Teaching teens: 3 ways to embrace mobile phones in class

Pearson Languages
Two young people looking over phone together in a room with large wooden cabinets

Teaching teenagers can be a rewarding yet challenging experience.

When planning classes, we need to consider the environment in which the students are growing up. Most of our teenage students do not know a life without the internet, instant messaging or Google.

Commonly referred to as Generation Z (or Gen Z), they are the most tech-savvy generation to date; this should be reflected in how we teach them.

However, not all of us have access to computer labs, interactive whiteboards or class tablets. But there is something that many of our teens bring to class in their pockets and bags every day.

You’ve guessed it - a phone.

By bringing students’ phones into your classes, you can bridge the technology gap between the learners and the curriculum, keep them engaged for longer and make them feel more empowered at the same time.

Here are four low-tech activities that use phones in class.

1. Review target language with your very own quizzes

Activity requirements: one phone per student (or group of students) and a pre-made quiz.

Kahoot is an app designed to help you create quizzes online, which can be a fun, engaging way to challenge your learners in the classroom.

Quizzes are an ideal activity to use at the start of a class to recycle previous vocabulary or to pre-teach new language.

For example, you could choose 10 British English phrases or idioms. Write a series of four possible definitions for each word, phrase, or idiom (with only one correct answer).

In class, ask your students to take out their phones, find the app, and link to the quiz.

Tell the students that they must vote for the definition they think is correct. They can keep track of their scores directly on the app while competing with their friends.

Not only will it immediately engage your learners and help them interact with what’s being learned, but they’ll also have a lot of fun.

2. Become expert translators using Google Translate

Activity requirements: a phone with the Google Translate app installed and a pen and paper per pair.

Did you know Google Translate has a feature where you can use the camera on your phone to translate texts into other languages? This is a perfect tool for text that you might find on a poster, in a book or uses an alphabet which you are unfamiliar with.

Bring in samples of different languages to class – the more complex, the better. If you don’t have anything suitable at home, find something online and print it out.

Get one student to take a photo of the text using the app and with their finger, select the section of the text they’d like to translate from the original language to English. (Note: if you download the Google Translate language file to your phone, it will translate everything automatically).

Then, have them dictate what it says to their partner, who has to write it down.

Finally, they work together to improve the English translation. After all, everyone knows Google’s English isn’t perfect (not yet, anyway).

3. Take photos outside the classroom to use in class

Activity requirements: a mobile phone with a camera per student.

Do your students love taking photos? Tap into their love of photography and make activities more exciting by incorporating the photos on their phones into your classes.

Adapt speaking activities from common exams such as the B2 Cambridge First. Instead of using the pictures in the book, put the students in pairs and get them each to choose a more relevant photo from their phones. You may find they have more to say and will communicate naturally while still practicing the necessary language and skills required in the exam.

Another idea is to get students to take photos of things they encounter in English in the street. This could be on a sign outside a restaurant or in their favorite clothing shop. Use these photos to start the next class with a discussion about where they saw it, what it means and if the English is correct.

You could also nominate one student each week to bring a photo they took that weekend. Share it with the class and get everyone to write Instagram captions. You wouldn’t believe how many already do this in English, so why not help them?

Keeping your teens on task with mobile tech

If you are worried about the misuse of mobile devices in your class – don’t be! Here are our top three strategies to help avoid students getting distracted:

  • Create a class contract. At the start of the course speak to them about when it is acceptable (e.g. during one of the activities above or to check the meaning of a new word on Wordreference) or not (e.g. during an exam or when you are explaining something) to use their phones. Then have someone write down everything you’ve talked about, get the whole class to sign it and stick it to the wall where everyone can see.
  • Give them a tech break. Halfway through the class, allow students 60 seconds to check their notifications to relieve their anxiety.
  • Reward good use. If you see they’ve been using their phones appropriately, reward them by playing their favorite game. The more you punish or tell them not to do something, the more they’ll want to do it.

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