Seven ideas for using mobile phones in the classroom

The other day I was reading Anthony Ash’s post about mobile phones and ELT.

The post was talking about if mobile phones are really a distraction and how they relate to classroom management. It talks about a place for mobile phones and says:

Smartphones are here to stay. Period. No matter what we might expect or want, they are not going anywhere.

Using a cell phone (Ana Maria Menezes)

I agree that smartphones are here to stay and yes (if you are still sceptical), sometimes they are distraction, but anything can be a distraction. If I was feeling bored and you gave me a pen, I would draw or doodle. If I was feeling bored, I might check my phone.  This point is made very clearly in the post when Anthony Ash says:

“The learner has finished”

As soon as they start playing with their phones they have finished, or they haven’t finished but they are bored. So, when we want people to stop doodling, we give them something to do with their pens. Why not find a purpose for their mobile phones?

The article got me thinking about how mobile phones are used in my classes. Sometimes, I have encouraged my students to use them and sometimes I have asked that they be put away. Sometimes, I have asked one student in a group to use their phone for group work and sometimes I have asked the students to do something creative and they all decide to search the internet for inspiration and ideas.

After I finished reading the article, I started to think about the different activities that I have used mobile phones for. Here are seven ideas.

One – Introduce a photo

Photographs are generally about things we want to talk about. There is a reason we took the photo, and there are reasons why we share photos.

I have been doing this activity for a while now and I really enjoy it. It’s not a new idea, but it’s very simple, it requires no preparation, it generates conversation, and it covers a wide range of topics.

The Activity: Ask a student to introduce a photo. The students can work in pairs, in groups or as a class. One student introduces the photo and the other students ask follow-up questions. What? Where? When? Who? Why? How?  While the students are talking, take notes of useful phrases and words for feedback afterwards.

Two – Photo it: Photos for studying

Photographs are used to record things. Why not keep a record of the board work on your phone?

I was reading Clarissa Peck’s article about mobile phones. The part I really liked about this article is when Clarissa talks about ‘inattentional blindness’ and how you can miss things even when you are 100% focused (I recommend watching the videos). I encourage students to take a photo of the board. I’ve talked about this before in this post. I am happy if students want to take a photo of the board, because that way they don’t get lost in the mechanical process of writing down everything and they can focus on writing keys words and summarizing.

Three – Photo Dictations

Using a dictation exercise to introduce a dialogue is like first round practice and it gives you the opportunity to listen for pronunciation issues and identify the words that the students aren't sure of.

I’ve done this activity a few times and I like it because it is student-centered. The students have the example dialogue and they are introducing it to their classmates.

The Activity: Separate the students into groups of four or five and ask one student to come to the front and photograph an example dialogue. The student goes back to their group and they read the dialogue from their phone while the other members of the group write the dialogue down. The students who are listening can use checking language, for example, asking how a word is spelled. In effect, the students are introducing the conversation to themselves, giving you time to monitor and listen out for any difficulties.

Four – Dictionaries: Taboo

Taboo is a game where you can say the word. Check out this website for more details. Taboo can be used to review vocabulary, but it can also be used to expand vocabulary.

This activity is always a good visual way to show students that they are expanding their vocabulary. Students often have a dictionary app on their mobiles phones, when they don’t I recommend the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It is available for iPhone and Android, but more importantly, the free version isn’t a trial version like with the OED app.

The Activity: Write a selection of words on the board, then divide the class into groups. Give each group one or two of the words and ask them to use their dictionaries to look up the words. When you look up words, there is usually a section that lists synonyms (words that it is similar to) and antonyms (words that are the opposite of it). Give the students time to look up synonyms and antonyms for their words. Elicit these words from the students and write them around the original words. These are the hints. Give the students some time to remember the original words, then erase them. Hand out some pieces of paper with the words written on them. The students can’t say the word, but they can describe it using the hints on the board.

Five – Wikipedia Bios

Bios is short for biographies. If you search Wikipedia for a famous person, there is usually a short biography beneath their photo.

I like doing this activity because students learn a little about their heroes. The bios usually says where they were born, how old they are, what their occupation is, who they are married to, if they have children and when they died (unless they are still alive). This is useful for an activity like Snowballs.

The Activity: Ask the students to look up a famous person on Wikipedia and write 3 or 4 facts on a piece of paper. Ask students to remember that information. When the students are confident that they can remember the facts, get them to scrunch up the paper into a ball and throw it across the classroom or put it in a box. After that, students pick up a random snowball (if they pick up their snowball, they should throw it back). The students walk around asking each other questions and they try to find the original writer.

Six – QR Codes: Find them, Scan them

This can be an engaging way to introduce vocabulary, answers, or an example dialogue.

This post by Raquel Gonzaga gives an introduction to using QR Codes in the classroom.

This post by a teacher on the Isle of Man has a great idea for using QR Codes on classroom posters. The QR Codes send students to the relevant online dictionaries.

I have done a few activities based around QR Codes. Here is one idea.

The Activity: I used a QR creator, which you can download for your computer, iPhone or Android and make QR codes that when scanned showed a single word on the phone. The students had to go around the classroom scanning each code to collect all the words. It is essentially an information gathering exercise.

QR Code Dialogues: This is can be done in exactly the same way as the  picture dictation but students scan a QR code and an example conversation appears on the screen of their phone.

Seven – Record a message

This is a good activity for practicing telephone English.

