Technology Column: ‘Face with Tears of Joy’

by Shaun Wilden

I am sure it can’t have escaped your notice that the much-heralded Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year wasn’t actually a word at all; rather, it was an image representing the word that comes from the Japanese for picture character. That would be e(picture)+ moji (character). The emoji character ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ was the winning image as it is thought to be most the used image of the 845 images that currently make up the full list of characters.  Speaking of the full list, how many can you identify? They cover a whole range from food to flags, animals to human body language.  If you never have used them, take a look at your smart phone, tablet or computer. There is probably a keyboard of images there or waiting to be added.  Though they have been around since the late nineteen nineties, it was last year that really saw their explosion in their use.

While detractors might sigh and see emoji as another way that language is being eroded, the vast array of images can be put to a creative use in the ELT classroom.  So let’s look at a few ways you can utilize them with your students.

Working with Vocabulary

Starting with vocabulary. Just as I asked you how many you could identify, so too you can ask your students. Rather than simply listing them all, you can use emoji to augment vocabulary lessons.  For example most flags of the world are included so you can tap into those for introducing and revising countries of the world.  If, like many teachers, you use social messaging apps such as ‘what’s app’ with your students, you can quiz them by sending a flag and getting the students to tell you what country it is.  Alternatively, for a class warmer, students can use the images for vocabulary races for example, the first person / team to write out ten words shown in emojis.  Staying with vocabulary, they can be used to teach and revise compound nouns, expressions and idioms. Can you work out what the following are?

Answers later..!

Telling Tales

Moving on from single lexical items into fuller sentences, emoji can be used as a way to inspire creative writing.  Online you can find plenty of sites that are dedicated to emojinate (the word used for creating a story creating from emoji).  Here is an example from which was used to create this:

“I was playing Space Invaders, when my door was knocked down by the Joker, who then killed my pet frog with a dart.”  (Thomas K. Running)

In class (or via your social media group) choose a sequence of five emoji and get the students to create sentences and small stories.  The students can even challenge each other.

Another way to use emoji is to help guide writing via a rebus.  Rebus writing is where a word is represented by an image. They have existed since the first cave paintings.  I first came across the idea of using emoji like this on the Davy Hulme school blog. Here the teacher asked the students to replace words in fairytales with emojis. As you can see from the examples on,this proves to be an excellent creative thinking and writing exercise, which can be easily be transferred to the ELT classroom.  A useful site to help you create texts is


Moving from writing to speaking, get the students to create a message of emojis to illustrate a period of activity, i.e. what they did the previous evening or at a weekend. Once they have finished they either send or show their classmates their message. This can be a pairwork or group activity. The students then have to work out what their colleague did by interpreting the emoji and asking the writer questions.

Finally, emoji can be the catalyst for speaking exercises.  The list of emoji characters is always being added to, with a list of contenders regularly being put forward by the Unicode Consortium (the body that oversees emoji). In fact the list for 2017 is already being put together and includes one I think would become my most used – the skeptical face.

Using the idea of the ‘candidate list’, One speaking task is for a class to suggest which emojis they want to add to the list and why.  Alternatively you can give the students the current list and ask them which they think should be chosen and why.  You can refer the students to the list of images on this webpage –

Through use, emojis have gained various meanings; however, as with any piece of language, meaning is only attained if all users in a group understand it.  Take for example the text phrase LOL, which most understand as ‘laugh out loud’ but some take to mean ‘lots of love’.  Or for example when I first saw ‘Face with Tears of Joy’, I thought it was someone crying rather than laughing.

This concept can be used for another speaking task, the class deciding their own meanings for a set of emoji.

While this emoji is listed in as ‘I love you’ or “I love this’, on the ‘we are teachers blog’ they have redefined it as ‘donuts in the teacher’s lounge.’ (

By the way, the answers to compound nouns are cowboy, sunglasses and sick as a dog.

Author’s Bio: Shaun Wilden 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 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 ( When not sitting at a computer, Shaun enjoys growing food in his garden and then cooking it.