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Using smart devices in class – challenge or opportunity?

smartdevices1Thomas Healy is one of the authors of Smart Choice as well as an Assistant Professor in the Intensive English Program at the Pratt Institute, New York City. A full time instructor, he presents regularly on how to adapt traditional classroom materials to meet the needs of the Selfie Generation, and how to use widely available and easy-to-use digital tools in language learning.

In a survey of Smart Choice teachers conducted by Oxford University Press this year, 55% of teachers reported that they use smart devices regularly in class. In addition, 84% of teachers said they encourage learners to use the devices to extend learning outside of class. While the use of mobile technology in class is becoming more accepted, it is not without its challenges. Many of these challenges relate to practical matters of classroom management. How can we engage large classes, and make sure everyone is participating? How can we keep students on track? Can we use the devices in places without Wi-Fi?

When to use a smart device

I always feel that the challenges that I face in class, rather than just a decision to use digital devices for the sake of it, should be the determining factor whether I use smart phones in my class or not. With some classes it’s an easy decision, particularly in classrooms without any installed technology. Learners’ own devices enable me to incorporate videos, illustrations, and even texts into every lesson. Before class, I upload the content that I want students to view onto our Learning Management System- I use Facebook for this – and I can have students access the content during class.

If I am concerned about the focus of a particular class, I’ll have students use their devices for relevant parts of the lesson only. The rest of time, I’ll have them turn off their devices, or even better, put them away. With other classes, often smaller groups were I can be surer of each individual’s level of engagement, I’m more comfortable having learners use their devices at any time, especially to access online dictionaries. In this case, am I absolutely sure what a learner is doing online? No, but I know now that lack of focus demonstrates itself quite rapidly, and I can take appropriate action.

Keep it focused

For me, the key to keeping learners focused when working with smart phones is to [1] have time limits, and [2] insure that they have to create or complete something as part of the activity. Students, therefore, do not just observe something: they must do something too. This might mean commenting (for example, in the comments section of where I’ve posted a video) on what they’ve seen. My favorite activity is to have learners write something in their notebooks in a response to some online content, and then take a photo of their notes and share it on our LMS. This has several advantages. Firstly, knowing that they have to share their work with the class, students are more likely to complete an activity properly rather than engaging in inappropriate online behavior. I’m often concerned that if they don’t regularly write with a pen or pencil on paper, their basic writing skills, including handwriting and spelling, may suffer. In addition, the shared writing samples are very useful for peer reviewing and self-analysis. Videos of presentations and classroom discussions are equally useful to share. Content that has been uploaded by me or by my students in class can be accessed later. This is a very efficient and easy-to-implement way of extending the classroom into the virtual world. Activities like giving feedback to presentations can now be done outside of class. Additional activities can also be uploaded to provide specific practice for individual learners.

smartdevices2With the availability of mobile-optimized online practice materials, such as the On the Move material that accompanies Smart Choice Third Edition, online dictionaries and a whole range of English Language Learning apps, encouraging our students to use their smart phones outside of class is something we should all embrace. Having activities in class that involve the devices provides us with an opportunity to assist students on how to use them successfully. What, for example, do students do once they’ve looked up a word or phrase online?

I recommend that students make flashcards, either with apps such as StudyBlue or homemade cards which students can make by screen capturing the target vocabulary item in a sample sentence (together with a translation in L1) and an image. This approach is based on I.S.P. Nation’s meta-analysis of the use of flashcards and vocabulary.


Make learning relevant

Another advantage of smart phones is the potential for bringing the real world into the classroom. Students have an abundance of photos of places, people, food and activities that we can readily link to the content of our textbook. Students can show images and videos to their classmates, and this content allows us to extend and personalize the target language in a way that motivates students and makes learning sticky. This kind of activity is ideal for settings without Wi-Fi.

As I figure out how to use mobile technology in class, I’ve become more interested in exploring the basic features of the devices, rather than using apps. For me, the ability for students to access content online, and their ability to record, share and comment on work that we’ve done together, provides an invaluable opportunity to extend learning beyond my classroom, to have content-rich lessons in every room, and to encourage students to learn by analyzing their own and their peers’ output. In doing so, I’m hoping to create an environment that reflects the interactive, collaborative and networked world which has become their natural habitat. In time, I’m hoping that smart devices will become indispensable tools for them in their English language acquisition process, both outside of the classroom and long after our shared time together is over.

Want to find out more? Join Thomas for a live webinar on how to use mobile technology in class on 12th or 13th October.

