7 Ways to use Google Docs in the EAP Classroom 9

What is a Google Doc and why might we want to use it in the EAP classroom? Before getting onto the practical applications, let’s first clarify what a Google Doc actually is. This isn’t meant to be patronising for those who already know, rather an acknowledgement that not everyone has had the chance to use them before.

A Google Doc is very similar to a Microsoft Word document, the main difference being that the Google Doc is not stored on your computer but instead on the internet. This means that it can be shared and viewed with more than one person at the same time.

example of collaboration on a Google Doc

example of collaboration on a Google Doc

There are many advantages to cloud documents such as Google Docs over those stored locally on your computer: they can be accessed from any computer or device; they save automatically so you don’t lose all your work when the computer crashes; and it’s much easier to collaborate when you are editing the same document rather than sending attachments back and forth. Even my tech-savvy and tech-saturated students are visibly impressed when I demonstrate how two or more people can write on the same document at the same time.

Cloud Docs aren’t perfect – formatting options are quite limited and the need for an internet connection can cause issues – but it’s that collaborative aspect that makes them an incredible tool in the EAP classroom. In this post I want to explore seven possible ways that they could be used in the EAP classroom. Throughout the post I’ll be referring to Google Docs simply because that’s what we use at our university but there are other options available such as Microsoft Office online and Apple iworks and at the end I’ll make some suggestions as to how you can use these online tools even if they are not officially used at your place of work.

Idea one: feedback on written work

Getting students to look at and respond to feedback on written work can be challenging, it’s not always something they enjoy and it can be a lengthy process waiting for them to read and react. Using Google Docs, however, can make the process a little less painful and a lot more interactive through the use of side comments.

In Google Docs you can make side comments on anything the student has written, a feature found in most word-processing software. However, the online nature of these docs means that the students can actually respond to any comment the teacher has made and have a conversation down the side of the page (see pic below). These comments can be either a correction code, a question (What do you mean by…?) or just praise.

google docs essay feedback

here you can see an example of a margin conversation

I’ve been using this for several years now and from my own experience I’d say that students are much more likely to respond to comments if done in this way rather than if they are written or sent to them via attachment. The sheer novelty factor alone makes it more engaging for students, but also the conversational element makes it seem more interactive. What’s also really useful is that any comments made on the doc are then sent to the author via email so they are alerted to anything new.

This can be used in different ways with students. Students can write outside of class and then you can comment on it later. Another option – assuming they have either access to either a mobile device or a computer/laptop in class – is to get them to do writing during a lesson and monitor their writing as they are doing it and provide ongoing comments to help guide them.

One thing I’ve found helpful to do at the beginning of term is to create one document for each student with their name on it and then ask them to put any writing they do onto that. This saves a lot of hassle constantly creating and sharing Docs and makes them a lot easier to locate on Google Drive. It also has the added advantage that students and teachers can easily look back and see what feedback they got on previous writings and incorporate that into their new one.

Idea two: peer feedback

The techniques used for teacher feedback can also easily be applied to peer feedback as well. Students can share their essays with their peers and they can use the same commenting system for feedback.

One useful sharing setting when doing peer feedback is to only allow their peers to comment on their writing rather than edit. This means they can’t actually change their peer’s writing but can do two things : firstly they can add margin comments like a teacher can and have the same interactive conversations down the side of the page. It also though gives them the ability to make suggestions on their classmate’s writing without actually changing the text. Anything added is put in a different colour and a margin box explains what has been added. The author can then decide whether to accept or reject those suggestions by clicking a tick or cross.

Idea three: brainstorming ideas for essays

Google Docs are ideal for different kinds of brainstorming sessions both inside and outside the classroom. It might be collecting ideas or arguments for an essay or simply finding out what they know about a topic. One way to do this if you want them to see immediately each others ideas is to create a table with two columns in it and in one column the students put the name of the students in the same group as them, in the other their ideas.

If you don’t want them to see each other’s ideas immediately you can create multiple Docs and send them to small groups. When they’ve finished, you can pull up their ideas on the board or share their Doc links on a master document.

Again, the facility to make side comments means they can evaluate the ideas of their peers immediately.

Idea four: vocabulary curation

On some courses I’ve used Google Docs as a way to curate vocabulary from the lessons and share among the class. There’s probably a variety of ways this could be done but I normally just created a table and selected one person at the end of the lesson to be responsible for adding new vocabulary to the document.

example of a class wordlist in a Google Doc

example of a class wordlist in a Google Doc

One of the built in features that really helps with that is the Research tool. By highlighting a word on the document and then right-clicking and selecting Research, it then opens up a search panel on the right showing results for that term. You can then insert links directly from the sidebar or drag an image directly onto the page. This is particularly useful if you need to define or show something a little more specific that can be easily represented by a picture.

Idea five: collaborative essay writing

One activity I’ve had students do that they really respond well to is collaborative essay writing. This works better if it’s a short IELTS type essay. Once they’ve brainstormed ideas for an essay, you can put them into groups and assign them a part of the essay each to write: one does the introduction, another the for arguments, another the against arguments and the last the conclusion.

What I’ve found great about this activity is that since they are working on the same document, they have to constantly negotiate meaning with other to make sure the essay is coherent and cohesive. This brings in another great feature of Google Docs. If they are not sitting right next to each other when they are doing this, they can use the document chat feature. Here they can take part in synchronous chat actually on the document they are working on to help make the essay more consistent.

