and “no voice.”

Mini-lessons in pronunciation like this can be extremely satisfying to teach. You’ll see ripples of epiphany spreading through the class, students will ask you to explain other challenging sounds in the same way. Once you’ve started to incorporate this kind of language into your repertoire, you may find your own articulatory awareness increasing, and you’ll be able to give students feedback like, “almost, but your tongue is a little too far back; move it closer to your teeth.” 

Happy articulating!

from TESOL Blog

Spelling deMYTHtified: 7 Insights for Language Teachers

It’s been sent to you dozens of times by well-meaning friends and family. Perhaps you’ve  forwarded it to folks in your own address book, or perhaps you’ve even developed a pronunciation lesson around it, as I did several years ago.

It’s a meme, really, one that simultaneously bemoans and celebrates the idiosyncrasies of spoken vs. written English. It might go like this:

Crazy English (anonymous)
We’ll begin with box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese… 

This trope exists in several forms, the most succinct of which is the fishy one-word poem etched into the mind of every language educator and often misattributed to George Bernard Shaw: ghoti. At the other extreme is The Chaos of Pronunciation, by Gerard Nolst Terinté, who in 1929 penned more than 100 lines, all essentially about how mint and pint look more similar than they sound.

(Visit this thread on the Linguist List for a thorough exploration of these and similar creations.)

What these all have in common is their cleverly disguised message of doom: English is crazy, and, for the learner of English, English is unlearnable. The truth is, English spelling is not crazy at all; it’s merely a complex system in a modern world that eschews complexity. More to the point, English spelling “is not merely a letter-to-sound system riddled with imperfections. Instead, it is a more complex and more regular relationship, wherein phonemes and morphemes share leading roles” (Venezky, 1999, p. ix).

Enter my new-old favorite book, The American Way of Spelling, written by the late Richard Venezky in 1999. He rightly marvels, “Any time you are engaged with print, you are confronted with an orthography that demands some special knowledge to be rendered into sound” (p. xi). As ESL teachers, we can’t afford not to know this: Print does not lead us to sound, but rather the other way around.

The seven insights below are summarized from Venezky’s work. Read the rest of this article aloud, and appreciate the miracle of your performance: You’re decoding a nonphonemic alphabet, and for you it’s not just possible, but easy.

Myth #7: English spelling is just confusing.

Think of English spelling as the DNA of a word, containing precious clues to its history (etymology) and its word forms (morphology). Venesky explains it beautifully:

English has always had rather loose immigration regulations for vocabulary. Words, unlike people, have been forever welcomed, regardless of their origins. Neither quotas nor IQ tests have ever been required for admission to the lexicon. And unlike the melting-pot emphasis on assimilation in most of American history, orthography has been unencumbered by pressures to shed its alien appearance. (p. 7)

Written English therefore embraces foreign spellings (ballet from French, Farenheit from German) and tolerates variable spellings (flier/flyer, dialog/dialogue, disk/disc).

Myth #6: English spelling is rule-based.

Sorry, but “i before e except after c” is not a rule; weird, caffeine, forfeiture, and protein are not merely additional exceptions to an otherwise good rule, but proof that something else is at play.

Myth #5: English spelling has no rules.

Rest assured: English spelling demonstrates at least two true rules, or constants. 1) By and large, the letters in a word occur in the same order as the sounds in that word: “talk” will never sound like “caught”; and 2) by and large, every letter in a word serves a function, even if that function is not sound-oriented (see Myths #4 and #3).

Myth #4: Letters are used randomly.

As Venezky (1999) explains, “letter distribution is capriciously limited” (p. 6). This may come as a surprise, but there are some fairly set conventions. Only certain letters can be doubled (<b> in rubber, <d> in ladder, <f> in different, among others) while <aa>, <ii>, <qq>, <xx> and several others are not considered common patterns of English. Similarly, only certain letters can hold the final position in a word, and <u>, < v>, <j>, and <q> are among those not allowed.

Myth #3: Letters represent sounds.

Some letters represent sounds while others are merely markers with no pronunciation of their own. These may mark the pronunciation of another letter (as in the well-known function of silent <e> in mat vs. mate) or communicate the morphology of a word (as in the <g> in sign-signature).

Myth #2: All you have to do is “sound it out.” 

While words like cat and shower bolster the “sound it out” motto, the fact is that a word’s visual identity trumps its letter-sound simplicity. Consider the sound-shifting behaviors of head vs. bead, snow vs. plow, though vs. thought. Says Venezky, “English favors the eye over the tongue and glottis,” a reality I explored in my recent post, Eyes vs. Ears: the problem of vowels.

This last one is HUGE:

Myth #1: The written word introduces the spoken word.

