Differentiated Writing Instruction with Google Docs (Schoology Workaround)

Quick post here – In the spring I wrote about how much I was enjoying writing instruction with Google Docs. I began this school year at a new school anxious to support my sixth graders during the writing process but hit a small hurdle when I learned that the LMS in middle school was Schoology. Schoology does have a Google Drive app that allows students to submit work from Drive. It does not, however, provide a way to collaborate on documents.

I manually went through the steps that Google Classroom automates and was happy with the results. Here are the instructions I gave students:


The document titles tell me the period, student name, and assignment name – as it would be in Google Classroom. I used five minutes in the beginning of class to get this set up. All of the files that students share with me are easy to copy and move from ‘shared with me’ to a specific folder for this assignment. This makes it simple to organize assignments by period or class and assignment.

At this point, all of the collaborative writing with synchronous feedback that I love so much is possible.


First impressions of Google Classroom

classroom news 2014
2014 Classroom Search Results

I was really excited a few weeks ago when I first heard that my school had signed up for Google Apps for Education. I’d been waiting since the first half of 2014 to get my hands on Google Classroom. Back then, my social media outlets were abuzz with news of all that classroom was and is, and I ate it up. The snip on the left shows what I saw every time I turned on my PC or looked at my device. At the time, I was running classes with Google+ communities and Drive, so I was a bit bitter watching the GAFE train roll right on by; it was torture – until a few weeks ago. To learn more about Classroom, I joined a Google+ community and spent a few hours reading posts and watching videos. After that, I was ready.

In this post, I’ll share the things I like most about Classroom and some examples of how I started using it in my classes.

Coming from Drive, where managing assignments is a challenge, Classroom is a breath of fresh air. Setting up the class is simple. It begins with naming and editing the ‘about’ page of the class. On the about page, I’ve added a Youtube playlist, a doc of links to the class topic (deforestation), and a link to the class blog. All the resources are here and it is visually pleasing.

about page

After setting up the ‘about’ page, I went straight to the good stuff – assignments. What separates classroom from anything I’ve used in the past is the way that it manages student work. Before creating an assignment in Classroom, I write the directions in a Doc. Once the Doc is done, I can create the assignment in Classroom. In this example, I give students brief instructions and leave the rest of the page blank. When I create the assignment, I add the Doc.



The assignment shows up in the class stream where students can click on it and begin working. In the stream, the assignment serves as a jump off point for a few different things. Once the student submits the assignment, they can return here to see the grade or get back into the document should they need to edit and resubmit.


first assignment


As an EFL teacher, feedback on student writing has always been a challenge. For a good summary of the challenge and suggestions, click here. Classroom provides the teacher more feedback options for student writing. Over the last few days, I tried synchronous corrective feedback (SCF). SCF is immediate corrective feedback that happens online as students are writing. In some ways, it’s similar to oral recasts. This is a gamechanger, in my opinion. Here is an example.


editing example


Within Drive, the teacher can give comments on student writing. What Classroom adds to this is the ability to return the assignment to the student. The submission history below shows exactly what the student did. In this example, the student revised and resubmitted several times, getting more feedback from the teacher each time. This could happen over the course of one class period, or several days. This type of feedback is called asynchronous corrective feedback (ACF).

submission history


Another great thing about Classroom is the way that it organizes student work. Classroom creates a folder for every assignment a teacher creates and a doc for every student that completes the assignment (click ‘make a copy for each student’). Gone are the headaches that came with the moving, sharing, and saving in Drive.


assignment example


While I think there is still a lot to improve, Google Classroom does a lot to simplify the way teachers and students interact. As an ESL teacher, the ease of interaction with students outside of class makes this an extremely valuable tool.

For more information on computer-mediated corrective feedback, have a look at the following article.

Shintani, N. (2015). The effects of computer-mediated synchronous and asynchronous direct corrective feedback on writing: A case study. Computer Assisted Language Learning, Online first.



Snowball write-fight poll

Hello everyone – I’d like your input on some student work. Students were given a sentence prompt and had a few minutes to finish it with something creative. For example:

The asteroid was hurtling down straight towards Earth.

Choose (5) that stand out to you as being creative and well-written. The winners will get their work published on the class blog (http://ais8ela.wordpress.com)

If you are unable to choose more than one, choose your favorite.



