How To Use Smartphones For Language Learning

“Have you mastered what we are working on?”

I am working on trying to balance the need to know that my students ‘have it’ with the practical realities of a modern language class. For that reason I have been looking at more and more choice in not only what language students use to demonstrate learning but also in how they do it. This year I have been making more use of the ‘quick conversation’ as a means of measuring learning. So an interaction, recorded on the phone, and then forwarded to me is a new way to offer some formative assessment.

What? They all look like they're working hard to me!

What? They all look like they’re working hard to me!


You need one mobile phone per conversation pair. I am aware that there are students without mobile phones so I also have a handheld digital recorder ($30) that can also be used. Almost all smart phones have some form of audio note recording app built into them – and they can use any one.


I am careful to lay out the criteria beforehand. This is not onerous but a task designed to hear the desired pattern or structure in context, and more than once. For example, in my grade 12 course I needed to hear that they understood the difference between 3 types of conditionals. It is easy for me to tell who is ‘getting it’ and who isn’t.


I allow about 15-20 minutes depending on what we have studied. This is enough time for them to consider the requirements, ensure that they are comfortable with what they have to demonstrate and run through it a couple of times. This is also a key time where partners affirm their knowledge and even help their partner to understand a concept they might not be as clear on.


I will not accept any files until after the end of the school day and it is sent from a student’s home, via a wireless connection. The last thing I want to do is push a cost onto a parent for data. If I receive the file prior to that it is not marked.


You will receive files in a variety of formats. Typically I click on it and it opens in a program that will play it. However I use a Macbook Pro and files that come from Android phones initially look incompatible. Well – internet searching to the rescue. I know what kind of files my computer reads – and so I search “converting .api to .mp4″ – the answer is easy to find. After doing of few of these I am comfortable altering the file extension to what I need to hear it.


I wanted to be able to credit students for completing a task as required, but also encourage them to show a bit more range in the language they choose to do this. So I looked around at various rubrics and came up with one that measures “Task”, “Vocabulary” and “Grammar”. Students also receive some feedback in written form. The rubric isn’t perfect but it provides feedback that students can use.

The phone conversation homework is popular with my students who like the timeliness and authenticity is provides. More of these to come.


  1. David Garcia

    February 17, 2014 at 3:40 am

    Thank you very much for this post. I will definately try it. Maybe the feedback could be given to them in the same format.
    In one to one schools, students could also use their laptops but what i think is the great idea is to have them discussing as a great way of reflecting on their own learning at the same time that they are listening to other person’s learning reflection.

    • Colleen Lee

      February 18, 2014 at 7:21 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts David. We are not a 1 to 1 or even BYOD school. So I have reached for the technology I have. It is timely and really an authentic experience for them!
      A sample of the rubric that I use is here

  2. JNWade

    February 17, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    I have also had a lot of success with similar activities this year. They lend a measure of authenticity and flexibility. For example, my students learned a song about things that are in their bedroom. After a day or two, their assignment was to go home and make a video of themselves in their bedroom, talking about the things that are and are not in their room. Any student who chose could also find a sample picture of a bedroom online and talk about that one as if it were their own. I have used these as homework (formative assessment), as well as summative assessments. Perhaps my favorite element is that the students are doing exactly what they are in the class to do–speak the language.

    • Colleen Lee

      February 18, 2014 at 7:22 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts. We are not a 1 to 1 or even BYOD school. So I have reached for the technology I have. It is timely and really an authentic experience for them!
      A sample of the rubric that I use is here

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