Go smart: use of smartphones for teaching teenagers

Go smart: use of smartphones for teaching teenagers

A smartphone is a powerful 21st-century educational tool. If managed properly, it helps teachers to:

  • promote autonomous learning,
  • exploit collaborative writing and speaking activities,
  • change the pace of the lesson,
  • add more of authentic input,
  • cater for individual preferences and learning styles,
  • go green and reduce the use of paper.

It is virtually impossible to imagine a classroom full of teenagers without smartphones. They are so used to their phones that sometimes an hour of gadget-deprivation can be a real struggle. How to use smartphones to everyone’s advantage? If you are not one of those who favours banning them in class, find some ideas below.

Taking photos

Every phone nowadays has a camera or even a couple of them. Why don’t you turn some teens’ obsession with photography to their own benefit? Announce the topic of the next lesson and ask them to take a couple of thematic pictures. In class, you can use these for describing, comparing or just a nice warm-up. Bringing photos to the class generally looks like a good idea. A talk about families, telling about clothes, own bedroom, pets or friends – that will do to accompany the story. The higher the teenagers’ level is, the more interesting a task you can offer. Once we were talking about healthy eating with an Upper-Intermediate class. Part of their homework was taking pictures of 10 products from their kitchen which contain added sugar. The next class started with comparing the findings and discussion, then we moved on to spotting the most popular products and drawing a pie chart.

One more thing to draw teenagers attention to is the real language outside the classroom. In every Russian-speaking city, there must be some places with signs, graffitis or posters in English. Turn it into a treasure hunt and shoot each and every one of them! This summer our city was hosting the FIFA World Cup. We had a good time discussing the way some signs had been translated and even correcting mistakes as one of the teenagers spotted that our train station was offering foreign guests a ‘Way Out’ instead of ‘Exit’.

‘Outside the classroom’ activities can develop into a city quest. Are you going to talk about giving directions or finding your way in a big city? Ask your teens to take photos of some places or streets around the district. Put them in pairs and give some time to guess the places. Then practise asking for and giving directions.


-Do you know this place?
-I’m not sure. What’s that?
-It’s the Public Library!
-Oh, right. How can I get there?
-Take a bus №67, then…


Video and audio recording

Apart from photos, we also have an opportunity to record audio and video files. Recording a video can be done as a final task when a topic or unit in a coursebook is over. Finished talking about money? Let it be a 2-minute video with money tips for teenagers. Food? Record a recipe, from ingredients to serving. Just done clothes? Try to film 5 summer looks. I know, I know, that’s the least favourite topic ever of all teenage boys, I’m just lucky to have a group made up of girls only. Anyway, you know your teens better and will be able to choose the task which suits their personalities and interests.

Audio recording is a powerful tool for error correction and giving feedback. You can record your students talking (with their consent, for sure) and then use the track to work on intonation, features of connected speech and improving grammar or choice of vocabulary. What’s more, you can send them individual feedback as a voice message. This way they will also practise their listening skills. My personal fave for practising pronunciation is when teens change the language of their phones to English and try to dictate an email. We sometimes make it part of our writing lesson at the stage of drafting. They have to work really hard and double-check their pronunciation to get the result they have planned.


Why Instagram, not social networks in general? First, it’s highly visual and can be really thought-provoking at picture level. Second, it’s not tiring in terms of wordy stories, you can usually read a post in a matter of minutes. Third, it’s just habitual for teens and most adults. So, what can we do with it?

Exploit it for extensive reading and listening, the more, the better. Recommend interesting accounts in a roundabout way, it will definitely pay off. Screenshot and print out posts to use as reading input. When dealing with a text about some ‘famous-but-not-that-much’ person in your coursebook, bring a link to their Instagram account and ask teens to look through that rather than the text. Supply it with a quiz or a set of comprehension questions – you’ll get a ton of real language. Make sure, though, that the account looks appropriate for the classroom because there are cases…

You will also need some caution to make use of hashtags. However, they might work as a great warmer, a trigger for discussion, or even be used as a training for speaking exam. For instance, PET or FCE exams include a task where students have to discuss several options and choose the best one.

Why don’t you ask them next time to click on a topic-related hashtag, scroll for a while and just discuss the options they can see, still selecting the most suitable at the end?

You can even use Instagram for preparing your teens to Russian State Exam! Do you remember the task where they have to ask 5 questions about a place or a service? Instagram ads are just perfect for practising that! Ask students to screenshot some adds they are shown by Instagram while watching stories. At the lesson put them in pairs and let share their screenshots and think of 5 questions about each of them. Mine turned out to be in Russian, but still, here is what my teens could come up with:

  1. What do I have to do to take part?
  2. How many tickets can I win?
  3. Can a teenager take part?
  4. If I win, when can I get the tickets?

QR codes

A mobile phone is necessary if you decide to use QR codes in the classroom. With the help of QRs, you can hand out worksheets, reading texts, audio and video files, homework, reference materials or even feedback. To access the link provided by a code, teenagers will inevitably need a phone with a special app installed.

You can read more about using QR codes with teens here.

Dictionaries and references

Old but gold – let’s not forget about quick access to online dictionaries and endless reference sources which are one tap away from you if you have a phone connected to the internet. Your students can do research right in class as well and look for the answers to their own tricky questions. Our last ones were ‘Why do we use a singular verb with the United States of America?’, ‘What does ‘o’ in ‘o’clock’ mean?’ and ‘What does the colour of an octopus say about its mood?’. Sometimes Google appears to be the best expert, you know. More importantly, searching for the information yourself will inevitably lead to better memorization and encouraging learner’s autonomy.

In modern classrooms, a smartphone is more of a friend than a foe. It’s a powerful tool which students can use to their advantage while learning a foreign language. A short final note has to be made, though: don’t overwhelm your class with technology. As digital natives, our teenage students sometimes need a couple of paper pages to take a break from visual content, hyperlinks and contextual ads.

Do you allow smartphones or you’d rather ban them? Feel free to share your thoughts!

Надежда Попова

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