Use Google Drive to co-create an a posteriori syllabus

So if you’re not using a coursebook, and you can’t wait for some super duper platform with all the bells and whistles like I proposed, then what are you using? 

While I’ve never used Blackboard or Edu-whatever-it’s-called or any of the big brand name edtech platforms, I have tried a few smaller, freer ones, including the now-defunct collaboration tool Wiggio and a sort of Post-it note board whose name I can’t remember.

But when I made the switch from Word and USB-sticks to Google Drive about 5 years ago, I discovered that it was easier to share links to “living documents” than send the files themselves. Sharing a link to master documents means you can always update them, improve them, and most importantly, spell check them (I can proofread other people’s stuff but I’m often totally blind to my own last-minute spelling errors). And you worry much less about whether someone’s got the “right” version.

Then I took the next step to start creating and sharing a Google Doc to collect all the links in one place (which all but eliminates email sending).

Now I use Google Drive to

  • co-create an a posteriori syllabus
  • share teacher- and student-generated documents and links
  • post (and give feedback on) writing homework

My tech approach is by no means revolutionary — in fact, I’d call it a pretty low-tech tech option. But it is what I’m using for the time being.

So in this post I’ll go through these tasks one by one and then mention a few obstacles you might have if you want to try it yourself.


The a posteriori syllabus

When I shifted away from coursebooks I ran into a series of problems:

  1. Organization. I’m not naturally very organized. And lessons ― when you’re producing one after another yourself ― can tend to vanish into nowhere.
  2. Emergent language. Coursebook or not, I’d always wanted some way to keep track of all that great stuff that comes up in class, because whenever you use a coursebook the emergent language seems to fade into the background. It’s hard to compete with Useful language boxes on glossy paged spreads.
  3. I’m also someone who comes into class with a few big events in my mind ― what I think could happen and how long it might take. But I’ve often got more events, or the events expand to bigger than, I’ve planned. So I wanted a place to keep track not of what we were supposed to do, but what we actually did.

For each course I create a Google Doc that I store on in a folder on Google Drive. I create a reference section with few permanent links (and stuff gets added throughout the year).

2018-02-13 22_15_03-Wednesday Class Record - Google Docs
At the beginning of each course (or as new students are added) I get their email address and share the link. I set everybody’s permission to edit, because I want them writing on it, too. (Nobody actually has to have a Gmail/Drive account exept you.)

Then, as we go, we write up what we did in class. The result looks something like this:

2018-02-13 22_06_35-Wednesday Class Record - Google Docs

What we do is, each week I copy and paste the syllabus template, and the students take turns writing up the Class Summary and Whiteboard notes (literally what was on the whiteboard) and adding a (hopefully) catchy title to that week’s class.

I always include links to things we might have used in class. I write the homework in the appropriate box, immediately after class. (In this Class Record the page references are to a grammar books, Grammar and Vocabulary for First.) I also link to a lot of activities that I’ve developed over the last few years, like these listening activities.

2018-02-13 22_51_32-Daily Listening - Google Drive

Learner training

I used to insist that students students get it right and I was very specific about what I wanted. I even created this guide, Writing the Class Syllabus (download Word file), and this activity, Writing a class summary (download Word file), to do on the second day of class. In a nutshell, it trains students to write the correct form by comparing and improving two sub-par class summary texts, like you might in a exam writing task.

I generally don’t do this anymore because I find that students get it, more or less, without this, and I’d rather have them think more about the other students and less about whether they’re following all the rules. Also because exam prep is so product-focused I don’t think they need to worry about getting yet another format picture perfect. But I might be wrong.

If you want to try this yourself, here are a few tips:

  1. To decide who’s doing the Class Record for that week, just go in alphabetical order based on who’s in class that day (it’s the easiest way, trust me).
  2. If you use the How to write… task above, finish the task by having students write up a summary of last week’s class (i.e. writing up Day 1 on Day 2). Then put everybody’s work up on the wall and get students to circulate and check who best fulfilled the task. The “winner” gets to actually put their summary and notes online. This makes for a not a bad start to the year if you want to get students reading and evaluating each other’s work.
  3. If you’re not going to use the How to write task, do the Class Record yourself for the first few classes then give them feedback right away on the first time. If you’re slack, they’ll be.
  4. Encourage the student writing the record to take a photo of the whiteboard for later. You’ll still be amazed at what comes out sometimes in the student’s version of the notes.
  5. Set deadlines for when the students should post the summary/whiteboard notes if you like, but I’m more lenient these days. But always be strict with yourself about putting up the homework right away.
  6. Refer back to the Whiteboard notes for in-class review. I’ll often dictate sentences with stuff from the previous week. It’s always a way of helping the person writing up the Class Record feel their work is worth something.

