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.