Category Archives: TEFL/TESL

Using Algorithmic Thinking to Teach Writing

The gains being made by Artificial Intelligence are truly impressive, but we may not be at the stage where a robot can out-write Shakespeare. And yet I do believe that we can use algorithmic thinking to teach students to become better writers. One of the bug-bears for many students over the years has undoubtedly been the lack of explicit instruction in how to write. The dominant pedagogy has been to give students plenty of opportunity to practice creative writing, and to attempt to mold improvement through feedback – often woefully inadequate feedback.

This image was originally posted to Flickr by Scoboco at It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

And yet writing can clearly be taught. At the very least students should be made aware of the overall structure of any piece of writing: how to set out a clear thesis statement and develop ideas in successive paragraphs which develop topic sentences, fleshing each idea out with anecdote, fact or quotation. If they are practising these skills quite explicitly their practice is focused and directed, it is far more likely to bear fruit.

I have found, over the years, however, that no amount of scaffolding will make this process easy to implement in whole class instruction. Most students can use conceptual maps to plan a sequence of ideas which support a thesis, but really struggle when it comes to developing these ideas in individual paragraphs. For some this process appears to come naturally. They effortlessly weave together anecdotes and observations to illuminate their ideas. Others appear incapable of marrying abstract ideas to concrete details, which is really what is at stake here.

I had a brain-wave the other day in a coding class. Could the kind of thinking used in coding (algorithmic thinking) not be employed to help bridge the seeming chasm between abstract and concrete? Algorithms, after all are sets of instructions which a machine can follow – a blue-print for successful practice. Maybe, for those who seemed to lack a muse, a blue-print was exactly what was required. And maybe, after following an algorithm for a while, the patterns and habits might stick.

I started by getting the whole class to generate a set of ideas and sub-points using a graphic organiser. We then organised these ideas into a logical sequence so that an argument was constructed. I put these ideas on a Google doc which I then shared with the class on Google Classroom so that each student had their own copy. The class then broke into groups and had to find anecdotes, facts, details or quotations. These were written out on cards and shuffled into a pile. Students were then told to start writing, using the logically sequenced outline we had developed. As they wrote each paragraph they had to come to the front of the class, dig in the pile and try to find at least one anecdote, fact or quote to use in that paragraph. When they had finished they returned it to the pile.

Individual essays were thus unique. The same anecdote could be used to support or refute an idea. We then shared some of these sequences in essays and discussed how they had been used to support the thesis statement. My follow-up, next term, will be to get students to select ideas from a pile and match these to the developing details so that each essay has a different sequencing structure.


Flash Feedbacks – ICTs For English Teachers

English teachers have usually found that ICTs are a good fit for creative self-expression. There are numerous multi-media authoring tools for computers or tablet devices which can be used to allow students to create multi-modal presentations of one kind or another. But it is not so easy to see how to use them when unpacking a work of literature or working on language accuracy. There are, of course, numerous drill and practice type sites online where students can fill in the missing word, or select the correct form of the verb, or answer multiple choice questions on comprehension texts, but I’m not going to consider those at this time. For the most part they are kiss of death, not too bad for the occasional exercise if you want to ring the changes, but hardly anything to get wildly excited about!

When it comes to teaching literature, however, there is very little substitute for guiding a close reading of the text and for discussion. Some of this happens in a whole class context, some of it in groups. But the essence of grappling with a text lies in the throwing out of ideas and seeing where they lead. ICTs can certainly be used in this process. Some of the discussion can happen before, and after the class on an electronic forum. Students can express their ideas about the themes or characterization of a novel in blogs or in wikis, but the heart of any literary study is in the face to face discussion in the classroom while doing a close reading. I have not yet found any digital advantage over reading a text with a class and interrogating particular words. What does this word suggest about the protagonist? What other possible meanings does this word have? It’s this process of worrying away at a text, like a dog worrying away at a bone, that produces understanding – often unexpected understandings. English teachers need to model this process, making their thinking visible to students, helping scaffold it for students, guiding their thoughts as they wrestle with a text. This process of coming to grips with a text has always formed the basis of my literature classes, interspersed with activities and exercises which aim at deepening or consolidating what students have learned from a close reading. I have tried different methods, but always come back to this as the only really effective way of engaging with a text with a class.

