Oxford University Press

English Language Teaching Global Blog


25 ideas for using WhatsApp with English language students

shutterstock_287594936Philip 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 WhatsApp.

There are three main obstacles to the use of technology in ELT. First is the availability of technology and internet connection in the classroom. Second is teacher techno-phobia. The final, and perhaps the biggest problem, is knowing how to use it for language learning purposes.

WhatsApp or similar messaging services can help overcome these obstacles. If our classrooms are not well equipped, we can take advantage of the technology that students have on their phones, even if there is no internet available in class. Many activities can be set up by the teacher and extended beyond the classroom when students later link to Wi-Fi. Alternatively, students can show each other their phones at different stages of activities.

Many self-confessed, techno-phobic teachers that I know use WhatsApp on a regular basis in their private lives, so already feel quite comfortable with it. However, the trick is to set up activities that make students do all the work without the teacher needing to share contact details. Each student need to have a WhatsApp buddy in the class who they communicate with via WhatsApp and carry out the activities.

Here are 25 ideas of how to make good use of WhatsApp for language learning. WhatsApp was the starting point for these ideas, but teachers will see that other applications and messaging services will work just as well. For these activities I make use of the following five features: text, photo, video, audio and emoji.




#IATEFL – The digital classroom: change of medium or change of methodology?

shutterstock_198926996Stacey Hughes, an Oxford teacher trainer with 20 years teaching experience, joins us to preview her upcoming talk at IATEFL, ‘The digital classroom: change in medium or change in methodology’, held on Friday 15th April at 3.30pm.

Today’s e-coursebooks and e-readers offer learners a range of tools that can enhance the learning experience, but is using an e-book really different? Does it require a different methodology? Does it have an impact on classroom management?  What are the benefits an e-book can offer?

First let’s think about a fairly standard lesson that uses a coursebook. You probably spend some time with students paying attention to you or to a listening track or video, some time with students working in pairs or groups, some time with them working alone. E-books don’t change that dynamic:


If we are happy with the scenario in the left column above, why should we bother changing? Why introduce e-books? Firstly, e-books can add flexibility: in the above scenario, teacher could choose to allow students to listen to the audio track on their own with headphones or in pairs.  Secondly, e-books have some features that can be beneficial to students. For example, students could listen to a graded reader and read along. They can speed up or slow down the audio or pause it and rewind to listen to a section again. Some students might even replay a section again and record themselves at the same time in order to compare their intonation or pronunciation of words.


Another reason for using e-books is that they are on tablets where students can also keep other learning resources: a learner’s dictionary, all their e-readers, and educational apps are a few good examples. Of course, with tablets and a wifi connection, students can use the internet to do webquests for projects that really open up and contextualize learning.

What about classroom management? Of all the fears that teachers say they have regarding introducing technology into the classroom, classroom management ranks highly.  However, managing a class with e-books need not be any different from managing a class with more familiar tools. The same management principles apply.

At my workshop at IATEFL, I’ll be asking teachers to think about some of the things they do in their class now before looking at some of the functionality of e-coursebooks and e-readers on Oxford Learner’s Bookshelf. We will talk about classroom management and think about how a class might look using an e-book. I hope you can join me!


Making online language learning safe

shutterstock_312877391Aisha Walker is Associate Professor of Technology, Education and Learning at the University of Leeds. With a background in linguistics, language learning and primary education her research areas include digitally-mediated communication, academic language and childrens’ engagement with digital technologies. Today she joins us ahead of her webinar Online risk and safety for language learners and teachers to preview what she will discuss at this online event.

The online digital world offers huge benefits to language learners and teachers.  Much of our everyday language use takes place in digital environments and is mediated by digital tools.  This means that it is sensible for language teachers use these tools with their students.  After all, students will need to be able to communicate in the target language using digital tools as fluently as, say, handwriting (if not more so).  Nowadays, we are likely to write business emails rather than letters; to send Facebook messages rather than birthday cards and to check the news using social media rather than the daily newspaper.  Language learners need to be able to negotiate all of these new contexts and to use appropriate language in digital spaces.

Digital tools and media also offer opportunities for authentic communication with people across the globe.  However specialised our interests we can look online to find people who share them.  For example, the digital world is full of keen hobbyists sharing their ideas or patterns and showing off their newly completed work.  Gamers meet in multiplayer online games where they plan and discuss strategies or they play casual online games such as ‘Words with Friends’.  People use Twitter to talk about current events. Indeed, sometimes Twitter is the news!  Learners no longer have to write work that will languish in exercise books to be read only by teachers and parents; their work can be published to a genuine audience through blogs or sharing  sites such as YouTube or SoundCloud.  The audience can, and will, respond by ‘liking’ the work or through the comment system.

The opportunities offered by the online digital world are undoubtedly exciting but there is also a dark side.  Children may be exposed to inappropriate content or may use online shopping sites to buy goods that they are not legally old enough to purchase.  Extremist groups use social media to publicise themselves and this may draw young people towards extremism.   There are legitimate concerns about mental-ill health issues such as ‘thinspiration‘.  Criminals may use social media or games to find and groom victims; two such cases were recently featured in BBC documentaries (Alicia Kozakiewicz and Breck Bednar) showing that the dangers are real.

