“Weighing the evidence”: Using online tools to encourage critical thinking

Image courtesy of Julia Manzerova

Image courtesy of Julia Manzerova

In the last month, I have spent a good deal of time developing the curriculum and material for a new EAP program at our school. A major focus of the course will be developing critical thinking skills, especially in the area of research for writing academic papers. For some of the students, this isn’t anything new, but for a section of the group, this is a skill they have never been encouraged to develop. I am having students work in pairs or small groups to form a research question or hypothesis and then research the opposing sides of the argument before making a final decision and supporting that opinion. Since most of the work will be online, I am encouraging students to use online tools to share the information they find and to write up their charts.


  • Critical thinking: Students are required to think and read about various viewpoints and then develop their own opinions.
  • Summarizing: Students need to condense what they are studying into shorter pieces which helps them developing better writing skills.
  • Framework: It gives students a starting point from which to work from when writing their research papers in university.
  • Collaboration: Students need to work together to brainstorm, debate, and talk about how to interpret the information they have gathered.


  • Online Document: I have often used TitanPad as my registration-free real-time collaborative document tool, but for this exercise, I am using the rich text function of Kl1p to make a table that the students can fill in.
  • Annotator: I have blogged about a number of online annotation tools, but for this exercise, I will use Markkit as an online highlighter.


  1. Create a Kl1p site for each group of students. Make a rich-text page and add a table that has two columns: ‘Supporting Evidence’ and ‘Opposing Evidence’. Along the top of the page is the hypothesis or question and below the table is the ‘Conclusion’ and ‘Reasons’ sections.
  2. Add the Markkit bookmarklet to each browser that the students will be using. This makes it easy for students to highlight and share their findings with the rest of the group.
  3. Have students look for articles that support and oppose the hypothesis or question. When they find a statement for one of the two sides, they should highlight the sections, click on the bookmarklet, copy the new URL, and then paste the URL in one of the table columns along with a summary of the information.
  4. Once students have collected what they believe to be enough information, have them discuss their findings and then draw up a conclusion along with the reasons for making this decision. This should be written in the proper sections at the bottom of the page.
  5. Have students share their page with another group. Each group should comment on the other groups’ pages and should look for potential holes in their arguments.
  6. Students read over the comments and then address any issues raised by the other groups.
  7. Once everyone is done, students can then write up a short essay based on their information.

Having students use an online document allows students to work independently and yet still collaborate on their work. Using an online annotation tool keeps students from losing where they found their information and can allow others to check on the authenticity of their findings.

I would appreciate any feedback you might have regarding using this exercise in an EAP setting. You can add your comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or you can email me using the comment page on this website. Thank you.


“Is that the write time?”: Timed writing using MinutesPlease


A while back, I wrote about using a teleprompter as a timed pre-reading tool. Using a timer to help students improve their writing is nothing new and has been shown to be an effective method of assessment. Writing is one of the most difficult tasks for L2 learners to master and can cause them to get caught up in trying to perfect. There are a number of reasons for implementing timed writing in the language classroom.


