The smart way to use Smartphones in the language classroom

Originally Published as The smart way to use Smartphones in the language classroom. Modern English teacher, 25(3), 2016.


Smartphones and mobile communication technology are continuously evolving, becoming more and more a part of everyday life. Love them or hate them (and for many it may be a bit of both) smartphones are incredibly versatile pieces of technology. At any one time, we can carry around in our pockets a digital library of ebooks, audio and visual files, not to mention apps for education, entertainment or work. My smartphone is not the newest model but on there I have had skype conversations with my family 6,000 miles away from the park where I am walking my dog, I have proof-read articles and replied to urgent emails from colleagues and students, I have even composed early drafts for articles. I have also played games which help me to remember Japanese kanji, and used the Japanese dictionary to help me to maintain a conversation about difficult topics I am not used to speaking about in a language I am still learning. Of course, I have also spent (or wasted) less productive hours on my phone reading posts on Facebook or watching YouTube videos that make me laugh. The fact of the matter is that a smartphone is a powerful, personalised communication tool which allows connections between people and information, and this can be harnessed in the language classroom, if the right approach is applied.

Initially when smartphones started to appear in students hands in my classroom, I (like many teachers) found them to be extremely irritating. It was obvious that Student X at the back of the classroom was not paying attention to the instructions about the task I was setting up, they were paying more attention to their crotch area, where the smartphone was nestled. It is always obvious when a person checks their phone in secret, and as teachers we are naturally aware of our students in a way that they often do not give us credit for. The same is true of other social situations; it is generally seen as bad etiquette to ignore a person who you are face-to-face with in favour of your phone. There are several articles already about how phones are ruining face-to-face conversations (Drago, 2015), and from my own personal experience this is not hard to see why. When I worked in a language school in London I often had to resort to taking students’ phones away from them in order to keep them focused on the class. My friends who are teachers in High Schools in both Japan and England have also reported this, with one friend telling me that her school collects all the students’ phones in a box before the lesson can even begin! However, if used in the right way, smartphones can be a very useful tool to support and extend language learning opportunities, precisely because they are designed as communication tools.

There are simply thousands of apps for education, and a large proportion of these are dedicated to learners who use multiple languages. If you are not sure which of these to use, why not turn that into a task for the class and have the students try them out and present their reviews to the class. The students could put it to the vote after their research presentations, the chosen app might then be used for homework assignments. It would not only be very informative for everybody, but also empowering for the students to have a direct input on the way the class is taught or the choice of materials to use for class. This is also a good way for teachers who feel less tech-savvy to take further steps towards a blended classroom environment, in which technology has a comfortable and supportive supplementary role.

One of the most obvious and effective ways of using smartphones in the class that I have had enormous success with, is to use them to allow students to go on a mini-webquest when I am introducing something or activating schemata about a topic. For example, I might ask my class “have you ever heard of David Bowie?” and right there and then, using their smartphones the students can quickly do a search for the great late Starman and find out enough about him to move into the next stage of the task. Students who already know about the topic can still benefit from this by checking certain facts, and then of course the group discussion can take place as usual with smartphones safely back in the students’ bags. I have had unexpected benefits from this approach, for example in a class for the English Literature department where I work, I asked the students to learn something about Raymond Carver (the American short-story writer) and one student learned that it would have been his birthday on that day. These serendipitous moments add what Freda Mishan (2005) calls ‘currency’ to the tasks; an element of authenticity which is dependent on time-relevance. Of course, this achieves nothing which could not already be done in a CALL room, but here the smartphones are simply a handy tool rather than the computers being the central medium in-which to conduct the class. These schematising mini-webquests can also be more flexible than CALL room time as they require almost no forward planning and can be done on the fly.

Smartphones are not only potential tools for use during the class, they can also be very useful for self-access learning and homework type activities, as I touched upon earlier. Many teachers have accounts with apps such as Quizlet, which allows the creation of vocabulary flash-cards and multiple-choice questions. Teachers can set up classes in Quizlet which their students can join. This has many advantages, such as very accurate monitoring and instant feedback. The teacher can see who has done the tasks and what their score was without having to do any marking or checking of homework with a red pen. Many leading textbooks also offer apps and media-content specific to their units, and this might be a more engaging type of out-of-class activity to set for homework than photocopying the activity book. A further advantage is that these activities can be done whilst busy students are on the move, although this may have implications for the amount of cognitive engagement they can invest and retention. Although mobile learning (mLearning) is a popular buzz-word and has some success reported in the research (Cavus & Ibrahim, 2009; Stockwell, 2007), I am still rather sceptical about how deeply we can learn something while on the move. However, having the option allows for a more flexible approach and accommodates students with different life-styles and learning preferences.

