Little pieces of paper

Pieces of paperOne of my favourite ways of capturing and recording language while working with small groups of up to about six language learners is on little pieces of paper. When these pieces of paper have featured in some of my posts, people have remarked on their use and, consequently, I’ve become more aware of how I use them and thought I’d try to write about them in a bit more detail. While possibly too simple a thing to write about, I’ve found them to be a very efficient, flexible and satisfying way to work with learners and their language. So, this is a this-works-well-for-me-it-might-for-you kind of post.

A few years ago, I was meeting with a group of learners in a room without a white board. A brand new building, great facilities, but I got the room without a white board! I brought a portable flipchart with me. I used it much as I would a white board and it was fine. It wasn’t ideal, though. The pages quickly filled up. I couldn’t erase parts of phrases to replace them with alternatives. I couldn’t quickly get rid of evidence that I had made a mistake! And, recovering and reviewing earlier language meant flipping frantically back through the previous sheets. So, not very efficient and not at all flexible.

While working with the learners, we all sat around the same table – much as a group sitting down to dinner would – and when a learner asked about something, or needed a word or phrase, I jumped up to write it on the flip chart. I didn’t mind doing this, but some learners seemed to feel they were putting me out by asking a question, some saying “no, no, it’s ok, you don’t need to write”. So, not very satisfying either.

During one session, I stayed at the table more and wrote the language on paper and put it in the middle of the table so that everyone could see. This had the advantage that I wasn’t using as much paper. To add flexibility, I tore the paper into smaller pieces. I realised that this meant that I could quickly retrieve language used earlier in the session and use it in new contexts. I could also bring similar language together to allow patterns to be noticed. The flexibility meant that learning opportunities were more accessible and exploitable. What might have remained a chaotic list of words and phrases on sheets of A1 paper, became language we could move around, discard, and add to easily.

I started to bring pre-cut paper into sessions with me but when I got the chance to use a room with a white board, I took it, relieved, and started once again to use the board. My board work, however, has always tended towards the chaotic. I start with good intentions, with images of colleagues’ well-organised boards in my head, but it quickly gets out of hand. The board needs to be cleared regularly – after having taken a photo of it, if I remember – and the language at the beginning of the session exists only in memory or on my phone (and, possibly, in the notebooks of learners!)

With small groups, though, I now hardly ever use the board any more. I have my pieces of paper in every session and I use them according to what’s needed with any particular group. I first mentioned them in my first ever post writing about my Tuesday evening ESOL group. They also featured when I wrote about what I had planned, but not how I planned it.

Most recently, I used them with a beginners group of Polish learners when the topic of what they do at Easter came up. Using a version of the language experience approach – putting the learners’ ideas into English – and with the ideas on using translation from George Woolard’s recent publication in mind, we gradually built up and captured their story on the bits of paper, breaking the sentences up into phrases. We read it through and focused on pronunciation. One person was there for the first time and didn’t want to speak in English but had helped to build up the story using L1. Then, I kept the beginning of each sentence where it was and we mixed up the rest of the pieces of paper. Using Google Translate (carefully), I played a translation of a sentence (and variations) in their language for the learners to reconstruct in English using the pieces of paper. We checked the result by playing the sentence in English on Google Translate. (I could have said it myself, but it seemed to give the learners a bit of a boost to hear their sentence said by another voice.)  The new learner participated in reconstructing the sentences by helping to select and arrange the language needed, seeming more confident as the session progressed.

Having the pieces of paper in the middle of the table meant that this was a very collaborative activity, with learners having to work together or at least monitor what others were doing or saying. We were able to start with what the learners wanted to talk about and work with that and, by doing so, the meaning was clear to them from the beginning. I just needed to check that I understood properly before providing an English version for it. And, I now have the set of pieces of paper that I can bring in next week to review and expand the language we encountered.

Following this, a learner wanted to know the word for ‘daffodils’ in English. We found it and I said that this was my favourite flower. For the last 15 minutes we asked and answered questions about our favourite flower, sport, colour, etc, all with the support of a substitution table made of little pieces of paper!

So, this is what I do. I often think that what we choose to do in class is guided by our personalities and how our mind works (or doesn’t). I need to keep things simple! I’d be very interested to hear what you do – either using pieces of paper – or in dealing with chaotic white boards!

15 Responses to Little pieces of paper

  1. Kathy says:

    I love this idea, thank you! My classes are usually 10-12 in number and we regularly have small group activities where the group reports to the whole class. I can see letting them use paper this way to capture their results and share.

    • Carol Goodey says:

      That sounds like a really good idea, Kathy. I’d be interested in finding out how it works and what gets captured on the pieces of paper. I’ll keep this in mind for using in similar ways.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. (You’ve reminded me that I’ve been meaning to comment on your last post 🙂 )

  2. swisssirja says:

    While reading the post I already imagined myself working with small cards 😉 i love cards, anyway. i tend to have small pieces of paper everywhere, as lists, reminders, grammar rules i keep forgetting, so I guess I should bring my paper into the classroom as well. I have used it a little bit like a board too when I have separated the class into small groups and when students give their talks. Then I note down any new or good vocabulary so that everone in the group can see the written form.
    Otherwise, I guess it would work well for voc practice with bigger groups. for instance, the teacher could write any spontaneously come up new words on separate cards (throughout the lesson) and then in the end let each student draw one, read it out and try to define if can remember.
    Otherwise, more daffodils, please and quickly 😉

    • Carol Goodey says:

      I love that you imagined yourself working with them as you read, Sirja! 🙂

      Noting down the new and good vocabulary for learners working in small groups is a great idea, and perhaps along the lines of Kathy’s idea above, each group could be asked to report back on these new words that they learned as part of the activity. I also really like the idea of learners drawing a card at the end and defining it (or perhaps using it). I’ll use that!