  • Generate ideas: Students use this time to create ideas that will be used in a longer, more complete writing task.
  • Recalling information: Students are using previously learned information to write instead of relying on what others have written.
  • Planning: Students create a structure that can work as the foundation for later writings.
  • Develop fluency: Students need to write without the aid of a dictionary or translation tool causing them to develop fluency in their thought and writing.
  • Creative thinking: Students need think ‘outside the box’ which causes them to be more creative in their writing.
  • Timer: There are a number of timers that can be used from a simple sand timer to a stopwatch. MinutesPlease is an online tool that closes a webpage after a pre-determined period of time. This causes students to stop together instead of trying to coax them to finish.
  • Online document: There are a number of places to write online for free without having students sign-up or give over personal details. I prefer TitanPad since a class can be set up where individual pages can be password protected.
  • Projector or large display: Anything from a computer and data projector to an IWB can be used.
  1. Go to TitanPad and create a new group by clicking on ‘Get your own private space’, give your site a name, type in your name and email, and then ‘Create team site now’. The site will now email you a link. The link will take you to a page to set a password. Once you click to accept, you will be taken to an admin page where you can click on ‘Create a new pad’ to create a new page for each student. Make sure to set the security to ‘Public’ and give it a password.
  2. Create a new page for each student
  3. Create a class page and copy/paste the URL for each student beside their name on the page. Edit the URL by putting 1.minutesplease.com/ directly after the http:// of the page url. You change the 1 to any number of minutes you want them to write for. Here is an example with the TitanPad group name as nathanhall and the student’s pad name being timed: http://1.minutesplease.com/nathanhall.titanpad.com/timed
  4. Give each student a writing prompt based on a topic you would like the students to write on in length later on. This could be done by typing up a short introduction onto the class page. You could give a link to an image or project at the front of class.
  5. Inform students that they are to write as much as possible without stopping or editing the text until the time is complete. Tell them that the purpose of this exercise is to generate ideas and the first stage in a longer, more refined writing task.
  6. When you say go, students click on the link beside their name and it will open up two tabs or windows in the browser. One tab or window will be the countdown clock and the other will be their writing pad. Students should start writing as soon as the document opens and the page will close once the time is up.
  7. Once the page closes, students should not go back to their writing pad until everyone is done. Once all of the students have completed, put them into pairs or groups to share what they have written. Students could read their writing out loud or students could read their partners’ writing silently. Students should provide feedback to the other students either orally or written. If students are providing written feedback, have them use the chat function on the right side of the pad instead of changing things directly on the page.
  8. Students can then work on writing a more polished piece using the feedback they received.
This task incorporates a number of valuable skills including peer-feedback, listening, writing, and creative thinking. Some students may find the task too stressful, so make sure that you provide detailed instructions and purpose at the beginning of the process. Doing this activity a number of times over longer period will help students gain a better understanding of why they are doing it.

Have you ever used timed writing in the class? How successful was it in helping students formulate ideas? Did you use it as a form of assessment? Please add your comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact form found on this website. Thank you!

“Piecing it together”: Reading and sharing in groups

Image courtesy of Ella Phillips

Image courtesy of Ella Phillips

The use of jigsaw reading is nothing new in education, yet it is still an effective tool to help students interact with a particular text in order to understand it at a deeper level. This is done by giving each student in a group a different section of a text or a related text and having them share their findings to the rest of their group. This is often done as a paper-based activity, but this can also be accomplished using computer-based tools to add an additional element of collaboration.


