Using Smartphones in Class to Improve Speaking Skills

For better or for worse, smartphones and tablets are here to stay in the ESL classroom.  At worst, they are an annoying distraction, with students furtively texting family and friends and disengaging from class.  But at best, they can be put to exciting and memorable use. Here’s one way to use smartphones’  “record”  feature to promote speaking skills.

It started as an activity designed to change things up on a day with low class attendance. Most students in my intermediate-level ESL class were home caring for their school-age children during a public school holiday.  A small band of stalwarts had come to class.  There didn’t seem to be much point in tackling a lot of new material that would need to be repeated at the next session when everyone was present.

Instead, I decided to give each student a chance to speak extemporaneously in front of the group about some aspect of facet of life in their home town.  Since most of our in-class speaking activities are done in pairs or in small groups, this was a chance for the students present to gain confidence thinking in English on their feet and speaking in front of a group.

A student from Panama chose to speak about the experience of shopping at the huge mall in Panama’s Colon Free Zone.  Suddenly, I remembered an activity that had been described to me by a colleague who sometimes works one-on-one with private students.  He told me that he routinely encourages his tutees to use their smartphones to record themselves speaking about a topic of their choice, then shows them how to transcribe their spoken words and work on error correction.

It occurred to me that we could put this technique to work in our classroom, provided the students were comfortable with being recorded by a classmate. With her permission, I asked the student from Panama to repeat her story while another student recorded her remarks on his smartphone.  Thanks to glitches with the recording, she had to tell her story three more times before we finally managed to get the recording function to work properly.  But she was game, and this “happy accident” actually served to illustrate for everyone the value of repeating a spoken activity, since each time she retold the story, she auto-corrected some of her own mistakes.

The next step was to play the recording back.  As the class listened, I transcribed a portion of the Panamanian student’s story onto the board so that we could use it as a group editing activity.  First, we admired all the many things that she had done well, including some of the sentence and grammatical structures she had used accurately in her remarks.  This point deserves emphasis: any time my students and I look collectively at their work—and we do this frequently, using either a document camera and an overhead projector, or simply by writing sentences or short paragraphs on the board—we always start by looking at what students have done right and praising particularly apt turns of phrase, correct grammar usage, and intriguing vocabulary.  That way, students learn from their classmates’ strengths, and not just from their mistakes.

I then asked the students to work in pairs to see if they could identify certain key errors (verb tense, subject-verb agreement, word choice, and awkward turns of phrase that sounded translated from Spanish) and try to fix them with their partner.  As a group, we collectively edited the transcript, with different students coming up to the board to erase, edit, and revise different parts of the transcript.

Finally, I showed my students how to look for and track error patterns.  For example, if they had spotted a dozen errors in the transcript, did those errors seem to fall into any categories or patterns? If so, what categories of errors did they observe?

As a postscript, it’s worth noting that the student who agreed to participate in this smartphone-based activity had informed me earlier in the semester that she was especially eager to improve her speaking skills.  Paradoxically, she rarely spoke in class outside of small groups.  Yet she told me after class that she found the experience of recording and editing her remarks with her classmates to have been helpful and morale-boosting, especially given our focus not just on what she had done wrong, but what she had done well.

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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10 Responses to Using Smartphones in Class to Improve Speaking Skills

  1. Great post! Been reading a lot about using tech for education like this. Thanks for the info here!

  2. Jane Bonnin-Wright says:

    Hi Alexandra
    What a great idea ! I work with French companies and we often frown at some of the group members who, from time to time, forget to switch their phones off ! If they do, they then have to explain the subject of the call in English…I find this can be very constructive.
    I will definitely try your idea out. It’ll make a refreshing change for everyone.

  3. Steve Apprez says:

    Thanks, Alexandra!

    Wonderful advice–it worked perfectly in an IELTS Speaking class this morning and the students absolutely loved it!!!

    Since our classes are very small, it was easy to have each student simply record his/her own spoken responses, which we then listened to and corrected together as a class.

    Although it would certainly depend on the ability of the students (and length of the speech/content), you could also play the recording back on “Speech Recognition or Dictation software/applications” and have a printed copy immediately (which would reduce the time to transcribe their words) and allow everyone to spend more time on editing and advising.

    Furthermore, the students would also get an idea of how their English sounds (to an impartial/objective machine)–as the transcriptions will provide them with feedback on their pronunciation as well. Students could then work on pronunciation exercises for words that the dictation software was unable to recognize as well–practicing on their own time outside of class until the software recognizes the words that they were having difficulty with.

    Keep the tips coming!!!

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks, Steve, for these excellent suggestions for extending students’ learning by using the speech recognition features of their smartphones to create individual transcripts for the students to edit. I appreciate your taking the time to share these ideas with all of us.

  4. Christine Olli says:

    Another great idea I will try with my pre-intermediates very soon.


    • Salma Dosi says:

      Thanks Alexandria,
      Excellent idea! am going t borrow your suggestion of asking a student to volunteer to record his experience of how he spent his July holiday. Some of our students accompany their parents on business trips overseas and they love to share their stories. Some of their cousins come to Africa for family reunions. So far we have been using the school recorders only for preparation and presentations of IB Diploma French, Swahili and English Ora Exams.

      Kind regards,
      Salma, Tanzania.

  5. Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

    No, the point of this exercise is not to record a lecture. We don’t lecture in our ESL classes. Rather, a student speaks for 1-2 minutes while a classmate records their speaking. Then, we transcribe the speech onto the board and we edit it together, correcting grammatical errors and sentence structure problems, and admiring the things the student-speaker did well. The point of using a smartphone is to model for the students ways they can use their smartphones at home to record and improve the accuracy of their speech.

  6. Hmmm… So the point for this is just the student will record the lectures using their smartphones? Why just bring recorder instead of smartphones. Most of the students now are really stick to their smartphones. Even the professor strictly prohibiting the use of smartphones, many of its students neglected it. I think it would be better if they will just bring a recorder. :DDD

  7. Mohammad Jamir Haider Babla says:

    It would be nice if we could use smart phones in our class rooms. In many countries of South Asian countries (like Bangladesh…), use of cell phone is prohibited. It is nice idea to record what and how they speak and listen to one another after that.
    This technique may not be effective if duration of class is less than 60 mins.

    Thanks, Alexandra Lowe.

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks for your comments, Mohammad. Two thoughts: first, the recording need not be done with a smartphone. Any kind of recording device works for this activity. Second, 60 minutes is more than enough time to demonstrate the recording, transcribing and group editing, provided you pick a short speech passage of just 4 – 5 sentences.

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