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Nomophobia /ˌnəʊməˈfəʊbiə/. The “mo” is for mobile and not “more”, in case you’re wondering, hence its pronunciation of /mə/ and not /mɔː/. Back in Nov 2012, it was among the finalists in the Oxford Dictionaries USA Word of the year. It didn’t make the shortlist of the UK equivalent. What it means is “anxiety caused by being without one’s mobile phone”.

Interesting, therefore, that it doesn’t appear to be listed in the online Oxford dictionaries the last time I looked. I could have sworn I’d seen it before. Perhaps they’d removed it! Macmillan, on the other hand, goes one further and defines it as “the fear of not having or not being able to use a mobile phone”. They may have got it wrong here as it can be rather confusing. So, are they anxious because they want to use their phones but can’t or are they anxious because they don’t know how to use them?

To add to this mix, in ancient Greek, “nomos” means law, and it would be more logical to say that nomophobia is a fear of the law.

Whatever the case is, nomophobia is likely to stay in use as it is defined in the first paragraph. As recent as 27th August, I saw it in print in The Telegraph, and it even extended the definition to include “the fear of losing signal, running out of battery or losing sight of their phone”.

I used to ridicule such a phobia… until I got myself a smartphone. Then I realised how cool WhatsApp is (although it’s basically just a Messenger on the move); I realised how cool it is to be able to check emails and Facebook updates on the bus; I realised how cool it is to be able to read blogs in the bog; but, most of all, at long last, it’s more possible to engage the students away from school! I have a WhatsApp group for each of my class. In the short time I had my phone, I had more out-of-class conversations with my students than what I had in all the blogs, Wikis, Facebook & Twitter put together! Why is it so hard to engage students, I wonder.

And then what should happen?

I tripped over the cable while the phone was charging and sent it flying from the table onto the floor. The damage took a while to manifest itself, but eventually it did. So, the phone’s being repaired, under warranty (don’t tell them about the “accident”!), and I’m feeling nomophobic. Read on to find out the sort of things I’ve been missing.

While I was giving a two-month summer course, I wanted to work on a tell-the-difference kind of activity. Except that I was looking for a set of at least three images, not two. I couldn’t find any. The only way was to set it up myself, but I wasn’t prepared to do it. It didn’t seem exciting enough.

So, it occurred to me to use a set of three different images. Similar but different. Even better, instead of printing, I sent these images to the students individually via WhatsApp, with the explicit instruction that they didn’t show or speak about these photos to their classmates. The photos I’d chosen all showed a couple with two young kids having a picnic.

The students were formed in groups of 3. Those without an image use one of the other group member’s photo so that in each group, there were at least two different pictures.

Without revealing their images, each student describes theirs while the other two in the group listen and look at their own and try to remember all the similarities and differences there are. I walk around, monitor, help with language and pick out anything interesting for post-activity discussion.

Using mobile phones in the classroom

Using mobile phones in the classroom ©Chiew Pang 2013

When they are done, they write what they can remember in their notebooks, eg “In my picture, the couple has two girls whereas in Jenny’s, they have a boy and a girl.” Again, I walk around, offering suggestions for improvements.

They then look at the images again and make any additions or rectification to their writing.

When the activity is done at group level, I ask someone to describe their picture while the others listen and try to figure out if they have the same one.

The more similarities the photos have with each other, the more fun it will be. It is important to keep a list of who has which image. Label the images 1, 2 and 3. Arrange the groups at planning stage, eg. Group A: Jenny 1, Sara 2, Jon 3. This is crucial because if someone doesn’t turn up for class or they haven’t got their photos, you’re able to regroup very quickly. Also, when you’re selecting students to describe their image in the last part of the activity, you know who has which.

Language: This lesson, besides being useful for preparing students for the speaking part of Cambridge examinations, allows dynamic practice of key forms, depending on the pictures you use. Examples: prepositions (of place, direction), adjectives (clothes, appearance…) modal verbs (speculation, deduction), etc.

Other activities: I’ve used the mobile phones in various other occasions, too.

  • Students bring images of themselves which are at least 10 years old – especially useful for practising “used to”. They can scan them – see my resources page – if they haven’t got a digital copy.
  • They can take pictures of their most treasured possession, a hobby/activity, a favourite place, etc. (Useful for “have got”, adverbs of frequency…)
  • Use the browser for a specific task, eg, planning a trip or a holiday.
  • Allow them to use the dictionary for some tasks. Teach them how to use it.
  • As I mentioned before, make use of WhatsApp! Apart from using it as a notice board, you can send links or post a quiz/exercise. Just don’t do it too often or you will chase them away!
  • Most media players can search lyrics automatically. Once you get to know your students well enough, you could take advantage of what they have on their phones and do activities on the lyrics (see my other posts on music).

If you decide to use any of these ideas with your students, please come back and let us know what went well, what didn’t, what you had to change, etc. I’m sure others would love to hear about your experiences!

Have fun!