  • Deeper understanding: By having students summarize information orally, learners need to have a greater comprehension of the text.
  • Spoken interaction: Students need to discuss with others on how to share the information with their home group. Students then need to share that information on their own and field questions.
  • Shared responsibility: The burden of understanding the text is distributed amongst others in the group. This helps alleviate anxiety which can aid in comprehension.
  • Different perspectives: By sharing the information with their home group, students can interact with the other students to create a single document that displays their viewpoint. Other students can then compare and contrast these documents as a class.
  • Graphic organizers: To achieve this digitally, I am using the Holt Interactive Graphic Organizers. These are fillable PDFs that can be downloaded, filled in using a PDF editor, and then uploaded or printed.
  • Digital text: This could be typed up or copied from a PDF or website. In order to make it easier to copy text, I would suggest PrintFriendly to convert a website to a PDF. To edit a PDF text, use PDF to Word Online Converter.
  • Online document editor: I would suggest using something like TitanPad to post the URL addresses for each whiteboard.
  • Large display: This can be an interactive whiteboard (IWB) or computer with projector.
  • PDF editor: Most PDF viewers such as Acrobat Reader or Preview allow users to fill in fillable PDFs. These are readily available on almost any computer.
  • Online PDF Viewer: There are a number of online viewers, but I would suggest using PDFZen.
  1. Select a text or multiple texts on a related subject and convert it to digital text if necessary. If it is a text in a book, type out the text in a word processor. If it is a PDF, some PDFs will allow you to copy and paste the text, while others will need to be converted to a Word document using PDF to Word Online Converter. For online text, I would recommend that you first convert the page to PDF using PrintFriendly in order to make sure other text, such as advertising, doesn’t sneak into the article.
  2. If you are using one text, divide that text into sections and copy and paste each section or each document into a separate TitanPad document.
  3. Create a single ‘homepage’ that students can use to get instructions and the URL address for their document. Paste the URL for each document onto this page and assign a group number for each document.
  4. Put students into groups and assign them a group number. Each student in that group reads the document on their own. After each group member is finished reading, the group gets together and talks about how they are going to share this with their home group. Each member share what they thought was important from the reading and students debate on how they will best present this information to their home group.
  5. After a set time, assign new groups that have one person from each document put together. The group members now share their document with the rest of the group without looking at the text.
  6. Have each group download a copy of the Process and Cycle chart from Holt Interactive Graphic Organizers. Have each group piece together the text into a single document by filling in the sections of the chart using a PDF viewer such as Adobe Acrobat Reader or Preview.
  7. Once students have finished completing the chart, they save a copy and then upload their PDF to PDFZen and post the URL to the class document.
  8. Once all the groups have completed the chart, display each chart on the IWB or projector and have the class compare and contrast the different charts.
  • You can assign groups according to speaking and reading levels in order to balance out the groups.
  • Make sure to set time limits in order to make sure students are finishing together.
  • Continually monitor the groups to answer any questions and make sure they are on task.
  • For more extensive tasks, students could create infographics to post and share outside of the classroom.

Have you done a jigsaw activity using computers? What did you use? How did it work out? You can add you comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact form on this website. Thank you!

“Reading in technicolor”: Using online whiteboards for reading review

Image courtesy of Rowen Atkinson

Image courtesy of Rowen Atkinson

I don’t ever recall writing on any walls as a child, but many people have to deal with this on a regular basis. In this reading exercise, I am asking students to use their creative side to draw on their understanding of an assigned reading. I have students respond to a topic based on a text they have previously read by ‘drawing’ on an online whiteboard.


  • Collaboration: Students in groups work to recall information from the text.
  • Interaction with the text: Students are required to summarize and expand on the information they gathered from the text.
  • Give opinions: Students give opinions on what other students are saying regarding the text.
  • Comprehension: Students show that they understand the text without being singled out.
  • Online whiteboard: There are a number of good free online whiteboards, but for this demonstration, I will use Awwapp.
  • Online document: I would suggest using something like TitanPad to post the URL addresses for each whiteboard.
  • Large display: This can be an interactive whiteboard (IWB) or computer with projector.
  1. Give students a text to read either in class or for homework.
  2. Create a series of questions based on topics from the text. Some of these can simply be information based, but some should allow students to share their opinions regarding what they read in text.
  3. Go to Awwapp and click on ‘Start drawing’ and a new blank whiteboard is created.
  4. Choose a colour by clicking ‘Color’. This colour should be different than that of the other groups. I would suggest black.
  5. Click on ‘Pencil’ and then select ‘Text’ from the pull-out menu. Click the crosshairs near the top of the page and a box will pop-up. Type in the first question and click ‘OK’.
  6. Click on ‘Menu’ and then ‘Invite’. A new box will appear with a URL address. Copy this address and click ‘OK’. Close this window.
  7. Create a new document using TitanPad and paste the address onto the page.
  8. Repeat steps 3-7 for each question you have created. Assign a number for each address you paste on the page.
  9. Put students into groups of 3-5 students and assign each group a different URL to start with. Give each group a different colour based on the pen colours in Awwapp (red, green, blue, yellow, brown, or purple).
  10. Each group opens their assigned page and selects their colour, chooses the text tool, and type in an answer on the page. They are also welcome to do SOME decorating (eg. underlining, illustrating, etc.) using the drawing tools, but must leave room for other students to write and draw as well.
  11. Once each team is done responding, they choose the next address on the list and a different person in the group answers that questions. This continues until all the questions are completed and each person in the group has been able to answer at least one question. Students are encouraged to help each other with the questions.
  12. Once all the teams are done, the class goes over the different questions / whiteboards on the large screen together. Students can ask questions about the other teams’ answers.
  13. Students can then go back and re-read the text based on the information that they gathered from the exercise.
  • To make sure everyone finishes together, it is a good idea to set a time limit for each question.
  • The teacher can monitor each board by going to the address as students are working on it. This allows them to not feel like the teacher is putting pressure on them by being physically close to them, yet the teacher can still monitor what is happening.
  • This can also be used as a pre-reading exercise using the knowledge the students already have on the subject.