Idea six: error correction

Another common classroom procedure that Google Docs can enhance is error correction. During the lesson, if you notice that students are making particular speaking or writing errors, you can collect them on a Google Doc and then share them with the group either at the end of the lesson or for homework. I would set the sharing settings so that students could only comment on the mistakes rather than edit them, and then they could work in pairs/groups to make suggestions in the margins as to what the correct answer is.

students correcting errors

students correcting errors

Idea seven: textual analysis

A variation on the typical reading comprehension exercise is to copy and paste the text or article into a Google Doc and then set questions in the margins for students to respond to. These can be traditional comprehension/true or false questions  or questions about the language in the text.

Responding to these questions can be set up as a jigsaw activity so only certain groups or individuals answer certain questions. Alternatively, everyone answers all questions and the responses can be seen stacked on top of each other down the margin.

students answer questions about a text in the margin

students answer questions about a text in the margin

Whichever way you choose to do it, the fact that students are able to see each other’s answers creates an immediate point of comparison or gives the opportunity for students to check each other’s work for accuracy.

Just a small tech tip if you tend to get your articles from websites such as the BBC or the Guardian. Often when you copy and paste from the website to the document, formatting can get all screwed up because it’s trying to copy in lots of ads and images from the website. However there are quite a few excellent browser extensions that will help strip down the article to pure text and make it easier to copy. I use the Evernote extension to do this but there are others such as Reader for Firefox.

But what if we don’t use Google Docs where I work?

Obviously life is made a lot easier if your institution uses GAFE (Google Apps for Education). All of the Google products are integrated into your log-in and sharing is a lot easier because Google can search internally for people’s emails to connect them to documents.

But there’s still no reason why you can’t use Google Docs with your students. If you create your own Google account, you can share documents via a link rather than via individual accounts. The only difference – and it’s a reasonably big one – is that any comments in the margins will not have the students name but will be signed as anonymous. In this case, you’d just have to encourage students to add their names when they make comments.

The other alternative is to encourage students to sign up for a Google account – the likelihood is that many will have one already – and then just use those addresses to share documents to. Again, not perfect, but does at least give full functionality within Google Drive.

And some technical considerations…

For students to use Google Docs both inside and outside the classroom they are going to need a device with an internet connection and one from which they can access Google Drive and Docs. Since it’s accessed through the Web, any laptop or computer can be used. Or students can use their mobile devices if they are using either an Apple or an Android product as there are apps available for them (and very good ones). The mobile apps don’t have all the features of the Web version but the key ones such as working on shared documents and commenting are there.

If a lot of your students are Chinese, you may also run into the issue that their mobile devices are not set up to have Google apps on them. Because of the restrictions on Google in China, Chinese phones tend to have a different app store on them that doesn’t include any of the Google products. However, most students know of ways to get round this by installing additional software or by changing the location of their app store to another country to make them available.

Of course, this does raise the bigger issue of whether you want students using their mobile devices in class, but since they are going to use them anyway whether we sanction it or not, it might be better to focus their use on something productive.

Do you use Google Docs or other cloud services with your students? If so, let us know in the comments how you are using them and add to our list of ideas. Or let us know if you have any questions.


Profile photo of David Read

About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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9 thoughts on “7 Ways to use Google Docs in the EAP Classroom

  • mura nava

    hi David

    i too like using google docs for collaborative writing, i described one use here with a short video showing writing as it progresses – https://eflnotes.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/the-thermodynamics-of-glittens-mini-narrow-reading-and-collaborative-writing/

    i was not aware of the document chat feature, can you only see this when two or more are actually working on a shared document? since i can’t see it when sharing a test document alone?


    • Profile photo of David Read
      David Read Post author

      hi Mura,

      Watched the video, very similar to the kind of collaborative writing I’ve tried in class, great idea.

      Yes, the chat feature is a little underused, I’ve had one colleague use it who was helping a friend with her Masters at a distance and they would use it to chat about her written work as they looked through it! Hadn’t thought about the chat feature not being there when only one person is looking at it, but you’re right. Google don’t help either by having lots of buttons that seem very similar, such as the comment button in the toolbar, as well as a button called ‘comment’ and a chat bubble that brings up the chat (but also looks similar to the comment button in the toolbar).

  • Anna Bartosik

    Always glad to hear teachers doing collaborative writing; there is a lot of resistance to it among ESL/ELT educators. Love Google Docs for this

  • Ania Rolinska

    Thanks David for this post. I really enjoy using Google docs for my studies and in my work with students, particularly their collaborative aspect. I simply love the possibility of several people working on the same document at the same time, for example when brainstorming ideas. I also like the commenting facility, and it’s a good opportunity to discuss with students what makes constructive criticism and introduce them to the idea of peer review. One other way in which I’ve used Google docs is to create hypertexts – students work in groups on enriching the text by linking it to other sources, texts, images and videos. Then another group reviews the hypertext and the hyperlinks discussing the meaningfulness of the connections.
    Commenting function can be used to explain vocabulary or features of the text – there is really a lot you can do with Google Docs.

  • natisha

    Hello! I m starting to sense a bit of a mancrush between Google Classroom and myself. It just seems really easy to use and I m loving how it can start to change how we communicate with kids, assign work, start conversation, share resources. It can keep all of your kids and all of their stuff in one place while giving you the ability to quickly get and send things between yourself and your students. By the way the best paper writing service that I saw: http://speedypaper.net/


    I really like this idea of giving the feedback electronically not just for the sheer novelty but also because my hand writing is not always as clear.

    In either way, students need to be given a task to reflect on the feedback or make an action plan of things to keep in mind in their next writing assignment. Technology could make it easier to access such files at all time too!