Teachers have to navigate the benefits of the online digital world whilst avoiding the risks both for their learners and for themselves.  For some teachers (and schools) this is too intimidating and so they avoid social media in their classes and do not encourage students to publish their work online.  In this webinar we will talk about some of the fears that participants have about using online digital tools and media with their learners.  We will discuss some of the options for safe online working and strategies that teachers might use such as setting ground rules for their learners.  I hope that in this webinar we can draw upon our collective wisdom and that participants will be willing to discuss their own fears and ideas although I will, of course, have some suggestions to offer!

If you’re interested in learning more about safety for language learners and teachers online, please register below for this free webinar, taking place on 23rd and 24th March.



Vocabulary gap-fills: from testing _____ teaching

shutterstock_225810664Philip Kerr is a teacher trainer and materials writer with over 30 years of experience in ELT. He lives in Vienna where he is part of the team that has developed the Oxford English Vocabulary Trainer. He joins us today to explore the ________ of gap-fills.

The potential of gap-fills

When it comes to vocabulary learning, gap-fills are everywhere. But do they have a place in communicative language learning? They are often criticized for being boring and for promoting only a passive knowledge of words. It is not unreasonable to see them as better suited to testing than to teaching. Research, however, may cause us to rethink.

Learning new words involves a degree of memorization. For new words to be stored in their long-term memories, learners will need to be exposed to them many times. The best-known way of making this possible is through the use of flashcards. Flashcards work best when they are used with increasing intervals of time between each period of study (i.e. one hour later, then one day later, the one week later, etc.). This is known as spaced repetition.

We also know that this kind of memorization works best when learners are not simply given words and their definitions or translations, but have to generate the word they are trying to remember. The most usual way of doing this is to get them to fill in gaps.

The value of gap-fills, then, is greatest when they are used repeatedly, and not just once. Unfashionable though it is, repeated practice testing is known to work[1]. In vocabulary learning, a gap-fill repeated a number of times is likely to lead to more learning in the same amount of time than a more creative or imaginative exercise, such as getting students to make up sentences including the target word[2].

Exploiting gap-fills

I’m not suggesting, of course, that teachers simply ask their students to do gap-fill exercises again and again. That really would be too dull! The exercises need to be rewritten so that the target words are presented in new contexts. This approach is taken by the Oxford English Vocabulary Trainer, a vocabulary learning app which uses spaced repetition and gap-fills. But for teachers and students who are not using technology like this, there are a number of simple things that can be done. Here are a few suggestions:

  • After completing a gap-fill exercise, tell the students to translate it into their own language. Collect in these translations, and, in a subsequent lesson, get the students to translate them back into English.
  • Return to a gap-fill exercise some time after the students have already done it, and give it to them this time orally.
  • Select a gap-fill that the students have already done. Write it on the board (it doesn’t matter if your writing is not very legible). Tell the students that their task is to memorize all the sentences and, to do this, they must read the sentences aloud, in order and repeatedly. After about a minute, begin making more or less random swipes across the board with the board cleaner. All the time, the students should continue memorising / reading aloud. Continue making swipes with the cleaner until very little of the exercise is still visible.
  • Select four or five gap-fills that the students have already done. Write the page numbers of these exercises on the board and give the students an impossibly short time limit (for example, five minutes) to do as many of these tasks as they can. (You’ll need to make sure that the answers are not still written in their books.) The activity should be managed as a game: who can complete the most items?
  • Select two or more gap-fill exercises that the students have already done and return to them some time later. With different students working on different exercises, get them to copy out the exercises on sheets of paper, but tell them to gap different words from the original. Ideally, they should gap collocating words or dependent prepositions. The papers are then passed around the classroom to be completed.

Gap-fills and feedback

As with any language learning activity, learners will benefit from getting feedback[3] – not just on what was right or wrong, but why incorrect answers were incorrect. And, after getting this feedback but without being given the correct answer, they will benefit from having another attempt. Vocabulary mistakes broadly fall into four categories: meaning (the word that students have entered in the gap does not have the meaning that is needed), grammar (students have found the right base form of the missing word, but have used singular instead of plural, the wrong tense or the wrong part of speech), spelling, and word choice (students have entered a word which does not collocate with other words in the sentence).

The Oxford English Vocabulary Trainer provides this feedback automatically in the form of a butterfly, where the size of the wings indicates where the learner has had a problem. It would be useful for teachers who are not using technology in class to collect in gap-fill work that students have done, from time to time, and provide feedback of a similar kind, perhaps using the same four categories.


