Using mobile devices in the language classroom #2: Getting started

Robert Godwin-Jones

Robert Godwin-Jones, Ph.D., is Professor of World Languages and International Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and past Director of the English Language Program there. He writes a regular column on emerging technologies for the journal Language Learning & Technology. In the second of four posts on using mobile devices in the language classroom, Robert provides suggestions and recommendations for teachers thinking of introducing mobile activities into the classroom for the first time. See Robert’s first post in this series about making the case for using mobile devices in the classroom.

Starting with the basics

One of the advantages to using mobile devices, compared to other technologies, is the likelihood that the devices – smartphones or tablets – are already familiar to students. Of course, this assumes that devices – personally owned or institutionally supplied – are in fact available. It may be necessary in some instances, for students to share devices. Indeed, having students collaborate is one of the important ways mobiles can enhance the classroom learning dynamic.

Students are likely already comfortable with many of the communication and multimedia capabilities of smartphones and tablets, which have the potential to support language learning. Those include:

  • Note taking
  • Photo capture and editing
  • Audio and video playback, recording and editing
  • Email
  • Text messaging
  • Web browsing

Extending functionality with apps

While many of these built-in services can be used to support written or spoken communication, there are also many mobile apps which extend the functionality of devices. These are mostly third-party applications, widely used for a variety of purposes. Most are available for both major mobile platforms, i.e., Apple (iOS) and Google (Android). They include many that students likely already have installed, including the following:


In addition to these general-purpose apps, there are a number of apps specifically designed for language learning in areas such as pronunciation, vocabulary, or grammar (see the recommended resources in the free downloadable whitepaper). Most apps are available for low-cost or free, however increasingly apps are being released in a “freemium” model.  This means that basic usage is free, but extended functionality must be purchased.

Some general recommendations

It’s important to make sure any services, apps, or websites are already installed or readily available before class starts. Based on experiences of teachers using mobiles in the language classroom, some general recommendations for using mobiles include:

1. As with any technology, it’s a good idea for teachers to do a tech-related activity first themselves, so they have a clear understanding of its usage.

2. To avoid tempting students to use their devices for other purposes, the teacher might explicitly call for devices to be taken out, and, after the activity, put away.

3. Activities with mobiles should be kept short, typically no more than 5 or 10 minutes. Actual time on the device will likely not be the principal learning gain, but rather that task will be used to generate active language use in the classroom.

4. Keeping mobile use short also means that activities should not be overly complex. More elaborate tasks should be assigned for homework.

A good initial use of mobiles in class is to use a so-called clicker or polling app, such as Socrative, Kahoot, or GoSoapBox. Such apps enable a teacher to ask a question, to which students respond on their mobile devices. The answers are tabulated and the responses (depending on the app) can be displayed on users’ devices or on the instructor’s console/screen. This could be used to introduce a new set of vocabulary, through a word-picture matching exercise. As is generally the case with the use of mobile devices, class time using the clicker app should be short and should serve principally to initiate class discussion or small group activities based on polling results.

Group activities

Another possibility for getting started with mobile devices is to design a group activity around exploring use of the devices for language learning. Students in this activity could engage in a variety of tasks which combine exploration of the devices, target language use, and students getting to know one another. These include…

  • Switching the user interface of the device to the target language
  • Sending each other text messages in the target language
  • Conducting sample searches using a target language search engine
  • Comparing installed apps which might support language learning
  • Trying out the voice-activated virtual assistants in the target language


Part of that process can also be having students regularly report in class on the use of mobiles outside of class for language learning. This might lead to useful discussions in class on the advantages of different apps or services. This can increase learner motivation and contribute to the development of the capacity for autonomous learning.

Find out more by downloading the free whitepaper on using mobile devices in the language classroom. Look out for Robert Godwin-Jones’ next article on developing language skills using mobile devices.

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