Special interest column: Technology

by Shaun Wilden

At the recent International House Teachers’ Online Conference I did a talk on how to use students’ mobile phones as a stimulus for speaking. You can find the talk at http://ihtoc60.blogspot.co.uk. I’m using this edition’s column to follow up on that talk and present you with easy-to-do activities using the students’ mobile phones, particularly the camera.

As we move more and more towards using tablets and mobile devices, very often teachers concentrate solely on what specific apps can do and perhaps overlook the power of the tool that most students always carry with them. Though many schools still forbid the use of mobile phones within the classroom, the activities that follow are mainly set up outside the classroom. In cases where students can’t use the phone in class, they could always email the photographs to you or post them on the class’s Facebook or Edmodo page.

An obvious first speaking task is getting students to compare their mobile phones. The simple question ‘what can your phone do?’  can be a stimulus for classroom conversation. Students take out their phones and compare the different functions; exploring if their phones can take pictures, record sound, access the Internet and if they have apps. As well as creating lots of conversation, this also gives you a chance to assess the capabilities of the students’ phones which, in turn, influences what tasks you are able to set as obviously if the students can’t take photos with their phones, there is little point in setting such tasks for homework. However, if it is only a couple of students whose phones can’t take photos you could bear in mind alternatives such as pairing up students or asking them to use digital cameras.

Following on from the first speaking task, an extension could be to ask students to find a photograph on their phones and show it to colleagues and to discuss where and when it was taken and why they took it and then allowing colleagues to ask questions. It has become a natural way of life for people, especially teenagers, to take photos of what they are doing, therefore it makes sense to bring this real-life activity into the classroom.  One way of doing this would be to set homework such as ‘take a photo of a free time activity’ or ‘take a photo of something you do/did over the weekend’. This means that in the first class of the week the students can begin with a personalised speaking task as they show each other their photographs.

Getting students to use their phones to take photographs to use in class can open a whole world of personalised speaking activities. For example the task could be ‘who am I? For this activity the students have to take a number of photographs of things that best illustrate who they are.  In class the student then shows the photos they have taken which will promote discussion on why they chose those things to represent them. Alternatively they could email you the photographs prior to the lesson so you can set up a guess who task. An alternative of this would be to get the students to discuss things that best represent them as a class then take photos of the things they decided on.

Having access to a mobile phone gives you the chance to put a new spin on typical classroom activities. For example, 20 questions (the game in which students ask 20 questions to try and guess what something is) can be played by students trying to guess what another student has taken a photograph of. Likewise tasks such as odd one out or find the similarity can be done using photos. You could put the students into groups of about four and ask each one to find a photo on their phones. Students then put their phones on the table so that all four photographs can be seen and work together to decide which photo is the odd one out or what similarities there are between the four photos.  A variation of this would be to decide which of the four photographs they should print and display on the classroom wall. These kinds of collaborative tasks are excellent ways to practice components of oral exams.

The photos can also act as a stimulus for storytelling and therefore promote creative thinking. Students work in groups of five and, as with the previous activity, choose a photo on their phones. Once again they place their phones on the table but this time in a clear line so that they can work from left to right. Having done this, they work together to come up with a story that includes the photos in the correct order. If this is done as a speaking activity then the students can record it on their phones for others to listen to, thereby creating personalised listening exercises. This activity is a personalised version of the five-card Flickr idea found at http://5card.cogdogblog.com.

The camera phone is an excellent way for students to contextualise language. For example you could take two photos in quick succession and use them to have a practice activity for the present perfect.  The students have to describe what has changed from the first photo to the second. Likewise photos can be used to contextualise vocabulary.  Students take photographs that depict a word, phrase or idiom. The rest of the class have to then guess the word by looking at the photo. This can be a lot more motivating than simply doing a traditional workbook activity. Used in conjunction with an annotation app, such as skitch, the students can write on the photo to make a permanent record of the lexical item. This could then lead on to another activity where students create visual dictionaries of the words in their course books.

An activity such as the one described above is perhaps a longer term project. Other variations of this could be taking photos of the English around you and a scavenger hunt. In the first, you have an on-going project where students snap examples of English in their hometown. In most non-English speaking countries, it has become the fashion to have signs, shop signs and posters etc in English. Such an exercise helps students to come to terms with how useful English is and how much it is around them in the real world. The scavenger hunt is a fun way to keep students thinking about English throughout the week. It can be done in a number of ways, perhaps the simplest of which is having a letter of the week and asking students to take photos of things in English that begin with that letter. You could also tie this into the current course book topic with students having to ‘scavenge’ things from a topic.

As I hope you can see, there are a lot of things you can do if you allow students to use the camera on their phones. Also bear in mind that the smarter the phone the more likely it is to be able to take videos as well which could obviously lead on to even more tasks such as asking students to video a role-play. However,  consider that videoing the students often requires gaining permission to do so. I’ve concentrated on just one aspect of a phone in this column but there is so much more that can be done. You can utilise the text function for dictations (see http://www.onestopenglish.com/support/mobile-english/mobile-phone-dictation/) and there are many projects that can be done with phones that can record audio. Not least the ability for students to listen and comment on their own speaking abilities.

As I said at the beginning, most students have a mobile phone and most mobile phones, even the older ones, are powerful tool that can be utilised for learning. I hope you enjoy the activities in this month’s column and if you try them please let me know how they go.

If you have a suggestion or want to find out what other IH teachers are doing then join the m-learning Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/323031811157722/)

Author’s Bio: Shaun has been involved in English language teaching for over twenty years. He is currently the International House World Organisation Teacher Training Coordinator. He also maintains several online teaching sites including ihonlinetraining.net and is interested in the application of technology to teaching. He is a moderator of the twitter #eltchat group which meets every Wednesday to discuss issues and ideas in ELT and membership secretary of the IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG. Feel free to follow him @shaunwilden or read his blog (shaunwilden.com). When not sitting at a computer, Shaun enjoys growing food in his garden and then cooking it.