Flip that, and you’ll be set. Venesky writes, “English orthography facilitates word recognition for the initiated speaker of the language, rather than being a phonetic alphabet for the non-native speaker [emphasis added]” (p. 10). Prior to the reading moment, one already knows whether object will be stressed on the first syllable (as a noun) or the second (as a verb), and you already know what the  -s sounds like in cats (/s/), dogs (/z/), and ostriches (/əz/). These are but two examples.

It’s time for us to retire the shallow advice that students “sound it out.” We can do better. I’d like to hear from you, dear reader: How do you approach spelling vs. sound, what do you say, and how might Venezky’s insights influence your next lesson?


Venezky, R. L. (1999). The American way of spelling: The structure and origins of American English orthography. New York, NY: Gilford Press.

from TESOL Blog

5 Thoughts on Parent Conferences With Families of ELs

Every fall, general education teachers in schools across the United States have questions about the parent conferences that they are getting ready to hold with the families of their EL students. One of the roles of ESL teachers should be to provide support to their colleagues so that this very important meeting with parents can be productive and help schools build a relationship with parents.

Many classroom teachers and administrators do not know how to communicate with parents who do not speak English and who are not familiar with U.S. school practices. Most families of ELs have not had much interaction with school personnel, and they may not even know their child’s classroom teacher. They do not understand what the purpose of a parent-teacher conference is.

I think that it’s important for teachers to make their parent-teacher conferences part of an ongoing conversation with the families of their ELs. Teachers need to meet the families of ELs before the parent-teacher conference takes place so that they can begin to build a relationship with them. Last April, I published a blog titled “How to Hold Effective Conferences With Families of ELs,” which details how to plan a successful conference.  This week’s blog contains five additional thoughts on holding the first  parent conferences of the school year.

1) Think about your conference from the parents’ point of view.

Parents will have many concerns about attemding a parent-teacher conference. They will worry about getting off from work.  They will also be concerned about not being able to speak English well enough to understand what the teacher says.  Also, they may not have childcare for their children or a ride to the school. Schools need to find solutions to both of these concerns. They need to find creative ways to plan conferences that fit into the work schedule of parents. They need to provide childcare and rides to the conference site. Information about interpreters should be included in the notice sent to parents. There is a really excellent article on the Colorin Colorado website on conference concerns entitled “Tips for Parents: Parent-Teacher Conferences.” This tip sheet is also available in Spanish.

2) Develop relationships with the families of your ELs before the school year begins.

Many school districts hold social events such as a barbeque or picnic in order to meet EL families in an informal atmosphere. One school that I know sets up a coffee area where parents can meet the principal and other school personnel during the first week of school. It also provides families the opportunity to get to know the school personnel who will be interacting with their children.

Some school districts make home visits either before school starts or early in the school year.  Home visits are not designed to replace parent conferences but to establish rapport with families and to demonstrate the school’s willingness to meet parents halfway (Colorin Colorado).

3) Hold a group ESL parent meeting early in the school year.

Another way to have contact with parents before the parent-teacher conference is to hold a group meeting for the parents of ELs in the evening. This meeting is designed to help parents understand your school’s culture, procedures, and expectations, and to improve communication between school staff and parents. School rules, the school calendar, the ESL program, and other items specific to your school can be presented. Parents will have an opportunity to express concerns and ask questions using an interpreter.

4) Develop resources to provide interpreting and translating services to parents.

These are key for building a relationship with the families of ELs. Many parents do not speak English well enough to understand the academic language you will be using during your conference. Schools also need to realize that it’s important to the success of the parent conference to offer the services of an interpreter for parents who need one. In order to send any written communication to parents, your school district needs to provide a translated message in their first language. The U.S. Office of Civil Rights requires that interpretation and translations into native language be available for the families of your ELs. See Schools’ Civil Rights Obligations to English Learner Students and Limited English Proficient Parents.

5) Check out the growing trend of student-led parent-teacher conferences.

Student-led conferences combine the idea of an open house with a sit-down discussion with the teacher where the student shows his or her work. Many school districts have occasions when they have parents come to school to see student work that they call an Open House. This usually happens near the end of the school year.

It is my view that it is an excellent idea to have parents come in to school and to have their children show them what they are learning, but I don’t think this should replace a parent-teacher conference for families of ELs. At the beginning of the school year, ELs may not speak English well enough to explain their work to their parents. They may not yet feel comfortable enough to do this. If the parents do not speak any English, there is a tendency for their student to serve as interpreter for the conference. I don’t think the family should be put in this position, as it may upset the parent/child dynamics of the family. Also, not all that is said at a parent-teacher conference is positive, although positive information should be a large part of it. Teachers may need to get or provide information about the family or the child that would not be appropriate to discuss in front of the child.

Have you had experiences with student-led conferences? Please share them with us in the comment section of this blog.

from TESOL Blog