Seven Ways to Use Google Docs to Support Bilingual Student Writers

Diversity and Equity

Seven Ways to Use Google Docs to Support Bilingual Student Writers

By Christina Ponzio     Sep 25, 2017

Seven Ways to Use Google Docs to Support Bilingual Student Writers

This article is part of the guide: Putting It Into Words: The Future of Writing Instruction.

The room is filled with chatter in Arabic, French, and Ukrainian as my class of 9th, 10th and 11th grade emergent bilingual students file into third period, grabbing their iPads off the cart before they settle into reading. Title III federal grant funds from the previous year made it possible for me to create a 1:1 classroom for students enrolled in ESL at Seaholm and Groves High Schools in Birmingham, Michigan, a northern suburb of Detroit. My students are well-versed in our independent reading routine at the start of class and flick open Feedly, a news aggregator app. They begin scrolling through headlines recently posted in their RSS feeds, some written in English or their heritage language, some based on their interests in soccer or technology, and others based on assigned feeds, such as YouthVoices or NPR.

“Folks, as you read, ask yourself what evidence the author uses and whether it seems credible,” I say. “Thumbs up if you remember what credible means and can explain it or thumbs down if you don’t know.”

I wait for everyone to hold out their thumbs before asking several to define “credible” in any language. I also point to the vocabulary poster we made yesterday; it has a picture to symbolize the word as well as an example sentence using “credible.” As emerging and developing English language learners, these moves are critical for checking students’ understanding before we extend this conceptual knowledge into writing. Michigan, like 38 other states, has adopted the WIDA Standards for English Language Development as well as the accompanying assessments to evaluate linguistically-diverse learners’ initial English language proficiency and ongoing progress in accordance with federal Title III requirements. WIDA is a consortium of 39 state departments of education.

After reading independently, I ask students to share with a partner what they read, one piece of evidence they found, and how credible the text seems. The questions are displayed on today’s Google Slides with sentence starters and frames to support discussion. Opportunities to dive into mentor texts within the genre we are studying help linguistically-diverse students to dialogue about rhetorical moves more commonly used in the U.S., such as the use of passive voice in informational texts or incorporating outside evidence rather than personal opinions in argumentative texts. Today’s discussion helps my students become familiar with the characteristics of a news article, including how to organize details and integrate outside evidence.

Later, I ask them to share with the class by copying and pasting sentences from their readings into a shared document posted in Google Classroom, where they will sort sentences according to what does or does not seem credible. Students will revisit this document later to borrow other authors’ sentence stems to introduce evidence while writing their own news articles. As students work, I can walk by anyone’s screen and see the whole class’s thinking unfold.

Though Google Docs is only one of many digital tools integrated in my paperless classroom, it is arguably the online resource that has made the biggest difference for apprenticing emergent bilinguals, or English learners, into academic writing in English. The ease of sharing Google Docs in real time makes it simple to share resources—as well as our writing with the whole class—in seconds. Even though some of my students may not have regular access to a computer at home, they can access Google Docs from anywhere, including their phones.

Here are seven ways Google Docs can support emergent bilinguals as writers:

  1. Access to Mentor Texts: Google Docs make it simple for me and my students to share mentor texts. In the case of this unit, we can add hyperlinks to news articles or copy the article into a shared Google Doc that the whole class can access. Using the “Comments” feature, we can annotate as we analyze the writing and highlight words or phrases to integrate into writing later.
  2. Co-Construct Criteria for Writing: As students immerse themselves in mentor texts, they notice common characteristics in how writers compose. I ask students to use this knowledge to construct their writing rubric—listing common elements for “Organization” or “Voice” based on the 6+1 traits for writing—on a shared Google Doc. Later, the rubric becomes a tool for students to refer to as they write as well as for me to provide feedback.
  3. Shared Writing: A common framework for scaffolding students’ learning is the, “I do, we do, you do,” approach. “We do” can be challenging to enact when only one person can hold the pencil during partner work. Google Docs makes it possible for two students to simultaneously write the same piece. If a writer is struggling, she can watch her partner write and jump in when she’s ready; students also know I will look at the “Editing History” to hold them each accountable.
  4. Real-Time Intervention: Besides making it easy to hold all students accountable just by peeking on my computer screen, Google Docs makes it simple to provide immediate intervention. Using “Editing” or “Suggestions,” I can add sentence stems/frames or words to help students communicate their ideas, make grammar corrections, or share links to resources. And I can provide this support without disrupting students’ writing or making them feel self conscious about needing help.
  5. Integrating Other Supports: Writing is often challenging for emergent bilinguals because they not only need to learn the elements of a particular genre, they have to do so in another language. With Google Docs, they can quickly find the right word for their writing with Google Translate. They can also look up definitions or images for new words with the click of a button. If I notice students are ready to learn a new grammatical concept, I search for the concept on YouTube and find a short, but accessible video to share with the student–without being pulled away from supporting the whole class.
  6. Transparent Revision Process: As previously mentioned, the “Editing History” within Google Docs makes it more realistic to hold individual writers’ accountable to high expectations. It also makes it possible for me to get an inside look at their revision process. Many times, emergent bilinguals will stare at a blank page, afraid of writing the wrong thing. Google Docs makes it easy for them to start writing, knowing that they won’t be encumbered with paper and pencil. I can also look at their drafts to see their thinking process even if they delete their writing. Students can more easily keep their drafts in one place—which they can look across to reflect on their growth as writers.
  7. Providing Feedback: Students can quickly “Share” their writing in Google Docs with peers as well as me throughout their writing process. What’s more important is that I can provide feedback without drawing dark red lines across their writing, an experience that can be discouraging to many writers (including myself). Instead, we use Comments, Editing, or Suggesting to provide less invasive feedback; we can also share audio feedback right in the document using Kaizena, a Google Doc add-on. Students can receive immediate feedback multiple times throughout the writing process--and I don’t have worry about dragging stacks of paper home!

Certainly, these seven approaches to integrating Google Docs into the writing classroom can help all learners, but they provide greater possibilities for bilingual writers. The ease of using Google Docs allows writing teachers to provide more consistent and effective support for language development. Digital-based tools not only help prepare linguistically-diverse students to compose and communicate in the 21st century, but they are also necessary to promote greater equity through increased access to rich and meaningful writing instruction.

Additional Resources


Digital Writing, Digital Teaching

Free Technology for Teachers

Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day

Writers Who Care


The Translanguaging Classroom: Leveraging Student Bilingualism for Learning, by García, O., Johnson, S. I., & Seltzer, K.

Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom (Second edition), by Gibbons, P.

The Digital Writing Workshop, by Hicks, T.

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