When I meet a new class, one of the first orders of business, along with ice breakers, learning names and clarifying schedules and textbooks, is to set up a class messaging group. I used to use this group as an administration tool – a way for the students to contact me about grades or absenteeism, or to allow me to remind them of homework or a schedule change. While not appropriate for those who teach young learners or whose schools have strict social media and socialising policies, with our young adult learners in Turkey this is actually expected of us. However, these days I use applications such as WhatsApp, Line, Facebook Chat or Google Hangouts inside the classroom as teaching tools. It may seem strange to encourage students to spend more time looking at their phones in class, but there are numerous advantages of using such applications in a lesson.
The Plus Points
Firstly, unlike specialist learning systems or online tools, most students won’t need to learn how to use either the device or the software. If you choose the most popular application in your context – WhatsApp in Turkey but Wechat in China or Line in Japan – the majority of students will already use the application regularly. Further, neither the student or school needs to pay for expensive software or hardware, such as servers. A Wi-Fi connection (which most language schools or businesses have) will help students keep the cost of data down.
Secondly, the ease of sharing gives a wide range of possibilities. Video, audio, text and pictures that have been found on the internet or created by the teacher or by the students can easily be shared. You don’t need to source a projector or to repair the photocopier if every student can access the text from their pocket.
These possibilities allow greater authenticity of both the message and the medium, and give students another way to share their work with their peers, which encourages both creation and collaboration. These apps are designed to facilitate communication and as such provide another channel for students to contact the teacher and each other in the classroom.
Because the devices are mobile and personal, they can be used to create a collaborative, easily accessible written record that can be opened and used for revision by the student at any time. The student can also take control of their own learning by, for example, replaying all or a section of video or audio as many times as they need.
Bearing these advantages in mind, here are four activities – one vocabulary, one grammar, one listening and one reading – that you may want to try in your own classrooms.
Vocabulary – VocAPPulary
In this activity, each student is given a vocabulary item and they are encouraged to use the browser on their phones to find pictures and example sentences related to the word. The materials they find on the Internet make it possible for learners to infer the meaning of the target word. Then, they share an example sentence that uses the target word along with a picture that illustrates the sentence. If available, the teacher can display the students’ pictures and sentences on a projector to give feedback.
This activity enables the learners to create their own picture dictionary in a collaborative way. As the material is created by the students themselves, it is more meaningful and interesting for the student, which increases the chance of long-term retention of the lexis. Also, learners have access to the others’ sentences and pictures anytime and anywhere. They can check the words several times a day, so learning can be reinforced. Inferring the meaning of the target words with little or no help from an instructor increases their autonomy and using both a picture and a sentence provides a context for the vocabulary item when they want to review it. This exercise can also be used as a chance to practice dictionary skills or utilize an online corpus.
Grammar – Napiosun?
The name of this exercise comes from the common abbreviation of ‘ne yapiyorsun’, ‘what are you doing’ or ‘what’s up’ in Turkish. It aims to create an environment for learners to practise the Present Continuous. After having been introduced to the Present Continuous, students are asked to send the class messaging group pictures that accompany sentences describing what they (or someone else) are doing. This can be done after class as their homework, or as a treasure hunt exercise around the school.
Learners usually feel motivated to participate in this activity since they can use the target language to communicate with their classmates. Sharing things that are related to their own lives and learning more about others’ lives increases students’ motivation because these are two things that many learners are interested in. Another benefit is authenticity; students can produce sentences that are true and that have real-life communication purposes. They can actually learn more about their classmates and have more interaction with them. Moreover, as students are able to see many examples of the same language point, they will have good exposure to the target language and therefore will easily internalize it. Seeing the picture provides a context for the grammar item that should help understanding. The teacher has the chance to give feedback in the messaging group so that everybody can see each other’s mistakes and learn from them.
This activity can be adapted for other grammar points. Have students photograph and share pictures of things that have changed recently to practise using the present perfect (someone has painted the wall), for example.
Reading – Jigsaw Readings
Using a messaging application adds a new dimension to an old favourite. The teacher sends the readings to the text chat group and allocates each student a reading. The texts can be sent as links to web pages or as photographs of part of the textbook. Every student follows the link for their group. They are given a worksheet of comprehension questions about their article, which the teacher can check in person with each group. After working on the questions, they are regrouped so that
each member of their new group has read a different text. They share the information they have with other group members.
Jigsaw reading helps students work in a more collaborative way and it makes their learning experience more fun. Authentic texts can easily be chosen as there is a wide variety available on the Internet. For higher levels, short stories and/or newspaper articles can be beneficial. The method of reading is also more authentic, as many students use electronic devices to read from. The activity isn’t limited only to readings, because these applications can be used to share such materials as videos and audio recordings.
Using messaging applications for jigsaw activities makes the teacher’s job easy too, since there is no need to make copies of the materials. They are time-saving because materials are sent through a message instead of being distributed individually by the teacher. Students can be re-grouped easily; if a text proves too hard for a student they can easily be allocated another one, or if a student arrives late they can be easily given a text. Jigsaw readings can be great tools to introduce a controversy for students to speak or write about, or as co-texts for a more complicated article.
Listening – Micro-dictations / Phone-etics
In these bottom-up processing activities, students listen to very short recordings shared by the teacher. In micro-dictations, they listen to a sentence and try to write it down as accurately as possible. They can listen as many times as they like, until they are satisfied with what they have done. In micro-dictation activities, the use of a vocabulary item and its collocations can be studied. Homophones can be used in sentences and those sentences can be shared, too. In this way, students have the chance to listen to the pronunciation and intonation of target vocabulary. They also have the opportunity to see the word or phrase in a context.
In phone-etics, students listen to single words or short phrases to learn the pronunciation and, when they are ready, record themselves and share the results. Modelling the word can be done either by the teacher or students. If the teacher produces the content, he/she can prepare it according to the students’ needs but if students create the recordings, they may find it more interesting and fun.
When messaging applications are used for listening, students benefit a lot as they have control over playback. They can pause or listen to the recording again as much as they need. The recordings are also easily reachable; students can listen to the recordings anytime and anywhere because they are saved in their phones
These are just four examples that we’ve found beneficial in our classrooms. The principles from each one can be taken and adapted to other exercises as well. We’re sure you can think of other ways to use these extremely flexible tools.
- A Few Notes on Recycling Vocabulary in the Classroom, by Karl Emmet
- Technology Column: ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ – by Shaun Wilden
- Practical Tasks for using Oxford Owl with Juniors – by Maria S Badia
- Examinator Column: Building Reading Skills – by David Petrie
- Review of Text Chat Activities (Mark Oliver, 2015) – by Peter Clements