Writing with Google Docs

How real-time feedback and focusing on the important things can change the way we teach writing.

GUEST COLUMN | by Gillian Wilson

Google docsWriting prompts and essays are centuries-old staples of the classroom, but the methods with which your students approach such assignments don’t have to be. Google Docs allows students to focus on the basics, while providing unique collaboration tools that can completely alter the way we think about teaching writing.

The Draft Within The Draft

Some teachers I’ve worked with call it “The Silent 20.” While sounding slightly scary, this is actually some of the most productive time I’ve seen in a classroom. Students work in a quiet environment (earbuds and music at teacher’s discretion) in a Google Doc which has already been shared with the teacher. At any given time during The Silent 20, the teacher will dial in to a specific child’s assignment. He or she will highlight certain areas that need work – everything from simple comments like “watch your cases” or, “check your spelling” to more advanced “this is a great idea, how can you flush it out more?” or, “I like your main argument, but your supporting statements lack conviction. What can you do to sell me on your point of view?”

Some teachers I’ve worked with call it “The Silent 20.” While sounding slightly scary, this is actually some of the most productive time I’ve seen in a classroom.

Thus, the first draft becomes draft 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, and so on. The teacher can choose to just leave little comments for the student to think about using the comment tool, or open a full-blown conversation with the conversation window. Students get the benefit of one on one instruction but the classroom remains silent and free of distraction for the other students.

The teacher does not have to attempt to reach each child within the 20 minutes, just spot check on a few this day, a few more the next. Some students will just need a point in the right direction, others will require a lot more guidance. You know your classroom best, and can figure out the spot checks vs. the conferences.

Decide What’s Really Important

Justifiably, teachers frequently complain about a lack of time. Here is where we need to rethink the skills that our students will need to carry with them to college and/or future careers. For example, is it more important that your students learn where the commas and periods go in a citation, or should the importance be placed on using multiple, varied resources to form an opinion and giving others credit where credit is due?

If you decide on the latter, consider allowing students to use the Research button, built into Google Docs. When initially hitting the Research button (Tools > Research), information seekers will be presented with several options to help them sort through Google’s vast resources.  Search “everything” to get outside URLs. “Scholar” takes you to published articles, and allows you to insert the properly formatted footnote with the click of a button.  Image searches have an optional filter that allow students to only get results that are free to use, share and modify; and like the “scholar” option, inserting an image will automatically place the footnote and allow you to choose MLA, APA or Chicago style citations.

The research tool is just one example of the built-in features that allow students to learn about a topic, compile notes and peer edit; making it possible for them to complete an assignment from initial outline to bibliography without ever leaving Google Drive.

So, to recap:  your students have been given an assignment, used the research tool to gather resources and have put them together into a (hopefully) coherent report using the real-time feedback you have generated during the Silent 20. What’s next?

The Next Level of Peer Editing

Often students of any age level are willing to listen to their teachers, take pointers from their parents or even complete self-reflection activities. Yet, oftentimes the most meaningful feedback comes when a student must put themselves out in front of their peers and receive feedback.

Just like with the teacher-to-student interaction during the The Silent 20, students can also use the Sharing option in Drive to create peer-to-peer dialogue. Once your student gives another “Can Comment” rights to their paper, that child could be tasked with reviewing. There are many “how-to peer edit” checklists out there, but most suggest something along the lines of complimenting first, making suggestions second and then correcting mistakes (Find some great tips to get your students started with peer editing here).

A shared Google Doc makes this form of peer editing simple. Peer editors with commenting rights could just highlight a specific section, sentence or word and place their thoughts directly into a student’s doc. For a teacher who wants more, have the peer editor “file > make a copy”. This will create an editable copy of the original student’s essay.  Now, the editor can use colors or fonts to stand for certain things (“red are corrections, blue are things I liked”). Either way, the student has come through the peer editing process with functional suggestions and the teacher has a tangible copy of the before, the peer commentary, and the after.

Outlined above are just some suggestions for taking this tool and making it part of your classroom writing time. You will see that although how we attack the writing process may be changing, all the tried and true steps for developing a paper are still very much in place; research, creation and modification of drafts, the editing process and finally development of a final copy. The standard methods are not gone, they are simply evolving. As the ways our students are processing and disseminating information change, we must change our teaching methods to better align with their needs.


“Peer Editing Guidelines.” 2004. 10 Dec. 2013 <http://web.uvic.ca/~sdoyle/E302/Notes/Peer%20editing.html>

Gillian Wilson taught secondary school for nine years before leaving the classroom to become an Instructional Technology Integrator with Chesterfield County public schools just outside of Richmond, VA. She is a Google Apps for Education Qualified Individual and loves snow days. Write to: gillian_wilson@ccpsnet.net

One comment

  1. I teach 8th grade Language Arts and use Google Apps for Ed. I LOVE being able to drop into essays at random and offer targeted feedback or check their revision history to see how they’ve been revising (or if they’ve just been pretending!).

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