The purposes of the activities listed below are to increase students’ exposure to natural English, their autonomy, and their motivation. This will be achieved by the innovative use of familiar and valued technology, encouraging effective study skills and good practice, and by providing fun, meaningful, achievable activities using authentic materials.
A recent poll of my first year Japanese university classes revealed that just under ninety per cent of them use smart phones. According to Google, this number is set to increase throughout the world as smartphones become the most common method of accessing the internet (Google, 2011). I recently purchased a smartphone, too and was amazed by its user-friendliness, versatility and processing power (less so it’s battery life!). After a few weeks spent getting to know my new toy, I started to wonder if and how it could be used by my students to learn English.
After consulting with my students, sharing app recommendations, and hints and tips, I came to the conclusion that although the use of phones in class is prohibited in many institutions (Shepherd, 2011), if teachers fail to at least acknowledge their existence, we will miss valuable educational opportunities. This becomes clear when we consider that smartphones are essentially high powered mini computers with broadband-speed internet access. Furthermore, many students are never without their smartphones: they eat with them, sleep with them, study with them and even take them into the bathroom. Smartphones are some university students’ most prized possessions; their owners are both extremely adept in their use and extremely interested in using them.
I am confident that institutional policies prohibiting smartphone use in class will disappear as administrators realize that students are willingly buying and maintaining their own state-of-the-art computing hardware at their own expense, and always bringing it to class. As such, smartphones are more than an inviting resource; as some groups have realised (DEB, 2011), they offer a golden opportunity to enrich students’ education at no cost to the institutions.
At present however, using smartphones in whole-class activities is not possible for many teachers and learners. For this reason I advocate encouraging students to use their smartphones outside the class to encounter natural English in meaningful – and even better, fun – ways. I hope your students enjoy the activities and resources recommended in the handout below, and that when they return with more ideas you will share them with me too.
10 great ideas for using your smartphone to learn and practice English.
- 1. Install Kotoba! dictionary.
Lets you input words using all the standard methods (including drawing characters with your finger) and has example sentences to give context to the definitions. You can save the words you look up in specific list, or just look back through the history at all the words you have checked. (Review new words using Flashcards +, below). Does not require an internet connection after the initial download.
- 2. Install Google Translate.
This will give you another source of information about new words and phrases. You can enter longer blocks of text to get the general meaning (do NOT rely on the translation to be 100% accurate). It has an audio function to help you with pronunciation, and a “large font” button that is very useful if you are showing someone else the translation. (Review new words using Flashcards +, below). Requires an internet connection.
- 3. Install Flashcards+
This lets you create your own flashcards to review on the train etc. This is a very time-efficient method of learning new vocabulary. You can also download thousands of flashcard sets on many subjects from quizlet.com. Try searching for your English textbook and see what you find! Requires an internet connection.
When you find any new words doing activities 4-9 below, make sure you check their meaning and review them regularly using 1-3 above.
- 4. Set your default language in the OS and apps you use the most to English.
It can be quite difficult to use the more advanced settings on your phone like this, so remember how to change them back!
- 5. Buy graded readers from iTunes.
Several publishers now offer their graded readers as ebooks. Oxford Bookworms include a glossary, audio files and quizzes and are slightly cheaper than the paper versions. To find which level of reader you should read, go to a bookshop, open some graded readers at random and read a page. If there are more than two words that you don’t know per page, that level is too difficult for you. Choose a level which has only one or two new words on each page, then buy e-books from that level from your app store. Does not require an internet connection after the initial download.
- 6. Join a Photo a Day Challenge for a month.
Go to http://fatmumslim.com.au/ and download the Photo A Day list, which shows one word for every day of the month. Your challenge is to take a picture each day that represents that word and post them on your Facebook or Instagram page. This can be a lot of fun if you and some friends (or your whole class) do it together. Requires an internet connection.
- 7. Follow foreign celebrities / sports people on Twitter.
With just 140 characters, most messages on Twitter are very simple. You can learn new abbreviations and slang this way, too. Requires an internet connection.
- 8. Install Just Sayin’
This is similar to twitter, but focuses on audio. You can listen to native speakers’ messages and leave your own too. Try listening to a short message and trying to write it down word for word. If it is too fast or difficult, swipe across the track right to left to slow it down (swipe the other way to speed it up). Requires an internet connection.
- 9. Install Draw Something
This is a fun game that you can play with strangers or friends. It will give you lots of vocabulary and dictionary practice, and drawing and looking at pictures will help you remember new words. (you can also add pictures to your flashcards). Requires an internet connection.
- 10. Find programmes and materials to use on your phone.
Try entering the following keywords in your app store and see what you find: EFL, ESL, English Conversation. (You could try the British Council’s Learn English to get you started).
Dave Clayton is originally from England but has been teaching English in Japan for many years. He is currently a university lecturer and corporate trainer. His interests include vocabulary acquisition, bilingualism, teaching listening, Extensive Reading and English for Academic Purposes
Google, 2011, Mobile Internet & Smartphone Adoption, http://services.google.com/fh/files/blogs/Final_Mobile_Internet_Smartphone_Adoption_Insights_2011v3.pdf
Nation, I.S.P., 2009, Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking, Routledge, London p.133-137.
Shepherd, J. 2011, Smartphones and handheld computers: the new battleground in UK schools. Guardian.co.uk
DEB, 2011, Smartphones for schools. Digital Education Brighton.