Smartphone Technology and ESL Instruction

I call myself a language encourager. My students both love and hate me because I stretch and challenge them with both humour and hoaxes—kiddingly, that is. In many ways, however, I’ve been “old-school” or “low-tech” as some would define it. Previously my literacy days were spent in the 1990s with SIL International on the backside of the Peruvian Andes,In the 1990s, I workeding in the public school classrooms training teacher-trainers in a Central Quechua variety called Conchucos, on the backside of the Peruvian Andes (500,000 strong but with very little readers/writers, until the mid 1990s). We had to do things from scratch in the communities, and then quickly encourage them into the 21st Century!

When in 2006 I actually began teaching English in CLB (Canadian Language Benchmarks) classrooms in Calgary, the teachers’ attitudes towards Smartphones was that phones were more a of menace than a method: just one more interruption in the classroom. Eight years later many of us are pushing students to use them MORE. Why? Here’s the short rationale: More practice in listening and speaking. Students need that for employment and cultural adaptation.

As early as 2005, a Statistics Canada study found that employment rates for immigrants increased with their ability to speak English and that language proficiency had the biggest impact on their ability to find employment in a high-skilled job or in their intended field. Clearly the greatest challenges for Canadian immigrants in language and cultural adaptation lie primarily in verbal engagement. CIC (Citizenship and Immigration Canada) has given tacit emphasis of listening and speaking over reading and writing, due largely to poor verbal abilities of former graduates from the CLB programme. I personally have found that students can take a test and show written grammar acuity and even decent reading comprehension. But the functional literacy tasks of job or doctor-patient interviews, or the retelling of events leading up to a car crash, —leave the CLB 4 or even CLB 5 speakers in a panic.

This month I interviewed my 12 CAEL (Canadian Academic English Language) Level 5 students from the University. of Calgary. When it comes to their Smartphones they confess they are addicts and cannot seem to lay them down. So why not capitalize on this? When asked to prepare for a Compare/Contrast or Cause/Effect speech they quickly search the Internet on their smartphone and easily access what they need “on the fly.” They then send the URL addresses to their email accounts for more detailed editing later.

In my CLB 4 class I introduced them to . This fine program only needs a touchscreen and earplugs so that each student can self-test ([e.g. for consonant blends or short/long vowel recognition)]. Then later I can log on and see the students’ progress and percentages.
CBC Radio has also provided an amazing service to immigrant learners, ingeniously utilizing their local radio news broadcast archives ( ). Students can hear a slower version of the broadcast over and over again on their smartphones. Then they fill in the pre-made CBC worksheets for listening comprehension. They can even check for the answers for themselves (saving their teacher a tonne of review work!).

Let’s be honest: What is the real goal in language training? Is it not to wean the learner from the teacher so that they are truly “self-directed learners”? It’s only THEN that I can comfortably assess their language skills and to dare to include “degrees of fluency” and confidence.
These are meagre examples from a practitioner’s point of view. Smartphones are here to stay: Embrace them in the classroom.