  3. kevchanwow says:

    Hi Carol,

    I’ve used little pieces of paper on and off in the classroom, but started making them a regular part of my lessons again after reading one of your earlier blog posts. One thing I like to do lately is flip the paper over and let students draw a quick picture on the back, something that will trigger the phrase that’s on the other side. That way students can get a bit of practice retreiving the language. And if they can’t remember the phrase, they can just flip the paper over and look. I can imagine that students who had some practice and were comfortable with the key word technique could even use that when drawing a picture on the back of the little piece of paper.

    Thanks for a good read and getting me to think a little bit more about little pieces of paper.


    • Carol Goodey says:

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for reading and thinking a little bit more about little pieces of paper 🙂 I was a bit hesitant about posting about something as basic as using paper in the classroom so it’s really good to know it has some value through the comments, likes, etc.

      I like how you have the students draw on the back of the paper so that they can get practice recalling the language. I’ve been encouraging the learners in the beginners group to write their L1 on the back to try something similar but I think that, where possible, drawing might be a better option. Also, their drawings are likely to be better to mine and we would have a nice set of flash cards (or flash pieces of paper) that are particularly relevant to the learners and which we could revisit for other topics and contexts. This might also be a good way of involving ESOL Literacies learners who are also not literate in their own language.

      Thank you!


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  5. Hi Carol,

    I love the possibilities you wrote about here. I worry about my handwriting and visibility, given my EFL classroom parameters, but your post and the comments triggered some other cool possibilities I’m keen to try.

    For example, my students used storyboard handouts to draw pictures of their activities, and then wrote a sentence or two under each one, which they would later tie together as a narrative. Now I see piles of single storyboard frames, and everyone draws a personal story on a few, and piles of lined little pieces of paper (LPOP) for someone else to write a sentence or two for each pic. I could cut up the latter after writing to play with subjects, verbs, and objects, matching sentences (or their parts) to pictures, sequencing them together or apart. Later the creators (or a third person) could write them up as full narratives… then probably hand the story and the drawings that created it off to another pair for one to mime the story while the other resequences the pics.

    Given the pervasive technology (computrer and projector) in my classrooms, I also see a blank .doc template covered in pre-arranged outlined text boxes (simulating LPOP), which someone could write in and drag around all over the doc. Could be a student as easily as the teacher. Trouble is it’s only one person at a time who can ‘touch’ the screen…

    Anyway — thanks for the stimulation; really glad to have found your blog recently.

    • Carol Goodey says:

      Hi Tom,

      Thanks for your comment and the adaptations to try with learners. It’s so helpful to hear how others use or see themselves using little pieces of paper (or LPOPs as you’ve abbreviated it 🙂 ).

      I like the idea of cutting up sentences to play around with subjects verbs and objects. This could allow us to show different ways of saying something and also help learners be able to break sentences up to be able to understand what they’re reading more easily. I’ve done this when we’ve read something that’s a bit too complex for the learners and they say things like, “I understand all the words but can’t understand the sentence/paragraph.”

      The idea of online LPOPs also sounds good. It might be that only one person can touch the screen at a time but they can be guided by the other students so that everyone is involved. Great! Thanks 🙂


  6. Mr Schenk says:

    Hi Carol,
    your post inspired me to try out your way of recording emergent language. It seems so intuitive and handy. However, I have to deal with classes of about 30 students. So, currently, I’m looking for ways to adapt it.
    I’ve always loved little pieces of paper and I’m especially fond of the sticky ones. I blogged about a way of using them here: and here: Perhaps you’d like to try out sticky notes, too.
    Thanks for a good idea!


    • Carol Goodey says:

      Hi Christian,

      Many thanks for your comment and for sharing your posts on ‘post-it chats’. It’s a great idea and one I will definitely try out. Thank you!

      I’m fond of sticky notes too and have found them useful to help learners plan what they want to write about (see The Power of the Post-it Note). I also use them quite a lot when gathering feedback and evaluation. I love how flexible they are – and they have the advantage of being colourful! 😉

      I’m looking forward to having a post-it chats with learners!


  7. I meant to write a comment here and forget, so thanks for your tweet – it reminded me. I wanted to say I’m glad I’m not the only teacher carrying round little pieces of paper! I always had some recycled paper torn into 8ths in my folder. I used them for all sorts of things: a great warmer where you write a question to each member of class and then pass to them to write a reply, class votes, story writing (write a character, location, action each and put in three boxes – I’ll write a blog post on this one day!), vocab review games… you never know when a little piece of paper might come in handy 😉

    • Carol Goodey says:

      It’s true! You just never know 🙂

      It’d be great to read a blog post on how you use them. The most fun I’ve had with learners and little pieces of paper was when I first did Ken Wilson’s activity, “Actions and Locations,” which sounds like it might be a bit like your story writing activity.

      Thanks for your comment and I’m looking forward to that post…


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