Have you ever used this type of exercise before? How did it work for you? Do you have anything to add? You can share your comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or you can email me using the contact form on this webpage. Thank you!

“Let me count the ways”: Using a corpus in the English language classroom

Screen Shot 2014-08-09 at 7.35.49 PM

Monday’s #ELLchat was all about teaching vocabulary in the English language classroom. There are a number of opinions about how this can be accomplished from a more focused route of using lists and the like to a more passive approach that draws the vocabulary from the material itself. No matter how this is accomplished, there are times when students need to find out what a word means and how it can be used in context. One way to accomplish this is through the use of a concordance or corpus. Essentially, a concordance searches a document or a set of texts for a word or phrase and displays the results in a highlighted sentence. A corpus is a database of texts, sometimes targeted to a specific genre, which can be searched, often electronically. Having students search a corpus instead of a dictionary has a number of benefits that extend beyond just learning a new word.

  • Context: Students are able to see the word used in a variety of contexts which brings the word to life.
  • Collocations: Students are able to see word combinations such as phrasal verbs or adjective/noun association.
  • Stay in English: Students are reading and processing completely in English instead of using translation dictionaries.
  • Sentence structure: Students are able to see the particular sentence structures in which this word is often used.
  • Metacognition: Students are using higher level thinking skills to process the information. They are not provided with direct answers, but instead must process the information and decide how it can be used.
  • Corpus: I suggest using a more modern database such as the Corpus of Contemporary English (COCA) or the related Corpus of American Soap Operas. There are a number of others, but I have found these two to be the most usable.
  • Online text editor: I often have students share their new vocabulary through a collaborative glossary using a real-time text editor such as TitanPad. They can share their findings and read other student’s words as well.
  1. Go to the Corpus of Contemporary American English and click ‘Enter’ to begin.
  2. On the left-hand side, type in your word or phrase in the box provided and choose what genre you would like to search such as spoken, fiction, or news. Click on ‘Search’ to find the word or phrase.
  3. On the right-hand side, there will be a list of the words with the total number of references in the corpus. Click on the number displayed in blue and a list will display below.
  4. Move your mouse over the list and it will take over most of the screen. You can scroll down the list to see the sentences that have the word or phrase you searched.The left side of the list shows the genre and the publication in which it was found.
  5. Move your mouse over the left-hand side to show the search box if you want to narrow down your search or start a new one.
  6. Once students have decided on a meaning or meanings, have them write out a definition and post it on a class page using TitanPad. Have them post it alphabetically as a glossary so that other students can access it as well.
  • This works best with higher level students and is particularly good for EAP students.
  • Have students write their own example sentences along with their own definition in the glossary. This helps you know if they are understanding how to use it properly.
  • Have students compare genres to see if there is a difference in usage between them, especially spoken and written language.
Have you ever used a corpus in your class before? How did you use it? What would you add to this? You can add you comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the contact form on this website. Thank you!

