Basic mobile phone

Switch Your Mobile Phones … ON!

Seven Ideas for Using Basic Mobile Phones for ESOL Learning    

Dear Students,

I know when you’re texting in class. Seriously, no-one just looks down at their crotch every five minutes and smiles.


Your Teacher[1]

I’m sure that many ESOL teachers can relate to the sentiment of this humorous note to learners; that mobile phones are not conducive to learning. Isn’t it annoying that so many learners bring their phones to class and that they have so often been known to distract their attention away from learning? Some teachers have even gone so far as to confiscate learners’ mobile phones at the beginning of each class. Clearly, having mobile phones in class can pose a problem.

But wait a minute … if mobile phones are so portable and accessible, if mobile phones are so engaging for so many learners, doesn’t that mean that they’re a potentially powerful tool for language learning? This is especially the case in community-based ESOL classes, where it is still so often the case that access to technology such as computers and interactive whiteboards is restricted or simply not available in the classroom, a situation which is also often reflected in many learners’ homes. For those learners in particular, using their mobile phones in their ESOL classes can provide not only a motivating way to improve all four language skills but also a key way in which they can start to develop their digital literacy skills. Digital literacy relates a person’s ability to use different forms of ICT competently, confidently and critically in different domains of their lives, such as for work, study, leisure and communication (European Commission 2010[2]). Without  such skills, it can be argued that our learners are disempowered in today’s world (Younie 2000:219[3]).

Just how you go about using mobile phones in class will be determined by the answers to the following questions:

  • What kinds of phones do your learners own, what do they use them for and how confident do they feel using them? You could elicit this information through an informal show of hands or a more formal written survey, which could be filled in by learners individually or as a pair interview activity.
  • Are your learners on a pay-as-you-go scheme or a contract? This may influence how willing they are to use their phone for certain activities in class.
  • Do your learners mind using their mobile phones in class and allowing other learners to look at them and perhaps access certain types of information on them (such as text messages or contacts lists)? Make it clear that no-one has to share private information or use their phone in class at all if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.

So, let’s now move on to consider seven ways in which basic mobile phones can be used to enhance digital literacy skills as well as all four language skills in ESOL learning:

  1. Adding / Finding a Contact –Since the ‘Contacts’ list on a mobile phone is arranged in alphabetical order, learners can be set tasks which will help them develop their proficiency in using this skill. For example, before adding a contact, learners could scroll down their contacts list and guess where the new contact will be positioned in the list. Next they could add the contact and check if they were right. Then, without looking at their phones, they can think of five contacts from their phone and write their names on a piece of paper before then scrolling through their ‘Contacts’ list to find the five contacts and noting down their telephone numbers.
  2. Notes – Learners can use the ‘Notes’ function on their phones in an authentic manner to jot down lists, recipes, instructions, etc. For example, learners can write authentic shopping lists (using countable and uncountable nouns, collocations and quantity vocabulary) or ‘To Do’ lists (using imperative verbs) which they can then go out and use in their daily lives and feed back to the class as to their usefulness.
  3. Instructions – Learners can use mobile phones to practise the skills of giving and following instructions. They can choose a function such as how to send a text message, how to add a contact or how to set the alarm, etc. If they are happy to do so, they can then swap phones with a partner (who, presumably, won’t know how to use the other person’s phone, which gives this task a real communicative purpose) and give their partner verbal instructions about how to fulfil that task on their phone. Alternatively, they can write a set of instructions for their partner to follow.
  4. Describing / Comparing Phones[4] – Describing and comparing mobile phones can promote the use of a plethora of descriptive adjectives, technical vocabulary, phrases to describe a phone’s functions (e.g. ‘it can …’, ‘it is able to …’) and comparative constructions. Learners can describe and compare their phones in pairs or by placing a number of phones on a table in the centre of the classroom and having a student describe a phone and one or more other learners guess which one is being described.
  5. Sending Text Messages – Learners can first be given the opportunity to analyse the language and functions of pairs of text messages on paper, such as a text inviting someone to a party and a reply accepting or declining this invitation.  They can then be presented with another similar invitation text on paper and can draft a reply as a class using shared writing on the board. The exact shape of the next stage depends on whether the learners are comfortable sharing their telephone number with one or more learners, or whether they prefer just to share it with the teacher, but basically each student should have an opportunity both to send and to receive a text in a communicative activity.
  6. Voicemail – Learners can use this facility to listen to voicemail and take notes and also to leave voicemail messages for others. Activities could include discussing the conventions of message-taking ‘note form’, listening to a voicemail message as a class and noting down the key information and finally leaving a voicemail message on another learner’s phone[5] for that person to listen to and take notes on.
  7. Making Calls – Who would have thought it? Using a mobile phone as an actual phone! Whilst telephone role plays can be conducted in class without the use of phones, they are clearly more authentic when phones are used, as visual cues will be absent. After learners have had the opportunity to listen to a phone call and analyse the telephone language used, they can role play a scenario of their own, ideally with Student As in one room and Student Bs in another. Role play cards can be used for scenarios such as booking a train ticket, making a complaint or calling a child’s school to say s/he will be absent, among others.

Further Reading:

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[1] Various versions of this ‘Note to Students’ are circulating around Facebook and other popular websites at present. The original source is unknown.

[3] Younie, S. (2000) ‘Developing a ‘cognitively flexible literacy’: From an industrial society to an information age’ in Leask, M. (ed.) Issues in Teaching Using ICT London:RoutledgeFalmer pp. 206-222

[4] It is advisable to ask learners first whether they mind putting their phone under scrutiny. For those who do, and for any learners who don’t own a phone or don’t have it with them, the teacher can give them information about one of the latest phones on the market to use instead of a real phone.

[5] If this is not appropriate, learners can record a message on a phone’s voice recorder facility or through a service such as that provided by (recorded through a computer microphone) or (recorded through a phone call to a freephone or local rate number), after which the audio file can be downloaded from the website onto a computer.

This article has been written by Aleks Palanac who works as an ESOL Resources Specialist for the British Council in addition to having teaching commitments with the Workers' Educational Association and the University of Leicester. Her main interest lies in how to marry new technologies with language teaching in order to enhance the digital literacy of ESOL learners.

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