Snapshot - 1ICTs are no real use in this. However, I do see some use in terms of either recording discussions so they can be viewed later, or recording quick summaries of points made for later storage and retrieval. Note-taking during a discussion is not easy, although I encourage students to use the Cornell Note Taking Strategy. I have previously used quick Flash Feedback sessions at the end of a lesson, or activity, where students use their devices to record (audio or video) a quick summary of what their group decided or found. These can be shared on a LMS platform, and can form the basis for further discussion in class, or in a forum.

These Flash Feedbacks could easily be integrated into classroom discussion as well by pausing every now and then and recording a student summarising a point or points made. These recordings, posted on the LMS, can then be used as the basis for answering a question or any other activity. They form a digital record of a discussion and might help tease out some of the more interesting points made, which might otherwise have been forgotten.

Quite apart from providing some kind of record of a discussion, it also serves to help students bring together the thoughts and threads of the discussion and creates opportunities for building knowledge so that the ideas emerging from the discussion can be ordered and re-shaped into an argument about the meaning of the text.


Ngram Viewer: Computational Thinking in English

I recently completed a Google online course on Computational Thinking and would like to look at one feature of CT, which I think has particular relevance for English teachers. In brief, as I understand it, CT refers to the thought processes involved in formulating problems in such a way that they can be processed using computational devices. They can be used to think about problems without any form of computation, of course, but it seems to me that one way of mixing things up, to enliven a class, is to introduce some computation into the English Class.

ngramOne tool that might be useful is Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows you to type in keywords and see them displayed in a graph reflecting their usage over the years (from Google Books). You can enter multiple keyword searches, separating them by a comma. In itself this can show you the rise and fall in the popularity of certain words, and can be used in an English class to identify difficult vocabulary from a poem. You can look at synonyms, antonyms or explore connotation and denotation with a class using Ngram Viewer, asking students to draw conclusions from the graphs generated.

I think the most useful application of this, though is where it is combined with student writing to help students think about their word choices. In itself Ngram Viewer does not really add to a piece of writing, but if you ask students to use it to help them make decisions about which word to choose, it does help focus on the act of making a decision. By forcing students to type in a list of synonyms alone, they will probably do more than they usually do in thinking about alternatives.


What ICTs allow English teachers to do (which they can’t do with pen and paper)

IMG_20150909_105424Larry Cuban has famously observed, and I’m paraphrasing here, that when the computer meets the classroom, the classroom always wins. ICTs have often been touted as disruptive agents of change in an education system which clearly needs an overhaul, but change has been slow and classrooms today look much as they did when I was a child. And yet it is not true to assert that the influence of ICTs has not been felt, or that subtle changes have not taken place – they have. An Interactive Whiteboard may be used in the same way as the blackboard of old, but it may also be used in radically different ways as well, and increasingly teachers are finding ways of using technology effectively and innovatively.

My own feeling is that if technology helps us to do something more effectively and efficiently, or if it helps us to do something worthwhile that we could not do before, then it is worth using. Otherwise it is not worth it simply to do change for the sake of change. The question for me then becomes, can my students do this with pen and paper? If so, they probably should. If not, then does the technology allow me to do something that I can’t otherwise do as well?

English teachers have been amongst the most enthusiastic adopters of ICTs in the classroom. Take writing, for example. Teaching writing is one of the key areas of concern for any language teacher. Writing is concerned not just with form: the different formats of transactional writing, conventions such as spelling, punctuation, and of course grammatical correctness. It is also concerned with genre, tone, register, lexis and of course meaning. How do you structure an argument? How do you communicate effectively and develop your own style? How do you inject a certain flair into your writing? All of these are really questions of process rather than product. There are teachers who simply get students to write an essay and then grade it with allegedly helpful comments in the margins, but most language teachers see the need to address writing as a skill to be learned.

One of the problems with pen and paper is that it cannot readily be subjected to review during the process of writing, and is difficult to edit. Writing a draft, then editing multiple times until you have a final product is physically challenging with a permanent medium such as pen and paper. Some teachers used to duplicate a student’s first draft and give copies out to peers for editing, so that a piece of writing could be discussed in class and the editing process made visible. Other teachers would form students into writing circles, where peer editing could be more easily facilitated. But again the medium itself gave scant affordance to the process.