The Writing file

Another standard feature of my courses is a shared Writing document. It’s linked from the Class Record (see the box at the top of the first image above) and the students post their “formal” writing homework there (stuff for more careful marking and review).

I use the same document to put up a model task and tips, sometimes in the form of comments, as you can see here…

2018-02-13 23_19_06-Saturday Writing - Google Docs

And sometimes just as crazy-man-with-a-highlighter lists.

2018-02-13 23_26_42-Wednesday Writing - Google Docs

BTW: I still tend to over-mark (my New Year’s Resolution is to step back from that cliff).

But one thing the Writing doc has saved me from is repeating the same issues that I used to repeat by private email. By having one shared doc I can say “look at what I wrote on Marco’s text”. And it works well for positive elements, too.


Other student contributions

I’ll also create and link blank docs for students to:

  • Create vocabulary lists
  • Create exam-style speaking activities
  • Write writing cheat sheets (summaries of the genre types on the exams)
  • Share Reading Circles contributions

One thing I’ve not been successful at is getting students to comment “socially” ― on each other’s work, or whatever. But Google Docs is for collaboration (I use it for collaborating on copywriting at my other job), so I’m sure there are plenty of more opportunities for the eager teacher.

Other programs

And of course, there are other useful (but standard) programs in the Google Drive suite, all of which I’ve used at various times:

  • Google Forms ― you can use to make surveys, homework activities or feedback forms.
  • Google Sheets ― like Excel, and I always make attendance forms that automatically total up days in class, etc.
  • Google Slides ― like PowerPoint, and we always use them for storing and running Pecha Kucha presentations

Some obstacles


There are some technical issues with Apple users. I’m not an Apple user, but I believe things work much better if they download the Google Docs app for iOS (but they still might have issues viewing comments).

Another technical issue might be that students, with editing power, can delete everything on the doc. But I’ve never had that happen, whatever age the students (I’ve taught from 13 years old on up), and even if it did you can always view and revert to a previous version in the Version Control menu.


I’ve never had any problems with say, a shared writing doc that everyone can see. Everybody gets into it. And knowing that everybody can see your comments means I’ve become much more careful about not sounding too negative. It’s made me more human. But you know your situation better than I do so you be the judge if it would work for you.


Lastly, as Paul Walsh pointed out re my last post, in-company classes put up all sorts of barriers to using tech.

I’ve had companies that block Google Drive, companies that let employees look at Google Docs but block any further links from those docs, and companies that gave me permission (but not the employees) to access it, though I quickly found out that the wi-fi was terminally malfunctioning and useless.

The good thing about Drive is that you can set documents to be editable offline. So even if you can’t connect, you can come into class with the doc open, add the homework or whatever without the connection, and it will automatically sync when you return to digital civilization.

But, in reality, I mostly don’t use the Class Record in class. The Class Record is there to keep us all together when we’re not right there in front of each other. Because that’s where the teaching and the collaboration and conversation happens, and I don’t need an app for that.


I’d love to hear if you’re using Google Drive and what for or if you’ve got better ways to give your course a little backbone without ever cracking a coursebook spine.




The coursebook I want

I and a lot of ELT teachers I admire spend a lot of time dissing, cutting down, criticising, mocking, disparaging and complaining about coursebooks. So I’d like to look at the other side for a moment: what kind of coursebook would I want? Well, glad you asked:

A platform

My ideal coursebook wouldn’t be a book at all, but a platform. I love opening books, but when it comes to a collaborative learning experience the one thing a book is is closed. In terms of platforms, I want something simple, accessible, sharable and open. Something like Google Drive. Wait, not just like Google Drive, but maybe Google Drive itself, because there’s nothing I hate more than proprietary platforms that want to gobble up your time, energy and resources and then collapse, or not get updated, or just plain suck. Google’s not going anywhere, it gets updated, and lots of people like myself already use it for a lot of other stuff. So, if not Google, my coursebook would work within a popular, easy and ubiquitous platform (not simply try to imitate one).


