Using mobile devices in the language classroom #3: Language skills

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 for the journal Language Learning & Technology on emerging technologies. In the third of four posts, Robert explores some of the ways in which mobile devices can support the learning of language skills. Read Robert’s first post on making the case for using mobile devices in the classroom and his second post on getting started with technology and activities.

Vocabulary and grammar

There are a large number of mobile apps for learning vocabulary and studying/practicing grammar. While students can be encouraged or assigned to try out such apps or sites, it’s helpful to have an instructor demo and discuss their use in class. This is certainly true of the sophisticated flashcard apps available today, such as Anki or Memrise, which feature a multitude of advanced features. Discussing the use of these features in class can provide valuable insights into what research has revealed about how human memory works and about optimal methods for vocabulary study.

An in-class activity, which could be extended to homework, is for students to create their own multimedia vocabulary glosses. Vocabulary ideally could be coupled with targeted grammatical structures, such as combining a unit on people’s appearances with relative pronouns. Having students create projects using the structures and lexis under study can serve to make them more aware of language structures in context, leading to more “noticing” of forms (Schmidt, 1990). Another option for combining vocabulary and grammar is to explore targeted vocabulary in a corpus. This is typically carried out through use of concordance software, available through the browser on mobile devices. The British National Corpus, for example, can be searched for retrieving in-context use of individual words/phrases or collocations (words frequently found together).

Reading and writing

Students at both secondary and tertiary levels are likely to be heavy users of their phones for engaging with social media. Their familiarity with platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can be leveraged for language acquisition, through engaging in L2 reading and writing. This can be achieved as well through the use of collaborative tools such as blogs or wikis. Social media engages students in real language use and contributes to their ability to use the language not only grammatically but in ways that are socially and pragmatically appropriate. That includes learning about genre conventions, language registers, and cultures of use for different media and online communities.

Smartphones are particularly well adapted to short text formats, such as text messaging and tweets. Research has shown that mobile messaging motivates students and promotes vocabulary learning. Reported class projects have used messaging to engage in activities such as circular writing, in which students create a story together, one text message at a time. Such activities could be carried out through Twitter as well. Twitter is especially well suited for activities in which students report on their own daily activities or on language encounters outside of class.

Listening and speaking

Listening to music and watching videos are activities most students engage in regularly using their mobile devices. The wide availability of audio and video content in multiple languages is one of the ways language teachers can bring the outside world into the classroom – and in the process, authentic linguistic and cultural learning materials. Some apps feature slowed down audio for language learners, or may offer audio recordings at different levels of difficulty. The great variety of topics available means that teachers are likely to find sample clips to fit any thematic focus. This provides options as well for students to find audio-video resources that align with personal or academic interests.

Watching video clips or listening to podcasts can serve as models for students themselves creating multimedia. This is in fact one of the most used features of modern phones: to take pictures and record audio/video. Voice and video recording are ideal vehicles for practicing presentations, assigned dialogues, or classroom skits. Students might use their phones to conduct video interviews with each other or with others, related to topics currently being studied, or to create YouTube-style how-to tutorials, related to a hobby or particular interest. There are also options for multimedia storytelling, which has been shown to be an effective activity for developing language skills. Creating multimedia projects leads students to use language in a real task context. Posting a group project as an online artifact can motivate students, while at the same time connect them to real world contexts, contributing to digital literacy.

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 best practices when using mobile devices in the classroom.

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