Six classroom activities with mobile/cell phones

I have just started classes again, and the other day I arrived to see my students all gathered around someone’s new iPhone chatting quite animatedly about it (they are adult students, by the way). They switched to English when I arrived and we devoted a good fifteen minutes checking out all the different aspects of the phone. It made me think of other activities I have done with mobile phones, which for me count as one of the “ultimate” realia items in class… so many people have them and they are so multifaceted now.

So here are, you guessed it, six activities you can do with a mobile phone/cell phone in class.

1. Describe, compare and rank them

Ok, this is the obvious one. It’s what my students were doing quite naturally. To make it a bit more formal and generative, put students into groups of three or four and tell them to 1) describe their phones and capabilities 2) rank the phones in order of usefulness/value/interestingness etc 3) decide which is the best and worst feature of each phone.

2. Role play conversation back to back.

The arrival of mobile phones has made this technique of “playing a phone call” much more realistic than holding your thumb and forefinger up to your face as I used to get students to do (I even brought in bananas once for this purpose). One of the ABSOLUTELY best phone roleplay activities I have done comes from Ken Wilson’s book Drama and Improvisation, where students pick a card saying where they are and what they are doing and improvise a conversation from there.

3. Think of alternative uses

Hold up your phone and ask “What is this?” When the chorus of bored responses “It’s a phone” comes back at you, say “No, it looks like a phone, but it is in fact a garage door-opener and alarm” (or some such invention). Elaborate on this a little. Then tell students to think of an alternative use for their phones. Each student presents their “alternative phone” in small groups. Each group then decides which is the most interesting, and that student shares their alternative phone with the class.

4. Roleplay at the phone shop

Who hasn’t a problem getting something to work on their phone? Brainstorm a list of possible “phone problems” and get students to write these on little pieces of paper. Put students in pairs and redistribute the papers, one per pair. Each pair of students have to roleplay a conversation at the phone shop, with one student playing a customer with a phone problem and the other playing the shop attendant/technician.

A variation would be to have students try to “sell” their phone to a partner, explaining all its attributes etc.

5. Discuss issues

Of course, the whole issue of mobile/cell phones is a rich area to tap for discussion. Questions include: Are they bad for your health? What is good phone etiquette? How old should you be before you get your first phone? Are phones in class a problem? Where should phones be banned? Are phones too expensive? Can you remember old phones, what were they like? Do you screen your calls? Do you still remember (or even know) phone numbers or do you depend on your phone for that now? Could you live without your phone? Many of these could kick off a discussion, which may even get quite heated.

6. Make your classroom more “souped up” with a smartphone

I was quite happy with my list of ideas so far until I saw Karenne Sylvester’s post and its responses on using smart phones. Suddenly I felt pretty old-fashioned with my ideas. With today’s smart phones you can connect them to your computer, hook up to speakers, play songs or podcasts, show videos, make films, use apps, record students, playback recordings, project things, play games etc. Check that post out to find out more. It almost merits a separate list altogether, as my ideas are all things to do with the phone turned off.

Have you had any ideas on using the phone in class? Post a comment.

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Published in: on September 25, 2009 at 1:00 pm  Comments (16)  
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  1. I like this! Thanks, Lindsay…i’m going to use at least number 2 and 3 as we already started a conversation on most valuable possessions and they popped out their cell phones…:)

    • Thanks for the comment! Yes, use and enjoy… hope they work for you!

  2. Just a tiny idea I use when I got some time left in class. I play a random ringtone from my mobile and ask students to imagine as much as possible about the person who would use such a ringtone. Would it be a man or a woman? What could a person look like? What could be his/her job? What car would he/she have? etc. The time I used this idea in class for the first time, I was really surprised how productive and funny it turned out!

    And, of course, while we are practising asking for and giving phone numbers, I let my students have their mobiles switched on and actually call one another to check if they have given/noted down the number correctly. It just brings so much more realism into the classroom ๐Ÿ™‚

    My texting-obsessed teenagers have 15 minutes on a specific day once a week (we agree on the day and the hour together) when they can text me in English about anything they want to. Some of them do, some of them don’t – but the point is they do it if they want to, and are not forced in any way. I don’t text them back but next class I read out the most interesting message to the rest of the group if the ‘winner’ agrees to that ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I love the ringtone idea, that’s really really neat! Thanks

  3. I didn’t even think about what to do with the phone switched off, LOL!!

    Actually, while you away over the summer I even made a lesson plan on using them in the class to practice the language of arranging meetings!