The pro-coursebook argument that’s hard to beat is that it saves the busy teacher (or the one keenly aware of how much her out-of-class time is really worth) time. So I imagine a sort of expert teacher working in each country as content curator, finding and publishing a curated selection of 5 or so new texts a day. But of course you’re not bound to use the curated texts: you could do it too.


This daily list would continue to grow until it contained hundreds or thousands of texts. Or rather, it wouldn’t contain them, but link to them, because I want my students seeing the contexts in which these texts ― academic articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, film scripts, poems etc. ― were really published.


At any point in the term you set a number of filters based on your location, student preferences, or favorite sites, and the coursebook would indicate texts and sources that might be of interest (and show you fewer or no texts outside your areas of interest).

Automated to help text selection

Any text “imported” (linked) into the coursebook would be cataloged and automatically tagged with an estimated CEFR level, word-count, estimated reading time per CEFR level (how long would it take a C1 student to read vs a C2 student), as well as a number of useful searchable tags relating to topic, variety of English, register, occurrence of grammar and lexis. This would all make the task of finding texts within the system much, much easier for the busy teacher.

Automated to help task creation

In one click, you switch from the text at its original source to a bare-bones, text-only “workshop” version that you could manipulate at will. The platform would also come with a series of tools that allow you to instantly create a variety of different activities, including gap fills based on various parameters (e.g. removing prepositions, auxiliary verbs or all function words). A variety of exam formats would also be supported, like the Cambridge Use of English tasks.

You could work with these text-activities online, in class, if your students use tablets/computers, or you could print them out. Or could link them as homework tasks on the evolving syllabus.


Of course the coursebook would have no chapters, or order, but teachers could make intelligent decisions about what texts to use based on class interest or language issues that need addressing. From one week to the next the teacher could share the texts with the students to create an evolving syllabus.

Simple interface for students

This evolving syllabus would be the user interface i.e. what students see ― basically a formatted document with links, texts, etc. the teacher has placed for each lesson. Layout would be basic ― you don’t want to spend your time worrying about pagination. And you don’t want to just replicate the jam-packed tiny-font landscape of a typical coursebook spread. Just a single-column format, like a blog. But you could also give students “creator” status so they could do the same operations on a text by using the same tools that you do.


Because the search functions work so well, when something comes up in class, like a student sees examples of inversion, and asks about, or you realize that students don’t have much vocabulary for topic X, you could easily search and find a text that would offer a context for addressing the gap.


You could create and share word lists from texts you’ve read. And the platform would have a series of reminders that would encourage you to recycle vocabulary/texts at set intervals. You might work on a text in class, and then 3 weeks later the platform reminds you to either recycle the vocabulary, or create a new recall activity based on that text.


The platform would also have a catalogue of communicative task types like debates, roleplays, etc. Rather than fixed any activity to that particular text, the teacher could choose an activity type and the platform would prompt her with suggestions for how to create that particular activity, including a framework for various stages. And templates would make actually writing up activities for distribution (either in paper or electronically) to students faster and easier.


Each of the texts would come with an “access community” feature, and you could share what you did or see what other teachers have done with a specific text, as well as what texts were used before and after it. Teachers could comment and share opinions, difficulties, and classroom reactions to texts. Texts that generate a lot of interest might get more visibility on the platform, while others, that generate no interest or uptake, could get phased out.

Supportive of teacher development

To start with, the platform would offer tips and suggestions to teachers about how to set up activities, prompts for writing comprehension questions, what texts to pair together, and even offer reminders to try other activity types. But, with the teacher’s consent, the platform’s “voice” would gradually get muted as the teacher grows in experience and internalizes frameworks or task types.

But even with the training wheels off, formatting options would still be accessible so you could create e.g. exam task activities that look like the real thing.


Yes, there’s a learning curve with any platform (or any new coursebook series), but the idea would be to help teachers save time sourcing texts and creating tasks, so that they could have more energy to devote to being in the class itself (discussing, debating, revising). And the tags, reminders and search functions would help teachers build internal consistency and repetition into a course that’s not fixed in advance but evolves as it goes.


Well, what about it? Is that the kind of coursebook you’d use? Or have you got something better?



1. Pronunciation and politics

Pronunciation, as I knew from my first moment trying to awkwardly mouth the RP-centric picto-phonemes in New English File Intermediate, is about identity. And politics. Cursing the Queen and her English (which was much easier for an American than actually saying “bull” in RP), I fudged a mocking, piss-taking English accent during the coursebook’s “pron section” for a couple of terms before just ditching it all together.

