Mobile Phones in ELT

Mobile phones – or cell phones as the Americans like to call them – are often cited as a nuisance, a disturbance and a pest by teachers across the world.


Not only in English Language Teaching but in every subject, educators battle on a daily basis against the disruptive presence of the mobile phone.Some schools have gone as far as to ban mobiles all together – tackling the problem by removing the cause from the classroom.Other schools have taken a subtle approach, encouraging learners to reserve their phone usage for break time and lunch time.

But what about in ELT? What is the situation of the mobile phone and the classroom?

Young Learners

When teaching Young Learners, English Language Teachers often subscribe to practices most traditionally found in mainstream classrooms. One of these practices is a zero tolerance approach to mobile phones.

Some teachers will put together class contracts with their learners; others will impose rules top-down; some schools will have clear signs in every classroom. Whatever approach is taken, the mobile phone is clearly frowned upon in the YL classroom.

Adult Learners

The situation with adult learners is a little trickier. While the classroom and how it is managed still falls to the teacher at large, the learners are adults and probably won’t appreciate being told what to do. This means the teacher either has to try and impose a rule or come to some sort of an agreement with the learners.

 For sure, regardless of the rules, the learners will take their phones out at one point or another.

The Place for Mobile Phones

Smartphones are here to stay. Period. No matter what we might expect or want, they are not going anywhere. They might evolve in the future into a hybrid between tablets, laptops and phones, but either way they will be hanging around for some time yet.

Learners – both adults and YL’s – turn to their mobiles in the classroom because it is one of the most natural reflexes in the age of the digital native. Think about when you are out with friends, having a coffee, riding the train to work – you will most likely reach for your mobile to check your messages or e-mails, read up on the news or play with an app.

In the ELT classroom, the teacher often thinks that when the learner turns to their mobile phone, they are some how moving their focus away from learning and the lesson.

However, what they are most likely doing is nothing in particular: they are most likely doing mind-numbingly mundane things, such as checking the news or reading statuses on Facebook. These actions are so repetitive and so second-nature that the learner will probably not even think while doing them – they are just reflexes.

So, if the learner has finished their task, is on their smartphone but isn’t doing anything in particular, what does that tell you as a the teacher?

Before you dive into lengthy responses about building interest and stimulating thought, let me tell you what it really tells you:

 The learner has finished

Very often in the classroom we ask our learners to give us a signal when they have finished an activity. This is so we, as teachers, know when it is time to move on to the next stage.

Sometimes learners give us a signal, sometimes they forget, and sometimes we forget to ask them. However, learners will never hesitate to touch their phones.This means we, as teachers, have an almost fool-proof way of knowing when our learners have completed an activity. We can use this to inform ourselves when to move on to the next stage.

And best of all, we don’t even have to move from our seats: we can just observe from a distance when they reach for their smartphones.


If you have any doubt that the learner isn’t doing something mundane when checking their phones, or if you feel by doing so they are losing their ‘focus’ and need to remain focused on the lesson from start to end, I encourage you to observe the behaviour of you and your colleagues at your next meeting. You might be surprised to see how many of you reach for your phones at every given opportunity – even while someone is speaking!

19 thoughts on “Mobile Phones in ELT

    1. Thank you for linking to my post. I went to your post and it has put a massive smile on my face – great to see others thinking around the topic in a practical way!


  1. This is something I really struggled with. I come from a culture where using mobiles in class or when someone is speaking is considered outright rude, but I teach in a country where it is totally acceptable. The problem is compounded by the fact that asking someone to stop using their phone results in a loss of face and a bad atmosphere for the rest of the class.

    I tried asking students to go outside if they needed to call someone or text, but it seems the reflex you talk about above takes over and the phones still come out.

    Right now, I’ve decided to surrender to the fact that they are a ubiquitous part of classroom life now. People text whilst driving motorbikes here, so I don’t think I’ve much chance of stopping them in the classroom.

    It results in a more harmonious and relaxed learning environment, at the expense of concentrating on many of the tasks at hand. The world we live in I guess.


    1. I agree that you should pick your battles. Especially if the school doesn’t support you.

      I for one don’t care at all about gum chewing. I do care about: Speaking English in my class, Being on Task, and Being on time. Those are the battles I choose to fight.


