An idea is worth a thousand photocopies

Another of the ideas from my talk last Saturday, with a quote from my former DELTA course tutor…

At the previous talk I gave at the IH Barcelona ELT Conference, a year ago, I explained how I'd taken a vow of abstinence, had had my own photocopy code disabled, and not made a photocopy since, using instead some of the wonderful digital alternatives (blogs, Edmodo, shared Google Docs, wikis…).

Because we now have free online access to a vast number of articles on subjects of all kinds that will interest students of all ages, the following has become one of my favourite classroom activities, as it produces lots of student-generated language and discussion and doesn't involve queuing up to use the photocopier.

Have your learners negotiate and create their own digital list of "The top 5-10 [whatever] of all time"

Rough outline of stages

  1. Find an idea that will engage your learners (sources: blogs, RSS feeds, The Guardian, Twitter, …)
  2. Have your learners (face-to-face) brainstorm their own list
  3. Share the list online (blog, Edmodo, Facebook…)
  4. Extend list over course of 3-7 days, perhaps before the class meets again
  5. Negotiate reduction to 5-7 (10) points, possibly F2F in next class
  6. Provide link and compare "our" list with the original article
  7. Exploit article for language work and/or developing reading skills, using an interactive whiteboard if available
  8. Exploit the readers' comments accompanying the article
  9. Further discussion

We can spread this out over several days, do some of the discussion face-to-face, some of it online. Note how much we can get out of the article before we ever even actually look at it (stage 6, above).

As with all the uses of technology I suggest, we're in fact making fairly minimal use of technology here.

Examples of online articles
All of the following articles have popped up in my Google Reader feeds for sites like Lifehacker, Mashable, and Wired, which are great sources of such material.

I love all brainstorming activities! By definition they are creative (on which Carol Read gave a brilliant plenary at the conference); they are student-centred; give rise to conversation, social interaction and sharing; which leads to a focus on learner-generated emergent language; and they involve creating something, not merely consuming more photocopies.

Introduction | One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six | Seven | Eight | Nine | Ten

Edmodo: transforming the way we teach

If you're not familiar with Edmodo, it describes itself as being "a secure social learning network for teachers and students" — a sort of private Facebook, if you like, which it certainly resembles in appearance and functionality. The video here comes from their "About" page.

In the video, Edmodo co-founder Nic Borg says "Everyone is connected everywhere they go now except for within the classroom. They enter this void where the tools that connect them to one another don't exist any more". It may not (yet) be true that everyone is connected everywhere, but it's certainly crazy for the "technology" used in language teaching still to be limited to the printer and the photocopier.

Since first starting to use it on our Cert ICT course last year, Edmodo has become my favourite Web 2.0 tool. Again in the video, Jeff O'Hara says that for teachers "Edmodo is transforming the way they teach".

One change using Edmodo has meant for me is that, since I set up my first group I've never made another photocopy. I'm old enough to remember the pre-photocopier days when we cranked out copies on a mimeograph and I later spent years swamping my learners with bits of rainforest pulped into photocopied A4 sheets, which were handed out, used, but never seen or used again.

No one ever "replied" to a photocopy. Edmodo changed that.

Things I (don't) do with technology

Hi, if you came to my presentation at IH Barcelona's ELT Conference today, Things I (don't) do with technology. As I never use a photocopier — having deliberately had my own photocopy code disabled! — I promised to provide some of the content either via this blog or else via the Edmodo group set up for the talk.

These are things I do (or don't do) but as I think we should really be thinking not about what the teacher does with technology but what the learners do, each of my nine points below has in parenthesis what my learners do as a result:

  • I never use the photocopier > (the learners create, not merely consume — and especially they don't consume photocopies!)
  • I always have a Plan B > (the learners rarely see me being utterly, utterly incompetent — subconsciously, possibly our greatest fear as teachers)
  • I make only minimal use of technology > (the learners, not the whiteboard, are interactive)
  • I never touch the technology in my classroom > (the learners use the technology)
  • I don't use Google to search for things but use podcasts, RSS, Google Reader and Delicious instead > (at least some of the learners  start using the same tools)
  • I try out at least some new technology and new ideas, which has recently included Edmodo, Voxopop and Prezi, which I used for the presentation > (the learners see and do things that are new)
  • I try to get the maximum reaction and interaction out of minimum materials > (the learners have to do the work)
  • I don't blog or podcast or use Prezi, etc > (the learners blog, etc)
  • I have my learners produce shared digital end products > (the learners create things they're proud of and care about)

It's not the teacher and the technology that matter in the classroom: it's the learners and their doing and sharing things, assisted and enhanced by technology that counts!


A couple of interesting blogs that I've come across recently, the first Carol Read's ABC of Teaching Children, which has "Ideas, tips and resources for primary language teachers".

Carol was — I think — the person who said "it breaks my heart to see young learners with the same identical photocopy", or words to that effect.

I don't now remember when or where she said or wrote it, a long time ago, but it's one of those things you hear that has stuck with me. Don't photocopy pictures for young learners, copy or draw them — or get them to draw them!

You'll find other good ideas on teaching young learners on Carol's website, as well as in her excellent 500 Activities for the Primary Classroom.

The second blog is Scott Thornbury's An A-Z of ELT, which is an extension to the book of the same name, by the same author.

Do people actually read blogs…? They do, and they participate, on this one, which has some fascinating discussions on it.

See also Create your own A-Z… Or get your learners to do the same, which makes a fun activity.

Sitcoms: consuming or creating?

Videoing on a mobile phone: making it less intimidating than a video camera

More from the very excellent, this time on exploiting sitcoms…

A lesson…
Besides the likelihood that your learners are going to just love them, there is an awful lot of language you can get out of sitcoms, as the article on building a lesson around a sitcom suggests. When it comes to choosing a sitcom, my own suggestion would be that you don't choose it, but that your learners do. What they already watch (perhaps in their own language) and can tell you about is likely to be more popular than something you pick (unless it's Fawlty Towers, which is always a success!)

An activity…
There is also a Sitcom information activity, which includes a photocopiable worksheet with a gap fill exercise.

I've got my doubts about this one — not so much about the activity itself as about whether or not that is the way we should be using technology. Photocopying exercises is one use we could make of technology — the photocopier being part of technology — but it has the students merely consuming, not creating.

The activity suggests the learners then go to YouTube and watch a clip of one of the sitcoms mentioned in the text; but that's merely consuming too.

If you get your learners to watch and create listening comprehension questions for each other, instead of merely watching, then you've got greater engagement, not merely entertainment.

Actually creating a sitcom…
A third idea on the same site involves actually creating a sitcom; now that's more like it!

I'd suggest that, in this last case, you really want to get your learners to video it — that's creating, not merely consuming.

To get round the problem of people not wanting to be filmed, you might try filming on mobile phones first, as they appear less intrusive; and always remember that no one should be forced to act but that, if they don't want to, there are other roles such as directing and the actual filming that can engage all the members of a group… You could also record audio only, not video.

My experience of such things is people's inhibitions tend to drop, when they see what fun it can be.