All teachers have caught students using smartphones in the classroom. When I taught my teens classes in Poland, I routinely had to repeat, “You can go 45 minutes without your phone — you won’t die without it!” or, “Please, put your phone away. Your lap is not that interesting!” It felt like a never-ending battle to get them to almost surgically remove the phone from their hands long enough to answer a question.
Teachers know that this issue is not confined to teenage students. I had many discussions with my colleagues in Malta about using smartphones in the classroom with adult students. The school policy was no phone, yet it’s pretty awkward to tell a 50-year-old man to put his phone away, especially when they are using it to look up a word.
So, this led me to wonder, is the phone a necessary evil in the ESL context?
Smartphones as a curse
In my experience, smartphones can be more of a distraction than a help. I mean, who hasn’t looked at their phone meaning to look up the weather and three hours later emerged from the blackhole of YouTube? The modern day phone is no longer designed for just communication. It’s now designed to entertain, to educate, to connect, and, most of all. to distract. We have this constant need to be distracted — to be doing something. When was the last time you just sat quietly without a phone, TV, book, or even music, but only with your thoughts?
Almost always, when I would catch a student using their smartphone in the classroom, they were scrolling through social media. When questioned, they would say, “But I’m done with the exercise…” So, from a teaching perspective, it’s hard to engage a learner when they are constantly bobbing in and out of the classroom mentally. They are partly present, partly concentrating on the activity, and partly wondering what’s happening on their news feeds.
For other students, the phone was a crutch. When we do a reading, and they encounter a word they don’t know, instead of moving on and figuring it out from the context, they needed to stop and look the word up (which made for some really long reading lessons). Their deductive learning skills were put on the back-burner and the phone became a quick fix.
The wonderful gift that is the smartphone
As the old adage goes: “If you can’t beat them, join them.” I started to feel like I was fighting a losing battle, so instead of fighting, I chose to embrace the gift that is the smartphone.
Students love their phones. They are an integral part of our identities now. As a new mum, I’m pretty sure I have 6,000 photos and videos of my baby now (I happily delete photos from my phone pre-baby to make space). I have audio books on how to get my baby to sleep, PDFs on how to pureé sweet potato, calendar reminders about appointments, and apps that track my fitness. You can see my whole life on my phone. So why should a student give this up? Why not use the smartphone in the classroom?
It’s hard to reason that students shouldn’t look up words because “you won’t always have a phone with you.” Let’s be honest: yes, they will always have their phones with them. In Poland, we would stock each classroom with a pile of dictionaries and would encourage students to look up words in the dictionary. The dictionaries never were touched.
Now, I am acutely aware that this can help with consolidating their knowledge of the word, especially spelling, but, seriously, when was the last time you actually looked up information in a book? It’s tedious and time consuming. The big appeal with the modern phone is that it’s fast and convenient.
Using smartphones in the classroom to your advantage
Websites like Kahoot! and Quizlet are fantastic resources. I have found Kahoot particularly fun, engaging, and useful. It’s interactive, educational, and, best of all, it’s competitive (we all love a good healthy dose of competition).
For speaking practice
Pictures and videos, as mentioned earlier, encapsulate our whole lives. We take pictures and video to savour memories and moments. Why not use that to your advantage?
You could have the students select a photo and describe the events with the focus on verb tenses. Or a partner could speculate (modal verbs of deduction) what is happening in the photo. The possibilities are really endless.
For conversation starters and discussion topics
I’ve also had students discuss their phone usage. English file (intermediate) has a unit on information overload, which I would always couple with a discussion on phone addiction. We would discuss how many social media friends they had, how many apps they used and how much screen time they had in a week. PBS has a great lesson on smartphone addiction, including a Kahoot quiz, video, and discussion.
As digital notebooks and dictionaries
I think with Google translate and other translation apps, it’s almost impossible to expect students to NOT translate things. Therefore, you can also encourage students to keep a log of the words they are searching. Instead of it being a word they briefly searched, understood, and forgot, have the students search the word and then write it down somewhere for future reference.
Embrace using smartphones in the classroom
Like all tools in the ESL classroom, phones have their upsides and downsides; it’s your job as the teacher to figure out how it can be used to your advantage.
I am an energetic English teacher with a specialized education (Master’s degree in education from Durham University). Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, I later studied in the USA and England, so I am very familiar with both American and British English. I have worked as an ESL teacher in Poland and Malta, and I know how to find an approach to students of different ages and temperaments, from shy teenagers to demanding company directors. I enjoy coaching and playing basketball and spending time with my (new) family!