How To Use Smartphones for Oral Homework in Language Classes

smartphone“Have you mastered what we are working on?”

As a modern language teacher, I often find myself trying to balance the need to know that they ‘have it’ with the practical realities of a 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.

How To Use Smartphones For Oral Homework

What You Need

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 is one 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. I’m looking around for more ways that they can demonstrate learning.


  1. teachermrw

    December 24, 2013 at 5:48 am

    Good tips and suggestions. BTW: I am enjoying reading all of your posts. :)

    What I need clarity on is this: The students do the work in class, but, they don’t send it to you while in class? So, if not from the smartphone or recording device, how, exactly does the student transmit the audio file to you? How, exactly, are students avoiding a data charge if the audio file is on the smartphone device? Are they using an app which allows the recording to be transmitted from a laptop or a desktop? Please advise. Thanks.

    • Colleen Lee

      December 24, 2013 at 7:00 pm

      Thanks for your comments! They don’t send while in class – they attach it to an email (the file isn’t big) and then they send it to me from home – where they can be on wireless (not 3G or 4G). My goal is to avoid them using a mobile network to send it. Yes there is a ‘size’ to the file but I don’t want parents/those paying for the phones to think that I require kids to send it instantly. Some however do! Hope this answers your question.

    • Adriana Bryan

      January 6, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      Hi! I am very interested in trying something like this for my juniors; however, I don’t have a MacPro to convert the files and listen.

      I have a couple of questions:
      can the file be converted to windows?
      If I have a twitter account for the class, the file can be sent there?
      Is it possible for you to share one of your rubrics as a guide to those of us trying this for the first time?

      Thank you,

      • Colleen Lee

        January 8, 2014 at 11:25 pm

        You don’t need a macbook pro to convert – it just happens to be what I use. You can use any windows computer as well. If you get a file and double click on it often then open in your default program. If they don’t then I search ‘convert (file type) to play in windows’. You can always find an answer.
        I don’t know about using twitter. I use my school email, or via edmodo.
        A sample of a rubric is here:
        Hope this is helpful.

  2. Carina Hilbert

    December 30, 2013 at 10:03 am

    You know, Evernote would fix that conversion/email problem. I require my students to have an Evernote account, and Evernote supports audio notes as well as video files. So, students could do the recording in an Evernote note, email you the link, and if they’ve sharedd that notebook with you, you should be able to upload your rubric (or copy/paste it) into that same note for feedback everyone can see.

    I’ve been looking into how to make this work, and I think you’ve got a great idea here! Thanks!

    • Colleen Lee

      January 5, 2014 at 12:08 pm

      Thanks for the comments. My district requires parental permission to use Evernote – and so I have avoided “you must have” and all the problems that could occur for a student whose parents don’t want them to have an account. Great idea to use it though – I use it personally for all of my class lesson plans etc.

    • Adriana Bryan

      January 6, 2014 at 3:08 pm

      Is Overtone a free app?
      Is it easy to use?

  3. Nancy Feigenbaum

    January 2, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Great idea. I’d love to know more about how you structure the assignment. Is it set up so there are set questiosn? Do the students make up their own? Have you found a way to avoid students’ memorizing dialogues and speaking more spontaneously? Thanks, Nancy

    • Colleen Lee

      January 5, 2014 at 6:25 pm

      Hi Nancy,
      The assignment is set up quite loosely. For example when my grade 12′s were working on different ways to say ‘because’ in Japanese I asked that they have a conversation in which they each demonstrated the use of each of the ‘because’ words. There isn’t much structure after that. I only give 20min. of class time for this – so there isn’t much time for a lot of memorizing. In reality I am not marking their spontaneous conversation for spontenaity but rather their ability to differentiate between/correctly use something we have been learning. The rubric focusses on the task not on ‘spontaneous language’. If they take the time to confer, jot down a few notes (my students are used to “key word” not “word for word” note use) and practice 2 or 3 times before sending I am okay with that. If they want to take personal time to practice more before sending – that’s up to them. My website – has a copy of this post and a sample of the rubric that I use that might assist you. Let me know if you require further clarification!

  4. Peggy B

    January 3, 2014 at 10:43 am

    Hi! I’m a German and Latin teacher in Alabama. I was wondering which voice recording apps you have had the most success with using?

    • Colleen Lee

      January 5, 2014 at 12:09 pm

      Hi Peggy,
      I personally use Quicktime to record my voice for use in quizzes etc. As for phones I allow the students to use whatever voice memo app they have. As I outlined if you get a format that doesn’t read easily there is always a work-around!

  5. Alice Ennis Simonson

    January 8, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    Google Voice works well also, although the time limit is 2 minutes. I have set up a Google Voice number and the students can call it and fulfill the assignment. My favorite part is that the files are delivered to my Google Voice account as well as my email as mp3 files.

    • Colleen Lee

      January 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm

      I agree Google Voice works well… but I am in Canada and we don’t have access to it! :) So this is my workaround. It also allows them to hear and redo – if they wish. As I outlined my key is that they demonstrate knowledge. I don’t do the ‘required format’ as I don’t want them to stress on saving or converting a file. So they just send it. I’ve seen every possible iteration of file version so I don’t worry…
      I am hoping, one day, we get Google Voice!