Most phones will have a voice recorder. One of the ways I have tried to use this feature in the classroom is by asking the students to record a voice-mail message.  It can be set as a homework and this way the students have created their own materials for the class.

The Activity: Ask the students to record a message. (Not on their voice-mail but with a sound recorder.) Set it as a homework task, so that the message will be ready for the class you need it for. Once you have the messages you can do several things with them.

Summarizing – Ask the students to take down a message, summarizing the voice-mail message in a few words.

Paraphrasing – Ask the students to rephrase the message. This is a good way to introduce formal and informal language.

Reporting – Divide the class into 4 of 5 small groups. Ask the students to find a partner from another group. In pairs, they play their message and their partner takes note. The students return to their original groups and give the message to their teammates.

Other Ideas:

Oliver Rose, a teacher from Japan, has suggested an app called Puppet Edu. A slide show app where students can show pictures and record themselves speaking. He also suggests using Siri to help students practice their pronunciation.

What do you think? Do you think mobile phones have a place in the classroom? Do you have any ideas for activities to make mobile phones useful and less of a distraction?

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Take care!

Afterword: None of these ideas are particularly new, they are just things I have tried over the last year or so. If you are looking for further information, there is an activity about introducing photos called ‘Snapshots’ in Teaching Unplugged  (Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury, Delta Publishing) on page 54, which has even more ideas and some  extension activities. Taboo and Snowballs are old activities and there is plenty of information about them available on the internet.

I have tried to include activities that I have used, but I should give mention to Owen Kozlowski. Owen is a teacher trainer who tries to find practical ways of including technology in the classroom and our discussions have helped develop my ideas and the way I approach this subject. 

I have amended the spelling of dialog to dialogue. Although dialog is still a variant of dialogue, it isn’t as common as catalog versus catalogue.

Featured image and photo taken from by @Ana Maria Menezes, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,

26 thoughts on “Seven ideas for using mobile phones in the classroom

  1. I’ve had students use an app called Puppet Edu (a narratable slideshow app) to record themselves reading out paragraphs that they have written, adding suitable pics. This is an alternative with less on-the-spot pressure to the usual ‘class presentation’ format, which leads them to orally review and practice the language from their writing and focus on pronunciation. It was fun to view them all together as a class, but they could be posted/commented on online.
    A different activity I did was have students dictate or ask questions to Siri, to work on pronunciation (especially good with numbers, for example).
    Oliver (in Japan)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Oliver. Thanks for the ideas and suggestions. I am going to add your ideas to the main article because the comments section isn’t always visible (it really depends on how you are viewing the blog). You might be interested in Office Mix, which is a new add-in for PowerPoint. It allows people to have audio and video narration over their presentation. I produced a brief introduction to it here: – Take care and thanks again for your comment! Tekhnologic (in Japan)


  2. Even in Physical Education class we can use them!
    There are many apps for smartphones that we can take advantage of them in PE classes. For instance:
    – Apps to know how much distance, velocity, time… are you doing.
    – video recording to check themselves gymnastics exercises, dance choreographies…
    – Play they own music in dance activities.
    And there are many more possibilities!
    If you are interested in them, check your app store and get amazed (there are a lot of them!) or ask me for helping.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marti. Thanks for your comment. There are definitely lots of apps out there. My post was mainly just a collection of ideas that I have come across and tried that only used universal features of a phone because apps can vary between GooglePlay, Apple’s AppStore and the Microsoft Store. At some point in the future I do want to write about some useful apps. Thanks again for your ideas!


  3. This post is nice about using technology specially mobile phones in the class room. But in our country named Bangladesh,mobile phones are not allowed in the school’s or college’s classroom,even not in the university’s classroom. With respect to my country,most of the students use mobile phone in the class room without teacher’s appearance for browsing internet ,chating on facebook and playing games. At best 5 to 15 students listen their teacher’s lecture cordially. I think these ideas will be useful if at first create awareness of using mobile phones in the classroom among the both students and teachers. Otherwise, most of students will be deprived of proper using mobile phones in the class room and they will be leg behind day by day if they do not know these nice ideas. Thank you very much. Be happy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi. I’m glad you liked the post. I think you are right. It is all about awareness. Many people have a mobile phone, but they may not know how they can use it to enhance their education. Thanks again for your kind words 🙂


  4. You’ve outlined some nice activities that I look forward to working with in my context.

    I actually had a paper recently publised on the use of messaging apps in the classroom. It outlines three activities in some detail. If you or your readers are interested, it’s available on my Academia page.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello Andrew and thank you. I hope some of the ideas will be useful. Thank you for sharing your paper with us. I have also posted a link to it on the tekhnologic Facebook page. Take care! 🙂


      1. Thanks for sharing 🙂

        I like the way ‘Record a message’ develops through summary, paraphrase, report. It’s a nice progression that could even extend into a written activity or have a stronger focus on vocabulary… or just simply by having students respond to the message to extend the telephone English side of things.

        Puppet Edu sounds great too — thanks to Oliver for the heads-up.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve just used for the second time last week. They liked the ideas, particularly the one about giving feedback on spoken language by recording yourself as well. I’m based in Brazil and services like WhatsApp are huge here, so this was meaningful. One concern teachers had was giving their mobile numbers to students but I recommended trying it out with private students first (who you give your number to anyway).


      2. Hi ricbarros,

        I’m glad you liked the ideas. I can understand the teachers’ concerns. Personally, I never give my personal contact details to students, but I do try and give suggestions about how they can use their phones more effectively for study.

        Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment 🙂


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