In this free-to-attend webinar you can expect to:

  • Learn practical tips and ideas on how to use smartphones purposefully with your students in the classroom
  • Look at ways in which students own smart devices can make every classroom a technology enhanced classroom
  • Bring along your own questions to ask Thomas




  • Smart Choice teacher survey, Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Nation, I.S.P. Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques Heinle ELT, 2008.


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Rigor, Relevance, and Respect for Beginning Adult English Learners

oup_58388-1Oxford Picture Dictionary Author, Jayme Adelson-Goldstein, shares tips for laying the foundation of college and career readiness skills in beginning level adult instruction.  

The Relevance of Rigor

 “I think the next century will be the century of complexity.”

Stephen Hawking, January 23, 2000.

Stephen certainly called it. Coping with complexity is integral to our success as learners, workers, parents, caregivers, engaged citizens, and community members. If the tasks, texts, and technology we navigate in the 21st century can be challenging and even maddening for the fluent English speaker, imagine the situation of the adult English learner! Given the limited amount of time most adult learners have for language learning and the time needed to learn English, it makes sense to help learners develop strategies they need to tackle complexity right from the start. With this in mind, U.S. instructors are looking at ways to introduce their adult beginners to:

– reading tactics and foundational vocabulary they’ll need to navigate training materials, websites, textbooks, their children’s school documents, etc.

– listening strategies to help them “get the message” whether it’s delivered from a lectern or at a staff meeting

– a professional (or academic) register that supports discourse in any context

– writing frames to insure learners can convey their thoughts in a variety of formats.

In my work with teachers across the U.S., I’ve experienced an understandable pushback when I speak about introducing text complexity and language strategies in beginning-level classrooms. There are concerns that lessons won’t match the needs of learners at this level, some of whom have little or no prior education, or whose goals do not include career training or college courses. It’s not difficult to imagine why some would say that rigorous instruction is not appropriate until the high-intermediate level or later. It’s absolutely true that, as our beginning learners engage with more rigorous instruction, they’re likely to struggle —but it’s a good struggle. (Dweck, 2007) In fact, mind, brain and education (MBE) research has shown that our brains learn more when we make mistakes. (Moser, et.al., 2011) If we provide the good struggle (sans extreme frustration) within a safe and supportive environment, learners know they have permission to risk, fail, and try again. Safe and supportive means scaffolding instruction: breaking a task down step‐by‐step, demonstrating learning strategies, providing practice with models, using sentence frames, posting word lists, supplying reference materials, etc.

The three examples below, show how, with scaffolds in place, learners with limited language proficiency can tackle complexity and enjoy the process. 

1. Pictures with a Purpose

Visuals can serve as the basis for rigorous learning tasks that simultaneously support and enhance learners’ comprehension. Learners can focus on how best to express the information they see and already understand. Through the teacher’s text-dependent questions, learners can then dive deeper into the visual to make inferences, explore points of view within the picture and look at features in the image that give additional clues to meaning. In this way, the images serve as an “on ramp” to navigating text complexity.

blog2blog3 Sample questions a teacher might ask:

  • Is this a restaurant? (Y/N)
  • This is Ben Lu’s home. Point to Ben. (nonverbal response)   
  • Is the food from a restaurant or Ben’s kitchen? (Why do you say that?)
  • What type of event is this? How do you know? 
  • What do you see in the picture? 
  • What does the woman in red say to the woman in pink? Who is she? How do you know? What is the woman in pink thinking? 
  • What are the children doing? Which children are misbehaving? Explain.  Etc. 

2. Charts that Challenge

We can also use charts with pictures and classroom tasks to increase the level of rigor. Learners can work together to chart the information they see in a picture. For example, in the picture above, learners could chart the ages and gender of people at the party and use a language frame to describe their chart.

blog-1_bar-graph                   blog-1_pie-chart

‘Based on our observations, the young adult group is the largest at the reunion.’ 

‘According to our calculations, there are 54% more females than males at the reunion.’

Using this same picture, learners could use a plus/minus/ interesting chart to brainstorm what’s good, bad, and or interesting about having a large group of people in your home.  As learners respond, the teacher can guide them to the picture to support their “claims.”

Sample exchange

T: What’s good about having a party in your home?   

S: Food. 

T: What about the food? 

S: People with food. 

T: People bring food?


Learners could also survey teammates based on the picture topic; e.g. Do you like small parties or large parties? Once they have their data, they can chart it and share the results:  Based on a survey of ___ students, we found that ____% prefer large parties to small parties.


Sentence frames (like the ones shown above) are an effective tool to help all learners practice using an academic or professional register to express their ideas. Beginners can engage in academic discourse with teacher support. First, prompt teams or the whole class to reflect on a situation within the picture, then provide sentence frames for their responses.

blog-1_page-45_little-boyFor example,

PROMPT: Imagine you are at the party and you see this little boy. 