In a similar way, it might be useful to set-up a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Moodle, or create a free class learning site using a service such as Weebly, edublogs or SchoolRack. If you use PowerPoint (or another presentation platform such as Prezi) then you can set up ‘remote presenting’ which allows students (either in the classroom or at home) to follow your slides on their smartphone whilst you are presenting. This could be useful for large-classes or other situations where the slides need to be made more accessible, for example if students are sight impaired (see Robert Lowe’s article in ETp for further practical suggestions for sight-impaired students). This way also can be a step towards a paper-free classroom, something the environment and future generations will thank you for (or so we are led to believe, as I will return to later).

Another useful way to use smartphones in the class is to incorporate them into information-gap tasks. Instead of preparing two versions of a handout, Partner A can simply visit one link and Partner B visits another. I have taken this further also, and put students in groups where they each watch a different video or listen to a different song, and then the group describes the video and when we watch them all back as a class, the groups have to match the other groups’ descriptions to their videos. Tasks like this would not have been possible if it were not for the students all having their own personal media-viewing device.

This brings me to one of the possible limitations with using smartphones as a whole-class activity. I have had a few classes where one or two students do not have a smartphone, and in this case it can seem rather awkward. If one student does not have the smartphone because they cannot afford one, then it could raise issues of discrimination and this might prove to be problematic. It is therefore worth checking before-hand what percentage of your class has a smartphone. Also, some students may be on limited packages and the amount of their data-usage needed for classroom tasks may also cause problems. Needless to say, many classrooms may be in areas where the reception is weak or limited as well, which would make a class based around streaming video into a quagmire of frustration. Of course, the number of smartphone users and the network facilities and packages on offer are very contextually dependant, and therefore many of these ideas will need to be tested and adapted to each country or teaching context. Where I teach in Tokyo, it does seem that in the past five years the amount of students holding smartphones with unlimited packages and with access to high-speed internet has increased to such a high percentage that if the students come to class, they are almost guaranteed to be carrying their smartphones.

Not only are smartphones becoming more ubiquitous, but also many schools in developed nations are now offering iPads and other tablets for students to use in class, and these often come with a host of apps and online tools to use both in-class and for self-access study. These are reported to be particularly beneficial to students with special needs (Ellis, 2011). Such institutions need to not only supply the hardware, but they also need to provide training and support for teachers and students alike in terms of how to get the most out of these technological tools. The institutions also need to provide a robust wireless network so all the end-users can access the internet at the same time and do the high-bandwidth-dependant tasks which educational apps usually require. Needless to say, although it is becoming more common for students to receive tablets as part of their enrolment, it is still much less common to see them being used effectively as an integrated part of the classroom. Schaffhauser (2013) has a useful article with tips about how to effectively adapt the personal iPad design so that it can be at an institution. However, at this early stage, it can often seem daunting to people to move the classroom too far away from the traditional models which require people to interact with either books or each-other. Many teachers, parents and even students are likely to ask ‘what’s the point?’ if they are looking at a screen when a piece of paper would do the same job. It is misleading to talk of the paperless classroom as an environmental initiative, when there is of course a carbon footprint attached to an iPad just as there is to a textbook (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: sources according to a Green Office Report at the University of Wageningen in Holland
Figure 1: sources according to a Green Office Report at the University of Wageningen in Holland

Whilst the iPad still comes off best according to the statistics (which are necessarily generalised and based on averages), it is important to note that many of our students will use all of the above devices, rather than just one, and so relying more on technology does not off-set the use of printed materials. Of course, smartphones are not even listed here, and so they would represent yet another large expense in terms of C02 emissions.

In summary, smartphones are certainly finding a place in the classroom practices for language teachers and learners, and they offer versatility and flexibility of tasks. They also offer a distraction from what students should be doing, but I feel that this is not particularly made worse by students. Ten years ago, I had to call out students for looking out of the window too much, and I still have students doing homework for other classes when they should be working on the task I have set. Smartphones are often given a blamed for taking away students’ attention, but this may not be entirely a new phenomenon. In my experience, smartphones are certainly something to utilise for language learning, and as technology moves forward I feel more and more language teachers will be grateful of them for the opportunities they can offer for language learning, both in the classroom and for supplementary study.


Cavus, N., & Ibrahim, D. (2009). m-Learning: An experiment in using SMS to support learning new English language words. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(1), 78-91. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00801.x

Drago, E. (2015). The Effect of Technology on Face-to-Face Communication. The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, 6(1), 13-19.

Ellis, S. (2011). Teaching the future: How iPads are being used to engage learners with special needs. Screen Education, 63, 60-64.

Green Office Wageningen University. (2014). What is the best device for reading in terms of CO2? Retrieved from

Lowe, R. (2015). Integrating blind students. English teaching professional, July(99), 16-18.

Mishan, F. (2005). Designing authenticity into language learning materials. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Schaffhauser, D. (2013). Tips for effectively managing your iPad classroom. THE Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), 40(5), 7.

Stockwell, G. (2007). Vocabulary on the move: Investigating an intelligent mobile phone-based vocabulary tutor. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 20(4), 365-383. doi:10.1080/09588220701745817