5 free ways to digitally support your English lessons without increasing your workload

Natalie Clark

Natalie Jayne Clark is an English teacher working in bonny rural Scotland. Her passions lie in encouraging young people to engage actively in reading, writing and speaking and making it relevant for them and their future. She supports pupils in public speaking and debating competitions, one team recently winning the Tayside final of the Procurator Fiscal’s Public Speaking Competition. She is also a Quality Assurance Moderation Support Officer for Education Scotland for third level literacy in listening and talking skills.

Twitter - @nataliejayclark

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Sorry, not sorry – this mostly involves letting them use their phones in class.

I am finding it increasingly so bizarre that phones are not utilised in education more often. And, yes, there is something to be said for having a bit of a digital detox, but phones are an inherent part of everyday life: why are we excluding them from this part?

You can’t police thirty phones 100%, but you can give it a good enough go to make them work for you. Some teachers ask that pupils lay them on the desk when they use them to better see what they are doing, or explain regularly that if you want to use them then you use them only for what you have been told to. My Snapchat senses are unparalleled these days.

What if you have planned a lesson around them and there are a few pupils that do not have a phone? Or there is a pupil who has broken your trust with phones multiple times? Ask them to partner up with someone who does or see if you can borrow a couple of iPads or laptops. Easier said than done, I know.

 

1. Ask them what they can use their phones for

They will show you some of the most wonderful apps. You think playing about with Paint was cool? Just check out some of the things they can create on their wee screens these days.

Not only this, but I have had a recent profound understanding of just how image-heavy our world is, particularly in the digital sphere.

A useful revision tool has been to select key quotations from texts (or maybe characters/themes/settings) and have them find images to represent them. The discussions that have resulted from deciding if something was appropriate or why they chose that particular image have been astounding and a mind-blowing insight into some of their psyche. Very easy homework or lesson. You can even find three images yourself and then ask them which one best fits it and why.

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2. Ditch those paper dictionaries and thesauruses

Bless the wee first years, they came to tell me they had found a *whisper* rude drawing in the dictionary they were using. Honestly, god knows how long that has been there, how am I going to catch who did it, and I think you’ll find they all have rude drawings in them. Can your department afford new ones? No, and I bet yours are also about the same age as those first years. I remember in my second year of teaching I thought it would be fantastic if every table had a thesaurus in the middle to support the kids’ writing. Those poor thesauruses.

It is much easier to look something up on your phone or on the computer. I have a treasured chunky Collins dictionary that I keep nearby and I’ve made it an exciting occasion for a pupil to get to look something up in the big dictionary. Of course it supports scanning skills. But, the pain of using these paper ones for a lot of these pupils far outweighs the benefits. Are we really going to make that much of a difference to Jimmy if he uses a paper dictionary once a week? Or should we just teach him how to use online dictionaries and thesauruses properly?

Show your pupils how to best search for words and find synonyms. I recommend not just using what Google throws up as a definition – these are often filled with difficult words. Search ‘kids definition’ after or use Dictionary.com to find a simpler one. Teach them about Collins, Oxford English and Cambridge dictionaries – their histories and their websites. Teach them about using more than one place to find a definition.

Many phones will allow you to click/highlight a word and it will tell you the definition right then and there. Magic.

 

3. Book those computers, book them now

Maybe you’re like me and would much rather write an essay on a computer, maybe you even enjoy making PowerPoints and playing about with design. So do they.

We have one computer lab that will facilitate thirty pupils (if all the computers are working). As such, this is the only one where you are only allowed to book ahead two weeks in advance. You can betcha I am there. I only book them if I genuinely have something planned for them, but I book them.

It is a worthwhile weekly job to just make sure you have booked ahead to get computers.

Again, I am kind of astounded at how little computers feature in English lessons, nay, the exams! They have shown that the average adult only hand writes shopping lists in a 3 month period. At university, I certainly did not write my essays by hand. So why are we still getting pupils to hand write their exams, for up to three hours at a time?

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4. Make PDFs your friend and your school librarian too

At my school, we decided that to encourage reading, all third years (14-15 year-olds) should be set a class novel to read, with some activities for them to complete on said novel.
Our first problem: a class set of anything. No worries, we thought it through – half read one novel and half read the other and then next term, we swap. Despite my well-intentioned spreadsheets with numbers and names on we did not get a lot of those back... and that was a lot of different novels between the seven teachers. Thus, our second problem.

One novel I set was ‘Lord of the Flies’. Straight away one pupil just said to me, ‘Miss, can’t I just read it on my phone?’ He quickly tap-tapped and there it was – free, online. Praise be to those who decided to teach the same novels again and again for decades – you can find them all online in some form or another.

A quick Google search for something similar to ‘Lord of the Flies pdf’ or ‘The Great Gatsby chapter 1’ will yield some great results – actual ebooks or websites. You can also search Google and choose ‘books’ instead of ‘web’ and have access to millions of ebooks. On top of that, our librarian explained to us that she can get so many ebooks/pdfs for us. No books to lose.

Some caveats though: again, not everyone will have a phone, you cannot just say ‘turn to page x’ and know they will all get there (easier to go by chapter and have them scan with their eyes or use a search function to find a phrase), sometimes these have been typed up by fans and are not entirely proofread, and some will complain that they need that memory on their phones for, like, other things, actually, sir.

 

5. Join as many English teacher groups as you can on places like Facebook and Edmodo

What a beautiful bunch of people teachers are! The discussions on these are worth their weight in gold alone, but the amount of resource sharing that goes on here is phenomenal.

Often it is something as simple as asking what verification from an examination board looks like, to quickly finding out changes in coursework rules and a lot of the time it is asking for ideas for teaching a certain year group with certain abilities. We complain that we do not receive enough time to spend with other schools/English teachers and that discussion is usually the most informative part of a training day – well, here it is, at your fingertips every day.

One worn out teaching phrase is ‘let’s not reinvent the wheel’ and this certainly helps here. If you are in Scotland, two I would highly recommend joining on Facebook are ‘Secondary English Teachers Share’ and ‘English Teachers Together’. See what else you can find and let me know if you find any more!

Use twitter hashtags too – in Scotland #N5HRUAE has lots of useful resources for the reading paper at National 5 and Higher level or #folioinspo for coursework ideas.

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