Google docs, on the other hand, allows student to share a piece of writing with peer editors, or a teacher synchronously or asynchronously. Editors can leave comments, or even do collaborative editing. The affordances of this technology not only assist the teaching of writing as a process, they make it possible in ways it was not conceivable previously. In tandem with an Interactive whiteboard, or a visualiser, and any text can be visibly dissected and discussed in a similar way. These technologies give a flexibility to the process that was absent before. If you wanted to discuss a poem it had to be available in book or handout form, both of which take planning. Now you can respond as a teacher to the cut and thrust of discussion and bring up any text onto the IWB for immediate discussion.

Another classroom routine in the language classroom, the analysis of text, is also revolutionised by technology. When you are discussing a text with a class, a poem say, one important didactic move is how to make difficult concepts or words accessible to students. I used to draw pictures on the blackboard often so students could see what a particular archaic object looked like, to help make it more concrete. Google images considerably aids this process, and youtube videos can be found which immediately demonstrate to students what a Dickensian poor-house might have looked like, or how a paddle-steamer works – or whatever it is that you need to make visual in order to bring a text alive and make it accessible.

As a teacher I have thus found ways of using ICTs in ways which considerably enhance what I could do before, but this is hardly revolutionary. To misuse Larry Cuban’s maxim then: when ICTs meet the classroom, the classroom slowly absorbs them and is in turn somewhat transformed.


Widening the Writing Circle – student writing online

Teen Ink and the rather more strident Power Poetry are sites where students can read and share their writing online. They afford secure spaces for teens to publish their own writing and engage in discussions around writing and receive feedback from peers. While the open nature of the site may worry teachers and parents, submissions are apparently vetted for content before they are published. The opportunity for young writers to write for an authentic audience is something worth its weight in gold and the Internet is awash with sites which can be used for this purpose. Click here or here for a useful list. It is, however, harder to find a more localized arena for the students in your class to publish their creative writing. Not all students are brave and fearless writers who are ready to publish their work for the world at large. If all you want to do is give a space for less accomplished students in your class or school to get their feet wet so to speak, what can you do?

acadaI’ve been pondering this for quite a while. I’ve tried Moodle and Edmodo as platforms, and used Kidblogs and WordPress with a degree of success. Students can set up a blog on which they can publish their writing and other students can leave comments. Kidblogs can be made totally secure, with registration  only available from within your own classroom or an emailed link should you wish. Google Docs is another approach, allowing small groups to collaborate on any writing project by sharing the document with other members of the writing group, who can be given comment or even editing rights.

My approach to writing in the English classroom has always been to try to set up Writing Circles, small groups which work as a unit when it comes to supporting each other’s writing – offering editing suggestions and helpful criticism. In the past these have always been paper based, but the affordances of online tools allow for the writing circle to act more effectively and efficiently, and to become scalable. Teachers can set up tasks in which writing is shared by an audience of two to infinity. The limitations of paper are always rooted in the difficulty of sharing editing around a table beyond about two people, and sharing with a class only really possible if you have a visualizer, or if you run off the piece of writing for everyone to have a copy. Using blogs, fan fiction sites or Google docs, however, allows for varying degrees of asynchronous or even synchronous editing or collaboration.

The online blog can be set up as a class e-zine, and used for various purposes, with sections for fiction, poetry and non-fiction. The glossy look of the site you produce is a considerable lure for students, along with the appellation published author!

There is one function of the paper-based writing circle, however, that is enormously valuable, and that is the chance to talk face-to-face about a piece of writing. While Google docs does provide an opportunity for synchronous comment on a piece of writing, I would strongly suggest that every time you use online writing, you also give students a chance to discuss it face-to-face in the classroom. I find that students still need that verbal feedback. While they are writing online, they often call me over to ask advice or seek feedback on what they are writing.

“Oo, I like that!” and “Yes, that works well!” or “I don’t get that! What were you trying to do here?” has no real digital equivalent!


Running a Book Club using Moodle & Goodreads

bookwormsAs an English teacher I have always run book clubs as a way of encouraging reading for pleasure. Some kids loved it, some hated it, and the logistics were always messy and complicated. Kids would forget to bring in a book on the right day, and it never really had the effect I wanted – getting kids to read more. A few days ago I had a bit of a brain wave – why not create an online book club? After a bit of research I decided to use Goodreads. You can set up a free user account, and can even add an app to your phone which allows you to scan the ISBN number to call up all the details of a book. Users can rate books on a five-star system, add reviews and share recommendations. The site also allows you to set up private groups so it is perfect for a school.