"Ready, set, READ!" – Using a teleprompter for timed-readings

Screen Shot 2014-08-09 at 7.42.53 PM

Reading in English can be quite difficult for L2 learners as they grapple with unfamiliar vocabulary, sentence structure, and idiomatic phrases. I try to encourage my students to put down their little pocket translators and read the text for general content and context. Some of my students listen to this advice, but many still fall back on their translations tools and attempt to understand every word on the page. To overcome this dependency, I have asked students in the past to take everything off of their desks except for a highlighter or pen and paper. This has worked to a point, but there are still problems with students finishing the text at different times. To work on this problem, I have started to use a teleprompter to scroll through the text at a set pace. Here is how it works.

  • Teleprompter: I use a free online teleprompter such as CuePrompter or EasyPrompter. These are simple to use and don’t require any downloads, installs, or registration. For the purpose of this demo, I will use EasyPrompter.
  • Online bulletin board: In order for the students to be able to share information, I suggest an online collaborative corkboard such as Padlet.
  • Digital text: This could be typed up or copied from a PDF or website. In order to make it easier to copy text, I would suggest PrintFriendly to convert a website to a PDF. To edit a PDF text, use PDF to Word Online Converter.
  • Computer and projector or IWB: Use a computer and large display such as projector or interactive whiteboard.
  • Online dictionary: Use an online English-only dictionary such as Macmillan Dictionary which has been specifically designed for ELLs.
  • Online document: There are a number of good online text pages, but for this demo, I will use TitanPad.
  • Dropping their dependence on their L1: Translating from the student’s L1 not only slows down the process of reading, but it also continues to reinforce problems created from using the grammar of their original language.
  • Building vocabulary: By sharing new words that they find in the text, students are able to help on another which decreases their dependence on the instructor and helps them take ownership in their learning.
  • Increases their reading speed: In teaching them how to skim and scan for information, students are able to read faster thus allowing them to read more information over a period of time. This is especially helpful for students in an academic or business setting.
  1. Select a text and convert it to digital text if necessary. If it is a text in a book, type out the text in a word processor. If it is a PDF, some PDFs will allow you to copy and paste the text, while others will need to be converted to a Word document using PDF to Word Online Converter. For online text, I would recommend that you first convert the page to PDF using PrintFriendly in order to make sure other text, such as advertising, doesn’t sneak into the article.
  2. Copy the text by selecting all and choosing the copy function under Edit or using the keyboard shortcut.
  3. Go to EasyPrompter and paste the text into the text box. You can make optional selections on the right side such as font size and starting speed. You can always adjust these later if they are not what you would like. Click on ‘Start Prompt’ to run through the text for any problems or to test the speed. On the next screen, there is a down-arrow on the left side of the dotted line at the bottom of the screen. Click on that arrow to hid the buttons on the bottom. You can always bring them back by clicking on the up-arrow later on. Hit the space bar when you are ready to start and hit it again to stop it at anytime. Time the text and record this time for later.
  4. Create a Padlet wall by using these instructions.
  5. Create a set of comprehension questions based on the text.
  6. Prepare the students for reading the text by asking them to read the first time for unknown vocabulary. Have them take notes while watching or write them down at the end. Tell them how long the text will take to read so they have an idea of how long this will take. Start the presentation and let it run to the end.
  7. Afterward, have students type up their words without definitions onto they Wallwisher wall. Show this wall on the screen. You will need to refresh the page to see any changes.
  8. Put students into pairs and assign words to each of these pairings. Have students look up the words, preferably with an English only dictionary such as Macmillan Dictionary, and post their definitions on the same note as the word on the wall.
  9. Have each student go to the wall and read over the new vocabulary. Take questions on things that are unclear.
  10. Before going over the text again, have students read over comprehension questions based on the text. These could be given in paper form, or posted to an online page such as TitanPad. This allows students to post their answers on their own homework page.
  11. Run the text through once again and have students complete their answers after watching it one time. Have them post their answers to their homework page for feedback.
  • Talk about skimming and scanning: Go over the idea of reading a text for gist (skimming) or quickly looking over text for particular information (scanning) before reading the text for the first time.
  • Highlight key words: To direct attention to particular vocabulary in the text, you can use the highlighter function in EasyPrompter to isolate those words.
  • Show the text in chunks: Instead of going through a longer text, cut it up into smaller portions and do the activity in chunks.
Have you ever used a timed-reading activity like this in your classroom?
Do you have any advice / additions / changes that you would like to share? Feel free to add your comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or send me an email through the contact page on this site.

