Number one for English language teachers

Applied linguistics: Mobile phones

Type: Article

Leonardo Mercado, the Academic Director of Euroidiomas, discusses whether there is a place for mobile phones in the language classroom.

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Introduction

As language teachers, we are constantly striving to create the conditions under which our students can learn and succeed. At the same time, we meet challenges that may be detrimental to the learning process. This certainly applies to mobile phone use on the part of our students. Even though we are well into the second decade of the 21st century, mobile phone use in the classroom is still frowned upon by many teachers because it can distract students during a lesson. Certainly, the temptation for students to text someone or use social media while we are introducing a new topic or writing examples on the board can be great. Yet the fact remains that today’s average language learner is likely to be a Millennial or Gen Zer, constituent groups that depend a great deal on technology, most especially mobile phones, to thrive in their everyday lives; in the case of Gen Zers alone, it is estimated they may spend as many as five to six hours a day on their mobile phones (Patel, 2016). Therefore, rather than view mobile phones as a nuisance, perhaps they should be seen as a powerful tool and resource that can lead to greater student learning and engagement.

Mobile phone uses

The mobile phone can serve as a “portal” of sorts, expanding our students’ vision beyond what they see, feel, or hear through their course books or other standard course material. This means that teachers should not rely solely on the activities and tasks that are presented in the text “as is”, but rather constantly find ways to enhance the content with their own creative twist. Mobile phones can serve that purpose well. The topics, pictures, or language presented in the book may provide the perfect reason for students to go into their mobile phones and complement what they are doing or learning as part of the main lesson. Mobile phones can be used to consolidate our students’ understanding of what is being presented or further contextualize the language to improve their ability to use it for communicative practice. Here are some examples:

  • The course book may be presenting a lesson on how to talk about the weather in a certain city that has been selected by the authors as an example. However, after some pre-teaching of vocabulary and topic-related expressions, the teacher may prefer to have students close their books and go to a website that specializes in giving information about the weather. Rather than ask students to talk about a city or places in the course book, students can search for information regarding their favorite cities or places anywhere in the world. This would increase motivation, since students are now talking about a place that is dear to them rather than something imposed by a course book or teacher. The information on the website would include many “real-life” examples of the target language, such as topic-based nouns and adjectives.
  • The course book may be presenting new verb phrases (e.g. eating breakfast/lunch/dinner; listening to music). Students can go to Google images and find a picture that represents the verb phrase, scrolling through the numerous examples until they find a favorite picture to show to their partner. The imagery helps consolidate their understanding of the new word or phrase while the search for a “favorite picture” makes the activity more student-centered.
  • The day’s lesson may be about family and relatives. As an extension to the typical family-tree activity in the course book, students may be asked to bring pictures of their relatives on their mobile phone and talk about them, using a variety of questions and answers from the lesson.

Social media

Social media access through mobile phones is a must for many people around the world, each and every day. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 79% of all internet users have a Facebook account, and many use other social media sites as well (Greenwood, S., Perrin, A., & Duggan, M., 2016). With such popularity, Facebook can be used to stimulate language practice in and out of the classroom, especially if there is a group or class account for the course. On their own, students can post pictures, articles, and comments related to the topics and language being taught in the course. In class, students can be asked to refer to their posts for discussion, debate, or simple commentary. For example, let’s assume that students were asked to take pictures of places around the city in order to match course-based vocabulary, such as main square, park, intersection, beach, etc. In class, students can share the pictures they posted and discuss what each picture is, where it was taken, what they did there, and why it may be an important place to them. As for texting, tweeting, posting, and communication through social media in general, there is research that suggests that it can actually benefit students in their learning when it is applied creatively and with a clear sense of purpose; students who excel in social media communication have also been found to attain higher achievement scores in overall verbal reasoning, spelling proficiency, and writing (Mercado, 2017). Classroom-based activities or games that use texting exercises can be very easy to implement.

Mobile phones can also make the class more interactive by using apps such as the one available through polleverywhere.com, which allows you to take polls in class live as the lesson is underway. As the teacher, you can show students the results of the poll by projecting them on the screen. Students could also go to websites such as www.newgeneralservicelist.org, where they can learn new vocabulary from the New General Service List’s word cards, accessed through the Quizlet app link on the site; they can then check with their partners or groups what the meanings are and how they can be used in real conversation. Students could also use an app like Edmodo to access their previously saved, personalized contents and use them for class discussions, debates, Q & A practice, problem-solving tasks, and anything else the teacher and students may have in mind.

According to the Quality Language Learning (QLL) instructional framework (Mercado, 2017), mobile phones would be a perfect tool for applying tech dynamics, which espouse the effective use of technology to enhance the language learning process and make it more engaging. As we have seen with the examples above, mobile phones can help create new opportunities for interaction in the L2, contextualize language that is being taught, and personalize the learning experience. Therefore, the framework supports the notion that is essential that we make the use of mobile phones a common occurrence in class. If some students do not have their own mobile phone, the devices can be shared.

Conclusion

The fact of the matter is that mobile phones are a very real and important part of everyday life. As several studies have shown (Samaha, M. & Hawi, N., 2016; Wallace, K., 2015), people nowadays simply have a strong dependence on their mobile phones, whether they are aware of it or not. Therefore, why should we not make the best of the situation and allow for the effective use of mobile phones in the classroom, especially if they can contribute so much to the learning process? Ultimately, the digital natives in our classrooms will expect us to understand and meet their expectations regarding the use of technology. With mobile phones being so dear to these students, perhaps it would be best if we finally put the controversy to rest and got used to seeing these devices as an essential part of the 21st-century classroom’s landscape.

Learn more about using mobile phones in the classroom in Technology for the Language Classroom by Leonardo A. Mercado. Download the sample below, to read the first chapter. To find out more about the book, and to buy to copy, click here.

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