    Love Syvlia’s idea of talking about ringtones – will have to use that one!

    K

  4. Oh. Um… well. Sorry, I thought I was in for a treat here but yes, these are just a tad old hat. Nothing wrong with these ideas per se, but I thought you were actually going to use the phones as functioning technology, rather than as inanimate objects.

    My students use their phones to update and check the class blog. It’s not much, but….

    Still, best of luck Lindsay. At least you recognise that the students HAVE phones. You are on your way to joining the twentieth century!

    ;P

    • Twentieth, or twenty-first? ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for the comment, and you’re quite right they are a bit old hat these ideas. But even old hats can sometimes look quite snazzy .-)

      One question I have, and perhaps it’s because I’m in Spain which has among the highest phone rates in Europe, is who pays for the calls/connections etc for activities involving phones and classroom activities?
      Apart from the privacy issue of asking students to exchange their phone numbers, the idea of asking them to spend extra money to do a class activity might stick in their throats.

      To use my phone to connect to the internet costs me money every minute. There are some flat rate schemes coming out now but many students don’t have them here.

      What’s it like where you are? Does everybody have free internet and text messaging on their phones or maybe they don’t mind spending money on a classroom activity which makes “full use of the technology in their pockets”? I’m willing to go further, just want to get around that hurdle.

    • Hi Darren,
      Can I ask you a few questions for a graduate class assignment? We are discussing cellphones in the classroom and I would like to know if your school ( or school district) changed their policy to accomodate cell phone usage. Did you have any correspondence with parents prior to the project? If so please fill me in briefly. What kinds of challenges did you have ?
      I appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions.
      Jackie

  5. We mostly have flat rates here in Germany or, in my case, their companies are paying for the phone charges e.g. – when we google with a BlackBerry for an answer.

    • Thanks Karenne, I imagine that helps make the difference. I think Spain is slowly getting there, and when they do I’ll certainly be happier. The smartphones are a different thing though, and in my current class only two people have them (including me, with an iTouch which isn’t even a phone).

  6. An excellent point, Lindsay. It’s always been email here, rather than SMS. I think most people have a package which allows them unlimited access for a monthly fee, so it shouldn’t matter to add any more. But it is very important that everybody should be able to take part, so everything we do can be done from the university computer room. I just want to give them the freedom to do it on the train on the way to school if they want to. I know of someone who is delivering daily readings to his students via mobile phone email… a great idea I want to explore. Those little screens are not so little to the young….

  7. Here in Poland, we pay a monthly rate that includes a certain amount of “free minutes” for telephone calls, text messages, and Internet connection. Text messages can also be sent via free services on the Internet via PCs (and that’s what teenagers often do when they send me texts).

    Lindsay, I see why you might be worried about the privacy issues. So far, however, I haven’t met a single person that would feel uncomfortable about it in my classes and I noticed that after the class people generally either delete the numbers or ask if they can keep them “just in case”. Anyway, this is something I’ll have to give more thought…

    I’m happy you like the idea of using ring tones ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Hi, Lindsay!

    I like your ideas about using the phone in the classroom. All of them are very practical and easy to implement.
    With the use of texting, competitions can be organised. One of the students text a description of an object and the first one to guess and answer is the winner.
    Regards,
    Marisa (@Mtranslator in Twitter)

  9. I know the list is limited to 6. Here’s one more though: get your students into pairs. Each student chooses and writes down a list of 15 tricky “words” from any menu on their phone. Studens exchange lists and try to translate the words into English. Then the students change the settings of their phone to English and check and self-correct their words. You could even turn this into a competition, if you want.

    • Thanks for the idea, another good one that doesn’t involve making calls or anything and takes full advantage of the technology!

  10. I make my students use Mobile phones for several different exercises.

    1. I’ll pick out an exercise in the book with ten questions, etc. and have the students text me the answers to five of the questions. They have the weekend to do it.
    2. I have students put together a Grammar explanation and record it on the phone and Bluetooth the recording to me in class.
    3. I give a pop quiz over the weekend. I may send them a text with the questions at any time during the weekend and they have one hour to text the answers back. Examples may be change the tense of the sentences or change from statement to question or negative.
    They love being able to use their phones for learning especially since the official policy of the University is “NO Phones in Class.” They are learning while they feel they are getting away with something. Students love to get away with things.


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