                 What do you do? What do you say?    

FRAMES:  In this situation, I would talk to him and say….

I would speak to his parents and say…

I would do nothing because….

Practice various responses using the frames and then direct learners to take turns expressing their ideas in teams, using the frames you’ve provided. Be sure to give learners examples of the language to agree or disagree, so that they can respond to their teammates.  And don’t forget to set a time limit!

Treating visuals as complex text, giving learners opportunities to chart or graph information, and using sentence frames to practice a professional or academic register are just a few ways we can infuse rigor in beginning level instruction, demonstrating our respect for our learners’ abilities and insuring relevance in the century of complexity.

Join me for a live webinar on October 14 to further explore how visuals and scaffolded tasks can launch our beginning learners towards their educational career and civic goals.



Chui, G. (2000, January 23). ‘UNIFIED THEORY’ IS GETTING CLOSER, HAWKING PREDICTS. San Jose Mercury News, p. 29A.

Boaler, J. (n.d.). Mistakes Grow Your Brain [Web log post]. Retrieved September 24, 2016, from https://www.youcubed.org/think-it-up/mistakes-grow-brain/

Dweck, C. (n.d.). Carol Dweck on Struggle . Retrieved September 24, 2016, from https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/embracing-struggle-exl

Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y. H. (2011). Mind Your Errors Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments. Psychological Science, 0956797611419520.


7 ways to bring Creative Writing into the #EFL classroom

shutterstock_336098690Creative writing can add value to your classroom by taking students out of the ordinary structure of grammar books and allowing them more freedom to practice what they have learned in a creative way. It can also be very entertaining for the teacher, as they get to exercise their creative muscles with some fun and entertaining classroom ideas.

Here are 7 ways to bring creative writing to your classroom from teachers all over the world:

1. Bag of Props 

Stefan Chiarantano – Stefan has taught English in Taiwan, Japan and China for several years and in his hometown of Toronto, Canada.

To make learning English fun for my students I would bring in a bag of props that I could incorporate into my lessons. My bag of tricks included CDs of children’s songs, chants and pop music. I would use a chant with Total Physical Response (TPR) to begin a class with young learners or a pop song with adolescent junior high school students as a means to teach idioms, vocabulary or grammar. My bag also included puppets, which allowed me to teach target language such as greetings by acting out a dialogue skit with the puppets. I varied my voice for the puppets and soon discovered that it had introduced another native speaker in the classroom.. . It included stuffed animals, which I used to teach prepositions of place. There were coloured plastic balls to teach colours but which I also used in playful activities. . As silly as it sounds, I would be lost without my bag of tricks. It has infused creativity into the way I teach but more importantly it has made learning English an enjoyable experience for my students. 

2. A Sense of Adventure

Ezekiel Yerimoh Ezekiel is a Certified Supply Chain Officer and the CEO of Tonell & Cole. He is also the National Coordinator of Quizzing Nigeria (a member of the International Quizzing Association – IQA) and the President of Knowledgefield International. 

Creative writing can bring a spirit of adventure into the classroom. Thinking about an unusual, exciting and dangerous experience or event is not only a great way to widen the horizons of students but also to give them great exposure to new vocabulary. Moreover, students’ talents, gifts, skills, environment, background and personality will play a major role in its ability to function effectively in creative writing. Basically, students should be well trained to undertake the task of creative writing.

A good example of an unusual event is for one to imagine the sunlight when it is supposed to be dark or a wild animal that speaks like a human being. Students can become more engaged if they use their personality traits and experiences to come up with their own unusual events and then perform free writing based on the event, letting their stories becomes more and more unusual.

3. Debates and Quotes

Tatyana Fedosova  – Tatyana has a PhD in English Philology, and is Professor of English at the Department of German Philology of Gorno-Altaisk State University, Altai, Siberia, Russia.

My favorite written task for intermediate-level students is to write an expert viewpoint on a challenging real-life situation or problem for a column in a magazine, for example, how to behave in a new school. I like to provide students with a quotation of a famous person on some hot topic and have them write a short argumentative passage on it. I also have my students debate a proposed amendment to the constitution by writing a speech for the TV debates or write the presidential pledge for the elections. I find it useful to ask students to make up an ending to a story, to complete the beginning of a sentence, or to write a report about an exotic place that they visited or a cultural/sporting event that took place in their region. These tasks help to reinforce key concepts under study, develop critical-thinking, cognitive, and creative skills and have practical applications as well. 

