Reflections on Google Apps for Common Core ELA

Reflections on Google Apps for Common Core ELA

We are several years into the adoption of the Common Core Standards. While they haven’t revolutionized education as we know it, they have helped to provide a focus in content areas such as English Language Arts. What began as an exploration and experimentation has slowly become refined lessons and practices. One tool that has helped this implementation has been Google Apps for Education.

Google has provided a way to quickly and efficiently share ideas, lessons, and assignments while building on a familiar set of tools for staff and students. The ability for synchronous collaboration and cooperative work has helped to move people from their reliance on Microsoft Word and opened a new world of possibility.

This summer I was given a new challenge as I took a new position as a Technology Coordinator at a K-12 school for students with learning disabilities. I questioned whether many of the lessons and tools that I used in a K-8 setting would be effective with this population of students. What I found was that the tools and lessons were equally if not more successful. I was surprised to see how easily students could use Google Apps, and how with a few strategies they found success in areas they had previously struggled. While our implementation of Common Core is still in its infancy, the tools and strategies I had previously seen successful are helping us to make the transition rather smoothly. I want to share some of these tools, extensions, and lessons with you as you implement Common Core in your schools.

Google Research Tool

Google Research Tool provides information directly in Google Docs.

Google Research Tool provides information directly in Google Docs.

Perhaps no tool has impacted the way our students access information more than the Google Research Tool. Essentially, the Research Tool is a filtered version of Google Search. The results in the Research Tool are largely academic and informational as opposed to commercial. Yes, one of the primary results is typically Wikipedia, but gives students quick access to information directly in any Google App (Docs, Drawing, Presentation). Students can easily insert information, maps, pictures, tables, quotations and definitions without having to leave their document. For students with learning disabilities, limiting the amount of multitasking and providing focused results is an ideal way to introduce doing research with digital resources.


The Google Research Tool also helps to promote web evaluation skills and the ethical use of online materials. Every website that comes up as a result in the tool offers the option to insert a link or properly cite the resource using APA, MLA, or Chicago citation format. While this does not wholly eliminate the possibility of plagiarism, it does make it easy for students to correctly reference and cite materials found online.

The Google Research Tool also allows students to choose images to include in their work. This is especially helpful in creating presentations. One of the nice features of the image search is that it gives students the ability to select images that are “free to use, share, or modify commercially”. Once again, this helps to promote ethical and responsible behavior when using online resources without having to use external resources.

The Google Research Tool has become a cornerstone in the toolkit that Google provides to students. Very often it replaces the need for the traditional Google search because of its filtering and integration. And while it is important for students to learn how to use search engines correctly, this provides a nice alternative when searching is not the primary lesson and empowers students to independently use this tool to help them meet their learning objectives.

Student Research Form

This simple form can be customized to help students organize their research, identify claims and evidence, and prepare them for their writing.

This simple form can be adapted to help students organize their research, identify claims and evidence, and prepare them for their writing.

Building off of the use of the Google Research Tool, we created a research form that is incredibly simple, yet powerful for students when conducting research projects. In this activity, we are specifically addressing Common Core anchor standard:

CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

This research form for students provides a valuable organizational tool, while leveraging several of the affordances of Google Apps. Using the Google Research Tool in this instance serves both practical and pedagogical purposes. When collecting research, students can insert the link to the website they are using directly into the form. This enables them to go back and re-read if necessary while providing the teachers a direct link to the source material.

One of the major revelations we encountered during previous research projects when using note-cards or other organizational strategies was that students were being instructed to paraphrase their findings immediately. This presented an assessment challenge for teachers when there was incorrect information used in the student’s work. Was the student bad at summarizing or paraphrasing? Was it an issue with comprehension? Were they not using close reading strategies? To combat this, we created the middle column to allow students to copy and paste information from the text directly from the website. The intention was that this information was not necessarily there to be used word-for-word in any final assignment, but rather as something they could go back and re-read for relevant information related to their claims or main ideas. We found it was incredibly difficult for students to synthesize what they had just read, and even more challenging to effectively paraphrase new information without it losing meaning.

The third column is then used to take informal notes as to what this new information might mean. Early in the research process, students may not have a clear understanding of their topic or the research as it relates to it. The fluidity of this column forces students to go back and re-read information and potentially re-interpret its importance and relevance as the research process continues. It also gives the teacher an opportunity to understand why a student chose a particular piece of research and provide them with feedback throughout the process using the Comments tool.

highlightingThe last step of using this research form is once the research is collected, for students to generate claims and main ideas and select the supporting evidence. The Highlighting Tool (formerly text background color) allows students to color code their information. In this case, student can color code each main idea or claim. They can then go back through the research they copied and pasted, and highlight any evidence that supports that claim or idea. If the student finds there is not enough evidence to support their claim, they must go back and find more. However, this search may be different from their initial searches as they should have narrowed down their focus to find specific evidence they are missing.

Once this process is complete, students can then take the color coded evidence and paraphrase it in an outline, written work, or presentation. Or they can simply use the direct quote, and the citation provided by the Google Research Tool.

This process addresses Common Core anchor standard:

CCRA.W.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

In addition to writing as a final product for the research process, students can also use Google Presentations to create multi-media presentations to demonstrate their understandings or present their findings with supporting evidence.

One of the affordances of a Google Presentation is that is easily shared and able to be embedded in online publishing tools. This allows students to publish to more authentic audiences and if students are using a blogging tool or learning management tool (such as Edmodo) it can lead to follow up comments and discussion posts.

As fourth graders, the students were able to publish this presentation to their online class discussion boards and elicit feedback from students in other classes at the same school.

Presentations as part of the research process address Common Core anchor standard(s):

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

Building Fluency With Tools and Transferring to Other Lessons

As you may have seen, students can use these tools for multiple types of lessons. By introducing the Research Tool and highlighting, we have provided a tool that helped to address two anchor standards with the possibility of addressing many more. Building fluency in using these tools is allowing them to be used in multiple instances and, more importantly, independently by the student.

Another example of this is a content specific vocabulary lesson. One of my teachers was struggling to have his high school students complete their vocabulary homework. Students were assigned terms, and asked to define them and provide examples on worksheets. I suggested that we use a multimodal glossary in Google Docs to help facilitate a new way to complete these lessons. Because the students were already familiar with the Google Research Tool, they would be able to find definitions and pictures to represent the definitions/meanings.

In this activity, students can be assigned terms or select them on their own to build their vocabulary. Adding a visual/multimedia representation of the definition demonstrates understanding and allows students to make connections.

In this activity, students can be assigned terms or select them on their own to build their vocabulary. Adding a visual/multimedia representation of the definition demonstrates understanding and allows students to make connections.

After assigning the multimodal glossary to his students with learning disabilities, the teacher went from a homework completion rate of 0% to 75%. Students shared that they found this process easier than using an external dictionary site, and adding images helped them to think about what the words actually meant. This type of activity could be used to address Common Core anchor standard:

CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

In addition to utilizing the Google Research Tool, the teacher also introduced using Google Extensions to the students.

Addressing Accessibility/AT With Google Chrome Extensions

Accessibility and access to traditional assistive technology software is an important aspect of technology at a school for students with learning disabilities. One of the biggest complaints early on is that Google Apps did not have the same features as other software titles such as Dragon, Kurzweil 3000, and Co-Writer. Each of these titles possesses a specific function that help students with disabilities complete tasks on the computer, and Google does not have these features built into their software. However, there are several Google Chrome Extensions that when used for specific tasks can provide as much or more benefit to the student.

Google_DictionaryIn the example of the multi-modal glossary, one extension was shared that helped meet such a need for the students. The extension “Google Dictionary (by Google)” gave student the ability to not only double-click on a word and instantly get a definition, but it also read the word to them aloud. Not only were students able to use this tool to complete their assignment, but they learned that they could use it on any word on a website displayed in Google Chrome.

Other extensions such as SpeakIt! offer decent text-to-speech solutions for any website in Google Chrome. Clearly is an extension developed by Evernote that is similar to the “Reader”feature in Safari on Mac OSX where it removes ads and website formatting to show only the content. This is especially helpful for struggling readers who are easily lost or distracted in text.

While these extensions are not as good as the paid assistive technology solutions, they do offer one affordance that the others do not. Unlike most AT software, the extensions are not separate applications but rather built right into the Google Apps experience. Just like the research tool, this type of integration is not only valuable for students with learning disabilities, but for most students as well.

Extensions Aren’t Just For Students

In addition to discovering the power of extensions for students, I also shared with the teacher that there were some Google Scripts and extensions he could use to help organize and assess his lesson. The first suggestion I made was that perhaps one of the reasons for a low completion rate of his vocabulary assignment was that he assigned all of the students the same words and gave them the same worksheet. He understood that each of his students were at different levels, but was concerned that creating Google Docs for each student would be too cumbersome and time consuming. That’s when I shared Doctopus with him.

Doctopus is a Google Script available in Google Sheets that lets the teacher share a copy of a template with every student in the class in a totally automated way. In addition, it also allows you to designate different students by levels (which the students never see) and assign templates based on those designations. So in this particular assignment, he differentiate the assignment of three different levels. For the students needing the most support, he provided a majority of the definitions and examples and asked them to find pictures, while he provided only the terms to the more independent students. Doctopus then shares each assignment with a specific student and shares it back with the teacher. A link in a class roster spreadsheet provides a direct link to every students assignment showing when it had been last edited.

Below is an outstanding explanation of how Doctopus works by Jay Atwood (@jayatwood)

In addition to showing how Doctopus works, Jay also shares an example of how teachers can provide comments anywhere on a document for students. This is an important way that teachers can provide valuable feedback for students, and because it is in a Google Doc, the comments are automatically saved. Teacher assessment is now possible both during and at the conclusion of an assignment whereas with a worksheet, teachers were only able to provide feedback once it was turned in.

Goobric ExampleAnother way to provide feedback with Doctopus is to use the Google Chrome Extension Goobric. Goobric allows teachers to attach a rubric to any assignment created with Doctopus.

To use Goobric, simply install the extension and create a rubric in a Google Sheet, with the scoring in the top row. Once completed, you can attach the Goobric in the Doctopus menu of your spreadsheet.

Once on a student assignment, click the Goobric icon to pull up the scoring rubric. One of the nice features of Goobric is that it does not take the teachers to another window while scoring. The rubric is overlaid on the assignment, and once complete, all of the information including scoring and descriptors will be pasted directly into the student assignment.

The scores will be transferred back to the Doctopus spreadsheet automatically. Students then have the option to revise, and the teacher can re-score the assignment as needed.

These two tools have made it incredibly easy for teachers to manage assignments while providing them with a tool to give students on-going feedback throughout the learning process.



Final Thoughts

Both Common Core State Standards and Google Apps for Education are not revolutionary in their own right. Yet the flexibility, ubiquitousness, and ease of use for Google Apps have helped to transform several prior learning processes. It would be foolish to say that Google Apps is the only technology tool that can help teachers and students meet the standards, but it is important to note how developing familiarity and fluency using a tool can help students focus more on the learning objectives of a lesson, and less on learning the technology tool. It also gives teachers a wonderful opportunity for new ways of feedback and assessment.

I had wonderful experiences using this with teachers and students in a K-8 setting and I am enjoying watching the process unfold for students with learning disabilities now. I hope that your experiences can be as positive. I’d love to hear about them.