Mobile Phones in ELT
Mobile phones – or cell phones as the Americans like to call them – are often cited as a nuisance, a disturbance and a pest by teachers across the world.
Not only in English Language Teaching but in every subject, educators battle on a daily basis against the disruptive presence of the mobile phone. Some schools have gone as far as to ban mobiles all together – tackling the problem by removing the cause from the classroom. Other schools have taken a subtle approach, encouraging learners to reserve their phone usage for break time and lunch time.
But what about in ELT? What is the situation of the mobile phone and the classroom?
When teaching Young Learners, English Language Teachers often subscribe to practices most traditionally found in mainstream classrooms. One of these practices is a zero tolerance approach to mobile phones.
Some teachers will put together class contracts with their learners; others will impose rules top-down; some schools will have clear signs in every classroom. Whatever approach is taken, the mobile phone is clearly frowned upon in the YL classroom.
The situation with adult learners is a little trickier. While the classroom and how it is managed still falls to the teacher at large, the learners are adults and probably won’t appreciate being told what to do. This means the teacher either has to try and impose a rule or come to some sort of an agreement with the learners.
For sure, regardless of the rules, the learners will take their phones out at one point or another.
The Place for Mobile Phones
Smartphones are here to stay. Period. No matter what we might expect or want, they are not going anywhere. They might evolve in the future into a hybrid between tablets, laptops and phones, but either way they will be hanging around for some time yet.
Learners – both adults and YL’s – turn to their mobiles in the classroom because it is one of the most natural reflexes in the age of the digital native. Think about when you are out with friends, having a coffee, riding the train to work – you will most likely reach for your mobile to check your messages or e-mails, read up on the news or play with an app.
In the ELT classroom, the teacher often thinks that when the learner turns to their mobile phone, they are some how moving their focus away from learning and the lesson.
However, what they are most likely doing is nothing in particular: they are most likely doing mind-numbingly mundane things, such as checking the news or reading statuses on Facebook. These actions are so repetitive and so second-nature that the learner will probably not even think while doing them – they are just reflexes.
So, if the learner has finished their task, is on their smartphone but isn’t doing anything in particular, what does that tell you as a the teacher?
Before you dive into lengthy responses about building interest and stimulating thought, let me tell you what it really tells you:
The learner has finished
Very often in the classroom we ask our learners to give us a signal when they have finished an activity. This is so we, as teachers, know when it is time to move on to the next stage.
Sometimes learners give us a signal, sometimes they forget, and sometimes we forget to ask them. However, learners will never hesitate to touch their phones. This means we, as teachers, have an almost fool-proof way of knowing when our learners have completed an activity. We can use this to inform ourselves when to move on to the next stage.
And best of all, we don’t even have to move from our seats: we can just observe from a distance when they reach for their smartphones.
Sometimes mobile phones are really a distraction in a classroom and we should think how they relate to classroom management.
Well, when we want people to stop doodling, we give them something to do with their pens. Why not find a purpose for their mobile phones? Let’s think about the different activities that you can use mobile phones for. Here are seven ideas.
One – Introduce a photo
|Photographs are generally about things we want to talk about. |
There is a reason we took the photo, and there are reasons why we share photos.
The Activity: Ask a student to introduce a photo. The students can work in pairs, in groups or as a class. One student introduces the photo and the other students ask follow-up questions. What? Where? When? Who? Why? How? While the students are talking, take notes of useful phrases and words for feedback afterwards.
Two – Photo it: Photos for studying
|Photographs are used to record things. |
Why not keep a record of the board work on your phone?
Encourage your students to take a photo of the board. You can read about this before in this post. You should be happy if your students want to take a photo of the board, because that way they don’t get lost in the mechanical process of writing down everything and they can focus on writing keys words and summarizing.
Three – Photo Dictations
|Using a dictation exercise to introduce a dialogue is like first round practice and it gives you the opportunity to listen for pronunciation issues and identify the words that the students aren't sure of.|
This activity is student-centered. The students have the example dialogue and they are introducing it to their classmates.