[1] Dunlosky, J. et al. 2013. ‘Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology’ Psychological Science in the Public Interest Vol. 14 No. 1 pp. 4-58

[2] Folse, K. 2006. ‘The Effect of Type of Written Exercise on L2 Vocabulary Retention’ TESOL Quarterly Vol. 40 No. 2 pp.273 – 293

[3] Ellis, R. & Shintani, N. 2014. Exploring Language Pedagogy through Second Language Acquisition Research. (Abingdon: Routledge) chapter 10


Encouraging ESL learner independence

Man sat at desk smiling while workingLara Storton has seventeen years of experience in ESL, teaching English for Academic Purposes and teacher training, and has recently written the Milestones in English Student’s Book and Teacher’s Book at B1+ level. She joins us today to outline steps towards encouraging language learners to continue their study outside the classroom and how to make use of technology and online resources to promote independent learning.

The student-centered approach is becoming more common as teachers realize the benefits of being a facilitator in the classroom, encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning in collaborative tasks and discussions. Of course, as a teacher you decide what happens in the classroom, but how can you extend learner independence outside it?

Set learning goals

Students come to class with their own individual learning goals. Often their motivation for learning will be goal-oriented: geared towards a specific exam, career or university placement and so getting them to spend time on skills development outside of class – rather than cramming for an exam – can be a challenge. And it can also be difficult for students who do want to develop their independent study skills to decide what to study outside the classroom.

What you want is for your students to become confident in organizing their own learning, studying what they want or need to study in order to achieve their long-term goals so that when they pass that exam or get into university, they can go on working independently and with confidence.

So first of all you need to get them thinking about their own learning goals in more detail. Do some needs analysis in class using questions. For example: Why am I studying English now? What do I hope to achieve in the future by learning English? What are my main strengths? How can I build on them? What are my weaknesses? How can I improve my skills and turn my weaknesses into strengths?

Students can then write down a list of individual learning goals and some suggestions of how to achieve them. Make this an interactive activity to highlight its importance and promote independence from the beginning – get students to discuss their learning goals and make suggestions in pairs or small groups. Take time to review these both as a whole class and individually with each student. This way you can help guide learners towards independent study in a way that requires them to take the initiative.

Get students to think about how to extend their learning in class

Once your students have established their learning goals, you can support them further by making references to independent study during lessons. Get them thinking about how they could extend their learning and build on the skills they have practised in lessons, saying for example, ‘How could you practice this at home?’ ‘Has anyone got any ideas about how you could extend what you’ve learned in this lesson?

At first your students may need some support with thinking of ideas so you could give them suggestions such as, ‘Read a newspaper and find two more examples for each dependent preposition we studied today.’ ‘Read a short text on a topic you are interested in and prepare to summarize it to a partner tomorrow’. ‘Read an article on a subject you’re interested in, underline all the present tenses and consider why the writer has used each one.

Over time these suggestions will give students an awareness of a range of independent study techniques and strategies and increase their confidence and motivation to move towards independence.

Take advantage of technology

In terms of motivation, we are lucky to live in an age where technology offers a wide range of self-study options. Most students will have a smartphone, laptop or tablet and are likely to be very adept at using it! This means that they can access a wealth of online study opportunities.

When online practice first became available, technology and programming was limited so exercises tended to be very short. Often they were gap-fill or choose-the-correct-option type tasks which required little ‘thought’. Of course there is a benefit to these more automatic types of exercise but nowadays online study programmes and resources can offer students so much more in terms of skills development. Features such as high quality images, games, audio, video, writing walls and discussion forums add to learner experience helping them to stay motivated and engaged.

From a teaching perspective, online study programmes also act as a ‘first step’ to guiding your students towards independent study – they can work on achieving their learning goals at their own pace and at a level that they feel comfortable with. They tend to be progressive, so once a student is has mastered the necessary language and skills, they can move on to the next level.

One example is the Oxford Online Skills Program. The programme runs at all CEFR levels and offers students the opportunity to work on either General or Academic English. Students can log on in their own time and choose what they want to study in whatever order they like in order to achieve their learning goals. An advantage is that the study material is generic – each module is based around a specific language focus, skill or topic so it can be used alongside any course and to suit varied interests.

Tapping into those interests is extremely motivating so encourage your students to engage with online material as much as possible not only on official study programmes but also through authentic websites and social media.

Build independent skills online

Once your students start to become motivated to study independently, encourage them to adopt a systematic approach to build their skills. In class, have regular discussions about how students can use technology for independent study, for example by listening to podcasts or online lectures, or by reading articles on their subject or area of special interest.

You could set aside a regular time in class where students discuss how they have studied independently this week and say what they have learned, what they have practiced, what they feel they gained from the study and how they will continue to develop those skills in future.

An online study programme can also help to guide students towards a systematic approach which they can then use with authentic materials. For example, in the Oxford Online Skills Program, modules are set up like mini-lessons giving students the opportunity to raise schema (activate their own knowledge and ideas and relate these to their experiences) by looking at an image or watching a video, and then complete a series of exercises including language, vocabulary or form focus. These build up to a final productive ‘task’, either written or spoken, and finally a ‘reflective’ task prompts students to consider their own learning experience and performance.

A2 Listening Engage

Engage activities activate schma. (Screenshot from Oxford Online Skills Program Academic A2)

This type of structure helps students to get into good independent study habits which they can then apply in the future at home or at college or university with authentic texts on subjects that are interesting to them or important to their course of study or career.



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