Sandy Millin: Reclaiming attention and exploiting smartphones

The mobile phone is a fact of life, and we need to accept that.

If we rail against their use in the classroom, all that is likely to happen is our students will feel like we don’t really understand where they’re coming from, and we will harm the rapport we may have built up. Instead, we need to ask ourselves why our students are using them and turn this to our advantage.

Looking up words
If your students are anything like mine, the main justifiable reason they use their phones is to check unknown vocabulary, more often than not on Google Translate, or the most popular translator for speakers of their language (L1). We all know that this isn’t ideal, but what can we do about it?

  • For students at high elementary or above, show them a monolingual dictionary and demonstrate all of the information they can get from it, much richer than that they get from a translation site. I like the Cambridge Essential British/American Dictionaries for low levels, and Macmillan or the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionaries for higher levels. Many of these are also available as apps. They are similar on price to the paper versions of the dictionaries but by following the publishers on Twitter or facebook you can look out for discounts.
  • Encourage them to be comfortable with ambiguity and not to automatically look up any word they don’t know. This is one of the marks of a successful language learner. Teach them to decipher meaning from context wherever possible, and to use the dictionary as a last resort.
  • Do some reverse translation into L1 using Google Translate. Discuss the accuracy of the translation and how they can improve it. Give them the original English text and get them to come up with a better version. They could even suggest improvements to Google.
  • Show them how to use paper dictionaries. If students complain that it takes longer, highlight the accidental learning that can take place when you notice other entries on the same page or get interested in the diagrams or other pictures which often feature in them. It’s also great reading practice as you learn to scan the page to find what you’re looking for.

Playing games
When the students are bored, they might resort to their favourite game on their phone. Boredom means a low level of engagement, with the interest of the game outweighing the activities they are supposed to be doing, despite the potential wrath of the teacher. Don’t despair though: you can exploit it!

  • Discuss the situation with your students and be open to feedback on the kind of activities used and the way they are set up. Perhaps the students can suggest things they might be interested in doing. Do they have favourite activities from other classes? Would they be happy to employ a kind of ‘Pomodoro’ technique, with 25 minutes of work on the activities you chose and 5 minutes to do whatever they want to on their phones?
  • If it’s only a few students, is it because they have finished everything faster than the others in the class? Build up a folder of fast finisher activities which they can work on when they’re done. They could also be an extra teacher and help other students or check their answers.
  • Ask the students to share the games they have on their phones. They can explain what to do in the game and the story behind it, show somebody else how to play, create a poster about it, describe a character in it, and many more ideas. Digital Play by Kyle Mawer and Graham Stanley (Delta Publishing, 2011) and Language Learning with Technology by Graham Stanley (Cambridge, 2013) are great books if you’re looking for more ideas of how you can incorporate online games into your classroom.

Chatting or using social media
My teenage cousins are incapable of spending more than five minutes away from their phones, and I’m pretty sure that includes when they’re at school. I have no idea what they talk about, but they read more in a day than some people used to read in their whole lives!

  • Ask your students whether there’s a particular app or social media network they all use. If they agree, set up a group for them to join to chat in English. Anne Hendler did this with her teenage students to help them remember their homework.
  • Instead of writing emails or stories, find out what kind of texts your students produce every day and show them how to produce some of those in English: WhatsApp conversations, facebook statuses, Instagram captions.
  • Show them how to find hashtags on Twitter or Instagram which are designed for English learners. Ask them to join the conversations. Here are some ways of using Twitter to practise English.

Taking phone calls or checking emails
While the three situations above probably conjure up images of classes of teenagers, they’re not the only ones who are attached to their phones nowadays. Many are the business or 121 classes I’ve been in where I’ve had to stop the lesson while a student takes a phone call.

  • Show the students how to have telephone calls in English. Give them some practise during lessons, perhaps by phoning on Skype or Facetime, both of which are free. Because you don’t practise them very often, phone calls in a foreign language are often quite daunting, and the more practise your students have, the better.
  • If it happens a lot, discuss it with your student(s). Can they get into the habit of asking the other person to ring back later? Can they switch off their phone for at least some of the lesson? Can they let other people know when their English lessons are so they know not to call at that time?
  • Accept it. They’re busy people, and the person on the other end probably doesn’t know they’re in an English lesson. Use the time to think about what you’ve done so far and whether you want to make any changes to the rest of your lesson in light of that.

Those are just a few ideas to start you off. What can you add?

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