It was only discovering the wonders of connected speech on my Delta Module 1 course a few years ago that I learned there was more to pron than just individual vowel sounds, and I waded back into the teaching of pronunciation.

But the further I drift from those heady days of theory, the easier I find it is to avoid explicitly focusing on it. So I was happy to discover, in my first trip to IATEFL, a number of talks on pron, including the much-touted “first ever pron plenary” by Jane Setter.

And while Setter’s plenary was informed, inspiring, encouraging (just “focus on focus” ― tonicity ― she urged, and you’ll produce measureable gains in students’ perception and production), and super feel-goody, I’d like to focus on a different pron talk by someone I’ll nominate for the unsung hero of the pron crowd, Gemma Archer.

Her talk dealt as seriously and instructively with pronunciation but situated it, at times implicitly and at times very explicitly, in the very real of context of a global ELT industry, a looming Brexit, and an uncertain Scottish future.

The other 97%

In her talk, “The other 97%: pronunciation strategies for non-RP-speaking teachers” (according to a much-cited number by David Crystal, 97% is the percentage of native non-RP speakers) Archer, a speaker of SSE (Standard Scottish English) took aim at the published materials bias toward RP, particularly in EAP.

She highlighted differences between RP and SSE pronunciation: among other things, the latter has shorter vowels and the rhotic /r/ ― as she stated in perfect deadpan, and to laughter and applause, “In SSE we simply pronounce the R wherever it appears” (well, duh, says this American).

I found her talk particularly interesting as it came a few slots after listening legend John Field stated in his presentation that the use of regional accents in listening materials aimed at lower level learners was “worrying”.

While I don’t doubt his expertise, who, I wondered, is Field’s imagined pool of learner-listeners? And where do they study? Clearly not where Archer, or fellow Scot Steve Brown, hails from and works, or where any number of other teachers, from elsewhere in the UK, Ireland or abroad ― i.e. the 97% ― come from.

That Harry Potter talk

Citing a survey she had done as well as anecdotal evidence from her own experience teaching pre-sessional EAP courses in Scotland, what Archer seemed to demonstrate so clearly was that “regional” or non-RP accents are perceived as “difficult” or “strange” precisely and only to those who’ve had no exposure to them ― which includes an unfortunately large number of the IELTS 6.5 pre-sessional students landing in her neck of the UK every term.

What she has worked at, and advocated for, and what I would back wholeheartedly, is the local development of resources that allow teachers to highlight, analyze, and teach their own local accents. (Not, of course, to the exclusion of all others, which means including RP.)

Rather, she encouraged the teaching of something called, if I got this correctly, “high variance phonemic instruction”, which exposes students to lots of variations of individual phonemes (e.g. the word bull, mentioned above, spoken by people with a number of different accents) early on. It doesn’t mean doing whole volumes of Robert Burns in A1, but it does means getting them used to the idea that all non-RP accents are not simply deviations from some otherwise monolithic norm.

File under: “I’m Scottish!”

I’m sure someone might object: but my coursebook has lots of regional accents! In fact, I too clearly remember that red-bearded cartoon in English File Elemetary File 1 belting out, in response to a question about his origins, “I’m Scottish!” And I’m sure the ELT industry is more sensitive to it (and realistic about it) than it used to be.

2017-04-11 01_38_54-IATEFL Conference and Exhibition 2017 in Glasgow
The sensitive new 2017 IATELF mascot

But as Archer teaches EAP in her own country and is much more sensitive to the lack of resources in, in this case, her own accent, I’m going to take her word for it. I long ago learned to pick out that one hammy American voice actor every publisher seems to call on for their series. What passes for variety to the outsider might be extremely limited to the one with ears to truly hear.

So if that’s fine for SSE Gemma, teaching in her native country, where does that leave us EFLers, trying to teach pronunciation abroad? First, as Archer said, there should be more training and support of learning about a teacher’s own individual accent.

That should be balanced with an understanding and recognition of what’s best in English as a lingua franca (ELF) contexts. (According to Jennifer Jenkins’s findings, which were referenced by Archer and summarized helpfully here on ELF Pronunciation, my ― and Gemma’s ― rhotic /r/ makes the grade, but my American flapped /t/ ― I say bedder for better ― doesn’t)

Which leaves us with the final question. If local training and materials are needed, who’s going to invest in it? More on that next time.