Student using tablet in classroom.

A Smarter Way to Learn: Seven Ideas for Using Smartphones for ESOL Learning

Let’s take a moment to reflect on what the following things have in common: newspapers, books, grammar reference information and exercises, dictaphones, cameras, camcorders, pictures, videos, games, calendars, dictionaries, MP3 players, radios, maps, satellite navigation systems, vocabulary books, notepads, phone calls, text messaging, emails, blogging and, last but not least, all the rest of the Internet!  And the common link? As well the fact that they are all potentially useful language learning tools, they can all be carried out or accessed through modern smartphones[1] (and some are also available on certain feature phones[2]). As you can see, these phones can potentially offer our learners a whole host of multi-sensory learning opportunities and a chance to become more autonomous in their learning. What’s more, the portability of smartphones means that, not only can these learning opportunities be exploited in the classroom and at home; they can also be used during snippets of free time on public transport, in a queue, in a cafe … wherever and whenever an opportunity arises.

Despite the fact that growing numbers of our learners own smartphones, is still the case in many ESOL classrooms that mobile technologies are being under-used as learning tools[3]. These missed opportunities are particularly significant in instances where there is no or limited computer access for the learners in class or at home. Our learners with smartphones may be sitting on a potential gold-mine … so let’s get digging!

The first stage of the excavation involves finding out what kinds of phones your learners own. If only a couple of learners own smartphones or feature phones, this will limit the kinds of activities that can be conducted in class (though these learners can still be given ideas about how to make the most of their phones for learning out of class time), but if more than half of your learners own these phones and are happy to use them in class, you could comfortably set activities for them with one phone between two learners. Another issue to consider is whether your learners are on a pay-as-you-go scheme or a contract, as we wouldn’t want our learners to incur vast data charges. Again, options for learners on pay-as-you-go schemes include not using their own phone but instead working in a pair with a learner who has a contract phone, or using free Wi-Fi rather than the internet service from their network provider, where this is available in the teaching setting.

So where can we begin in using smartphones with learners? The next section of this article outlines seven practical ways in which smartphones can be used to enhance ESOL learning:

  1. Camera – The camera function of a smartphone or function phone can be used in a variety of ways. For example, to save time, learners[4] could take photographs of information that they may otherwise have had to copy down in their books, such as the teacher’s explanation on the board or a completed matching card task. Learners could also use the camera function to take photographs out of class time which can then be used in class activities. These could include photos of public signs and symbols, a room in their house or a family member. These kinds of photos lend themselves to communicative information-gap pair activities and are inherently motivating as the learners will have taken the photos themselves.2
  2. Camcorder – Learners can use this to record (and later analyse) class-work such as discussions, role plays, interviews and presentations. Furthermore, learners who have pronunciation difficulties can video their teacher saying certain words and then video themselves saying the same words to analyse and correct their mistakes using both audio and visual cues.
  3. E-Books / newspapers / magazines – Learners can download and read a variety of different types of text on their phones, many of which are free or inexpensive. A useful application for accessing and reading these texts is Kindle, which allows readers to highlight words, look up word definitions and make their own annotations. Particularly useful for ESOL learners are the Quick Reads and Oxford Bookworms ranges of short, accessible texts. In addition to being used to encourage learners to read more extensively in their free time, such books can be used effectively in class to develop both reading and digital literacy[5] skills. For example, learners could scan for key words or certain grammatical forms in the traditional way, or could use Kindle’s search facility to find the desired information, which can then be highlighted and annotated as required.
  4. Podcasts and videos – Learners can download language learning podcasts or videos onto their smartphones to listen to at their leisure. Such media (often accompanied by transcripts and comprehension exercises) can be downloaded directly from websites such as or can be accessed through apps such as the British Council’s LearnEnglish Podcasts. In class, learners could listen to podcasts and complete the corresponding activities, after which they could consolidate their learning by downloading the podcast to listen to again in their own time. Alternatively, learners could be set the task of listening to the podcast and completing comprehension exercises before the lesson, and come to the class prepared to discuss it.
  5. Grammar and vocabulary-building tools – Apps such as the British Council’s LearnEnglish Grammar and websites such as OUP’s are available for learners to access from their phones in their own time or in class (as an alternative to using a worksheet). There are also a number of online dictionary websites accessible from smartphones, such as, and also free dictionary apps, such as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which can be downloaded to smartphones and used offline. In addition to being more portable than paper dictionaries, apps such the Merriam-Webster include perks such as the audio of a word, and ‘add to favourites’ and voice search facilities. Other useful vocabulary-building tools are multi-sensory flashcard-based vocabulary learning apps such as the British Council’s My Word Book. Such an application could be introduced in class alongside other vocabulary-learning strategies (such as paper-based alphabetical vocabulary notebooks), and learners can be set the task of recording and learning five words using two different methods and then discussing in small groups which method they found to be most successful and why.
  6. Research – Learners can use a search engine on their phone to find information for an essay or project, pictures for a poster, flight prices, maps, instructions, etc. The teacher could ask learners a question such as ‘How high is St. Paul’s Cathedral?’ and give the learners a time-limit to find the answer. Learners could also access a web-based concordancer such as from their phones to research the usage of a particular word and words with which it normally collocates.
  7. Micro-Blogging – And finally, let’s not forget the productive skill of writing. The Internet offers many opportunities for authentic written communication with real people, such as through the micro-blogging features of social networking websites like Facebook or FriendFeed[6]. Learners can create profiles to communicate with each other using their phones as part of class activities or in their own time. An example micro-blogging activity is that each learner on can post a ‘status’ on FriendFeed stating a problem (real or fictional) that they are facing and asking for advice. The other learners will see these statuses on their homepage and can then comment on other learners’ statuses, offering advice, using language for referring back to others’ comments, and agreeing and disagreeing as they see fit.

Further Reading

[3] In a 2010 survey of over 500 English language teachers asked whether they ever use mobile devices in their teaching, only 34.5% replied ‘yes’ and 65.5% ‘no’ - Peachey, N. (2010) Survey: Mobile Learning for English Language Teachers (accessed May 2012)

[4] This technique may be of particular benefit to learners with dyslexia, many of whom have trouble copying large chunks of information from the board – British Dyslexia Association (no date) Dyslexia Friendly Schools Pack (accessed May 2012)

[5] 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 (accessed Jan 2020)

[6] While social networking websites such as these are often blocked by educational institutions’ web filters, learners using the internet connection provided by their mobile network (as opposed to Wi-Fi) will be able to bypass this obstacle.

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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