Smartphones for Sustaining ‘Spontaneous’ Communication

Shannon Mason & Neil Millington, University of Nagasaki

Quick Guide

  • Keywords: Speaking, communicative learning, smartphones
  • Learner English level: Beginner to advanced
  • Learner maturity: High school to university
  • Preparation time: 5 minutes
  • Activity time: 10 minutes to 45 minutes
  • Materials: Smartphone or tablet

Providing students with opportunities to speak in the target language is one of the main principles of communicative language teaching. This can be difficult for teachers to facilitate in large classes. It can also be a challenge for teachers in Japan, where many learners have little experience of spontaneously chatting in English, and therefore need scaffolded activities to help students develop their skills and confidence. 

‘Speed chat using your smartphone’ is a concept which involves students having a quick conversation using their smartphones as a prompt, before moving on to a new partner and repeating the process. Students use their smartphones to show a photo or video to a partner. This can be prepared by the learner in advance or done spontaneously. 


This strategy works best if it is complemented with activities to improve students’ spontaneous oral communication skills, including how to create follow-up questions, how to react and interrupt, and how to use strategies to overcome limitations in language knowledge. 


Step 1: Give the students a topic. An example topic would be, ‘My favorite place at this school’. The students then go out of class for 10 minutes to take photographs or a video of that place. Alternatively, give the students a topic to talk about, for example, ‘A beautiful beach’, or ‘My favorite restaurant’. Students use their smartphones to find images or videos from their library or from searching online. 

Step 2: Have students sit in rows so that they are in pairs facing each other. Playing background music might help to create a more relaxed atmosphere, and to give students the feeling that they are not being listened in on.

Step 3: Students talk to their partner using their photos and videos as prompts. Students aim to talk for the duration of the set time, which will depend on the level of the students, and the chosen topic. 

Step 4: The teacher can choose to be a participant in the speed chat, move around and join in various conversations, or sit back and observe. The aim of the activity is not for students to produce perfect English, but to communicate their ideas using the images or videos on their smartphones as prompts. While the teacher may listen out for common grammatical errors or misused vocabulary, they should be addressed at a different time.  

Step 5: For the last round of the ‘speed chat,’ increase the length of the conversation slightly. As a rule, students do not notice this, and this is likely because they have collected stories, vocabulary, questions and confidence along the way, to be able to cope with a longer conversation.


We have had a lot of fun incorporating smartphones in our ‘speed chat’ activities. Utilizing the technology which is ubiquitous with learners seems to really engage them in their conversations. We have also noticed a gradual easing of concern that many students exhibit about making errors in front of teachers and peers. Over a 15 week period students generally increase their speaking time by two or three times. We encourage you to try this strategy in your classroom if you haven’t already, and share your thoughts and ideas.