Using a Smartphone in Class

Teenage boy using cell phone in classroom
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Smartphones are here to stay. For English teachers, that means we need to either ban iPhones, Androids, Blackberries and whatever next flavor arrives - or - we have to learn how to incorporate the use of smartphones into our routine. I've discovered that just ignoring their use in class doesn't help. After all, I am an English teacher trying to encourage my students to communicate in the English language. Students who sit in class and use their iPhone or Android are missing out. That's a simple fact. However, it's also true that students are going to use their smart phones if they haven't been taken away. At least that's the way it is where I teach English. 

So, what's a dedicated English teacher to do? Here are ten tips on how to constructively allow the use of smartphones in class. Admittedly, some of the exercises are just variations on traditional classroom activities. However, encouraging students to use smart phones to complete these activities will help them learn to use these power-packed, hand-held computers to actively improve their English skills. Finally, it's important to insist that smart phone or tablet use is OK, but only as a tool during a specific activity. In this way, students can continue with their obsessive, addictive behavior. However, they won't be tempted to use their smartphones for other, non-English learning tasks during class. 

1. Use smartphones for vocabulary exercises with Google image search. 

A picture is worth a thousand words. I like to use my smartphone, or have students use their smartphone to look up specific nouns on Google images or another search engine. You've all seen how a visual dictionary can greatly improve vocabulary retention. With smartphones, we have visual dictionaries on steroids.

2. Use smartphones for translation, but only at a specific time.

I try to encourage students to read using three phases. 1) Read for gist - no stopping! 2) Read for context - How can the words surrounding unknown words help with understanding? 3) Read for precision - explore new vocabulary using a smart phone or dictionary. Only in the third phase do I allow smartphone use. Students are pleased because they can look up words. However, they're developing good reading skills by not immediately translating every word they do not understand.

3. Use smartphones for communicative activities using apps.

We all communicate with our smartphones in different ways depending on different apps. In other words, texting with a messaging app is bound to be different than writing an email on your computer. Take advantage of this and promote activities that are specific to a given context. One example might be to have students text each other to complete a given task. 

4. Use smartphones for help with pronunciation.

This is one of my favorite uses of smart phones in class. Model pronunciation for them. For example, focus on suggestions. Ask students to open a recording app. Read five different ways to make a suggestion aloud. Pause between each suggestion. Have students go home and practice mimicking your pronunciation in the pause between each suggestion. There are many, many variations on this theme. 

Another great use for pronunciation is to have students change the language to English and try to dictate an email. They'll have to work really hard at word level pronunciation in order to get the desired results.

5. Use smartphones instead of a thesaurus.

Have students search on the phrase "words like ..." and a host of online offerings will appear. Encourage students to use their smart phones during writing class in this manner while focusing on developing a wider range of vocabulary. For example, take a simple sentence such as "The people spoke about politics." Ask students to come up with a number of versions using their smartphones to find substitutes for the verb "speak."

6. Use smartphones to play games.

Yes, yes, I know. This is something we shouldn't encourage in class. However, you might encourage students to write down phrases they experience while playing games to bring into class to discuss in more detail. There are also a number of word games such as Scrabble or word search puzzles that are actually instructive as well as fun. You can make room for this in your class as a "reward" for completing a task, just make sure to tie it to some sort of report back to the class.

7. Encourage students to use smartphones to keep track of vocabulary.

There are a wide variety of MindMapping apps available, as well as a myriad of flash card apps. You can even create your own flash cards and have students download your set of cards to practice in class. 

8. Use smartphones for writing practice.

Have students write emails to each other in order to complete a specific task. Change up the tasks to practice different types of register. For example, one student might write a product inquiry with another student replying to the inquiry with a follow-up email. This is nothing new. However, just using their smartphones can help motivate the students to complete the task.

9. Use smartphones to create a narration.

This is a variation on writing emails. Have students choose photos they have taken and write a short story describing the photos they have chosen. I find that by making in personal in this manner, students engage more deeply with the task.

10. Use smartphones to keep a journal.

One more writing exercise for the smart phone. Have students keep a journal and share it with the class. Students can take photos, write descriptions in English, as well as describe their day.