Better still you can generate a widget which you can post on your blog, website or moodle page which pulls through books being recommended by group members – keeping the book club visible at all times. You can also run discussions, events and polls within the group. I have only just  set up the group, but already I can see that its potential far outstrips the once a term bring in a book to share approach I had been using before.

What sites,and apps like Goodreads does so successfully is bring together the real and digital worlds in a seamless manner. I have no doubt that the students I teach will do a great deal of reading online, but I do not believe that print books will die, and research seems to indicate that the cognitive benefits of print reading are enormous. Print supports sequential reading, the development of a coherent argument. On screen reading can be sequential and narrative, as in reading a novel on your kindle, but print seems to encourage a sense of knowing where you are in the logical train of thought. Screen reading also supports hypertextual readings which allow people to rapidly assimilate a wide range of inputs and get a sense of a field. The future will be one in which both types of reading, sequential narrative reading largely done on paper, and hypertext readings largely done on-screen, both have a role to play. Reading for depth, and reading to synthesise large amounts of information are both important cognitively and are supported by different delivery systems.

What I think an online book club adds to the mix is a commitment to valorizing both page and screen and making reading accessible to the ways in which we share our ideas via social media, and how this can be connected to the classroom.


Using WordPress to Create a Class Magazine

acadamagWordPress is one of the most popular blog hosting sites, and allows for posting of text and images, allowing multiple users to post to the same blog. This makes it ideal for a class magazine. The fact that it is a mature open platform and therefore likely to be used by students when they leave school makes it more attractive than some of the platforms that are designed purely for students. It is also free – which is a huge plus! I can’t remember a time when I haven’t had a class working on some kind of class magazine project – sometimes linked to literature studies, publishing an edition of The Venetian Times (Merchant Of Venice) or sometimes linked to History, Madame Guillotine (The French Revolution), and sometimes just for creative writing.

I use it for literature because it seems to me that when asked to write about a Shakespeare play in class, many students either freeze or do a very perfunctory job. No-one wants, willingly, to write an essay. But creating an online newspaper in which students role play reporters reporting on the events of a play seems to work quite well. A good idea is to get your reporters to draw assignments from a hat: one to write an obituary for Duncan (from Macbeth), another to cover a story about three witches and their prophecies, a third to write-up a Your Stars Foretell section. This ensures that the whole play gets covered. As a teacher it removes the effort of collecting essays no-one wants to write, and they are easy to assess if that is required – I simply make a printout of the post.

My very first class magazine – gosh, how many years ago – involved students writing their work in columns and pasting it onto cardboard. As computers started to become more ubiquitous I quickly started using word processors. The problem was always unifying the formatting. Teenagers tend to be highly idiosyncratic in their choice of font, and the way they format a document. Sometimes so idiosyncratic I could not use the file they gave me it was so riddled with problems. Combining different files usually fell to me as teacher, by default, and this was always a pain.

The beauty of a blog is that once students have signed on, and been added to the site as authors, you can sit back and let them do all the writing, formatting and worrying about layout and the like. Students love to comment on each other’s work, and I usually give moderator status to those who make five or more posts. Students then weed out any inappropriate comments or posts on their own.

What I like about blogging in the classroom is that it serves two of my main concerns around creative writing. Firstly it encourages students to write with an audience clearly in mind. As soon as they click publish it is out there, and visible to all. It is quite unlike writing for the teacher – authors are very conscious of the fact that others will comment on their posts, and it makes the tone quite different. They write about things which interest them, rather than what they think will interest me.

Secondly they tend to strive for greater accuracy, although curiously, very few seem to remember to use the spell check facility on WordPress! I have even had students demand that I show them how to remove the squiggly line under words they have typed in – you know, the one that indicates spelling errors! The fact that what they write is instantly published on a glossy interface does not eliminate all writing errors, but it certainly does encourage accuracy. WordPress has an edit feature which allows the author to edit, or update a post even after it has been published – a very useful feature indeed!

What it does for creative writing is that it instantly adds authenticity. WordPress is a public blog site, and complete strangers can read and like your writing! I get students to take home a letter explaining this, with signed parental permission to use the blog, but it does add that sense that the publishing is real, serious and valued. That certainly is not true of most writing done in school! If you wish to keep your blog site private that can also be done – but I would recommend making it public. Students really enjoy receiving comments from strangers – and the response will overwhelmingly be positive. I have never had a bad incident.


