Smartphones can be a “Smart” Helper in the Classroom

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At first glance, smartphones may seem like the ultimate language roadblock for ESL learners. The alluring prospect of effortlessly translating any text with a simple tap can lead to a habit of overreliance, hindering genuine language absorption. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. When approached with a strategic mindset, smartphones can indeed become “smart” tools in the ESL learning arsenal, especially for those who find themselves grappling with the complexities of English at a foundational level. 

Smartphone translation apps bridge the language gap, offering instant translations that help low-level learners grasp the meaning of sentences, phrases or entire passages. This real-time assistance enhances comprehension, allowing learners to engage with English content more effectively and confidently. Consider learners who may face challenges in the classroom, reaching a point where they feel compelled to give up on their learning journey. During these instances, smartphones can step in to assist learners in understanding the content. Smartphones, in this case, offer support to those who struggle with conventional learning methods. However, our learning journey by using smartphones doesn’t stop here. It continues with some extra effort for learners to actually take advantage of it to reinforce their language learning.   

Grammar and Sentence Structures 

When learners input sentences in their native language and then use the translation app to convert them into English, or vice versa, it helps gain valuable insights into sentence structure and grammatical nuances. Instructors can ask learners to explain the differences between the target language and the source language. Through deconstructing and analyzing sentence structures with instructors’ guidance, learners may have an opportunity to develop a better understanding of how sentences are constructed in English.  

Vocabulary Expansion 

Translation apps empower low-level learners to explore and comprehend a broader range of vocabulary, enabling them to build a more robust English language repertoire and boosting overall language proficiency. BUT, don’t stop there. Take the journey to another level by asking learners to make a list of the vocabulary translated from the source language. Share their lists in the class so that learners can learn from them first and then proceed with a dictation exercise.   

Contextual Learning 

Effective language acquisition hinges on understanding the context in which words and phrases are used. While smartphones can provide meanings in the source language, they occasionally fall short, introducing limitations such as inaccurate translations, particularly evident in contextual learning and writing. Instructors can collect the translated pieces and use them in an activity for learners to determine whether the sentences make sense or are appropriate in a given context. Encourage learners to review and improve each other’s translated work, explaining their reasons behind their assessments of the translations’ quality. 

Putting Knowledge into Practice 

Applying what they have learned about the proper use of smartphones in class can empower learners to utilize them effectively in real-life situations. This not only aids in minimizing the risks associated with incorrect or inappropriate translations but also enhances the overall efficiency of smartphone usage.  

Cautionary Considerations 

While smartphones offer numerous benefits, it’s crucial to approach their use with caution. Learners should be mindful of potential pitfalls, such as over-reliance on translation apps. Awareness of the potential misuse of smartphones in a language learning context is essential, as it can significantly hinder the effective and efficient acquisition of language skills. 

In conclusion, the integration of smartphones into ESL learning goes beyond the classroom, extending into the realm of daily life. Empowering learners to use their smartphones responsibly and effectively enhances their language skills in practical scenarios. Balancing the advantages of smartphone-assisted learning with mindful use ensures that learners derive maximum benefits from these powerful tools, both within academic settings and in their everyday lives. 

Hello, my name is Bei Zhang. I am delighted to be part of the team to share my ideas and experience. I am currently working at Huron University College as an English Language Learning specialist. My job there is to help international students with their academic English language skills. I also teach ESL and LINC at Thames Valley District School Board, and ESL at London Language Institute, a private language school in London. I graduated in 2018 with a master’s degree in Education Studies from Western University, focused on applied linguistics and teacher education. I also have a background in human resources management. I hope that my unique perspective of teaching ESL in different educational systems can benefit the TESL Ontario Blog and our members.


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