“Survey says!” – Using polls as a pre-reading tool

Screen Shot 2014-08-09 at 7.50.50 PM

Earlier this year, I was at an educational technology conference that included Richard Byrne, James Hollis, and Jen Deyenberg. I had the opportunity to sit in on both Richard’s and James’ sessions. One of the tools that was demonstrated in James’ Smartboard session was Poll Everywhere. I was already familiar with this free online tool, but hadn’t seen it in action during a seminar. At the time, I was intrigued, but couldn’t really see how this might be useful in my classroom. I shelved the idea for the time being and returned back to my school with all sorts of other ideas that I could implement immediately.

Some time ago, I was talking with a colleague about some reading and writing activities and the idea of Poll Everywhere came up again, but this time I had an idea of how it could be used to help students draw from their previous knowledge during a pre-reading exercise. Students respond online to a series of statements based on the text they are about to read by giving their opinions on whether they agree or disagree with the sentence. The results are then posted for everyone to see and discuss before reading the text. After, the students go back over the results to compare the answers from the text and their previous responses.
  • Previous knowledge: Students are able to draw from their own experiences and knowledge on the topic.
  • Discussion on the topic: Students are engaging with the topic and with their peers before reading the text.
  • Vocabulary: Students are able to learn or review vocabulary based on the topic before reading the text.
  • Critical discussion: Students debate the merits of each statement, giving their own opinions before reading someone else’s viewpoint.
  • Noticing: Students read the text for specific information.
  • Online survey: There are a number of good free online survey makers, but for the sake of this demonstration, I will be using Poll Everywhere. It is simple to use, doesn’t require registration, and displays results in real-time.
  • Web annotator: Once again, there are a good deal of quality sites and tools for annotating pages. For this project, I will use BookmarkQ for its simplicity and the clean results.
  • Internet device: I prefer the use of cell / mobile phones for this task, but since some schools don’t allow the use of phones in the classroom, I will demonstrate how you can use either a computer or phone to enter in the results.
  • Large display: The obvious choice is an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) although most schools don’t have these and for this project, a simple computer and data projector will do just fine. You can even just have students look on their computer screens, but it loses the community type of feel to it.
  • Collaborative document: Google Drive works well, but since some students might not have a Google account, I prefer to set up a TitanPad document that they can use without having to sign up.
  1. Find an appropriate text: This could be paper-based or online for this activity.
  2. Create a list of statements: Create a series of statements based on information from the text. Students should be able to agree or disagree with the statements.
  3. Create a poll: Go to Poll Everywhere and create a multiple-choice poll using each statement as a separate questions with Agree / Disagree as the two options.
  4. Share their thoughts: Before having the students complete the poll, have them discuss what they think the article is about and the information that could possibly be found in it. This can be done as a class or in small groups.
  5. Complete the poll: Have students complete the poll on their own and show the results in real-time on the IWB or projector.
  6. Discuss the results: Have the class discuss the results after everyone is done. Have students share any new words that they may have come across in the statements.
  7. Read the text: Have students read the text and then complete the poll again, keeping a copy of the original poll results before clearing them for the students.
  8. Compare the results: Put students in groups to look at the results. Have them share anything they find surprising or things where they disagree with the author.
  • Students could use an online annotation tool such as BookmarkQ or Infocus.cc to share they answers to the poll questions.
  • Students could follow this up with more research on the topic using an online annotation tool and Wallwisher or TitanPad to share links to what they found. This could culminate in a writing exercise or presentation.

Have you used something similar in your classroom? Add your thoughts in the comment section below, tweet me at @nathanhall, or email me through the contact page on this website.