November 2017
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Lucas Kohnke, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China & Benjamin Luke Moorhouse, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China

Lucas Kohnke

Benjamin Luke Moorhouse

Mobile devices can be seen as both a blessing and a curse in the English language secondary school classroom. Their use has radically redefined classroom management and ushered in an era of unprecedented distraction in our classrooms. But at the same time, they provide access to a wonder of resources, tools, and apps at the touch of a finger. Ideally, we want to increase the benefits and mitigate the negatives of these devices. Gone are the times of trying to compete with them or outright banning them in schools or language classrooms.

So what can we do? In this article, we provide some practical strategies, tools, and apps that can be used to help secondary school English language teachers overcome the dilemma of mobile devices in the classroom.


1. Make expectations clear

The first strategy is quite obvious, but often when we are using technology in the classroom, we can forget fundamentals, like clear expectations. Students are drawn to their devices unless they know when they can use them. A study found that the average person checks his or her phone 110 times a day (Wollaston, 2013). Although we can make learners aware of possible downsides of so much time on a device, we probably cannot change their use and their deeply ingrained habits. So, we can let them know when and where they can use their phones and provide phone breaks in which students know they can look at their devices and catch up with social media.

2. Ensure students see phones as a language learning resource

Mobile devices are packed with advanced hardware and software. Puiu (2017) mentions that the iPhone 7 is as powerful as 120,000,000 Apollo-era spacecraft, which took astronauts to the moon. This power can be used for language learning. In the past when doing a listening activity, the teacher dictated when and how many times a recording was played; now, with mobile devices, students can choose if and when they want to listen again. Before, students would be limited to the dictionaries available in the classroom, but now they can access, Wolfram|Alpha, and various other sites to check the meanings of unknown words or find a better word to express themselves. If students aren’t sure of a particular grammar point, they can search for Youtube clips explaining it or look for authentic texts that include that item. Even tools we take for granted, like “text to speech,” can be really useful for language learners because it can prevent them from getting frustrated with complex texts. The mobile devices allow students to work at their own pace, keeping them engaged and interested. As teachers, we need to make students aware of the resources and tools available and suggest ways they can be used. We need to add flexibility to our teaching schedule and classroom so students can use these immensely powerful devices.

Learners may no longer be happy with monomodal texts, and mobile devices provide multisensory opportunities, allowing learners to use each sense as a resource. Visuals, audio, text, and actions can all complement each other and aid understanding.

3. Collaboration tools

To make learning fun, energizing, and impactful, we can introduce collaboration tools that lead to deeper learning and understanding. When students are working together, they are learning to be more proactive and depend on their peers (Hsieh, 2017) . Mobile devices now mean the collaboration can take place anywhere and at any time. Introducing collaboration tools isn’t resource intensive and does not require much technical know-how. The key is that we as teachers need to keep an open mind and have the willingness to trust students with their learning.

Turning your classroom into a collaborative space with various activities works best when new material that can be divided into roughly equal parts is being introduced in the classroom. Students can use Mindmeister, Bubbl, or Cacoo for real-time collaboration to develop and organize their initial ideas while working together to plan and analyze their task(s). We can ask students to combine pictures with recorded narration into a threaded story using an app like SonicPics. And students can listen to each other’s individual interpretations of the text while taking notes using Google docs. Collaborative tools are especially useful if we can instill in our classrooms a culture that values every student’s strengths and if we can promote a positive attitude toward the subject matter.

4. Blend the in-class and out-of-class learning

Our students are constantly updating their statuses on Facebook, uploading pictures on Instagram, and posting things on Twitter. As teachers, we often find it annoying and feel it disrupts the learning in the classroom, but luckily this does not need to be the case and should no longer be seen as a distraction. Instead of feeling frustrated and annoyed, we should see this desire to be on social media as an opportunity and a new way to connect with our students anytime and anywhere by creating social media accounts specifically for education.

Social media can be used as “new” ways to teach and share information and a new way to connect with our students and their parents (Chawinga, 2017). We can create Facebook groups for projects in which students can discuss activities and assignments at every step of the process. Teachers can be facilitators on the side, guiding only when needed. We can use Instagram to have students capture real-time visual concepts outside of the classroom and then create a word cloud of related words; they can post their word clouds on their social media accounts, inviting peers to guess the images. We can use Twitter to live tweet what is happening in the classroom, and parents can follow along and feel engaged with pictures and descriptions of the daily lessons. We can also use Twitter to host debates in which students are being taught to be succinct and respond to intelligent discussions in 140 characters or fewer. Social media allows us to provide opportunities for the students who need extra support, and it allows us to help our introverted students to feel more involved.

5. Use poll and survey tools

In the traditional classroom setting, if we want to hold classroom discussions or collect responses, often certain students dominate or other students are reluctant to share their ideas for fear of making mistakes. To help overcome these issues and increase in-class participation, we can utilize poll and survey tools, such as Kahoot!, Poll Everywhere, or Mentimeter. These tools allow us to get on our students’ screens (Moorhouse, 2017). We can now pose a question, students can respond on their devices (anonymously if you’d like), and the responses can be instantly projected at the front of the class. These tools allow for a variety of question-and-response formats, including open ended questions, word clouds, and multiple-choice quiz-like questions. You can save responses, which can help with formative assessment.


As teachers, we have to decide whether we see mobile devices in the secondary school English language classroom as a problem—or whether we embrace them as a resource. Obviously, we need to be aware of access and ensure all students, even those without devices, have opportunities to be involved. A few class tablets or even device sharing could be a solution. Once we think positively about these devices, we’ll naturally find ways to integrate them and find the real benefits of them in our classes.


Chawinga, D. W. (2017). Taking social media to a university classroom: Teaching and learning using Twitter and blogs. International Journal of Education Technology in Higher Education, 14(3), 2–19.

Hsieh, Y-C. (2017). A case study of the dynamics of scaffolding among ESL learners and online resources in collaborative learning. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 30(1-2), 115–132.

Moorhouse, B. (2017). Increasing in-class participation with online tools. The Teacher Trainer Journal, 31(1), 16–17.

Puiu, T. (2017, May 17). Your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than all of NASA’s combined computing in 1969. ZME Science. Retrieved from

Wollaston, V. (2013, October 8). How often do you check your phone? The average person does it 110 times a DAY (and up to every 6 seconds in the evening). Daily Mail Online. Retrieved from

Lucas Kohnke is a Teaching Fellow at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University. His research interest included technology-supported teaching and learning, professional-development using ICT, and EAP course design.

Benjamin Luke Moorhouse is a lecturer in the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong. He has published in the Journal of Education for Teaching, TESL-EJ and Modern English Teacher. ​

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