Reformulating Second Language Writing

The English proficiency level of the students at my current school varies greatly. This presents a challenge when dealing with corrective feedback on writing assignments because we don’t know exactly what each of our students knows; we know what they were taught in 7th grade (I teach 8th grade), but with new students coming in all the time, it only helps so much. Corrective feedback on structural and/or grammatical topics the student has never learned gets them nothing except more confused, as it does with oral correction. We needed a way to help the student notice their errors, provide corrective feedback, and NOT overwhelm them with a page or red ink.

The answer to our question was first presented in 1978 by Levenston. I wasn’t around then, but it was a great year – Darkness on the Edge of Town and Van Halen were released, so ‘reformulation’ is in good company. Reformulation is when a native speaker rewrites a student’s piece of writing. The native speaker writes to make the piece sound more natural, making organizational and grammatical corrections while preserving the content of the original text. For more information on the history of reformulation and present status of reformulation research, read “Reformulation, Noticing, and the Development of L2 Academic Writing” by Jackie Dannatt.

We chose to use this technique with our struggling writers because it is naturally scaffolded and student-centered (Reid, 1994, Cited by Tardy, 2006). As you can see in the example below, we ask the student to do several things. First, they have to identify the change and write the original text and reformulated text in the table. Next, they have to describe the change. What I like about this is that it allows all students to comment on the change. The student could say something like ‘moved words’ or ‘fixed fragment’, depending on how much they understand. Finally, they have to check yes or no to let us know if they understand the change. This will help us plan follow-up support for the student, in groups or individually.

wp_essay reformulateAfter getting the completed tables back from students and doing this on future writing assignments, we’ll be able to plan more appropriate practice as students pre-write and draft.

I’ll be updating this post in the next few weeks with some samples of the completed tables so please check back.


Levenston, E.A. (1978). Error analysis of free composition: The theory and the practice. Indian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4(1), 1–11.

Tardy, C. (2006). Appropriation, ownership, and agency: Negotiating teacher feedback in academic settings. In K. Hyland & F. Hyland (Eds.), Feedback in second language writing: Contexts and issues. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Is SLA really a part of the EFL classroom?

The title of this post highlights an issue we and our teacher trainees face. To trainers and experienced teachers, the question is a no-brainer. Of course SLA theory plays a role in the EFL classroom. SLA theory is the rationale for all decisions an informed teacher makes before and during their classes. How much should the teacher talk? What kinds of questions should the teacher ask? How should the students interact with each other? Should they interact with each other? Why should students talk to each other? Why should they talk to me? What should students do in my class? In what order should they do it? The list goes on… Whether or not SLA plays a role in the EFL classroom is not the issue. The issue is making the relationship between theory and pedagogy tangible for new and/or beginning teachers. I’ve written about how we can do this before in a post on academic reading circles and here I will describe our final attempt to bridge theory and pedagogy.

Logistically, it is impossible to ask our trainees to observe English language classrooms. Our program is an intensive program and trainees are busy. They have to manage coursework, jobs, and family obligations. On top of that, setting up observations would be difficult for a number of other reasons that I won’t get into. So, while English academies seem to line every city block, they are inaccessible. English teachers, on the other hand, are accessible, and there are roughly 12,000 in the country (native speaking teachers). As a result, instead of observing English classes, our students interview English teachers.

The ‘teacher interview’ helps our students connect theory and pedagogy in several ways. The first thing each class has to do is to create a list of questions. By the end of our course, we’ve covered six concepts/theories related to language learning. They are Krashen’s Monitor Model, Swain’s Output Hypothesis, Memory, Information Processing, Bloom’s Taxonomy, and the Interaction Hypothesis. To find out if these theories play a role real classrooms, trainees first have to collaboratively create a list of questions to ask their interviewee. Students have to find out two things from their teacher: how does SLA play a role in planning (before class) their lessons and how does SLA theory play a role teaching (during class) their lesson. Creating questions to elicit that information forces trainees to consider the practical applications of all aspects of each theory and is a very valuable task in itself. They also have to make suggestions based on what they learn about the class. Trainees do this as a group using google docs. Here is an example:


Once the class has created their questions, the next step is to do the actual interview and record it. Trainees meet their interviewee, talk through the questions, summarize what they’ve found by answering the two questions and giving suggestions. All of this is put into an interview report form and a powerpoint presentation. Here is an example ppt:


In this presentation, the trainees show their classmates how SLA theory is applied in a real classroom. As students work in groups of three or four, and each class has 14-18 students, each class gets to see how five real teachers apply SLA theory.

