Love them or hate them, emojis are now a part of everyday life, in 2017 there was even a movie about them. Unlike that movie, which failed to wow the critics 😴, I think embracing emojis in the classroom could get you a 👍 from students.
Only two years ago Oxford Dictionaries (1) chose 😂 as its word of the year. Since then the number of emojis has grown to over two and half thousand (once you factor in skin tones and gender). There is everything from passport control 🛂 through to a pretzel emoji 🥨, which was one of the 60 or so added in the last update (2).
The popularity of emojis has naturally led to headlines from the media such as ‘emoji will cause the death of English’, ‘Are emojis killing language?’ and the rather wonderful ‘emojis are ruining civilisation’. Such headlines by the way are a journalist’s version of a substitution table; a quick
search will reveal that they said the same about text messages, and social media.
As one journalist put it: “A picture speaks a thousand words, yes. But an emoji cannot express the myriad of meanings that language allows for” (3). As a teacher then, we can choose to go one of two ways; for or against the headlines. I suggest we can take a more positive approach, similar to the one taken recently by this professor of communication: ‘’Emojis enhance human interactions. It’s trying to put emotional, non-verbal information back in” (4). In other words, emojis are now an important part of communication. As a language teacher, it is this aspect that first got me hooked on emojis and how they can be used as part of our language lessons. I use them now for everything from vocabulary practice to judging how well a student has understood key parts of my lesson.
What’s your favourite emoji? Do you have one? Why that one? At the moment I quite like 🤯. It’s one of the new ones used to mean anything from shock to awe.
This simple question is a speaking activity in itself. ‘OK class take out your phones, tell your partner what your favourite emoji is and why.’
At the very least, emojis provide us with thousands of symbols that we can use in teaching. Think how often we use flashcards or pictures, emojis at a very basic level can act in the same way. See the funny thing about emoji is that they have a universal meaning. They cross linguistic borders like no other form of communication. That is not to say that some don’t alter meaning in different cultural and group contexts, but on one level the meaning of many is the same. Show a picture of an emoji to your students and there is a good chance that they will know what it is, a very useful scaffold on which we can exercise vocabulary. And when they don’t know what it is, we immediately enter a speaking and thinking exercise as students try to work it out.
Now some of you might be thinking ‘yeah but I don’t know what half of them mean myself’ 😤. Keep calm! There are many tools at our disposal – from an emoji dictionary, through to an emoji encyclopedia. You can even get real time usage stats of the world wide use of emoji (NB: I might have become a bit emoji obsessed).
Shaun Wilden is the Academic Head of training and development for the International House World Organisation and a freelance teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer. He currently specialises in technology and language teaching, especially in the area of mobile learning. His latest book “Mobile Learning” was published in 2017 by OUP. He is a trustee of IATEFL and also on the committee of the Learning technologies special interest group. He makes the TEFL commute podcast for teachers.