The Activity: Separate the students into groups of four or five and ask one student to come to the front and photograph an example dialogue. The student goes back to their group and they read the dialogue from their phone while the other members of the group write the dialogue down. The students who are listening can use checking language, for example, asking how a word is spelled. In effect, the students are introducing the conversation to themselves, giving you time to monitor and listen out for any difficulties.
Four – Dictionaries: Taboo
|Taboo is a game where you can say the word. Check out this website for more details. Taboo can be used to review vocabulary, but it can also be used to expand vocabulary.|
This activity is always a good visual way to show students that they are expanding their vocabulary. Students often have a dictionary app on their mobiles phones, when they don’t I recommend the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It is available for iPhone and Android, but more importantly, the free version isn’t a trial version like with the OED app.
The Activity: Write a selection of words on the board, then divide the class into groups. Give each group one or two of the words and ask them to use their dictionaries to look up the words. When you look up words, there is usually a section that lists synonyms (words that it is similar to) and antonyms (words that are the opposite of it). Give the students time to look up synonyms and antonyms for their words. Elicit these words from the students and write them around the original words. These are the hints. Give the students some time to remember the original words, then erase them. Hand out some pieces of paper with the words written on them. The students can’t say the word, but they can describe it using the hints on the board.
Five – Wikipedia Bios
|Bios is short for biographies. If you search Wikipedia for a famous person, there is usually a short biography beneath their photo.|
I like doing this activity because students learn a little about their heroes. The bios usually says where they were born, how old they are, what their occupation is, who they are married to, if they have children and when they died (unless they are still alive). This is useful for an activity like Snowballs.
The Activity: Ask the students to look up a famous person on Wikipedia and write 3 or 4 facts on a piece of paper. Ask students to remember that information. When the students are confident that they can remember the facts, get them to scrunch up the paper into a ball and throw it across the classroom or put it in a box. After that, students pick up a random snowball (if they pick up their snowball, they should throw it back). The students walk around asking each other questions and they try to find the original writer.
Six – QR Codes: Find them, Scan them
This can be an engaging way to introduce vocabulary, answers, or an example dialogue.
Here is one idea for the activity with use QR code.
The Activity: You can download QR creator for your computer, iPhone or Android and make QR codes that when scanned showed a single word on the phone. The students had to go around the classroom scanning each code to collect all the words. It is essentially an information gathering exercise.
QR Code Dialogues: This is can be done in exactly the same way as the picture dictation but students scan a QR code and an example conversation appears on the screen of their phone.
Seven – Record a message
|This is a good activity for practicing telephone English.|
Most phones will have a voice recorder. One of the ways I have tried to use this feature in the classroom is by asking the students to record a voice-mail message. It can be set as a homework and this way the students have created their own materials for the class.
The Activity: Ask the students to record a message. (Not on their voice-mail but with a sound recorder.) Set it as a homework task, so that the message will be ready for the class you need it for. Once you have the messages you can do several things with them.
Summarizing – Ask the students to take down a message, summarizing the voice-mail message in a few words.
Paraphrasing – Ask the students to rephrase the message. This is a good way to introduce formal and informal language.
Reporting – Divide the class into 4 of 5 small groups. Ask the students to find a partner from another group. In pairs, they play their message and their partner takes note. The students return to their original groups and give the message to their teammates.
Oliver Rose, a teacher from Japan, has suggested an app called Puppet Edu. A slide show app where students can show pictures and record themselves speaking. He also suggests using Siri to help students practice their pronunciation.
What do you think? Do you think mobile phones have a place in the classroom? Do you have any ideas for activities to make mobile phones useful and less of a distraction?
If you have any doubt that the learner isn’t doing something mundane when checking their phones, or if you feel by doing so they are losing their ‘focus’ and need to remain focused on the lesson from start to end, encourage yourself to observe the behaviour of you and your colleagues at your next meeting. You might be surprised to see how many of you reach for your phones at every given opportunity – even while someone is speaking!
(From ELT Blog by Anthony Ash’s)