At this point, we feel we’ve done a fair job of helping our trainees connect theory and practice. Students demonstrate their understanding of theory and practice in a final essay that asks them to explain how at least three SLA theories play a role in a lesson plan they’ve developed for another course.

A few years ago, students said, “Bill, this is some of the most interesting stuff I’ve learned in a long time, but I don’t know how it applies to my class or how it makes me a better teacher.” Now, answering that question is a course requirement.




Digging In: Non-native teachers and learner language analysis

Presented at KOTESOL 2013, Sookmyung Women's 
University, Seoul, Korea

Digging In: Non-native Teachers and Learner Language Analysis

Most MA TESOL and TESOL certificate programs include courses on Second Language Acquisition (SLA), but many students finish the course without knowing how to apply what they have learned to their classrooms. The knowledge of how languages are acquired seems irrelevant to many prospective classroom teachers because they will work with a pre-established curriculum. SLA theories are simply learned because they have always been part of the TESOL curriculum.  One solution to this problem is learner language analysis. Language learner analysis tasks that get students out of the classroom and in front of learners add life to theory. Students can discover tendencies and stages in learner language all by themselves. While unmatched in its effectiveness, learner language analysis is difficult and time consuming, maybe even to the point that it is inaccessible to non-native English teachers. In this session we share responses from 56 of our students, who completed several learner language analyses in the first five weeks of the Spring 2013 SMU TESOL semester. We briefly outline the assignments and then share the feedback, which suggests that learner language analyses are not only accessible, but also have noticeable classroom applications for non-native English teachers.

[slideonline id=5502]


Academic Reading Circles: Initial reactions

In my last post (click here), I outlined the academic reading circle assignment that I had planned for this semester. The academic reading circles took the place of focus questions (read and answer questions at home) and the hope was that students would interact with the material and each other, prior to class, more than they have before. If the ARC is successful, students will get more out of each class because they are primed for the new content. In this post, I’ll share some examples of the ARC working and failing, along with the changes I will make for next semester.

There are several things that I overlooked at the start. First, I had planned for students to use the blog as a place to share the specific information related to their role and discuss the content. I had imagined ongoing discussions that were so riveting they spilled into class. What I am finding, though, is that many students treat the ARC like a focus question, simply doing their part and signing off. As you can see in the picture below, participation varies – some classes tend to look around and read more, while others get in, write, then get out.

blog dashboard

Next semester, I will make sure to give detailed instructions related to the direction of, and type of interaction that happens on the blog. Here is an example of what the discussion leader posts:

blog discussion leader post


As you can see here, the discussion leader does a good job of presenting a discussion question to the group, and it’s not outrageous to thin that a nice discussion would follow. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen very often. Below is an example of some interaction on the blog.


blog interaction 1This type of interaction is fairly common. Students compliment each other on their posts, or share something that was making the post difficult. While it’s nice to see, this kind of interaction doesn’t get the most out of the blog. In addition complimenting and asking for help, I would like to see interaction that promotes a deeper understanding of content. In the next picture, the students begin to develop an idea together. This is the kind of interaction that really gets the most out of the ARC and blogging.

blog development


To deal with this problem I plan to give one more responsibility to the discussion leader. As it is now, the only responsibility for the discussion leader is to:

  • Create the blog post.
  • Create 3 comprehension questions about information in the reading.
  • Create 1 discussion question about something you are curious about in the reading or something you do not clearly understand.
  • Keep track of the time during the discussion so everyone gets a turn.
  • Remind members that they should not read exactly from the textbook.
  • Ensure that no one person dominates the discussion and everyone speaks.

Since the discussions are not happening at the beginning of class, the discussion leader will also lead the group’s self-assessment. After the discussion leader posts their questions, they will respond to the discussion question answers posted by their group members AND keep track of who writes what. The discussion leader will keep track of how many times each member of their group interacted, and what they said. For example, the categories might be something like this:

Group Member Comp. Response Disc. Response Role Response Question Compliment
A 1 2 1 2 2
B 1 2 1 1 1
C 1 2 1 0 0
D 1 2 1 1 1

So, instead of leading the discussion at the beginning of class, the discussion leader has more responsibilities related to what happens online. Now, at the beginning of each class, the discussion leader has each member sign the form (the above table), confirming that their contribution to the blog is correct, and then hands it in to the teacher, who can use it for assessment. Hopefully, signing a form that is handed to the teacher provides just the right amount of push from the top to promote more online interaction.

Feedback and responses from the student survey will be up in my next post.

Thanks for reading!