Smartphones are now so ubiquitous in adult ESL classrooms that the relationship between students and their phones is always an engaging conversation topic. Even more important, it’s a great way to help student practice one of the most challenging speaking skills—accurately posing questions.
In my classes, I usually set up this activity up by projecting the cartoon that appeared on the cover of the July 23, 2012 issue of the New Yorker magazine. Flanked by palm trees, members of a family are posed for a group vacation photo at the beach. However, instead of smiling gleefully for the camera, everyone is looking down, staring at their smartphones. I usually ask students to discuss in small groups what they think the artist was trying to say in this cartoon and invite them to give it a title. It usually doesn’t take long for students to come up with titles like “Facebook Family” or “On Vacation With My Phone.”
I then share with my students a quiz that is available online on the PBS Frontline website, entitled Be Honest: Do You Have a Balanced Relationship with the Technology in Your Life? The quiz consists of statements with which the reader can agree or disagree, such as, “Not having access to my computer or PDA makes me feel anxious and worried” or “The people I meet online seem more interesting or like-minded than the people I meet off-line.” The challenge for students is to work in pairs to turn these statements into yes/no and information questions they can pose to their classmates. This assignment is particularly challenging when the questions involve gerunds as subjects or tenses that students need extra practice with, like the present perfect. Be sure to leave plenty of time for students to compare their questions with other pairs and to review the correct question form with them after they have struggled with the assignment for a while.
Before having students interview each other using some of the questions they created from the PBS quiz, I ask them to write out four or five additional questions of their own. Things can get very creative. This semester, students came up with questions like: “Where do you leave your cell when you sleep?” (The shocking answer is that many students sleep with their cellphones on their pillow!) “Do you check the time on your cell phone even when you’re wearing a watch?”, “Do you agree with giving young children technology as a gift?”, and “How soon do you check your smartphone after you get up in the morning?”
It’s worth noting that there are a large number of other “tech addict” quizzes available on line. I also like Gizmodo’s and Fast Company’s. But many of the best questions will be the ones your students dream up themselves.