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#EFLproblems – Cell phones in the adult classroom: interruption or resource?

Student with phone in classWe’re helping to solve your EFL teaching problems by answering your questions every two weeks. This week’s blog will respond to Pat Mattes Mazzei’s comment on Facebook about the challenge of adult students using cell phones in the classroom.

Although students using cell phones in the classroom can make you feel like you have lost control of the class, it’s important to find out what students are using their cell phones for. Calling or texting friends or family during lessons may not be the best use of class time, but more and more often students are using their cell phones – especially smartphones – for learning and organisational purposes. Being on the cell phone does not necessarily mean the students are ‘off task’.

Establishing phone use guidelines

Adult learners may have valid reasons for leaving their phones on. Business people, for example, may have a mandate to keep in touch even whilst in class, or parents may need to be available for calls related to children. At the beginning of term, it’s a good idea to negotiate rules for phone use with students. Discuss when, if ever, it is OK to use phones for calls or texting and establish cell phone etiquette for the classroom. This should be done with maximum student input so that the rules are agreed rather than imposed.

Some examples of acceptable use of cell phones in the class might include:

  • Using the calendar to schedule meetings with other students
  • Taking notes using a note app or recording function
  • Audio recording the lesson (with teacher’s permission)
  • Looking up unknown words
  • Adding peers to their contacts list
  • Photographing board work or homework assignments
  • Sharing photos when related to class content (for example, family photos on a family unit or holiday pictures on a holidays unit)
  • Doing web searches

Maximising cell phone use for learning

You also might begin to think of ways to exploit cell phones further. Some ideas are explored below.

1. Educational apps for phones have been developed to help students learn English. Encourage students to replace their digital translators with a good dictionary app. Students can look up new words themselves rather than relying on the teacher all the time. When doing activities in which students must guess the meaning of new words from context, simply ask them not to use dictionaries for the activity. To help with pronunciation, point students in the direction of a pronunciation app that they can use to hear the correct pronunciation and record themselves or each other. The Headway Phrase-a-day app could be an engaging way to begin the lesson with students trying to create a dialogue in which the phrase can be used naturally. (For ideas on how to use apps, see Gareth Davis’ blog ‘Translation Tool or Dictionary’ and Verissimo Toste’s blog ‘Enhanced Learning – Using an App in Class’)

2. If students (or at least one student per group) have smartphones, then they can easily go onto the internet to research questions they have related to course content. Encourage students to look up information to support an argument or to satisfy their curiosity about topics discussed in class. Get them to research a topic to report back on or ask them to find an image to illustrate a difficult vocabulary word. For example, in one of my classes, the word badger came up. Describing a badger is fairly difficult, but a student with a smartphone quickly looked it up and passed the image around to the rest of the class.

3. Students can use their phones to practise speaking and telephoning skills. Speaking to someone without seeing them is more difficult and requires students to use clear pronunciation and phrases for clarification. This adds a layer of authenticity and can help students gain confidence. Give them a speaking or telephoning task to do with someone across the room where eye contact is difficult. Alternatively, ask them to leave a message that their partner has to respond to.

4. Cell phones can themselves be a springboard for discussion and a way to practise new language. Students could compare and contrast the functions of their phones, describe how an app works, argue for or against phone features, or even give instructions for how to play a game.

5. You might be interested in exploring more advanced uses of cell phones by investigating resources such as Wiffiti for sharing brainstorms or Poll Everywhere and SMS Poll for free ways to get immediate class feedback.

Cell phones play an increasing role in everyday life and can be seen as an integral part of students’ learning rather than as an interruption to it. When students do use phones in class, especially smartphones, don’t assume that they are doing something ‘off task’. Students may be using their phones for a number of educational purposes. Cell phones can be seen as a valuable learning tool and an aid to student autonomy.

Invitation to share your ideas

We are interested in hearing your ideas about using cell phones in class, so please comment on this post and take part in our live Facebook chat on Friday 25 October at 12pm GMT. Our next blog will address one of the other issues raised by you on this blog, on Twitter (using hashtag #EFLproblems), and on Facebook. Please keep your ideas coming.