  2. The last time I was at the movies I saw three different reminders not to use your cell phones during the movie. Can you watch a movie and tweet. Sure! But it can be distracting to others, and movies aren’t cheap!

    What about texting and driving? That’s illegal in most states now! Despite what people think, we are not very good at multitasking.

    As a society, we are encouraging instant gratification too much. Students need to learn that there is a time and a place to check Facebook. During my class is not one of them.

    Now, am I a “no cell phones” teacher? Of course not! I find technology a great asset to my class, but students should not be given free range to do as they please.

    This was written a while ago (I should probably update it) but it gives you an idea:


    1. While those allusions are great, they are not comparable: the classroom and a cinema or the car are not the same environment.

      I’m not saying in this post to let learners do whatever they want with mobiles (not that you have much choice with adult learners as they do what they want anyway) but see the positive side of things. I know several people who have been scolded for touching their mobiles, yet upon enquiry they were using them very effectively for learning’s sake.

      You might even think taking a phone call during a lesson is diabolical, but Olga says in a comment higher up: it offers a good source for real language they need and they are often enthusiastic to talk about the call they just took.


      1. Of course they are different environments, but the concepts remain the same: It can distract others, and many people cannot multitask as effectively as they feel they can. Will a student cause a car accident for texting in class? No, but they may miss out on the class.

        The link mentions more research and some fun videos like inattentional blindness, which I suggest you check out.

        I am all for taking a student’s real life being included in class, but isn’t part of real life knowing when to take a call and when not to? Is it an emergency? Then it should be taken. Is it there friend saying they got a new dress? Nope!

        To each their own of course, but with my high school students I feel it is important to teach them to put the phone away for a bit. Unless, we are using it as a tool (which is quite often).


        1. Well, based on that comment, I hope when you go to meetings you sit very attentively, paying 100% attention to the boss and others without once losing focus or concentration and certainly never touching your phone. See how many others do that though at staff meetings 😉


      2. I take notes through meetings, but as you state: While that’s a great allusion it is not comparable to the classroom..

        Staff meetings are trying to cram lots of information into a small period time. There is no scaffolding, no “meet with your group” no “draw what this looks like.” and no attempt to make it relevant to the staff.

        Staff meetings are not dynamic. They are very “teacher” centered, and not at all “student centered”

        If I taught classes like my school runs staff meetings, I doubt any of my students would enjoy learning.

        I am sure that you do not of course, and I am sure that for you cell phones work well. I just think that in most classes with most students this is a recipe for digression and repetition..If your class has time for this, great.


    1. Glad to hear I’m inspiring further thinking on the topic – as Olga mentioned above: mobile phones are here to stay, so we might as well try and integrate them.


  3. Thank you for the post Anthony, use of technology in class continues to be a captivating topic. I haven’t thought of phones as an indicator that they’ve finished, brilliant idea!
    Just wanted to share one more use for mobile phones that might not be obvious. As I’m mostly teaching in business environment now, mobile phones are constantly around. I know many teachers have a “no phones” policy, but I find it acceptable if they answer a call during class. It turns out a productive source of content! Often after a short dialogue on the phone a client feels like discussing with me what it was about (usually a business situation of some sort), which reveals a lot of useful language while also being highly relevant to the learner at that particular moment.


    1. Excellent stuff Olga! I think that’s the sort of ‘outside-the-box’ thinking which is really necessary in the classroom: see phones as a sign of they’ve finished; see phones as a way of identifying what language they really need.

      I quite strongly feel we’re educating them to communicate – we’re not school teachers with canes and rule books, are we.


  4. Thanks for this, Ash. Could I ask where you stand on asking / allowing students to use their mobiles for dictionary functionality, within the correct activity?


    1. Thank you for the question. My approach is the same as for dictionaries in the classroom. I get them to use dictionaries to show them how they can help themselves. The dictionaries and apps on their mobiles are just electronic versions of dictionaries, so I let them use them.

      If they’re doing an activity which does t require a dictionary but they don’t know a word, I don’t stop them getting out their phones to check. It’s what we do anyway when we’re in their situation.

      All the best,
      Anthony Ash


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