Although students using cell phones in the classroom can make you feel like you have lost control of the class, it’s important to find out what students are using their cell phones for. Calling or texting friends or family during lessons may not be the best use of class time, but more and more often students are using their cell phones – especially smartphones – for learning and organisational purposes. Being on the cell phone does not necessarily mean the students are ‘off task’.
Establishing phone use guidelines
Adult learners may have valid reasons for leaving their phones on. Business people, for example, may have a mandate to keep in touch even whilst in class, or parents may need to be available for calls related to children. At the beginning of term, it’s a good idea to negotiate rules for phone use with students. Discuss when, if ever, it is OK to use phones for calls or texting and establish cell phone etiquette for the classroom. This should be done with maximum student input so that the rules are agreed rather than imposed.
Some examples of acceptable use of cell phones in the class might include:
- Using the calendar to schedule meetings with other students
- Taking notes using a note app or recording function
- Audio recording the lesson (with teacher’s permission)
- Looking up unknown words
- Adding peers to their contacts list
- Photographing board work or homework assignments
- Sharing photos when related to class content (for example, family photos on a family unit or holiday pictures on a holidays unit)
- Doing web searches
Maximising cell phone use for learning
You also might begin to think of ways to exploit cell phones further. Some ideas are explored below.
1. Educational apps for phones have been developed to help students learn English. Encourage students to replace their digital translators with a good dictionary app. Students can look up new words themselves rather than relying on the teacher all the time. When doing activities in which students must guess the meaning of new words from context, simply ask them not to use dictionaries for the activity. To help with pronunciation, point students in the direction of a pronunciation app that they can use to hear the correct pronunciation and record themselves or each other. The Headway Phrase-a-day app could be an engaging way to begin the lesson with students trying to create a dialogue in which the phrase can be used naturally. (For ideas on how to use apps, see Gareth Davis’ blog ‘Translation Tool or Dictionary’ and Verissimo Toste’s blog ‘Enhanced Learning – Using an App in Class’)
2. If students (or at least one student per group) have smartphones, then they can easily go onto the internet to research questions they have related to course content. Encourage students to look up information to support an argument or to satisfy their curiosity about topics discussed in class. Get them to research a topic to report back on or ask them to find an image to illustrate a difficult vocabulary word. For example, in one of my classes, the word badger came up. Describing a badger is fairly difficult, but a student with a smartphone quickly looked it up and passed the image around to the rest of the class.
3. Students can use their phones to practise speaking and telephoning skills. Speaking to someone without seeing them is more difficult and requires students to use clear pronunciation and phrases for clarification. This adds a layer of authenticity and can help students gain confidence. Give them a speaking or telephoning task to do with someone across the room where eye contact is difficult. Alternatively, ask them to leave a message that their partner has to respond to.
4. Cell phones can themselves be a springboard for discussion and a way to practise new language. Students could compare and contrast the functions of their phones, describe how an app works, argue for or against phone features, or even give instructions for how to play a game.
5. You might be interested in exploring more advanced uses of cell phones by investigating resources such as Wiffiti for sharing brainstorms or Poll Everywhere and SMS Poll for free ways to get immediate class feedback.
Cell phones play an increasing role in everyday life and can be seen as an integral part of students’ learning rather than as an interruption to it. When students do use phones in class, especially smartphones, don’t assume that they are doing something ‘off task’. Students may be using their phones for a number of educational purposes. Cell phones can be seen as a valuable learning tool and an aid to student autonomy.
Invitation to share your ideas
We are interested in hearing your ideas about using cell phones in class, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 25 October at 12pm GMT. Our next blog will address one of the other issues raised by you on this blog, on Twitter (using hashtag #EFLproblems), and on Facebook. Please keep your ideas coming.