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Translation tool or dictionary?

Closeup on dictionary entry for educationGareth Davies is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Czech Republic. His students are typical of many language learners, preferring to use a translation tool rather than a dictionary. Gareth shares the ideas he uses to change their minds…

In a recent teacher training session I asked a group of teachers what their favourite book was and I told them that if anyone matched my answer, they would win a prize – none of them did. My answer was my dictionary. I love my dictionary. I love the smell as I leaf through the well-thumbed pages. I love the weight of knowledge the book carries and I love the unique insights it can give me.

But how can my dictionary become a useful classroom tool? In the past when I’ve asked students to look something up in their dictionaries they’ve rolled their eyes and complained that it was a ‘waste of time’. They preferred to get a translation from me or look up the word in a translation dictionary. But I persevered; I wanted my students to appreciate dictionaries even if they didn’t love them as much as I did.

I suppose the first question is why isn’t a translation tool sufficient?

If it provides students with the language they need then surely that’s enough? That’s true to some extent but translation does not provide any detail about meaning and the usage of the word, the nuances and connotation; a good dictionary will have all of these. Take a word like childish for example. A simple translation would tell you that the word means behaving like a child but that would miss the connotation that it is usually used in a negative or disapproving manner. Therefore, a translation is a quick fix, whereas a dictionary can be a virtual teacher.

So the second question is: how do I get my students interested in dictionaries?

I am sure it’s not just my experience that students roll their eyes when you ask them to look something up in a dictionary. I think it’s important as a teacher to model the behaviour you want from your students. So for me it was essential for them to see me using a dictionary and this is where technology really helped. Using digital dictionaries on CD-ROMs I can quickly and effectively show definitions of words on the screen whenever a student has a question. This could be either as a whole class or just when one student has a question. The genie function is especially useful as you can roll your cursor over any word in a ‘live’ document to bring up an instant definition. This helps students to see the value of the dictionary and helps us to discuss how to use them.

Another way to inspire students is to do small activities using dictionaries. My favourite is a spelling test where the students have to write words in one of two columns – sure how to spellnot sure how to spell. After I’ve read out the words the students check them themselves in the dictionary. On a whim in one lesson I gave one group a paper dictionary to check their answers and the other the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) app on my phone. The students with the app finished quicker and it wasn’t long before others were asking to use it.

A second activity I’ve used is a quiz race. I ask the students 3 or 4 questions and tell them to find the answer in the dictionary; for example: how many meanings does pick have? What’s the difference in pronunciation between record as a verb, and record as a noun, etc. For this I give one group the phone with the OALD app, one the computer, and one a paper dictionary. They then have to race to see who can find the answers first. These types of activities show students how useful dictionaries can be to help them become less reliant on the teacher.

My students’ willingness to use the dictionary app is something I can build on. Rather than using the CD-ROM in class, I have my phone at the ready in all lessons. It’s easy to pass it to one group then the next when the need arises. I make sure that they add the word to the Favourites when they look it up so we can see as a class all the words we’ve looked up at the end of an activity or lesson. Now instead of rolling their eyes when I suggest looking something up in the dictionary, my students are actively asking for it and when the phone is in someone else’s hands they reach for the paper version.

I was worried about using digital dictionaries in my class because not all the students could have access to them at the same time. But what I’ve discovered is that asking students to share the resources and asking them to use a combination of paper and digital, helps students to see what a valuable learning tool dictionaries are.


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Introducing the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary App

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) is a world best-seller. And it’s now available as an app, with the full A-Z dictionary, real voice (not text to speech) audio, and My View to customize your screen. It has been developed by the same editors from Oxford University Press who created the printed dictionary, working together with Paragon Software, a leading software developer for mobile devices.

Find out how you and your students can learn on the go with the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary app. Look up words, hear them spoken, and listen to example sentences!

Available for download at http://oxford.ly/eltapps (opens iTunes Store) or more information at http://oxford.ly/oald8.

Available for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.

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