5 Ways to Incorporate Digital Literacy in ELT: Class, Take Out Your Cell Phones

Gasp. Really? Phones? In class? Blasphemy! Heresy!

If this is your attitude, you’re fighting a losing battle. Can phones be a distraction? Certainly. But they are also a resource, and one that is fundamentally altering the way we communicate. Here are some ways to use phones as a resource in your English language classroom.

Google Translate

When students are out of class and don’t have native-speaking friends around, Google Translate is probably already their go-to resource. I know some teachers who try to wean students off of the service, but I favor shaping how they use it.

In my free time I sometimes try to read in other languages, and I’ve found Google Translate to be invaluable to that learning. I don’t search every word I don’t know. Before searching for a word, I try to guess its meaning, part of speech, recognize any relevant collocations, and so on. I also don’t just type in the word; I use the speech-to-text feature and attempt to pronounce the new word, or even the whole phrase or sentence. Though dictation software is still far from perfect, if Google understands you, it’s likely that others will as well. I try to teach my students to use Google Translate in these ways, and I believe it’s a huge asset to language learning in the digital age.

Recording Video

The ability to record students is extremely powerful, especially to increase noticing. I’ve used this in all number of ways, such as having students make a video of themselves during a public speaking presentation or mock job interview, which can help students become aware of filled pauses, pronunciation issues, and even volume and posture.

Phone Practice

These days it’s easy to forget that phones are phones, and the ability to talk on the phone is for me the hallmark of an independent user of the language. I try to assign low intermediate students in-class telephone tasks such as ordering a pizza, making an emergency call, and navigating a phone menu. Connect to a Bluetooth speaker to make these into whole-class activities.


In adult ed, our students are often learning to navigate a new community/neighborhood/city/state/country at the same time as their new language. Using a smartphone’s native maps app or Google Maps can be a great way to spice up lessons on street directions, places around town, even places in a building as more and more public building maps are available on Google. Again, connecting to an LCD projector is a great way to make these into whole-class activities.


As I discussed in a recent post, I like to set aside some time in which students provide authentic content from their daily lives. This is a much richer option if you encourage (or assign) students to take photos and videos. What is this thing called? What is it for? How can I describe a thing like this? What does this sign mean?

These are just a few tips, but the key is changing your mindset from phones-as-distraction to phones-as-resource.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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3 Responses to 5 Ways to Incorporate Digital Literacy in ELT: Class, Take Out Your Cell Phones

  1. Jose Torres says:

    I wrote about pretty much the same thing for Maryland TESOL for their newsletter (https://www.mdtesol.org/files/NEWSLETTER-F16.pdf), and I swear I hadn’t read this blog prior to it. I encourage adult ESL students to use their smartphone for many different activities and it certainly works. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Priscilla M. Agaton says:


    I am glad that I am a member of this site.

  3. Angela Elkowitz says:

    Thanks for more great ideas. I’ll add one, which is similar to your last tip. I created a classroom Facebook page and we use it for things like posting homework, class cancellations, posting videos of class activities, posting pics from class, sharing family photos from out of class activities, etc., etc. As long as posts are not offensive…we are OK! I keep the FB page private. Students really seem to enjoy because most are already on social media anyway.

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