Turning your students into movie directors with Plotagon


There can be very few things in life as satisfying as seeing your ideas come to fruition before your eyes, and what I like about Plotagon is that it produces an animated movie from text dialogues.

OK the actors don’t deliver Oscar-winning performances – they look as if they’ve just walked off the set of Second Life The Movie, and their voices are obviously computer generated. But they do respond to the actions you select for them, and they speak the lines you write.

The applications of this in the classroom, it strikes me, are practically endless. Students can use it to write short scripts which then get rendered as movies. It could be used for just about any report back situation, for creative writing, or for creative ways of adding to presentations. Teachers of course could also use it to add content to their presentations, or flipped-learning content.

The application requires a download to your computer, and for you to register a free account. You can then link this to a Youtube account, or share your movies to Facebook or Twitter.

The interface itself is fairly simple to master, so you would not have to “teach” students to use it. You simply choose a scene and add actors, actions, movement, sound tracks and dialogue in sequence. You can preview the movie as you create it, and add sequences in any order.

When you are ready, you render the movie by sharing it to your account.

A down-side is that you cannot download the movie directly to your computer, but you can still add it to presentations via Youtube, or even download it from Youtube using KeepVid.

What I think is quite valuable, pedagogically is that it produces a very graphic output from a text-based input, which is great for the second or foreign language classroom in particular. It also allows students to spend time reflecting on their work, which is not always the case when they are filming using a camera.

Here’s one I made in about ten minutes, which I hope demonstrates the possibilities, and whets your appetite to try it out for yourself!.



Flash Films

I wrote about using Flash Fiction in the English Classroom a while back, and I thought I’d follow that post up with a few words about using very short films in the classroom. I like to call these Flash Films so that the students know they are meant to be short. Otherwise students tend to turn into mini-Steven Spielbergs.

One of the salient features of online, hybrid and flipped classrooms is the need to zero in on creating meaningful opportunities for students to exchange ideas and involve in discussion. Forums and chat rooms can only go so far. By getting students to create, and upload short video messages you can enliven discussion forums on platforms such as Moodle. The students use the web cameras we have for Skype calls at the back of the computer room, or their cell phones, to record a short message. These messages are then posted on the Moodle forum, and can be commented on by other students. The picture shows a mock-up of this, with a flash-film posted to a forum, and a text reply being made. The film was created using a web-camera captured in Movie-Maker.

Students often respond better to capturing their thoughts on camera rather than writing them out. It certainly works as a great way to kick off a conversation. The time limitation (I tell students their message must be under 30 seconds) is a good way to force brevity and precise communication. Students often record and re-record their messages to meet the time limit. It also helps avoid too many bandwidth problems.


Using PowerPoint And Google Images To Teach Poetry

Teaching poetry in the EFL/ESL classroom can become bogged down in a vocabulary lesson, which is often so dense that students cannot begin to tackle the poem itself, not being able to see the wood for the trees. A line by line gloss is so demotivating, to be avoided at all costs.

One approach, I have found quite useful, is to focus on the imagery of the poem to unlock the meaning. I get the students to explore the imagery searching Google images and creating a PowerPoint presentation to collate what they consider the five or six key images of a poem. These PowerPoints can then be posted online for discussion by the class, or presented in class using the Interactive White Board.

Searching for the images is a useful way of circumventing vocabulary issues, and allows students to explore the meaning of a word through images rather than text. While precise meanings cannot be pinned down in this way, I do feel that most Google image searches give a good overall sense of the meaning of a word. For example, I searched the word peregrinations, and was confronted by many images of people walking. If the poem contained the word I could use this in a montage for my presentation, reinforcing its meaning in my mind. In some ways this works better than searching a dictionary because so many of the cultural connotations of a word are conveyed. It is then that much painful to discuss the meanings of words, and the imagery of the poem, using student collages to kick-start the discussion. Students will work quite hard to ensure that the images they select for their presentation accurately reflect the meanings of words in the poem.

It is useful in the brief to ask students to add text to the presentation: phrases or keywords from the poem to identify what each montage represents. What works especially well, I think is the notion that each reading of a poem is an internalisation of meaning rather than a passive reception of the received interpretation of the poem. In class discussion I ask students to defend their view of the poem by comparing it to the received view and getting them to find evidence in the poem. I think this leads to more “ah ha” moments than a Spark notes approach.

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