By Lucy Norris, Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme

18 July 2016 - 12:30

Photo of mobile phone and paper exercises
'Ask your learners to make a graph and mark on it how each language task over the course of the lesson or at home helped them learn something.' ©

Lucy Norris.

Lucy Norris and Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme explain how teachers can help language students get on top of their own learning by using mobile phones.

'The art of teaching', said the writer and English professor Mark van Doren, 'is the art of assisting discovery'. It's an idea at the centre of mobile pedagogy (PDF download, 1.4 MB), which asks how mobile devices can support our language teaching and improve the learning of our students. In particular, how can audio or video on today's smart phones help our students reflect on their learning?

What is reflection and why is it important?

To reflect on language learning, you need to make links between what you're learning now, and what you've learned in the past. The same goes for teaching: reflective teachers discuss with colleagues, or their online personal learning networks on Twitter or Facebook, how they approach teaching. Some of us keep a reflective journal, or share our reflections in a blog. But how often do we ask our students to reflect on how and why (rather than what) they learned, or failed to learn? This habit of reflecting on what is and isn't helpful is one of the most important qualities (PDF download, 1.5 MB) expert learners possess.

We need to support our learners as they think through, evaluate, and act on what they have learned, then guide them as they apply their new knowledge to unfamiliar contexts. Here are some ideas for using mobile devices to help learners.

Reflecting on learning approaches using mobiles

Ask your learners to make a graph and mark on it how each language task over the course of the lesson or at home helped them learn something. For example, on the x-axis, they can record their level of motivation and on the y-axis the time of each activity (see photo below).

They could also take a photo, or make a video or audio recording of outcomes (e.g., in form of a presentation or a discussion) to share what they have learned at the end of a class, or the beginning of the next class. While they complete an individual writing or reading task, learners can make a voice recording of how they are getting on at five- or ten-minute intervals. They can say what they are finding easy or difficult, and what methods they use to understand or write a passage of text. Learners should listen to each other’s recordings and use these to share tips with each other.

Record your level of motivation on the x-axis, and the time of each activity on the y-axis.
Record your level of motivation on the x-axis, and the time of each activity on the y-axis. ©

Lucy Norris.

Rehearsing a presentation or communication in a formal situation

Rehearsing what they are going to say – in a presentation, for example – gives learners greater confidence. If you ask your students to share answers after group discussions or tasks, why not get them to record their first (and second) attempts beforehand? A few practice runs may increase their fluency and the quality of their answers. Many of the international students in our research project tried practising presentations by timing and recording a video of themselves with a smart phone. They found that it was helpful to observe and discuss their body language, facial expressions and gestures. Similarly, students found it invaluable to rehearse and record what they were going to say before visiting a doctor, making a phone call, or taking part in a job interview. One research participant told us he realised that, in order to be understood, it was better to speak more slowly. By recording himself, he noticed for the first time that he spoke English in a bit of a rush, believing that it made him sound more fluent. In fact, it made him harder to follow. This leads us to a related point.

Identifying knowledge gaps

Another way we can encourage and promote reflection is by asking our learners to choose a communication activity, and make an audio recording on their mobiles. Encourage them to listen to the recording afterwards in pairs, and stop or pause at times when the message becomes unclear. This can prompt a better understanding of what vocabulary, structures or conversation strategies your students are missing, or where your help is needed. Teachers can’t always be everywhere they are needed in a classroom when students are speaking. Voice recordings allow us to rewind, replay, share and review their language performance. They draw attention to areas where extra guidance is needed, and mean we can answer our students' questions on the spot or later. Learners can also use recordings to get feedback from their peers or more expert language users. They can even record what you say, as a source of information or a model for pronunciation.

Giving learners a sense of progress and achievement

Making videos and voice recordings on their smart phones allows learners to capture lots of fleeting moments of communication and interaction, as well as more rehearsed language activities, like presentations. You can ask your students to create an e-portfolio with examples of their reflections and recordings of how they communicate in different situations. Collecting this evidence should give learners a sense of progress and encourage them to assess how well they've done.

Using recordings to assess your learners

You can also make your own audio/video recordings of tasks, as they happen in class, to assess later (but be sure to get parental/guardian consent). A great way to assess individual contributions to a group is to combine recordings made during interactive communication tasks with your verbal or written feedback on the app thinglink, which has private, safe modes for teachers.

Ask your learners to collect and record examples of language they come across, for example by taking photos of text from signs, notices, posters, advertising or labels. Encourage them to find online examples of language structures or vocabulary you are studying in class, and take screenshots to share and use with the rest of the class. Get learners into the habit of noticing examples of language in various contexts. Encouraging students to take charge of their learning will help them with the activities we've talked about.

Developing learners' digital literacy

Digital literacy includes being able to acknowledge online sources, publish with a Creative Commons license, and communicate safely and appropriately online. Ask your learners to cite references, acknowledge the sources of the images they use, and share their mobile digital skills with each other. Negotiate with your learners a class policy for using mobile devices, or ask them to create a ‘how-to’ multimedia class guide for various aspects of digital literacy, adding to it throughout the course.

Teachers, register for our webinar on mobile pedagogy on 19 July 2016, presented by Lucy Norris and Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme.

Agnes and Lucy are the authors of the British Council research paper Mobile pedagogy for English language teaching: a guide for teachers (PDF download, 1.4 MB), which helps teachers design language-learning activities.

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