4. Mad-Libs

Peter Winthrop – Peter has been teaching kindergarten and primary school students in Shanghai, China since 2009. In addition to teaching he also assists in teacher training and mentoring.

Bringing creative writing into the classroom can be difficult, most textbooks do not focus on that part of learning another language. I like to start with Mad-libs, funny word substitutions. This allows students to have fun with the language and slips in a lesson on the importance of word choice. My big tip is to celebrate originality and learning language learned outside the classroom as much as using correct grammar. We want to show students they can use the language they have learned and can make their own sentences. They don’t just have to rely on the sentence patterns they drill in class.

I always base the Madlibs on whatever the lessons content is, so even while being silly we are practicing and using the lessons language. An example would be:

“Tim is going to the ___ because he wants to eat ___ .”  

Student One will pick the location, say library, then Student Two pick the object, say books. That gives us the sentence:

 “Tim is going to the library because he wants to eat books .”

The grammar is correct, the vocabulary is in its correct place but the meaning is silly, so everyone gets a laugh.

5. Shared Writing

Amira Shouma – Amira is a certified ESL teacher in Quebec and Ontario. She is also currently an MA graduate student in Applied Linguistics at Concordia University.

I found the article “Activities for Writing Instruction” by Sharon M. Abbey a good resource for teachers in their writing classes. The author offered various activities to activate students’ sense of writing, including shared writing. With shared writing, the teacher teaches students writing by writing with them. The process of writing starts with brainstorming ideas in a shared writing session. For example, at the beginning of the session, a teacher can establish the purpose of the shared writing session with his/her students. Then, he/she brainstorms ideas with the group. Next, the teacher selects one of the ideas and invites students to develop it. At the time of composition, the teacher and students start writing together. Finally, the teacher and his/her students revise their text together. Shared writing helps students gain their confidence, build their motivation, and also enrich their ideas. 

6. Alternate Endings

Anna Klis is an experienced English teacher and has worked for several renowned language schools. She holds a master’s degree in English from the University of Wroclaw and a bachelor’s degree in Film Production from the University of Wales, Great Britain.

Students (at least intermediate level) are asked in advanced by a teacher to watch a famous/popular film (or choose a  chapter from a well-known book) and choose one important and meaningful scene. At home they prepare a short description of a continuation of the scene but the way they want it to be, so that it is completely different from the original, and they work on a new version that would possibly lead to a different ending. When working on such a piece of writing students are supposed to use newly-learned grammar and/or vocabulary structures to practice them. Then during the lesson they can guess the alternate endings or compare their versions to decide which one is the best and how it fits the original story.

7. Writing with the Senses

Rachel Playfair – Rachel is a teacher-trainer and language coach working in Barcelona, Spain.

From time to time I like to use a short writing activity as a ‘Warm-Down’ end of class activity to help balance the ‘Warm-Up’ oral activities I do. One of my favourite ones is “Respond With Your Senses”: I will give students a sensory prompt (i.e. show them a picture, play them some music, put an object in a bag that they can’t see and let them feel it, let them smell something like peppermint extract), then students do free-writing about the prompt for about 3-5 minutes, depending on their level. I can also use the prompts to preview or review classroom topics. For further creative and/or collaborative writing activities, I will then put students together into small groups to combine and develop their paragraphs, which we can then share together or put up on the classroom wall. This activity can be adapted to a wide range of levels and ages as long as you make sure they have had previous vocabulary input. 


Using drama role play activities in your classroom

shutterstock_286079675Ken Wilson is the author of Smart Choice and in all has written more than 30 ELT titles. We asked teachers from around the world who have been using Smart Choice what one question they would like to ask Ken. In this video blog Ken answers the question ‘How can Smart Choice be used for drama role play activities?’

To relate English language learning to their daily lives, students need the opportunity to say something about themselves or to give their opinion. We all need to find manageable activities that help students with personalization.

In this final Question and Answer video blog, Ken Wilson demonstrates how you can use coursebook material as the basis for personalization activities. He then suggests how teachers can extend language learning by asking students to play different parts in role-play activities.


Wilson, Ken and Healy, Thomas. (2016) Smart Choice Third Edition, Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Ken. (2008) Drama and Improvisation, Oxford University Press.


25 ideas for using audio scripts in the ELT classroom

shutterstock_381582928Philip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.  Today he joins us to provide 25 engaging and useful classroom activities for language learners using audio scripts.

Many ELT student books come with audio scripts at the back. However, these are sometimes not exploited to the full. Here are 25 ideas for how to make better use of this resource. There are suggestions for using the audio script before listening to the audio, while listening to the audio and after listening to the audio.

Before listening to the audio for the first time:


While listening to audio for the first time:


After listening to the audio: