• Overview
  • AAE
  • EFL
  • CPD
  • LTE
  • SASL
  • EADT
  • TI Services
  • TI Courses
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Search Article Library

Article View

Teaching tips - Promoting the use of mobile devices in language learning

As busy teachers it is easy to get stuck in a rut. Our Teaching Tips are aimed at those of you who are teaching and are looking for some new ideas or activities to use in your classes. Our teaching tips will feature in the Language Teacher Education (LTE) newsletter and will be posted on the Teacher’s Resources page on the Wits Language School website.

If you have any teaching tips or ideas that you would like to share with us, or questions please send them to Bill at bill.farquharson@wits.ac.za

Please switch your phone on in class!

From CALL to MALU – Promoting the Use of Mobile Devices in Language Learning

By Bill Farquharson

If you find your students are obsessed with their phones, tablets and laptops, and you struggle to compete for their attention with their mobile devices, take heart. You may be able to channel this device addiction constructively.

Digital media has been used to enhance language learning for decades. The term Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) originated in the 1980s as educators noticed the potential for using personal computers to enhance language learning (Chapelle, 2001). This led to the development of language education CD-Roms, multimedia self-study materials and the increasing popularity of computer labs that replaced the analogue language labs of the audio-lingual era.

With the explosion in online activity that followed the advent of the internet and the availability of mobile communication devices, CALL gave way to MALL (Mobile Assisted Language Learning) and more broadly speaking, M-Learning, which is the acquisition of any knowledge or skill through using mobile technology anytime, anywhere (Geddes, 2004). This describes the shift from using static, desktop computers to mobile devices for learning.

Since the aim of language learning is to develop communicative proficiency, using communication devices and channels that already exist in the classroom is a sensible way of exploiting opportunities for language practice. The ‘anywhere, anytime’ accessibility to content that mobile devices offer users, means that mobile learning can extend the opportunities for study outside of the classroom. Since cell phones are part of many students’ everyday routine, they can be used to blur the boundary between the classroom and the outside world.

While this is a young field of research, researchers seem to agree that mobile devices enhance leaners’ motivation to engage with content. And since mobile devices are intended for mobile communication, language content is available everywhere:

“Applied linguists agree on little when it comes to theories for explaining language learning, but one thing seems clear—more exposure to the target language and more practice, or time on task, explains most of the variation in students’ success. Any tool that can increase students’ access to the language will contribute greatly to their progress.” (Rainders, 2010).

On the downside, it can be difficult to track which learners are making use of M-learning and the learning achievements of those attempting it. Furthermore there is an argument that the teacher can never really be sure who is doing the work required for an M-learning task or assignment as there is no way of ascertaining who is on the device when it is outside of the classroom. Another criticism of M-learning is that environmental distractions can disrupt the learning process more than a classroom environment does – given the added distraction of mobile social media, this is a very real potential problem. While these are valid criticisms, they really just point to potential limitations that teachers should consider when attempting M-learning, and serve as a reminder that M-Learning does not replace traditional approaches to learning, but incorporates new technology in learning, and allows teacher-facilitated learning to move beyond the classroom.

Below are some ideas to try out with language learners and their phones either in or out of the classrooms.

Idea # 1:

Use SMS messages to reinforce vocabulary learning. SMS messages can be used to send out vocabulary items at spaced intervals, thus increasing student retention. For example, you could text the vocabulary covered in class to encourage students to review them outside the school context. By sending out the words multiple times, you increase the chances that students will remember them

Idea # 2:

Use SMS messages for circular writing. Writing tasks are often perceived as boring and difficult. Adding an element of fun can go a long way to motivating students to participate in this skill. One activity is circular writing, where students create a story together by contributing one SMS at a time. Each student writes a few sentences and then sends this on to the next student, who adds another message, and so on until the story is complete. The teacher is copied and has a record of the story as it emerges. If your students have access to the school’s Wi-Fi, using a free messaging service like WhatsApp can also save the students’ sms bundles.

Idea # 3:

Use mobile phones for class polls and feedback. Add an element of digital interactivity to your class by introducing electronic polls. www.polleverywhere.com is a free program that allows the teacher (or student) to pose survey questions for students to answer. Students respond by texting their answer and the results show up immediately on a website for viewing if you have internet access. This activity encourages all students to engage anonymously but remain anonymous, so there is no fear of being ‘wrong’. For example the teacher can give the students a sample of a particular grammar structure and ask the students to respond whether they think the sentence is well-formed or not. The teacher can then get a good sense of how well the group has understood a particular grammar point.

Idea # 4:

Use the mobile phone or tablet to play games. Students already love playing games on their phones. Many of the free games for mobile phones, such as Scrabble and crossword puzzles, involve a focus on language. Although not all of them may be suitable for second language learners, they encourage students to engage with the target language, and to do so in the context of entertainment. This leans more towards the acquisition pole of language learning and enters the realm of what has been dubbed Mobile Assisted Language Use (MALU).

The term MALU acknowledges that students often already use mobile devices to engage with social media. They interact with a virtual society online, whether on websites, YouTube, chatrooms and file-sharing. Importantly, social media is open – as opposed to closed or gated environments like learner management systems. While they are engaged in these interactions, they have the opportunity to acquire language. So clearly it’s time we rethink the place of the phone (or other mobile device) in the classroom and give students a bit of digital space time, not only to consume, but also to author digital content online.

Idea # 5:

The teacher prepares a ‘woices’ mobile guided audio tour of their school campus or neighbourhood using the app from www.woices.com.
At the beginning of the term students access the woices audio on their mobile devices.

  • First, in the classroom and with the aid of a map, students spend some time listening to the audio guided tour. They follow the directions provided through different parts of the campus, and mark the route it follows onto the map.
  • They can then compare the route they have identified with some peers until they are satisfied they have depicted the route accurately.
  • The students then depart the classroom and undertake a treasure hunt in small groups, following the route described. Along the way they collect ‘treasures’ to chart their progress. For example, they can use their mobile devices to photograph key landmarks on the tour. These treasures should be interesting and helpful bits of information about the campus or neighbourhood.

There are some obvious considerations that go beyond the scope of this article, such as access to devices, cost of data, teachers’ digital literacy and class disruption. However, none of these should exclude the possibility that mobile devices can be used to promote language practice in and outside the classroom. When starting to incorporate mobile learning into your lessons, the following rules of thumb may help to get you started:/p>

  • Assess your students' skills and experience with mobile devices
  • Start simple and use technology your learners already use: sms, chatting, tweeting, Instagram etc.
  • Identify a few good websites for suitable applications
  • Skill yourself up if necessary


Chapell, C. (2001). Computer applications in second language acquisition: Foundations for teaching, testing and research. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press
Geddes, S.J. (2004). Mobile Learning in the 21st Century: Benefit for Learners. The Knowledge Tree e-journal,6.
Rainders, H. (2010) Twenty ideas for using mobile phones in the class. English Teaching Forum 2010, volume 48, number 3.