Through trial, error and mild emoji-obsession, Colm Boyd, a materials writer and British Council teacher in Barcelona, has produced these tips for English language teachers.
This article includes advice for using the internet in classrooms. We also recommend that teachers use the 360safe online self-review tool for a whole-school approach to online safety.
There are over 2,000 emojis – ration them in your lesson
These activities work best when the class has a limited selection of emojis – perhaps 20 to 30. To avoid confusion, this selection should include a name for each emoji (e.g., Face With Tears Of Joy).
Here is a handout of emojis and their names, and here are a few ways to provide learners with an emoji selection:
- Show the emojis on a whiteboard.
- Create a handout by copying and pasting (or even drawing) 20 to 30 emojis and including their official names.
- Print and cut up cards featuring 20 to 30 emojis and their names.
- Buy a deck of emoji-themed versions of card games like Uno and Top Trumps. These are widely available from major online retailers.
Decide on one area of language
You can use emojis to practise many different areas of language, but some focus is required to pre-teach or elicit the target language for the activity. Here are some examples:
- Adjectives of feelings or personality: The Blush emoji means that the sender is feeling embarrassed.
- Idiomatic expressions to describe feelings: The Face With Tears Of Joy emoji means that the sender is laughing their head off.
- Descriptions of physicality and expression: The Blush emoji has red cheeks and is grinning in a shy way.
- Narrative tenses for imagining stories related to emojis: Farah sent David the Eye Roll emoji because she had been waiting for him for over twenty minutes and was becoming impatient.
- Present tenses and expressions for describing routine when learners describe their own emoji-use habits: I’m always sending the Thumbs Up emoji. I probably use it a few times a day!
Write an emoji conversation
For an engaging writing activity, look no further than the emoji dialogue. Learners work in pairs and first select five emojis each. The task is then to invent a conversation, incorporating one emoji into each message.
- Learner A (picks Weary emoji): Sabine, I think I forgot my keys again (inserts Weary emoji).
- Learner B (picks Eye Roll emoji): Theo, this is the third time this week. You’re so forgetful (inserts Eye Roll emoji).
The low-tech option is to give learners paper with speech bubbles, where they will write their dialogue and draw the emojis. If your class have access to smartphones, they could create their dialogues in Whatsapp, take screenshots and email those to the teacher. If learners have tablets or laptops, they could complete the dialogue using a template on Word or Google Docs.
Write an emoji translation
Are your learners straining their imaginations to invent a story to practise narrative tenses? One great idea is to show them a story that is 'written' in emojis. Then, ask them to translate it into 'real' English.
Here are some great emoji synopses of famous movies, perfect for translation into English. Once the learners are familiar with this type of activity, you can take it further. Ask them to 'write' their own stories in emojis (on their phones, laptops or just by drawing). Then, give their story to a classmate who will interpret it in written or spoken English.
Take your lesson online with Bitmoji
Bitmoji allows learners to personalise their own avatar, usually to resemble themselves.
The added benefit of Bitmoji over regular emojis is that most Bitmoji images contain slang and catch phrases in English. For example, a typical Bitmoji greeting could be a smiling avatar standing next to the expression 'How’s it hangin’?'. If your learners have access to smartphones, tablets, or laptops, Bitmoji is an excellent resource for expanding vocabulary and idiomatic expressions by creating dialogues or stories as in the activities above.
Write an interpretation of emoji videos
Younger learners (and not-so-young learners) can translate a story from emoji videos into words. Disney have a YouTube series called As Told By Emoji, in which emojis re-tell the plots of movies like Frozen or Aladdin.
For lower-level learners, I prepare a short, disordered synopsis of the corresponding Disney movie. Then I ask learners to watch the emoji video while correctly ordering the synopsis.
Another option is simply to pre-teach essential vocabulary and the names of the movie’s most important characters. Then, ask learners to work in pairs or groups, watch the emoji video on their smartphones, then write the corresponding story.
Tell a chain story
If you’re looking for a simple speaking activity, the chain story is a reliable option. One learner says a sentence to begin a story, then another continues the story with a new sentence, and so on.
With an emoji chain story, an emoji image should be the inspiration for each new sentence. This is easiest if you have 20 to 30 emoji cards. The cards are spread face-down in the middle of a group of learners, then each learner randomly selects a card and must create their related sentence. For example:
- Learner A (picks 'Joy' emoji): Alberto was feeling extremely happy yesterday because it was his wedding day …
- Learner B (picks 'Rage' emoji): … But suddenly he felt really furious when he realised that his friend had forgotten to bring the rings to the ceremony…
If you don’t have emoji cards, you can show 20 to 30 emojis on the board and cross off each emoji as the learners use it in the chain story.
Play Taboo for more speaking practice
This is another quick, simple speaking activity.
Learners work with a selection of 20 to 30 emojis, which again could be from cards, a handout or images on the board. Each learner has a limited time to describe one emoji to their team mates, but without using 'taboo' words. The team mates have to guess the correct emoji.
For lower-level learners, the taboo words could be the official name of the emoji itself. For example, for the 'Two Hearts' emoji, they can’t mention the words 'two' or 'heart'.
For higher levels, taboo words could be any mention of colours, body parts, or even adjectives of feelings if the class is looking for a challenge. In this way, higher-level students have to be imaginative with their descriptions.
Take a class survey
In my experience, learners love to talk about their own use of emojis. To take full advantage of this interest, ask learners to design and conduct an emoji survey for the class. The learners decide which questions to include.
Here are some suggestions. Learners can refer to their phones if necessary.
- What three emojis have you used most recently?
- How many emojis did you include in the last message you sent?
- Name an emoji which you would never use. Explain.
After designing the survey and interviewing each other, learners can compile a graph or a report on the emoji habits of the class.
Warning: be prepared for an abundance of smiling Poop emojis.
We recommend that teachers use the 360safe online self-review tool for a whole-school approach to online safety.